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The Function of Violence in Cormac McCarthy: Literary Criticism

Updated on August 20, 2014

“Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” C.S. Lewis


“The writer twists language, makes it vibrate, seizes hold of it, and rends it in order to wrest the percept from perceptions, the affect from affections, the sensation from opinion – in view, one hopes, of that still-missing people.” (Deleuze, What is Philosophy? 176)

“This world … eternally changing, eternally flooding back … a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating and eternally self-destroying. ( Nietzsche, The Will to Power 1067)

McCarthy and the Frontier of Morality

Cormac McCarthy’s artistic output over the span of his fifty-year writing career is a brilliant, intricately meshed tangle-work of vision and beauty, the exploration of truth and the miracle of human striving. Full of peripheral and devastatingly wild landscapes, seekers both approaching and beyond redemption, philosophical grappling, and thought experiments investigating the validity of ‘truths’ when the bearers of those ‘truths’ travel away from social order, McCarthy’s texts require of the reader more than just the willing suspension of disbelief. McCarthy intends with his work to force his audience into questioning the social verities many take for granted, focusing on the nature of morality and evil. In his texts, McCarthy takes his characters away from the social order which informed their notions of morality and places them in chaotic landscapes where the laws of nature rule.

This transition forces his characters to reevaluate their concepts of life, death, and truth as they struggle to meet their needs and fulfill their dreams. Each story is a Bildungsroman culminating in maturity defined by an understanding of the natural order as violent and the concept of evil as an invention of human morality that has no place in the primordial workings of the earth.

This paper is an examination of the way McCarthy uses setting to circumscribe the authority of human morality in the broader context of the natural order, insinuating in his works Child of God, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and The Road that once social constraints fall away humanity descends to a primitive violence ordaining the survival of the fittest. This struggle amongst men – as McCarthy’s books are largely peopled by men – is brutal and morally bankrupt, the “…eternally self-creating, eternally self-destroying” (Nietzsche 1067) balance quoted above applying to all living things. Thus, innocent animals are tortured, people are quartered and cauterized so their meat lasts longer, heroes fail, families die, babies are slaughtered with all the emotion of swatting flies.

The world turns and life is simplified into the living and the dead. In this landscape, there is no right and wrong, but rather only what is, ‘evil’ as it is conceptualized by Western moral systems being in actuality only “…remnants of a primitive life process,” (Rothfork 201) as John Rothfork states in his article “Cormac McCarthy as Pragmatist.” Rothfork quotes Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden to emphasize the idea that ‘evil’ is an artificial device which does not apply to natural systems, “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.” (Blood Meridian 250, qtd. Rothfork 202). This concept of Nietzsche’s is tested throughout McCarthy’s oeuvre as the author walks his characters through the dissolution of their moral systems in the face of the raw violence of nature, and the concept is found to be true. Without moral systems held in place by society, the powerful of humanity regain their ascendancy at the heavy blood price of their value systems. Thus the inversion of the paradigmatic hero’s journey: by conquering all obstacles the antiheroes of McCarthy’s texts become less than human in order to survive and, rather than reaching new heights, they turn into animals that kill at whim rather than agents of human virtues.

In this way, McCarthy focuses less on traditional values and more on what lies beneath the skein of human moralizing, the actual values of the natural order of which all are part. A value system based on strength, cleverness, and the willingness to kill in order to survive. The final questions at the ends of his books often have to do with whether any of the morality, compassion, or brotherhood touted by Western moral systems remains intact within his characters after they’ve been forced by the terrain of their wanderings to compromise with their own ideals, just to survive. At what extremity from social order, McCarthy is asking, does morality simply cease to exist. It is this concept that will be examined further below. Before going on to examine McCarthy’s works, however, it is important to evaluate a central concept of his use of setting, well elucidated in Eugene Victor Walker’s book Placeways. Walker states that environments contain inherent qualities which influence the aesthetic, tone, and modality of the naturally occurring life therein (Walker 1-3). This idea is well applied to the thesis that McCarthy uses his settings in the five works under inspection to question human morality and assert the overarching dominance of the natural order. The over-ripe fecundity and primal ignorance of Ballard’s hunting grounds in Child of God; the desolate blood-soaked wastes of the borderlands in Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, and The Crossing; and the post-apocalyptic bleakness and depravity of The Road together represent a chronological sequence illustrating McCarthy’s increasing reliance on setting to infuse his texts with the mindless violence of the natural order. Applying Walker’s thesis, the inherent qualities of these settings go from moderately populated (COG) to sparsely populated (BM, Borderlands) to complete desolation (Road), from the rural south to the hardscrabble southwest to the dead future, and from swamp life to spiked and venomous desert life to a solitary beetle framed by a lifeless world. There is a pattern here, a rising crescendo of setting’s use as a mirror of human nature, which as part of all nature is violent. Thus this violence evades judgment in being part of the original ‘morality’ of the universe, predating humanity by eternity.

