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.
Justice and Higher Law Theme Icon

Sheriff Bell strives for justice within the framework of the state and the community, which are defined by what we might call “the law”. This judicial framework is rooted in a sense of higher law, God-given in nature, which provides a clear distinction between right and wrong. In this way, Bell is a representative of the community’s belief in justice, an ideal that might also be thought of as an American framework of justice. As a sheriff, Bell perceives himself as a shepherd for the people of his community, which inspires his determination to protect Moss and Carla Jean, and put Chigurh behind bars. From the start of the novel, however, he begins to question the ideology behind the system of justice he seeks to uphold.

In confronting a man like Chigurh, Bell’s conception of a God-given higher law becomes destabilized. While Chigurh is a deeply principled man, he does not submit to the idea that God is the source of higher law. Instead, he believes that higher law stems from chance and the chaotic order of the universe. For Chigurh, luck replaces the need for God—an indifferent universe deals justice randomly. Without the idea of higher law rooted in a Judeo-Christian conception of God, Chigurh feels free to act outside of the judicial framework in which Bell operates. Moss’s understanding of justice and higher law rests somewhere between Bell and Chigurh’s. He operates outside the confines of state law, as shown by his unwillingness to cooperate with the sheriff, but at the same time he believes he can escape Chigurh’s philosophy of chance and fate through self-determination, as shown by his refusal to submit to Chigurh when he offers to spare Carla Jean’s life.

The events of the novel reposition the characters with regard to their view of justice and higher law. Although Moss strives to overcome his situation by self-determination, he ultimately fails, suggesting that self-determination is not enough to overcome the external forces of the universe. Chigurh, who operates outside of Bell’s conception of higher law, is also not able to escape his own philosophy of justice, as shown by the car accident after he murders Carla Jean. Even though he seems at times outside of the realm of justice and higher law, he is still subject to the chaos and chance inherent in the universe. By the end of the novel, Bell resigns from his position as sheriff, realizing the futility of his mission to uphold God’s higher law. He begins to suspect that God does not care about human affairs. His resignation suggests his personal surrender of his old views of justice stemming from a God-given higher law, and in a larger sense, the end of a society based on those views that Bell has upheld during his career.

Justice and Higher Law ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice and Higher Law 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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Justice and Higher Law 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 Justice and Higher Law.
Chapter 1 Quotes

But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that where this is going…Somewhere there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell, an agent of law and order, is frightened by the state of modern society. There is tremendous evil in the human soul--indeed, Bell has met the very embodiment of evil; the "prophet of destruction." Though we haven't met him yet, Bell is probably referring to Anton Chigurh, the nihilistic killer around whom much of the book revolves. As Bell admits, he has no desire to confront such a frightening person ever again.

Bell's description of Chigurh makes him sound like a force of nature more than a human being. In the clash between good and evil, Bell seems to acknowledge that evil has the "edge." Bell can't do anything to remove evil from the face of the Earth; all he can do is hope that Chigurh chooses to stay far away from the rest of humanity.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it. You remember certain things about [an execution]. People didnt know what to wear. There was one or two that come dressed in black, which I suppose was all right...Still they seemed to know what to do and that surprised me. Most of em I know had never been to a execution before. When it was over they pulled this curtain back around the gas chamber with him in there settin slumped over and people just got up and filed out. Like out of church or somthin.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell comments on the decay of law and order, and connects it to the broader decay of society. Bell notes that the people who really deserve to die never actually make it to death row--sometimes, they go free, since they're smart enough to escape the police. On the other hand, many people who are executed for their crimes don't really deserve to die, at least according to Bell. Bell describes a grisly execution, and then compares it to a church gathering. Bell's comparison between the execution and  church seems to suggest that death and execution have replaced love and mercy as "events" for common people. All of society seems to follow a twisted religion, in which a man's death is a cause for a community gathering.

Clearly, Bell has some strong opinions about modern society, and a nostalgic view of a more "just" past. By the same token, he himself has a strong moral code--a code grounded in his own experiences as a police officer and former soldier, and in his religious faith. One of the most important conflicts of the novel is between Bell's philosophy of justice, higher power, and moral absolutes, the chaos and nihilism of Chigurh, and the independence and self-actualization of Moss.

It’s a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say it is…it takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell is insecure about the current state of society, and he's equally insecure about the current state of law enforcement. Despite working as a sheriff for many years, Bell notes that anyone can be a cop, no matter how immoral they are. Bell recognizes the absurdity of the situation: anyone can apply to be a police officer and be given "the same authority as God."

Bell's comments reinforce the decay of civilization as he sees it. Law enforcement--an institution that's supposed to protect good people and punish bad people--has become hopelessly corrupt, to the point where the law enforcers themselves are often the real villains. In the end, Bell repeats, justice has disappeared and the most evil people always go free--Chigurh is just one example.

