Near the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell explains the guilt he feels because he did not die with his men in World War II. Although Bell behaved heroically by single-handedly killing many Germans who were assaulting the position occupied by him and his men (most of whom had already been killed by an artillery explosion), he still feels guilt for not staying and being killed himself. Explaining his decision to abandoned what seemed a hopeless situation, Bell later says,
I had a choice. I could of stayed.
This quotation is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- This is a novel that is all about choices, especially moral or ethical choices. Although Bell feels that he made the wrong choice during World War II, most readers will feel that he made the right choice then as well as later. Indeed, it was partly because he regretted that early choice that he made so many morally admirable choices later in life.
- The phrasing here exemplifies the simple, straightforward, colloquial phrasing that typifies Bell’s style of speaking throughout the novel. His language throughout the book is often brief and plain, as it is here.
- This quotation reflects Bell’s typical habit of reflecting on the past and trying to determine its relevance to the future. It also typifies his tendency to think about experience in ethical terms. He is a highly moral man, and indeed his willingness to criticize himself reflects his moral sensitivity.
Later, Bell comments as follows:
I watched it get dark and I had not heard nothin from anybody that was in the wreckage there for a while. They might could of all been dead by then. But I didn’t know that. And quick as it got dark I got up and left out of there.
This quotation seems significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- It foreshadows Bell’s decision, later in the book, to retire from law enforcement when he feels that he is no longer having a positive impact.
- It exemplifies Bell’s desire for certainty (“but I didn’t know that”) in a world in which real certainty is not always possible.
- It shows Bell’s practical side: he does what makes sense at the time, even if he later regrets his decisions by measuring them against lofty ideals. Few readers are likely to judge Bell as harshly as Bell judges himself.