McCarthy utilizes the concept of Walker’s Placeways by describing his already-thematic settings with overtly primal energies, in the process mythologizing their relatively contemporary landscapes by turning them into prehistoric zones where life continues to operate as it always has, according to a violent, amoral natural order. The surreal, angry, blood-filled world McCarthy describes certainly imbues the life he crafts operating inside it with the assertion of will as the primary operating mechanism, and in this way it satisfies Walker’s theory. Examples of how McCarthy accomplishes this embedded meaning in the setting will be discussed text by text below, in support of the broader theory that McCarthy uses setting as a testing ground for the veracity of moral ‘truth’.

Child of God

Child of God

McCarthy’s Child of God is the story of Lester Ballard, an orphaned outcast whose father’s last gift before hanging himself was the assured loss of his and Lester’s home to bank debt. Bereft an inheritance both physically and morally, Lester is an outcast from society and lives on the fringes of the rural town in East Tennessee where the action takes places. As time passes, Ballard inhabits increasing primitive dwellings, starting in a ruin where “All that remained of the outhouse were a few soft shards of planking…where weeds sprouted in outsized mutations.” (COG 13), and ending up in a mythic underworld, a literal caveman:

“He crossed the room and followed the stream out and down the narrow gorge through which it flowed, the water rushing off into the darkness before him…his light picking out on the pale stone floor of the stream white crawfish that backed and turned blindly. He followed this course for perhaps a mile down all its turnings and through narrows that fetched him sideways advancing like a fencer and through a tunnel that brought him to his belly, the smell of the water beside him in the trough rich with minerals and past the chalken dung of he knew not what animals until he climbed up a chimney to a corridor above the stream and entered into a tall and bellshaped cavern.” (COG 134-35)


The increasingly primitive nature of his dwellings symbolizes the overall process the novel documents, that of Ballard’s exclusion from society and the moral degeneration that results. The longer Ballard lives in the wild, the wilder he gets. In his world on the edges of society the rules become less and less important as the strength of his animal needs mounts. The vestiges of socially-imbued morality which may have been his to claim have long since faded by the time he stumbles upon the couple asphyxiated in their vehicle by the side of the road, at which point he acts in a bestial, primitive manner,

“The dead man was watching him from the floor of the car. Ballard kicked his feet out of the way and picked the girl’s panties up from the floor and sniffed them and put them in his pocket. He looked out the rear window and listened. Kneeling there between the girl’s legs he undid his buckle and lowered his trousers. A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse.” (COG 88)

In the above passage, Ballard has been denied the basics of social inclusion for so long that his animal nature has taken over, and necrophilia results. Immediately after the above passage, Ballard leaves and returns to the car four times, realizing each time that it contains yet another something he can simply take and make his own. This primal recognition of his ability to take what he wants from others is symbolic of his loss of morality, and the above scene is the beginning of Ballard’s career as a serial killer. He becomes, essentially, an animal, taking what he wants, morally immune. Having been pushed outside of society and its moral reference points, Ballard becomes simian in aspect, and his crimes multiply,

“Here the walls with their softlooking convolutions, slavered over as they were with wet and bloodred mud, had an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast. Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints.” (COG 134-35)

The above passage is the point where the reader faces the truth that Ballard has become a serial killer and necrophiliac. Forced out from society, he moves through a primordial land of need gratification. In Vince Brewton’s article “The Changing Landscape of Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Early novels and The Border Trilogy”, Brewton suggests “His cross-dressing presence on the outskirts of civilization corresponds directly with his behavior: where law and taboo are remote, everything is permitted. The falling away of social restraint also reveals itself in the dumpkeeper, Ballard’s confrere on the margins, who slides from outraged parent to incestuous father in the heat of a wrestling match in the weeds.” (Brewton 125). Brewton’s point is well-made: the symbolism of cross-dressing references the backwardness of Ballard when he is compared to the prevailing social norm of morality, since Ballard, as an instrument of the dark underbelly of nature, of chaos and death, operates outside the dominant moral paradigm. In this way, society can view his actions as evil while for him, outside of the moral framework in which evil exists, they are simply actions, committed because they can be committed. So Ballard can be seen as having moved beyond the social constraints which prevented him from fulfilling his desires due to the influence of his increasingly primitive habitats, his inclusion into the natural order – in which those who can, do, and the rest don’t. Ballard can also be seen acting out his non-conformity in the course of the text. As Andrew Bartlett points out in his article “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God”, the scene in which Ballard narrowly evades capture by an angry mob of villagers (177-86) – reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster – represents a metaphorical surpassing of the villagers by Ballard, who is special because no man-made system can pin him down,

“Ballard leads the party of neovigilantes into the caves, escapes them and leaves them in the dark; this episode – the longest segment in the text – is profoundly symbolic of Ballard’s peculiar status as one who cannot be confined or assimilated, either literally or figuratively, by agencies or discourses of social control.” (Bartlett 6).


