Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958
McCarthy’s second novel pursues thematic issues raised in The Orchard Keeper, though its narrative is channeled more rigorously. The novel is about union, its sundering, and the perpetual questing which ensues.
The narrative is set in motion by the birth of a son to Rinthy Holme, the product of a union with her brother, Culla, with whom she lives alone in an unspecified place (bearing resemblances to eastern Tennessee). No genealogical or social references guide or orient their lives. Living alone, cut off from any social contact with anyone, theirs is an order primordial, prior to civilizing influences. Despite the absence of underpinnings for a socially determined morality, their acts have consequences, and the brother and sister are condemned to wander across the countryside, by foot, helplessly and ceaselessly.
After the baby’s birth, Culla, feeling the guilt associated with the unnatural union, takes the child into the woods to die. An old tinker, however, comes across the child and picks it up to carry along with his other illegitimate wares—dirty books and moonshine. Instinctively Rinthy knows that the tinker has taken her child and commences her search for him. Culla, in turn, leaves to find his sister when he realizes that she is gone. The story then follows the respective journeys of the brother and sister, parallel yet separate and unique. The worlds of the brother and sister are kept distinctly apart in the metaphysical realm and in the narrative. Neither sees the other; neither path intersects the other, as close as they might get to each other. One knows little of what they think, or if they think at all.
The two seem to move through the landscape almost like apparitions, guided by some omnipotent force unknown to either. Rinthy is driven by her maternal instinct to find and care for her child. Her milk never dries up, a sign that the forces that move her are deep, impersonal, and universal. Though distinctly vulnerable, she seems only vaguely aware of possible dangers along the way. She is taken care of by those whose paths she crosses, as if they intuitively recognize her natural purity and innocence of the world’s ways.
Culla, responsible for the child’s conception and the abandonment that sent Rinthy off in its search, is driven by guilt. Indifferent to his fate, perhaps thinking his ill luck a fitting retribution for his acts, he takes what comes to him, moving “in a void, claustral to sound.” His wandering itself, let alone his cowed attitude, marks him. As he passes through places of permanence, he is suspect, taken one time for a fleeing felon, another time for a grave robber. Another time he is accused of causing a horde of hogs to march off a cliff to their death. Finally, after a dramatic scene in which he barely survives the overturning of a makeshift river ferry, Culla is driven into the company of three malevolent marauders who abuse him, take his shoes, and bend his will by threats. The unprincipled nihilism of the gang’s leader, who follows a law of brute force, stealing and torturing as he pleases, foretells the lawlessness of Glanton, the judge, and the wandering band of Americans in Blood Meridian.
The journeys come to tragic ends. Rinthy finds the tinker, but he refuses to relinquish his hold on the child, saying that she is poor and has nothing to give him in return for his provisional care. His own relationship with the child is a thin bulkhead holding back the huge lurking darkness of his own loneliness. The child, meanwhile, passes from the hands of the tinker to the three night riders, who taunt Culla, trying unsuccessfully to get him to admit to his paternity. They finally cut the throat of the baby and leave the remains, which Rinthy discovers shortly thereafter in a glade, with the tinker hanging from a nearby tree, vultures pecking at his carcass.
Outer Dark provides some basis for the comparisons often made between Faulkner and McCarthy. The handling of narrative in the novel and the almost absurd journeys of its characters call to mind As I Lay Dying. The poor, wandering Rinthy seems cut from the same pattern as Lena Grove’s in Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). A gothic atmosphere hangs heavily over the novel. Dead corpses hang from trees, characters trudge through the night followed by ominous sounds and small unidentified lights, cannibalism lurks on the edges, and darkness surrounds things.
With all its journeying and strident tone, the novel, like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), invites allegorical interpretations. What purpose do these roads and these wanderings have? If some meaning is to be distilled, it might be simply that lives, by their very nature, must take some path which, in the end, will add up to no more or no less than those lines that have been traced. The human condition itself is a condemnation to homelessness. “They’s lots of people on the roads these days,” Culla says to a blind man he meets toward the end of the novel. The blind man agrees: “I pass em ever day. People goin up and down in the world like dogs. As if they wasn’t a home nowheres.”
In Outer Dark, McCarthy explores what a human being is when stripped of all encumbrances, material and spiritual. Like the best of his other novels, it is a testimony to man’s amazing endurance and survival in spite of himself At one point the tinker says to Rinthy, “I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.”
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