The issues of corruption, greed, and power are at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. The entire world of the story is tainted with these vices, and the characters fight to overcome and reconcile their effects. To understand McCarthy’s novel, one must understand the larger context in which the narrative takes place. Corruption, greed, and the struggle for power provide a backdrop for the novels events and shape the personalities of the novel’s characters. The novel is set in the shadow of several wars. Bell, Moss, and Wells, along with several minor characters, are military veterans, and the novel is set near the American/Mexican border just prior to Reagan’s declaration of “the war on drugs.” There is mention throughout the novel of the corrosive forces of war, and the struggle for power inherent in military operations. The inciting incident of the novel—Moss’s discovery of the briefcase full of drug money—depicts the gruesome effects of a business founded on corruption, greed, and the search for power, and the events that follow are backed by these ideas. We later discover that the owner of the money is not some kind of outlaw on the streets, but a high power executive from the Matacumbe Petroleum Group in Houston. This suggests that the corruption and greed are not simply taking place on the streets and in Mexico, but involve American men at the top with wealth and power.
On the level of character, both Bell and Moss’s narratives explore the individual struggles against corruption, greed, and power. Through the course of the novel, we begin to understand that Bell’s entire career is casted in the shadow of dishonesty. The bronze star he earned in WWII was, in his estimation, unearned. He tried to turn down the honor, but was told he had to accept it because it would make the American effort in Europe look like it was worth something. Moss has also been disillusioned by his experience fighting in Vietnam, which becomes a major element in his character and decision-making. While greed certainly plays a roll in his decision to take the drug money and run, his decision to hold onto the money is more complicated. This is shown once Wells enters the story. He offers to give Moss some of the money if he turns it over, but by this point it is not about the money for Moss, but who controls the money. A similar idea backs his refusal to give the money to Chigurh. In this way, Moss is struggling for power and autonomy.
Chigurh provides a counterpoint to the corruption, greed, and struggle for power in the story. As Wells suggests, “[Chigurh] is a peculiar man. You could say he has principals. Principals that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.” As the representative of fate, Chigurh arrives in the story to demonstrate the futility of greed and power. In the end, he puts an end to both Moss and Bell’s narratives—Moss ends up dead, and Bell ends up resigning from his position and living in the shadow of his guilt and shame. Ultimately, the novel depicts the way in which corruption, greed, and the search for power only bring suffering, and in the end, those who engage in these vices must bear the consequences.
Corruption, Greed, and Power ThemeTracker
Corruption, Greed, and Power Quotes in No Country for Old Men
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never knew nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didnt change.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.