Bartlett has it right: the passage carries a philosophical undertone conveying a superiority to Ballard which he has earned by living by his will alone, beyond social stricture. It is the idiosyncrasy which Ballard has assumed from his time in the wild which has made him hard to catch. He acts not like a man, but like an animal, and thus confounds the men who give chase. This arbitration of normal cause and effect occurs often in McCarthy’s works: when the moral system breaks down or characters move outside of its fragile boundaries, actions have consequences that the individuals used to operating within that moral system cannot predict. Examples include Billy and the wolf in the first third of The Crossing, in which the wolf Billy tries to rescue ends up being tortured in the arena; the abandonment of the child in Outer Dark, which is thereafter rescued and drives the rest of the novel; the jakes incident in Blood Meridian, where a trip to the outhouse becomes a deadly journey; and the love of John Grady in All the Pretty Horses, which leads to his and Rawlins’ near-deaths. In all of the aforementioned parts of the above texts, the characters’ movements to the peripheries of civilization turn their intentions into unexpected consequences. This is one way McCarthy shows us that manmade creations, whether moral systems or logical sequences of cause and effect, break down when placed within the broader, chaotically powerful context of the natural order. Ballard is but one example of McCarthy’s exploration of what happens when a man moves into terrain where his natural will overpowers his fear of committing ‘evil.’

McCarthy uses primal language while describing the setting in Child of God to great effect, thereby strengthening the contrast between the moral, social world from which his protagonists are fugitive and the primitive, tumultuous landscapes they traverse. In the text, the landscape is described as hyperbolically ancient, implying a double meaning that not the landscape, but the primal being embodied by Ballard is as old as time,

“Going up a track of a road through the quarry woods where all about lay enormous blocks and tablets of stone weathered gray and grown with deep green moss, toppled monoliths among the trees and vines like traces of an older race of man” (COG 25)


In the above passage, McCarthy implies a primitivism to the text by his exaggerated metaphorical description of the setting. And here again,

“Old woods and deep. At one time in the world there were woods that no one owned and these were like them. He passed a windfelled tulip poplar on the mountainside that held aloft in the grip of its roots two stones the size of fieldwagons, great tablets on which was writ only a tale of vanished seas with ancient shells in cameo and fishes etched in lime.” (COG 127-28)


The emphasis again is placed on the age of the landscape and the appearance and cessation of life, the primitive process all things go through, from the long-dead sea to the recently dead tree which revealed its roots entrenched in the sea’s antique boneyard. Again a reference to the eternal at work, a facet of the text that suggests Lester Ballard is a picture of man outside society, man the animal ad infinitum, a self-replicating element of nature.

Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is a book of immense power capable of forcing the reader into a philosophical consideration of the nature of violence, ‘evil’, and the deeper order which overrides human conceptions of morality. The tale follows the journeys of a nameless kid who pushes endlessly across the deserts and plateaus of the American Southwest and northern Mexico in the mid-18th century, through a land fraught with peril, peopled by outlaws, ambushers, ‘Injuns’ and the hopeless seekers whose bones he continually finds bleached white under the relentless sun – a repeating referent to the dispassionate system that reigns in the wild.

The kid is born to violence because he is not instructed into cultural norms. He sets out in the first two parties of armed men, ostensibly, to capture first territory and second an outlaw. By traveling to the boundaries of civilization, his compatriots and he journey outside of the landscape of moral constraint and into the wilderness, where the natural order calls only for survival of the fittest. In this way, as in Child of God, McCarthy sets up his characters to disprove the value of morality without society.

Not long after the outset of the second quest, riding with the judge and Glanton, the kid and his compatriots become outlaws themselves, killing indiscriminately. By the end of the high action in the novel, the kid is only sixteen, an innocent animal that has lived through the bloodbath of his quest through the primitive workings of the wilderness.

The opening paragraph of Blood Meridian (BM 3) contains the seed of the character’s development into the killer he became. The information is presented matter of factly, that the boy’s mother died in childbirth, his sister is gone, and his father is educated but has not borne the hardships of his life with grace, “…but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster,”(3) and “He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost.”(3). The foreshadowing of the opening page sets the stage for a novel of fantastic violence, as the author has to live up to the bloody trends he hints at in the kid’s nascent character, “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.”(3).

This explanation of the formation of the kid’s “taste” for violence is exactly as arbitrary as the reasons it forms in real life: the kid made to raise himself while watching his drunken father spout the flowered words of a world the kid has never experienced, a poetic world outside of which the poems themselves, spoken drunkenly, become torturous glimpses of a world filling rather than emptying, as his seems to be with his rapidly shrinking family. The kid resides outside this world his father lives to eulogize, and ignorant and embittered he comes to flee it. Having to care for his drunken father, “All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.”, the kid tries to grow up before he should. Thus he sets of on his journey to the wilderness, the journey which will take him beyond civilization and the bondage of moral systems and into the freedom of the exercise of his will.

It is in this context that he too, like Lester Ballard in Child of God, evades the social instruction that might have equipped him with a moral system to venture into the wilderness which McCarthy represents in this text as the borderlands of Mexico and the United States. Without that moral system, the kid is accomplice to a multitude of acts considered heinous by the cultural morality his civilization adheres to, becoming one animal in a pack that terrorizes the deserts and pueblos of the region, and like Ballard acting as an instrument for the lawless darkside of the natural order, an atavistic agent bonded by the relentless, unrestricted exercise of his will – generally, to kill people for material gain and to stay alive.

The group continues to traverse the land, which evolves slowly through the narrative, becoming incrementally wilder and more remote, turning into a hellish place filled to the brim with bones and peopled by primitive energies,

“…the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable, like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.” (BM 139).

