The title of No Country for Old Men speaks directly to the theme of changing times. Throughout the novel, Bell continually considers the distinction between the old ways and the new. He holds to a nostalgic view of the past, reminiscing about a time where order and justice reigned. He talks about a time in America where police officers didn’t need to carry guns and knew the people of their communities. Children were safe at school and striving to become good citizens. The senseless violence he encounters, however, leads him to believe that this nation is heading toward chaos. He states that he is seeing “a new type,” a kind of person who has “another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it…” Chigurh is the definition of this new type, as shown through his complete disregard for law, God, and the value of human life. His disregard of the value of human life is embodied in his use of the bolt gun, a tool used in the slaughter of cattle, to kill people. Chigurh does not operate in the world with the same orientation as the old type. Bell begins to feel that men with his moral leaning can no longer compete with the changing face of society, which leads to his longing for the past and his fear of the future. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that this “new type” is not an individual, but a new framework and set of values that have taken hold in American society. Bell realizes that in order for the drug trade to flourish as it does, the market must exist, and that market is comprised of everyday citizens. He laments the young people he sees who live their lives outside of his understanding of societal norms.
Moss holds a different position to the world, one between Bell and the young people Bell refers to. While Bell fought in WWII, a war with clarity around the moral objectives in its resistance against Nazi Germany, Moss is a veteran of the Vietnam War, in which moral clarity was hazy at best. Unlike Bell, who ultimately submits to the fact that he can no longer compete with the new ways and resigns, Moss attempts to compete, but fails. While Moss doesn’t quite fit the category of a “new type”, he feels able to compete in a way that Bell doesn’t.
At the same time, the novel continually challenges Bell’s nostalgia for a “morally clear” past. During his visit with Uncle Ellis, a retired Sheriff and representative of the generation that Bell romanticizes, we begin to see the unreliability in Bell’s memory. Ellis did not become sheriff out of a sense of duty, but because it paid well, and he didn’t see any other options. He explains that he was too young for WWI and too old for WWII, so policing became his outlet. He believes in God, but doesn’t think God cares or has any control over human affairs. Ellis recognizes the way in which this country is hard on people, and sees the absurdity in the way people still love it. He still loves it, but recognizes his ignorance. This alternate view of the past knocks off kilter Bell's romanticization of the past and the older generation. Through Ellis’s commentary, it becomes clear that the old generation is not as steadfast in their values, love of God, and love of country as Bell thinks. Through the conversation, it becomes clear that violence, greed, and the struggle for power has always been a fundamental part of American society. While the characteristics and limits of this violence, greed, and power seeking may have changed (or may not have), they are not in any way new to our society, and will likely carry on into the future.
Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future ThemeTracker
Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Quotes in No Country for Old Men
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.
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?
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.
I know they’s a lot of things in a family history that just plain aint so. Any family. The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over…which I reckon some would take as meaning that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet.
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?
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.
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.
How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothing, but that dont mean much…This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?
I thought about my family and about [Ellis] out there in his wheelchair in the old house and it just seemed to me that this country has got a strange kind of history and a damned bloody one too.
This man had set down with a hammer and a chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasn’t that nothing would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a great deal…And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart.