Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Outer Dark is a story of sin and retribution, played out in folktale fashion against an indefinite time and place. It begins with the birth of a child, the incestuous offspring of Culla Holme and his sister Rinthy, who live in the mountainous recesses of Johnson County (no state is indicated). Culla, ashamed and frightened by his misdeed, refuses to summon aid for his sister, forcing her to give birth in the secrecy of their isolated cabin. When the child, a boy, is finally born after a long laboring, Culla takes the baby deep into the surrounding woods and leaves it, later telling Rinthy that it was sickly and died while she slept. Rinthy, however, refuses to believe her brother, especially when, after being led to the supposed grave site, she can find no trace of the baby’s remains. Convinced that Culla has given the child to a wandering tinker, who appeared at the cabin shortly before the birth, Rinthy sneaks away from her brother in a blind search for the old man and her baby. When Culla discovers her absence, he follows after her, with no real understanding of his purpose in doing so.
The novel is thus constructed in terms of the encounters these two characters experience as they wander throughout a dreamlike and most often nightmarish landscape. The tinker disappears, known only by rumor, but Rinthy is led by a kind of innocence and faith that protects and sustains her. Culla, on the other hand, following in his sister’s steps, becomes an Ishmael in this outside world, suspect and fugitive wherever he goes. His guilt concerning the child dogs him and takes on a universal identity. He is anathema to those he meets.
At intervals during Culla’s wanderings there appear three dark figures—perhaps escaped murderers, perhaps malignant supernatural beings, perhaps even the demoniac shapes of Satan himself. Dressed in clothes stolen from the grave, these manifestations plague the land with atrocities, deeds for which Culla is inevitably blamed. The leader, clad in black, proclaims himself a minister. His two followers are a psychopath named Harmon (the only one of the three with a name) and a mute, monstrous idiot. Emblems of horrifying evil, these three are also figures of judgment and retribution who face Culla with his overwhelming guilt and exact punishment in a final scene of inevitable justice.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
McCarthy’s second novel pursues thematic issues raised in The Orchard Keeper, though its narrative is channeled more rigorously. The novel is about union, its sundering, and the perpetual questing which ensues.
The narrative is set in motion by the birth of a son to Rinthy Holme, the product of a union with her brother, Culla, with whom she lives alone in an unspecified place (bearing resemblances to eastern Tennessee). No genealogical or social references guide or orient their lives. Living alone, cut off from any social contact with anyone, theirs is an order primordial, prior to civilizing influences. Despite the absence of underpinnings for a socially determined morality, their acts have consequences, and the brother and sister are condemned to wander across the countryside, by foot, helplessly and ceaselessly.
After the baby’s birth, Culla, feeling the guilt associated with the unnatural union, takes the child into the woods to die. An old tinker, however, comes across the child and picks it up to carry along with his other illegitimate wares—dirty books and moonshine. Instinctively Rinthy knows that the tinker has taken her child and commences her search for him. Culla, in turn, leaves to find his sister when he realizes that she is gone. The story then follows the respective journeys of the brother and sister, parallel yet separate and unique. The worlds of the brother and sister are kept distinctly apart in the metaphysical realm and in the narrative. Neither sees the other; neither path intersects the other, as close as they might get to each other. One knows little of what they think, or if they think at all.
The two seem to move through the landscape almost like apparitions, guided by some omnipotent force unknown to either. Rinthy is driven by her maternal instinct to find and care for her child. Her milk never dries up, a sign that the forces that move her are deep, impersonal, and universal. Though distinctly vulnerable, she seems only vaguely aware of possible dangers along the way. She is taken care of by those whose paths she crosses, as if they intuitively recognize her natural purity and innocence of the world’s ways.
Culla, responsible for the child’s conception and the abandonment that sent Rinthy off in its search, is driven by guilt. Indifferent to his...
(The entire section is 958 words.)