This imagery places the setting in the same context as the aforementioned descriptions from Child of God in that it imbues the landscape with agelessness and human characteristics in a fanciful manner, underscoring again the eternal roles the kid and his compadres are filling only briefly as agents of death, agents of the balance to life – life, which is the sole informant of social morality though not so for the natural order. The characters move like they exist on the very border of life and death, living agents of the chaos of the universe. Additionally, one might wonder if McCarthy was speaking of his characters as his own shadows and their wanderings as things driven by a force larger than himself. Perhaps, in a sense, the passage represents McCarthy’s exploration of morality’s veracity when taken out of social context, writ large.

In Dana Phillip’s article “History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian” Phillip states that “Blood Meridian treats darkness, violence, sudden death, and other calamities as natural occurrences – like the weather…” (Phillip 439). This view supports the idea that the kid and the band he travels with are merely agents of a natural order which supercedes humanity, and that they are thus beyond condemnation for the acts they commit. If the original human nature is played out in McCarthy’s amoral frontiers by his desperately striving characters violently asserting their will over others, then they themselves are beyond reproach. The necrophiliac and the serial scalpers are justifications of themselves as they represent the dark animal in man which kills rival’s progeny and takes what it wants, the man outside of moral constraint, the natural man before the metaphorical acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil, for whom anything goes.

The eternal nature of violence is enumerated by McCarthy by his choice of epigraphs to the text as well. “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia…also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.” (BM 1, qtd. in The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982).

The inclusion of this epigraph makes it easier to define McCarthy’s ultimate intention with Blood Meridian. Rather than being simply a revisionist view of history that disproves the Manifest Destiny mythos, the text reveals an intrinsic feature of the human being acting in a lawless zone, fierce savagery for the sake of itself, as illustrated by the lines above. The above epigraph together with the epilogue create a frame outside the timeline of the central text which is a progression from lawlessness and amorality – signified by the ancient scalping – to order and systemization – symbolized by the post-hole digger moving across the landscape and the bone collectors battling the forces of death remnant by gathered-up remnant (BM 337). Thus the dichotomy between the wild and will-full natural order and the controlled systemization of social and moral order is a certain sense surrounds the text.

In Jay Ellis’ ““What Happens to Country” in Blood Meridian” the author asserts that “…the preponderance of the novel’s structure and force…demands a space for unbridled war, for violence unconstrained by pity.” (Ellis 85). In other words, for the amoral actions which occur to take place without consequence, the setting McCarthy’s characters inhabit must exist outside of the moral structures of civilization, where the truth of history is written by the victors of one-sided slaughters. This violence, as a revolutionary force maintaining balance with life, is above ‘evil’ because it is both natural and occurring in a natural context. As Ellis writes of McCarthy’s books, “…Nothing is so persistent…as the idea that violence is timeless.” (Ellis 86). The timeless cannot be ‘evil’, as it is apparently part of ‘God’s plan.’ As McCarthy said to Richard Woodward in one of the author’s only interviews, “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed…” (Woodward 31).

In her article “Genre and the Geographies of Violence: Cormac McCarthy and the Contemporary Western”, Susan Kollin agrees that the setting of Blood Meridian is violent but argues that it is so because it has been profaned by whites,

“Unlike the classic western, Blood Meridian does not offer a region whose promise and possibilities were somehow lost at a certain point in history, but a west fully corrupted from the moment Anglos arrived. The western landscape that is supposed to be a test of character, bringing out the best in the hero and the worst in the villain, is emptied of its sacred qualities, becoming instead a fully defiled, profaned space.” (Kollin 562).


This interpretation may be valid, but the current discussion tends to imply otherwise. While the arrival of the “Anglos” heralded the end of Native American civilization, the violence of the natural order, the timeless violence attested to above by Philip, Ellis, and McCarthy’s use of the ancient scalping epigraph, seems to be an eternal trait of the world rather than a blight brought to the southwest by whites. In support of this theory, Walker’s concept of Placeways would posit the desert setting of Blood Meridian as the geographical equivalent of a land wrought by violence, where the rare organism that survives evolves to be venomous, spiked, or barbed due to the influence of the harsh environment.

This, too, would imply that the violence of McCarthy’s setting is timeless rather than Anglo-wrought and that Kollin has missed the mark. Embodied in the actions of McCarthy’s characters, the violence becomes an invalidation of the supposed ‘truth’ of moral systems’ assertions of ethical right and wrong. Glanton’s gang kills until they can’t kill anymore, exercising their animal will upon any they come across until they themselves are slaughtered by similarly wild people. The natural order doesn’t blink: there are no heroes in the natural scheme of things, only those who survive through violence and those who suffer it.

