In Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell reveals, near the end of Chapter IX, the shame he feels about his conduct in World War II. He regrets that he did not stay and die with his men (most of whom were dead already) when their position was about to be overrun by German soldiers. Instead, he managed to escape from the position and survive. Yet his survival bothers him. As he puts it himself,
. . . you go into battle it's a blood oath to look after the men with you and I don't know why I didnt. I wanted to. When you're called on like that you have to make uo your mind that you'll live with the consequences.
Earlier, after the position had been initially attacked, Bell had single-handedly killed many German soldiers who were advancing toward it. For this act of heroism, he was later awarded a medal – a medal he at first attempted to refuse. Bell felt guilt for not dying with his men. Most readers, however, are likely to feel enormous sympathy and respect for Bell.
Bell’s confession of guilt contributes to the novel in various ways, including the following:
- It helps establish Bell’s character; he is a man with a conscience and with a clear sense of right and wrong. He cares about other people, and he is a man who takes his duty seriously, whether he is in the army or later when he is serving as sheriff.
- It helps contrast Bell’s character with the characters of so many of the evil, selfish people who populate this novel. Bell’s character gives us a positive standard by which he can judge and interpret the motives and behavior of others.
- In particular, it helps emphasize how Bell’s strong sense of guilt contrasts with the complete absence of guilt felt by so many other characters in this book, especially Anton Chigurh.
- The passage also emphasizes Bell’s concern for other people – a concern utterly lacking in such characters as Chigurh.
- The passage helps contribute to Bell’s status as a major character in the book – a character whose reflections and meditations interrupt the main narrative but also provide some of the philosophical substance of the book.
- The passage helps us realize how wrong it would have been for Bell to die with his men. By surviving, he has been able to do much subsequent good.