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Anton Chigurh is a psychopath. He kills without remorse and exists for no other purpose than to take the lives of those he encounters. An early indication that he is possessed of a particularly hostile nature occurs early in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. Arriving at a gas station, Chigurh is engaged in conversation by the quintessential friendly rural proprietor. The following exchange from Chapter Two of McCarthy’s novel provides crucial insights into the nature of his antagonist:
You all gettin any rain up your way? the proprietor said.
Which way would that be?
I seen you was from Dallas.
Chigurh picked his change up off the counter. And what business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?
I didnt mean nothin by it.
You didnt mean nothing by it.
I was just passin the time of day.
I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of things.
That Chigurh’s next move is to engage the hapless proprietor in a game of chance, the stakes of which the gas station owner is entirely oblivious, serves to both heighten the tension and to introduce the reader to a character for whom the normal rules of polite society simply do not apply. The conversation between Chigurh and the proprietor continues, but is less a conversation some kind of surrealistic interrogation:
Will there be somethin else? the man said.
I dont know. Will there?Is there somethin wrong?
Is that what you're asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?
As the scene progresses, Chigurh turns to the game of chance – a coin toss – the purpose of which is totally lost on the proprietor, but which we clearly begin to understand has a potentially fatal meaning. Putting a quarter on the counter with the insistence that the proprietor call “heads or tails,” the proprietor objects that he hasn’t wagered anything:
I didnt put nothin up.
Yes you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what the date is on this coin?
It's nineteen fifty-eight. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And I'm here. And I've got my hand over it. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.
I dont know what it is I stand to win.
In the blue light the man's face was beaded thinly with sweat. He licked his upper lip.
You stand to win everything, Chigurh said. Everything.
In the context of the story as it has played out so far, and with the presentation of a character so anti-social and intrinsically threatening, the reader quickly becomes conditioned to view this character’s entrance into the plot with a serious sense of foreboding. The stakes in the coin toss involve the proprietor’s life, as will be the case throughout the novel, as Chigurh engages additional characters in this bizarre ritual. Before departing the gas station, with the proprietor confused but very much alive, Chigurh presents what can be considered his view of life:
“Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don’t pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It's just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it's just a coin. Yes. That's true. Is it?”
Chigurh is something of a fatalist, in that he recognizes that life is ephemeral. One day you’re here, the next day you’re food for worms or vultures. The line separating the two is very thin. The coin toss exercise is his way of communicating the fragility of human existence. In Chigurh’s confrontation with Carla Jean, this psychopathic murderer presents his case for his role in the world, that of grim reaper:
Even a nonbeliever might find it useful to model himself after God. Very useful, in fact.
You're just a blasphemer.
Hard words. But what's done cannot be undone. I think you understand that. Your husband, you may be distressed to learn, had the opportunity to remove you from harm's way and he chose not to do so. He was given that option and his answer was no. Otherwise I would not be here now.
You aim to kill me.
. . .
I see your look, he said. It doesn't make any difference what sort of person I am, you know.
You shouldnt be more frightened to die because you think I'm a bad person.
I knowed you was crazy when I seen you settin there, she said. I knowed exactly what was in store for me. Even if I couldnt of said it.
Chigurh smiled. It's a hard thing to understand, he said. I see people struggle with it. The look they get. They always say the same thing.
. . .
You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say the world. Do you see?
Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do.
Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her.
In this seminal scene from McCarthy’s novel, Chigurh’s view of the world as one to be decided by him and him alone is clearly evident. He is a cold, emotionless killer who, once paid to do a job, focuses on the completion of that task with a psychotic intensity that leaves no room for compassion. He sees the world in simple, stark terms. He returns to the coin toss motif because it exemplifies for him that very thin line between life and death and the role of chance in determining on which side of that line each person stands. His fatalistic view of mankind can generally be associated with sociopathic tendencies, but he is clearly just wired a certain way.
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