Chris Dacus, in his article “The West as Symbol of the Eschaton in Cormac McCarthy”, finds the violence similarly indicative of ‘evil’ in the Western ethical tradition, rather than as part of a natural balance eternal in nature and partially influenced by the landscape in which it occurs, “This theme of the correlation of freedom and evil seems to have found its way into McCarthy’s thoughts…” (Dacus 9). While this isn’t an Anglo-centered interpretation of the source of the violence, it is similar to Kollin’s argument in that Dacus seems to believe McCarthy associates violence with ‘evil’’ rather than viewing it as the natural state of existence. His position is disproved by the author’s statement in the aforementioned interview, “…no…life without bloodshed” (Woodward 31), as well as by the guiltless consciences of his violent characters, whose actions, being natural, primal, savage, and animalistic, are never the cause of remark or recollection, but occur and pass, occur and pass. Ballard and the kid and his gang feel no remorse because they become formal agents of the uncivilized, chaos-driven destructive force, agents of the entropy which disorders all things.

Their acts, when viewed from this perspective, are not ‘evil’ but darkly natural. It is surprising that Dacus views the violence in Blood Meridian as ‘evil’ because he manages to align himself with that unenlightened sentiment as well as with “Eastern Non-dualism’s” influence on Schopenhauer, and the German Idealist’s influence on McCarthy, all leading to their joint recognition that “…the highest soteriological condition consists in complete nullification of subject/object duality and finite existence as such, i.e. the eschaton.” (Dacus 7). If such a recognition indeed occurs when comparing the two thinkers and Eastern Non-duality, as Dacus claims, then one must assert that violence in not ‘evil’ but part of a large, organic whole. The span of the eschaton is timeless, as it means the end of history. If McCarthy, Schopenhauer, and Eastern Non-dualism agree that the highest form of salvation is the end of history, that would imply that this soteriological goal validates violence as part of a sacred whole and negates Dacus’ assertions that it is ‘evil.’

Further validation of the notion of sacred violence comes in the work of Rene Girard. In his book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Girard argues that ritualized violence and the scapegoat effect of sacrifice were responsible for the humanization of primates. Thus, Girard gives violence its sacred aspect in its power, in ritualized and constrained form, to replicate the exercise of individual will experienced by early humans in the wild and thus satiate their appetite for destruction and keep the community intact. Girard argues that these acts of sacrifice became the first religious traditions. While this may be so, this paper is more concerned with the implication that violence was a prevalent component of humanity’s daily life in pre-religious, pre-historic times: so much so that at the beginnings of civilization, rather than the moral systems invented later, religion was a ritualized version of the violent act that satisfied the community’s animal drive to exert will and claim property, mates, and land. Such a prevalent aspect of human history cannot be ‘evil.’ As McCarthy suggests with his use of setting in both Child of God as well as Blood Meridian, the wilderness of place and the wilderness of the soul of man both surpass the validity of morality and civilized concepts of ‘evil’ with the blunt version of violence being business as usual.

All the Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is a novel of exploration and maturation brought about by the young protagonist John Grady’s wanderlust, his desire to leave the rectilinear confinements of interwar America and venture into the wilderness, represented again as the borderlands of Mexico and the southwest United States. Again the reader is given a tale of a protagonist, this one far less violent than Ballard and the kid yet like them venturing away from the strictures of social morality and into the great beyond where the natural order reigns.

Grady and his friend Rawlins leave their home and cross into Mexico seeking their fortunes, and there they run into a young boy named Blevins riding a fine stallion and sporting an oversized perception of his own maturity. The boy seems fated for trouble. Eventually, Blevins loses his horse and gun, which sets him on a quest of retrieval resulting in his murder of three men and his own extrajudicial execution. The exercise of will attempted by the fledgling Blevins is dealt with in the natural order of the borderlands with swift, merciless execution: not being the fittest, the boy doesn’t survive his cowboy dream’s uncompromising reality,

“They caint just walk him out there and shoot him, he said. Hell fire. Just walk him out there and shoot him. John Grady looked at him. As he did so the pistol shot came from beyond the ebony trees. Not loud. Just a flat sort of pop. Then another.” (ATPH 178)


This scene depicting the end of Blevins reveals much about McCarthy’s depiction of his characters with their moral orders experiencing with disbelief the reality of the natural order into which they have journeyed. John Grady and Rawlins cannot believe that the consequences of Blevins’ actions will be dealt to him in so abrupt and brutal a fashion. Yet this scene and the action which leads to it take place in a McCarthy wilderness setting, a place removed from the law and morality of society and the cause and effect framework to which the boys are accustomed. Because of the detachment between their perception of moral truth and its reality outside the confines of their social order, the boys experience shock when Blevins is dealt with in a primitive fashion and simply executed for his crimes. By venturing into the wilderness of the borderlands, John Grady and Rawlins have forced the confrontation between their feeble conceptions of moral truth and the raw violence of the natural order.

In this way, as John Blair writes in his article “Mexico and the Borderlands in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses”, John Grady and Rawlins discover verities of reality that don’t align with the dreamed-up notions of an idealized frontier they bore when they departed home. Imagining a frontier infused with their own notions of morality and justice rather than one representative of the all-encompassing violence of the natural order actually there, the boys barely escape their journey with their lives,

“For John Grady Cole (and Rawlins), the border between Texas and Mexico is the line between childhood and its end, at least in the somewhat limited sense that the border country he crosses through and lingers within becomes a medium through which he comes to understand certain truths about himself and the world.” (Blair 301).