I used to say they were the same ones we’ve always had to deal with. Same ones my granddaddy had to deal with…but I dont know as that’s true no more. I’m like you. I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they’d have to build an annex on to hell.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Torbert and Wendell
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bell surveys a crime scene: a man has been murdered with a bolt gun (which belonged to the depraved killer Anton Chigurh). Bell has never seen anything that can compare with the crime scene. In a  literal sense, the murder weapon in question is unlike any murder weapon he's seen before (he doesn't yet know that it was a bolt gun, a tool for slaughtering cattle efficiently). More abstractly, though, Bell can't remember a time when people killed each other with so little remorse or guilt.

Bell conveys the decay of social values by contrasting his experiences as a sheriff with those of his grandfather. Bell seems to be dealing with a greater evil than his ancestors ever had to confront--an evil that's utterly free of guilt or meaning. Bell concludes that very structure of the (Christian) universe (the layers of hell) is unprepared for this new, savage evil.

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

What is that Torbert says? About truth and justice?
We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Somthin like that.
I think I’m goin to commence dedicatin myself twice daily. It may come to three fore it’s over.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Torbert and Wendell
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Bell remembers something his colleague says about law and justice: one must dedicate himself to the rules of justice every single day. In other words, one makes a constant "choice" to uphold the laws of morality--at any given time, one could choose to stop upholding justice.

Bell acknowledges that it takes constant effort to be a good, moral agent in the modern world. Indeed, it's not enough to choose to uphold the law every day--Bell promises, half-jokingly, to dedicate himself two or more times daily. Bell's quiet joke expresses the impossibility of being a constant moral agent. Bell has managed to spend most of his life being "good," but at any given time, he could waver in his principles and commit an evil act. In spite of the apparent impossibility of justice, Bell resolves to continue trying to be good--a mark of his near-fanatical devotion to right and wrong.

Chapter 8 Quotes

That aint half of it. [The drug dealers] dont even think about the law. It dont seem to even concern em. Of course here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge. I guess he concerned em. Add to that that there’s peace officers along this border getting rich off narcotics. That’s a painful thing to know. Or it is for me. I dont believe that was true even ten years ago. A crooked peace officer is just a damn abomination.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to Chapter 8, Bell continues to lament the decay of law and order. Even a decade ago, he claims, there were no corrupt peace officers--nowadays, however, the prevalence of drugs has led to police officers who secretly sell drugs and profit at every turn.

Bell's point is that criminals no longer try to kill police officers--unless the officers are corrupt, and need to be taken "out of the picture." Police officers have become so ineffectual that criminals have no practical need to murder them. In short, Bell is humiliated and embarrassed by the incompetence and corruption of his peers, and, as usual, he nostalgically looks back to an idealized past to contrast to the current state of affairs.

Chapter 11 Quotes

I told him that a lawyer one time told me that in law school they try and teach you not to worry about right and wrong but just to follow the law and I said I wasnt so sure about that. He thought about that and he nodded and he said that he pretty much had to agree…if you dont follow the law right and wrong wont save you.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell crosses paths with a young lawyer, with whom Bell discusses law in the United States. The prosecutor confirms Bell's worst suspicions: he claims that the purpose of the legal system of the United States is to maintain law, not to "do the right thing."

In short, the institutions of law and order--the very thing that Bell continues to trust after all these years--are no more "right" than organized crime. Courts and juries aren't really designed to dole out justice to people; they're designed to preserve the law itself, whether the law is morally correct or not. In general, the passage further challenges Bell's faith in morality. There is no institution, it would seem, that's genuinely concerned with good, moral behavior. Bell's only benchmark for right and wrong, then, is his own instinct.

Chapter 12 Quotes

She was tryin to be a reporter. She said: Sheriff how come you to let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: It reaches into every strata. You’ve heard about that aint you?...I told her that you cant have a dope business without dopers. A lot of em are well dressed and holdin down goodpayin jobs too.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell offers his own theory for the decay of society. Bell, when asked by a reporter why crime is so bad in the U.S., claims that crime begins with the decay of manners. When people don't say Sir and Ma'am, "the end is pretty much in sight."

Bell seems to believe in a kind of "broken window hypothesis" of crime: i.e., he believes that small crimes and misdemeanors gradually give rise to big crimes like murder and theft. It's difficult to tell if Bell is being totally sincere in this passage, though. Bell's explanation may explain some crimes, but it can't do justice to a figure like Anton Chigurh. (Chigurh, we can be pretty sure, didn't become a criminal simply because he didn't say "please" as a child.)