Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats's poem "Sailing
to Byzantium": "That is No Country for Old Men, the young / In one another's
arms, birds in the trees, / Those dying generationsat their song." The
poem also contains the lines: "An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A
tattered coat upon a stick, / Unless soul clap its hands and sing, and
louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." Why has McCarthy chosen
a line from Yeats' poem for his title? In what ways is No Country for Old
Men about aging? Does Sheriff Bell experience any kind of spiritual
rejuvenation as he ages?
- McCarthy has a distinctive prose stylepared down, direct,
colloquialand he relies on terse, clipped dialogue rather than narrative
exposition to move his story along. Why is this style so powerful and so
well-suited to the story he tells in No Country for Old Men?
- Early in the novel, after Bell surveys the carnage in the desert, he
tells Lamar: "I just have this feelin we're looking at something we really aint never even seen before" [p. 46]. In what way is the violence Sheriff
Bell encounters different than what has come before? Is Anton Chigurh a new
kind of killer? Is he a "true and living prophet of destruction," [p. 4] as
Bell thinks? In what ways does he challenge Bell's worldview and values?
- After Llewelyn finds the money and comes home, he decides to go back to
the scene of the crime. He tells his wife: "I'm fixin to go do somethin
dumbern hell but I'm goin anways" [p. 24]. Why does he go back, even though
he knows it is a foolish and dangerous thing to do? What are the
consequences of this decision?
- When asked about the rise in crime in his county, Bell says that "It
starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir
and Mam the end is pretty much in sight" [p. 304]. Is he right about this?
Why would deteriorating manners signal a larger social chaos?
- How can Anton Chigurh's behavior be explained? What motivates him to
kill so methodically and heartlessly? How does he regard the people he
- Llewellyn tells the young woman he picks up hitchhiking: "Things happen
to you they happen. They don't ask first. They dont require your permission"
[p. 220]. Have things simply happened to Llewellyn or does he play a more
active role in his fate? Does his life in fact seem fated?
- What motivates Sheriff Bell? Why does he feel so protective of Llewellyn
and his wife? In what ways does Sheriff Bell's past, particularly his war
experience, affect his actions in the present?
- McCarthy will often tell the reader that one of his characters is
"thinking things over" without revealing what the character is thinking
about [see p. 107]. Most novelists describe in great detail what their
characters are thinking and feeling. Why does McCarthy choose not to do
this? What does he gain by leaving such information out?
- Sheriff Bell says, "The stories gets passed on and the truth gets passed
over. . . . Which I reckon some would take as meanin the truth cant compete.
But I don't believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot
the truth will be there yet. . . . You cant corrupt it any more than you can
salt salt" [p. 123]. What incorruptible truths emerge from the story that
McCarthy tells in No Country for Old Men?
- In the italicized sections of the novel, Sheriff Bell reflects on what
he feels is the moral decline and growing violence of the world around him.
What is the moral code that Bell lives by? What are his strongest beliefs?
How has he acquired these beliefs?
- Jeffery Lent, writing in The Washington Post Book World, described No
Country for Old Men as "profoundly disturbing" ["Blood Money," The
Washington Post Book World, July 17, 2005]. What is it about the story that
McCarthy tells and the way he tells it that is so unsettling?
- Near the end of the novel, Bell says: "I think we are all of us ill
prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes" [p. 295].
What kind of future is Bell imagining? Why does he think we are not ready
for it? How can No Country for Old Men be understood as an apocalyptic
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.