In the above passage, it is clear Blair agrees with the concept that the setting McCarthy uses forces his characters to re-evaluate their notions of truth – simply put, they must adopt a realistic view of the laws of the wilderness and accept that their moral norms have no legitimacy there.

After Blevins’ execution, John Grady and Rawlins are incarcerated. In prison, the friends each get into knife fights which incapacitate them, first Rawlins randomly in the yard (ATPH 189) and then Grady from the attack of a hired assassin bent on his murder,

“The knife passed across his chest and passed back and the figure moved with incredible speed and again stood before him crouching silently, faintly weaving, watching his eyes. They were watching so that they could see if death were coming. Eyes that had seen it before and knew the colors it traveled under and what it looked like when it got there…John Grady back away. He sat slowly on the floor. His legs were bent crookedly under him and he slumped against the wall with his eyes at either side of him. The cuchillero lowered the tray. He set it quietly on the table. He leaned and took hold of John Grady by the hair and forced his head back to cut his throat. As he did so John Grady brought his knife up from the floor and sank it into the cuchillero’s heart. He sank it into his heart and snapped the handle sideways and broke the blade off in him.” (ATPH 201).


The above passage represents the other primary encounter John Grady Cole has with the natural order of the amoral wilderness that is McCarthy’s borderlands. The consequences of his actions – which seem relatively innocent to western moral sensibility – end just shy of his death.

As Ched Spellman writes in his article “Dreams as a Structural Framework in McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses”, “Cole and Rawlins seek a country that still harbors circumstances able to quench their thirst for the wild. Cole intrinsically yearns for such a land where he can contemplate the “wilderness about him” and “the wilderness within” him (60)” (Spellman167). What John Grady and Rawlins do not realize at the outset of their journey is that those dual aspects of the same universal wilderness they seek are violent, amoral, and beyond justification, mercy, and miracles. To experience the wilderness of the borderlands, the boys pay a toll in blood. Having survived the attacks, John Grady and Rawlins are released. After escorting Rawlins towards home, Grady sees Alejandra one more time, but she tells him it is the last. Before returning to Texas himself, Grady has a final experience which is essentially his rite of passage, in which he tracks down his and Rawlin’s horses and forces those with them to return them to him at gunpoint. This final act is the point in the book where life stops happening to Grady, and he takes control. His self-healing, symbolized by the super-heated gunbarrel cauterization of his wound and the proof of his self-sufficiency, is coupled with his prophetic knowledge of the death of his father far to the north, as dual signs of Grady’s maturation.

The maturation of John Grady Cole, as with both other McCarthy Bildungsromans discussed thus far, Child of God and Blood Meridian, imply the author’s belief that the ultimate maturation is the acceptance of violence, death, and the grimness of some parts of reality as valid and true aspects of the order of the universe, rather than the moral inventions of religion and other devices of social control which name violence ‘evil’. From what the reader can tell, the natural order in All the Pretty Horses is partly made up of Duena Alfonsa’s maxim, “…that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed. Virgins. Bulls. Men. Ultimately God himself.” (ATPH 231).

This thesis of the underlying meaning of Grady’s passage from idealism to realism is well represented in the latter part of All the Pretty Horses, in which John Grady assumes control over his destiny by beginning to assert his will, which is what the wilderness he is in requires of him, by going back to get his and Rawlin’s horses. This action of John Grady’s signifies his acceptance of violence as an essential part of survival on the periphery of civilization. His morals have been changed. As Sarah Gleeson-White quotes Slotkin in her article “Playing Cowboys: Genre, Myth, and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses”, journeying to the borderlands requires that,

“…the American must cross the border into ‘Indian country’ and experience a ‘regression’ to a more primitive and natural condition of life so that the false values of the ‘metropolis’ can be purged and a new, purified social contract enacted.” (Slotkin 14, qtd. in Gleeson-White 29).


Thus John Grady, as Lester Ballard and the kid before him, is changed into an instrument of the primal force of humanity as animal exercising its will – though Grady manages to retain some morality and thus ends up on the life-affirming side of the animalistic human tendency. His actions become more primitive the longer his moral system is battered with the realities of the natural order, yet it retains some structuring aspect for his character. Nevertheless, John Grady learns through his transversal of the borderlands that violence is the truth of nature.

By this point in the paper, the reader has become acquainted with McCarthy’s inversion or moral anchors in his characters as they traverse sparsely populated wilds bereft any social constructs, and the ultimate effect this narrative device has of asserting violence as sacred and beyond the human concept of ‘evil’. Two more examples from McCarthy’s body of work should be sufficient to prove his penchant for this unique literary mechanism.

The Crossing

The Crossing is the complex, labyrinthine second installment of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. It can be separated into three main sections. The first section deals with the boy Billy Parham and the wolf he traps, trusses, and takes back to Mexico to release. Once in Mexico, the wolf is confiscated from Billy and then made to fight thirty dogs, two by two. Billy ends up having to shoot the animal he’s brought such a long way just to put it out of its misery. The second section occurs after Billy returns north across the border only to find his father murdered and his family’s holding ransacked. Billy finds his little brother Boyd, and they set out back to Mexico to find the ones responsible. They find their horses one or two at a time, get in trouble with a local Jefe, and in an accident break the man’s back after startling his horse. The Jefe’s men come after them, Boyd is shot, the boys are separated, then reunited briefly while Boyd convalesces.

