66 pages 2 hours read

Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

Summary and Study Guide


In No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell investigates a sudden spate of murders in his typically quiet corner of the Texas borderlands. Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet and hunter, gets caught up in the aftermath of a drug-deal gone wrong, and soon both Sheriff Bell and a mysterious hit-man race to be the first to track Moss down: one with the intention of saving his life and the other with the intention of taking it. The novel explores themes of good versus evil, and man’s laws versus moral laws against the backdrop of the Mexican drug wars which began in 1980.

The title of the novel comes from the first line of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. The poem comments upon the transitory glories of youth and the flesh and the tragedy of the inevitable fall into old age and death. These themes are also evident in McCarthy’s novel, and are particularly evident in Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s lamentations—on the eve of his retirement—about the fallen, decayed society he finds himself protecting.

No Country for Old Men also pays homage to several American fiction genres, such as the noir crime fiction of the 1950’s, with its spare prose, laconic characterizations, and meticulously described violence, as exemplified by Dashiell Hammett. Comparisons can also be made to William Faulkner’s Southern gothic prose in its themes of the paltry, transitory achievements of man and man’s inevitable fall from grace.

Sheriff Bell finds himself investigating the massacre of eight drug dealers, and a subsequent trail of other murders by a serial killer armed with a slaughterhouse pneumatic gun. As he attempts to solve the murders, he finds himself following in the footsteps of a bizarre psychopathic killer—Anton Chigurh—and two competing groups of Mexican drug dealers. All three parties are chasing Llewelyn Moss, who steals the drug money from the massacre site.

Moss runs across southwestern Texas, and sends his wife away to stay with her mother, not realizing that the money case has a radio transponder in it, which leads his killers to him. A shootout in the streets between Moss, the killer Chigurh, and a Mexican drug gang leaves both Moss and Chigurh wounded.

Sheriff Bell intervenes with Carla Jean Moss, to try to convince her husband to return the money, in a bid to save the Mosses’ lives. However, Llewelyn Moss thinks that it is too late. While still on the run, one of the Mexican gangs kills Moss and Chigurh recovers the money.

Sheriff Bell is defeated in all of his objectives: he is unable to save Moss or catch the killer, as the body count continues to rise, when Chigurh kills a competing hit man, his employer, and Carla Jean. The novel ends with Bell having quit his job as sheriff, defeated and disheartened by the drug-fueled violence overwhelming south Texas.