No Country for Old Men

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Themes and Colors
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Theme Icon
Fate, Chance, and Free Will  Theme Icon
Justice and Higher Law Theme Icon
Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Theme Icon
Corruption, Greed, and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in No Country for Old Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate, Chance, and Free Will  Theme Icon

No Country for Old Men begins with Llewellyn Moss’s chance discovery of the drug deal gone wrong, and later, the briefcase full of money. From this moment forward, the novel begins posing questions about the function of fate, chance, and free will, and the extent to which human beings have choice in the outcomes of their lives. The novel does not refute the idea of free will. It does, however, recognize its limits. In a large sense, the novel suggests free will can only function within the limits of one’s mortality. We make choices that influence the trajectory of our lives, but ultimately, no matter what route we chose, life ends in death.

Chigurh embodies the idea of universal fate, and becomes the ambassador of the novel’s philosophy on fate and free will. In his interactions with other characters, Chigurh continually suggests that each and every choice we make determines our fate—even small actions bring us toward death. The novel brings forward the idea of chance and luck in connection with choice and free will. Luck and chance account for those elements of reality that exist entirely outside of free will and the power of choice. So while we do have agency over the choices we make, we are unable to control the elements of luck and chance inherent in the journey. Chigurh uses the the coin to demonstrate the way in which our choices determine our fate. The coin serves several functions. The coin toss is an extreme example of the connection between the choices we make and their eventual outcomes. At the same time, the coin represents the presence of chance inherent in the nature of decision-making.

Other characters perceive fate and free will in different ways. Moss continues to exert free will in hopes that he can overcome fate, but ultimately fails in the end. Carson Wells believes he can overcome Chigurh, refusing to admit his choice to pursue Chigurh will lead to his death. In the end, he attempts to reason with Chigurh, indicating his struggle to accept his fate. Both Bell and Carla Jean seem to accept their fates in ways other characters do not. Bell eventually accepts the fact that he is incapable of overcoming Chigurh and the new way of the world he represents, so he retires, which can be read as an acceptance of his fate. Carla Jean also accepts her fate after confronting Chigurh. Finally, even though Chigurh perceives himself as the spokesperson for fate, he is not impervious to the reality of the message he preaches. After he kills Carla Jean, he himself ends up in a car accident—a function of chance or bad luck—and though he survives the accident and escapes, this moment serves as a reminder that nobody is above the randomness of chance inherent in the universe, and nobody escapes their fate.

Fate, Chance, and Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate, Chance, and Free Will appears in each chapter of No Country for Old Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate, Chance, and Free Will Quotes in No Country for Old Men

Below you will find the important quotes in No Country for Old Men related to the theme of Fate, Chance, and Free Will .
Chapter 1 Quotes

He sat there looking at [the money] and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down. His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.

Related Characters: Llewellyn Moss (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Llewellyn Moss discovers a mysterious briefcase full of money. As Moss opens the briefcase, he sees millions of dollars, and feels that his "whole life" is sitting there.

What does Moss mean by "whole life?" One could say that Moss is excited by the prospect of never having to work again--with the money in the briefcase, Moss could have an easy, leisurely life, totally unlike the one he has now. More sinisterly, though, Moss's thoughts seem to foreshadow his own death. By choosing to live and die over a briefcase of money, Moss makes the choice that will eventually lead to his execution. In short, the passage suggests the duality of Moss's apparent good fortune. The briefcase has the potential to be a blessing, but in reality it is cursed.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there is an accounting. And after that nothing is the same…you see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anton Chigurh, the novel's main antagonist, challenges a man to bet on the outcome of a coin toss. Chigurh spares the man's life, it's strongly implied, because the man correctly guesses the result of the toss. Chigurh gives the man a flavor of his life philosophy: as he sees it, major events can be determined by the tiniest of events. Here, for example, a man's life has been spared due to something as minor as a coin flip. Chigurh leaves the man to puzzle over his own fate: was it destiny that led him to correctly predict the toss, sparing his own life? Or was it just random chance?

The themes Chigurh raises in this passage are crucial to the plot of the novel. Chigurh seems like the embodiment of evil, and yet he also seems to abide by a strict moral code that respects the basic uncertainty of the universe. Instead of choosing to kill his victim, Chigurh honors the results of the coin toss. Even if he's dangerous, Chigurh himself is just a cog in the "machine" of life--as we'll come to see, he has no real control over his own fate.

Chapter 4 Quotes

[Moss] thought about a lot of things but the thing that stayed with him was that at some point he was going to have to quit running on luck.

Related Characters: Llewellyn Moss (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Llewellyn Moss discovers that there's a tracking device in the briefcase of money that he's been carrying with him. The entire time, the owners of the briefcase have been able to track Moss's movements very precisely. Therefore, the only reason Moss isn't already dead is sheer dumb luck.

Moss seems to sense--if only on a deep, gut level--that he's running out of luck, and out of time. Put another way, he seems to realize that his possession of the briefcase is going to lead to his own death. And yet Moss doesn't surrender the briefcase--his desire to assert his own independence and free will has become greater than his desire for wealth.

Chapter 5 Quotes

You can’t make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principals. Principals that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.

Related Characters: Carson Wells (speaker), Llewellyn Moss
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Carson Wells--a criminal and negotiator--tries to tell Llewellyn the truth about his situation. Wells knows that Moss is even now being hunted by Anton Chigurh, and he tells Moss that there's nothing he can do to escape Chigurh's vengeance. Moss cockily claims that he can "cut a deal" with Chigurh, but Moss disagrees: Chigurh doesn't bargain with his enemies--he tracks them down and kills them.