Then Boyd runs off with a Mexican girl never to be seen by Billy again, assuming in the process the mantle of a kind of folk hero, the “Geurito”. The third section finds Billy try his hand at various work, try to join the Army, and eventually returns to Mexico to find his brother. He finds his bones in a graveyard, ties them up, and takes them back across the border. Naturally, he faces a number of obstacles along the way. In the end, he sits weeping in the middle of the road, trying to call back a mangy cur he’d moments before shooed away.

Much as in All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing is a story of the revelatory power the wilderness of the borderlands has for the young idealists, Billy and Boyd Parham, who journey into them. As much a Bildungsroman as the previous three McCarthy texts, The Crossing chronicles the maturation of Billy and Boyd as they recognize the truth of violence in the natural world, and as a text it shares many themes with the first book of the trilogy discussed above.

As in All the Pretty Horses, the loss of moral compass imposed on them when they cross out of civilization affects the boys understanding of cause and effect while they are in the wild. Consequently, their actions have unintended effects. Their maturation consists, partly, of them recognizing that dreams in the borderlands are paid for with blood, much as John Grady and Rawlins learned in the first book of the trilogy.

The overall themes of intention, cause, and unintended effect are fascinating to consider in light of this paper’s broader exploration of McCarthy’s use of setting as investigation into morality’s validity. That the boys’ understanding of cause and effect, governed by the socio-religious morality complex of their culture, becomes confused in the chaos of the wild implies that it loses its validity when placed in the context of the natural order. Civilization represents safety from the repercussions of one’s actions, while in the wild, those consequences are as violent as they are impersonal and abrupt.

Each of the first two times Billy journeys south he brings something living with him, the wolf and his brother Boyd, and both die in Mexico. Billy intended to return the wolf to its wilderness, but brought it to a terrible death. He intended to keep Boyd with him and reclaim their slim patrimony, but Boyd leaves and ultimately dies. The reversal of the original intentions of the protagonist might be best represented by the dichotomy of symbols the wolf at the beginning and the mangy dog at the end of the novel signify (TC 423). Billy has an affinity for the wolf as it represents the wild of his dreams, and he tries to return it to its home and thus keep the dream of the paradisiacal frontier alive in himself.

It is Billy’s need for a place where cowboys can exist that leads him to risk his life in returning the wolf, an escapist mentality resulting from his having been raised on principles whose validity were waning. It is his despair for the fenced in, tamed, suburbanized world he sees in his homeland, represented by the mangy dog “…patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists.” (McCarthy 423), which essentially sets him off on his journey.

Thus his original sentiment is to shoo the dog away. But Billy at the end of the novel has spent time, the reader imagines, pondering the consequences of his actions. The imagined life of the cowboy, which brought him to Mexico, also saw him return carrying his brother’s bones. The idealized freedom of the wild carries with it the price of daily violence and the fight for survival. Because of this, the brothers carried south the dream of the place, and Billy carried north its harsh reality alone. Thus, Billy tries to reclaim the reality he is from, violence and all, and attempts to call the mangy dog back,

“It had ceased raining in the night and he walked out on the road and called for the dog. He called and called.” (TC 425)

The dog does not return, and Billy is last seen weeping in the middle of the road. His departure from the codes of civilization has left him homeless, a primitive in a modernizing world.

As Walter Sullivan writes in his article “The Last Cowboy Song: Cormac McCarthy’s border Trilogy”, Billy and Boyd are “…fugitives from the strictures of civilized society, seekers after adventure and freedom;…in an ambiance of terrifying reality.” (Sullivan 293). This statement sums the overall drive of the characters and describes the setting they are driven into, but what is not said in the passage is what happens to the Parham boys’ as a result of their flight from civilization and its mores: in leaving society they leave their own moral context and enter an alien sector where the de facto freedom of all in lawlessness destroys their family and the “…terrifying reality” cited above is that violence is a sacred aspect of the natural world and ‘civilized’ morals bear the scrutiny of the natural order but briefly before collapsing into primal principles.

This quick transformation from civilization to wilderness as arbiter of absolute truth is the hallmark of McCarthy’s use of setting as investigator of socially-constructed ethics. Allen Shepherd says it well in his review of The Crossing, in which he delineates an argument similar to that elaborated above, “Billy’s crossings constitute a kind of metaphor for the emotional traversing between civilization and nature, order and chaos.” (Shepherd 173). This transition is an elaborate effect McCarthy intends to inform the reader of the real determiner of fate in the universe, the natural forces of love, life, violence, and death, the “…eternally self-creating, eternally self-destroying,” (Nietzsche 1067) recycling pistons of the natural order.

In terms of Walker’s Placeways concept, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both exhibit the traits discussed earlier in reference to the setting of Blood Meridian, in that the landscapes are shaped by words which imbue the life therein with qualities most easily associated with death, struggle, and violence, merciless heat, thirst, and hunger. These traits are so opposed to the idealized dreams of the wild possessed by John Grady, Rawlins, and the Parham boys that they serve as signifiers of their naiveté at their stories’ beginnings, and become evolutionary influences in the shaping of their characters into men who see the truth of essential violence in the world, by their stories’ ends.

