Places Discussed

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*Eastern Tennessee

*Eastern Tennessee. Remote and harsh hill country area dominated by woods, rivers, and fields. Evicted from his home as the result of a false charge of rape, Lester Ballard embarks on a dark journey of survival through a countryside filled with images of nature in its rawest form. It is a setting in which Ballard steadily sheds his last remaining ties to civilized conduct. Instead, he resorts to basic animal instincts as he sets out on an orgy of grotesque behaviors, including incest, infanticide, and necrophilia. With each step back from civilization, Ballard eventually emerges as a creature of the landscape, scavenging the woods for “trophies” to satisfy his strange lusts. So effective is McCarthy in blending Ballard into the harsh landscape that in the end the reader is inclined to draw little distinction between him and the area’s other forms of wildlife. From a distance McCarthy’s landscape appears as a thing of beauty in its raw natural state. Even Ballard, when viewed from a distance, appears as a sympathetic figure in his lone struggle for survival under harsh conditions. The author is careful, however, not to let the reader slip into a sympathetic state. Depravities are never far away, as McCarthy regularly jars the reader back to reality with close-up views that underscore the obscenities carried out on the natural beauty of his terrain.


Caves. Series of caves located in the limestone country of eastern Tennessee. As they do in McCarthy’s novel Suttree (1979), caves play a major role in Child of God. Ballard’s descent is not only a mental phenomenon but also a physical one that takes him from the hills to the fields to the underground caves where he seeks his ultimate withdrawal. Like a pack rat, he collects and hides his “trophies” alongside the bones of other animals. That he had finally reached the underbelly of nature is driven home by the author, when he describes the walls of the cave as having “an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast.”

Frog Mountain

Frog Mountain. Mountain located in the heart of the hill country where Ballard spends much of his time searching for prey. It also is the site of a road turnaround, which serves as a symbolic collision point of local civilized society and the natural world. It also serves as a prime stalking ground for Ballard to carry out his wanton assaults on unsuspecting residents.


*Sevierville. Small town in eastern Tennessee that serves as the county seat of Sevier County. The city represents the civilized elements from which Ballard becomes totally estranged. Again, his mental isolation is as pronounced as his physical separation, as illustrated in his visit to the local blacksmith shop to have an ax sharpened. As Ballard watches, the blacksmith carefully explains to him each step of the sharpening process, which concludes with him suggesting that Ballard now was able to do it himself. “Do what?” is Ballard’s response. It is one of several awkward interactions with the local citizenry, when he is forced to visit the city for supplies.

Ballard’s farm

Ballard’s farm. Farmhouse located deep in the Tennessee hills where Ballard lives. The home represents the high point of his existence until the forced sale of his property by county authorities.


Cabin. Abandoned clapboard structure situated on a neighbor’s property. Ballard’s move into the cabin following the loss of his home represents the first downward step in his journey into degradation. “Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.”


Hospital. County hospital that Ballard checks...

(This entire section contains 647 words.)

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into after being flushed from the depths of his cave. Choosing not to return to the woods, he instead enters this emblem of civilization, in which he cryptically tells a nurse that he is where he is “supposed to be.”


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Bartlett, Andrew. “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.” Southern Literary Journal 24 (Fall, 1991): 3-15. Argues that the real focus of Child of God is not its sociopathic protagonist but the question of how he should be perceived. An incisive study of technique and theme.

Bell, Vereen M. The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. The first book-length study of McCarthy. Devotes one chapter to Child of God; the introduction is also helpful.

Grammer, John. “A Thing Against Which Time Will Not Prevail: Pastoral and History in Cormac McCarthy’s South.” The Southern Quarterly 30 (Summer, 1992): 19-30. An important essay, showing how one of the major themes in Southern literature is basic to McCarthy’s thought. Lester Ballard meets his doom because he is an anachronism.

Winchell, Mark Royden. “Inner Dark: or, The Place of Cormac McCarthy.” Southern Review 26 (Spring, 1990): 293-309. An excellent introduction. Argues that although in some ways McCarthy surpasses even Faulkner, only Child of God is likely to endure.


Critical Essays