The passage helps us understand what kind of man Chigurh is. Moss--who trusts that money can buy anything--thinks that he can always pay off Chigurh in return for protection. But Chigurh isn't a regular human being--he doesn't let his short-term need for money distract him. Once Chigurh has decided to kill a man, nothing can distract him from his goal--not even the offer of millions of dollars.

The irony of Wells's speech is that Chigurh comes off as being much more "principled" than either Wells or Moss. Where Moss trusts that money is the ultimate source of power, Chigurh appeals to a higher set of rules. What, exactly, these rules are is unclear. And yet, peculiarly, Chigurh's refusal to be "bought" is what makes him stand out from the rest of society.

Chapter 6 Quotes

If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carson Wells
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Anton Chigurh tracks down Carson Wells and prepares to murder him. Before he kills Wells, Chigurh taunts his victim. He wants to know: if the "rules" by which Wells lived his life brought him to this point (i.e., brought him to be murdered by Chigurh), what was the point of following the rules?

Chigurh's question is more profound than it might seem. As Chigurh sees it, the only reason to live according to a moral "code" (a religion, a philosophy, etc.) is that the code brings you some kind of success. There's no point in being, say, a Christian, if your Christian beliefs lead you to death. In short, Chigurh sneers at all of society's values and laws. Where most human beings delude themselves into following useless rules, Chigurh follows his own religion--the religion of random chance--and breaks all other rules.

You’ve been giving up things for years to get here. I dont think I even understood that. How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life? We’re in the same line of work. Up to a point. Did you hold me in such contempt? Why would you do that? How did you let yourself get in this situation?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carson Wells
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complex scene, Anton Chigurh continues to talk to Carson Wells before murdering him. Chigurh makes a complicated, contradictory point, simultaneously distinguishing himself from Carson and identifying with him.

Chigurh criticizes Wells for living his life according to other people's rules. Wells obeys his bosses, and--crucially--he "worships" money. Chigurh, by contrast, seems not to care about money or authority--he's "his own boss," and can't be bought or paid off. In the end, Chigurh claims, Wells's love for money has been utterly futile--his love hasn't led to wealth or prosperity; it's led to his death at Chigurh's hands.

And yet Chigurh insists that he and Wells are alike, "up to a point." Both Chigurh and Wells would be considered criminals by society's standards. But according to Chigurh, Wells doesn't go far enough in rejecting conventional law and order. Wells breaks the law all the time, but he's allowed himself to be controlled by money--the ultimate symbol of society. Chigurh, by contrast, is totally amoral and totally nihilistic. He doesn't let anyone or anything control what he does--even himself. Instead, he submits to random chance.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Chigurh thought it an odd oversight but he knew that fear of an enemy can often blind men to other hazards, not least the shape which they themselves make in the world.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anton Chigurh hunts down the man who sent Carson Wells to kill him. Chigurh sneaks into the man's building and waits for his victim to arrive. When Chigurh's victim enters, the man's own shadow lets Chigurh know that his victim is there. Chigurh finds it bizarre that his victim could have given away his presence so clumsily. Counterintuitively, fear makes his victim less cautious and more likely to die.

As the passage suggests, human beings sometimes become clumsy and careless when they're blinded by fear of another person. More to the point, people forget "the shapes they make in the world." Literally, the passage is referring to the shape of a man's shadow, but the passage could also be interpreted more symbolically. People forget how easy it is for others to follow them--Llewelynn Moss, for example, forgets how easy it is for Chigurh to track him down and kill him. Thus, the passage foreshadows the ugly fate that's coming to Moss.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Not everyone is suited to this line of work. The prospect of outsized profits leads people to exaggerate their own capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Anton Chigurh returns the drug money to its "rightful" owner, a quiet man who works in an office. As he leaves, Chigurh warns the man not to believe that he controls his own destiny--no one does. Chigurh even suggests that the belief that one controls destiny is a sign of weakness--an invitation for failure and defeat.

The passage is arguably Chigurh's most coherent explanation of his own philosophy. Chigurh believes that fate (or random chance) is the ultimate authority in the universe--nobody can control it or master it, Chigurh included. Even powerful drug lords, who control millions of dollars, have no real control over their own destinies--at any given time, they could lose their money or be killed. The only source of power, paradoxically, is accepting one's own powerlessness. Chigurh has long since accepted that randomness governs his own life--and ironically, his acceptance is what makes him such a dangerous enemy for Moss and the other characters (for example, he refuses money and bribery, and can't be bought or pleaded with).

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no believe in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A Person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carla Jean Moss
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

In this disturbing scene, Anton Chigurh tracks down Carla Jean and prepares to murder her, claiming that Llewellyn Moss has doomed her by refusing to part with his money. He gives her the chance to save her life by flipping a coin--when Carla Jean makes the wrong call, Chigurh prepares to shoot her. Before dying, Carla Jean asks Chigurh how he can choose whether or not to kill someone based on a simple coin toss.

Chigurh offers Carla Jean a long, contradictory explanation for his own behavior. As Chigurh sees it, humans go through life with free will--they exercise their freedom thousands of times. And yet all these free choices can't save a human being from the inevitable act of dying, which no one can choose to escape. Chigurh sees himself as an executor of fate, neither good nor evil. Paradoxically, he describes Carl Jean's death as both fated and a product of her free will: she "made a choice" that led her here, and yet cannot escape her predetermined fate ("visible from the beginning") in the present moment.

Chigurh's philosophy, in short, is contradictory and baffling. What makes Chigurh so maddening is that Chigurh himself refuses to exercise any free will: he just lives out his dark philosophy, obeying his own word and the "law of the coin toss."