The Road

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the text follows the tale of a father trying to keep his son alive in a post-apocalyptic world. They traverse a wasteland where the dominant features are death, bleakness, the lack of life and large ‘burns’ where everything has been consumed by fire,

“A mile on they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling….They picked their way among the mummied figures. The black skin stretched upon the bones and their faces split and shrunken on their skulls. Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming. Passing them in silence down that silent corridor through the drifting ash where they struggled forever in the road’s cold coagulate.” (TR 100-01)


This is the ultimate of McCarthy’s violent, amoral settings. It is a world beyond social constraints, moral systems, and truths other than those occurring within the natural order. These are the truths explored by the works of McCarthy discussed above, that violence is not ‘evil’ but the uninterrupted functioning of the other side of the coin, opposed by consciousness itself and just as significant to the balance of the universe. In The Road, McCarthy gives his most powerful evocation of violence and moral abasement as signature features of humanity when the species is taken out of the social context. He achieves this effect by peppering the text with darkness, cannibalism, and suicide, charred babies on spits and half eaten captives locked up in a subterranean cellar.

In The Road, McCarthy places his protagonists, the man and his son, in direct opposition to the idea that the wilderness supercedes human morality and leads to the primordial, savage barbarism of natural selection. The author does this by having the father regularly instructing his son throughout the book on the differences between them and the fallen cannibals who ravage the remnants of the landscape. This idea is found most clearly in the boy’s question to the family which finds him after his father’s death at the end of the novel,

“How do I know you’re one of the good guys? / You don’t. You’ll have to take a shot.

Are you carrying the fire? / Am I what?

Carrying the fire. / You’re kind of weirded out, aren’t you?

No. / Just a little.

Yeah. / That’s ok.

So are you? / What, carrying the fire?

Yes. / Yeah. We are….

(and) you don’t eat people?/ No we don’t eat people.” (TR 283-84)


The above section of the text demonstrates the father’s success in transmitting the concepts of human decency to his son despite the powers of the natural order in full manifestation in the chaotic landscape around them. Thus it seems as if, by the end of his long writing career, McCarthy has come to believe that it is possible for human morality to survive the rigors of the violence contained within the natural order and come out intact. Nevertheless, the setting in The Road is the most obvious tool of ethical investigation McCarthy has used to date, and as such it also stands as the source of the most answers to the investigation McCarthy commenced with Child of God forty-odd years previously: whether the moral systems of humanity can survive their de-contextualization and placement within the more chaotic, violent natural order.

While the majority of humanity as depicted in The Road has lost all traces of morality and ethical considerations, which are taken to be self-evident truths in the social structures of his other novels, the father and his son manage to convey morality through the inferno the world has become, where “…the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors, the names of birds…Finally the names of things one believed to be true…the sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.” (Schaub 155).

In this collapsing world of lifelessness approaching the aforementioned ‘eschaton’ or the end of history, the reader finds that despite the removal of the referents of the sacred, the agency of light and life in the world remains viable in spite of the dominance of the chaotic violence of the natural order, as it is symbolized by the father’s transmission of his belief in the value of “carrying the fire” to his son. Schaub further wonders if McCarthy’s motive might not be “…testing whether goodness can persist in the face of violence…(or) in the absence of a world endowed with meaning…” (Schaub 158). This is, indeed, the motive of McCarthy’s use of setting in Child of God, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, The Road, as well as in most of his other work: does morality survive the confrontation with the violence of the natural world? Is ethical valuation intrinsically human to the same extent that the violent assertion of will is intrinsically animal?

If taken chronologically, it would appear that McCarthy has decided in favor of the resiliency of morality, if only just. The darkness, he has made plain, is deep. But very rarely amongst the masses, yet eternally, individuals representing the other side will survive, as that is how the balance of the universe is maintained.

This paper has examined the way Cormac McCarthy uses setting to demarcate the boundary of influence containing human morality within the more powerful, violent truths of the natural order, insinuating in his works Child of God, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and The Road that once humans travel outside of the operational districts of social controls, the majority of them lose the very facets of humanity that people believe make them human. The animal in man is ever-present, and only barely contained by the veil of an invented ethical model. As Cormac McCarthy has shown with his use of wild settings removed from the trappings of civilization and the violent, dispassionate causality they function under, the leash must be kept short, indeed.

For not every father is the father in The Road, nor is every son the son therein. As this paper has shown, McCarthy believes the majority of humanity, when left untended, dissolves into the sacred violence which is part of it and which predates it by eternity, agents of the dark force that balances life and gives matter its shadows. As C.S. Lewis is quoted saying at the beginning of this paper, “Reason is the natural order of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.” In this way, seeking meaning led humanity to create moral systems from their imagination, yet the natural order has no such compulsions toward the fanciful. Cormac McCarthy has charted the ancient waters of human nature by sailing his characters into the unknown beyond society, a voyage dark, terrible, and real.



© 2014 Josiah R Johnston

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