In Cormac Mccarthy's No Country for Old Men, what is the point in Bell going to see Moss' father at the end of the novel. I am trying to understand the ending in more depth. Is it to do with...

In Cormac Mccarthy's No Country for Old Men, what is the point in Bell going to see Moss' father at the end of the novel. I am trying to understand the ending in more depth. Is it to do with closure? 

Also what is the significance in the two dreams? Could Bell's father in the second dream symbolize death and how he will catch up with him ahead at some point?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the context of Cormac McCarthy’s somewhat surrealistic story of a sheriff’s contemplation of the evolution of history and the hunt by a psychopathic professional killer for Llewelyn Moss and the stolen drug money, the purpose of Sheriff Bell’s visit to Moss’s father near the end of No Country for Old Men and his recitation of the dreams he experienced do seem to occur for the purpose of providing some sense of closure.  McCarthy’s novels are written in a far more philosophical tone than would likely be the reality were those stories based on real life.  Professional killers in the service of drug cartels or other types of organized crime are not, in real life, particularly philosophical.  In fact, they’re usually fairly moronic, and not well read, although there have been notable exceptions.  In Cormac McCarthy’s worlds, however, they provide an opportunity for paradox in which the most ruthless characters are the most thoughtful and reflective, if not even remotely moral or compassionate.  It is for this reason that one should probably not try and dig too deeply into the purpose of some of his passages. 

The title and theme of No Country for Old Men is a reflection of the nostalgia many people tend to have about what they prefer to remember as more innocent and less violent times.  In Chapter XI, when the sheriff visits Moss’s father, the two old timers reflect on the times in which they have lived and, in so doing, reaffirm for the reader that the premise represented by the title of the book is wrong.  In the end of the story, Sheriff Bell laments that the elimination of civil discourse – “Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight” – means the times have changed for the worse.  The sheriff is, of course, the “old man” to which the title refers, but his reflections about changing times are wrong.  He visits Moss’s father because it’s something he feels he needs to do to be able to put the case behind him, but also because it’s just the right thing to do – discussing with Moss’s father face-to-face the death of Llewelyn is simply good manners.  It is during their conversation, however, that Sheriff Bell’s resignation regarding his ability to continue to fit into the modern world similarly rings hollow.  If Bell believes the times have changed for the worse, with people running around with green hair and bones in their noses, Moss’s father reminds him that the country was never exactly perfect in the first place:

“People will tell you it was Vietnam brought this country to its knees. But I never believed that. It was already in bad shape. Vietnam was just the icin on the cake. We didnt have nothin to give to em to take over there. If we'd sent em without rifles I dont know as they'd of been all that much worse off. You cant go to war like that. You cant go to war without God. I dont know what is goin to happen when the next one comes. I surely dont.  And that was pretty much all that was said. I thanked him for his time.”

If this conversation with Moss’s father was intended to provide closure, it probably served its purpose in that the sheriff succeeded in putting a human face on the bearer of bad news. 

With respect to the sheriff’s mention of his two dreams, the meaning of the first dream – “I dont remember the first one all that well but it was about meetin him in town somewheres and he give me some money and I think I lost it.” – could (and I emphasize “could,” as only McCarthy, if even him, knows exactly what if any meaning this passage implies) symbolize lost opportunity or wisdom ignored.  Bell speaks reverently about his late father.  He suggests that the elder Bell was prone to offering words of advice from time-to-time.  Sons, however, are prone to ignoring such advice and, only later in life, recall those words of wisdom and finally understand what they mean, but by now it is too late.

The second dream is much more detailed.  In this dream, Bell encounters his father on a horse (the father had been a horse-breaker in life and knew horses well) in a mountain pass:

“It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make afire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I lot there he would be there. And then I woke up.”

When Bell retires following a very long career in law enforcement, it is out of recognition that his time is over and that the next milestone in his life is death.  He is old, and no longer up to the job of trying to enforce the laws of the state of Texas.  This dream, as McCarthy clearly indicates (“. . .I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark . . .”) represents the sheriff’s final passage and his acknowledgement that death is near, and that the spirit of his late father awaits, lighting the way to make the son’s passage easier.

Read the study guide:
No Country for Old Men

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