No Country for Old Men


Cormac McCarthy

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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.

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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:
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:

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:

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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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: