Ideas for Group Discussions

Look for darkness and light in Outer Dark. Is the novel mostly dark? Its dreamlike style is suggestive of a story meant to function symbolically rather than realistically. It is an early novel in McCarthy's career, and like many early novels it is heavily laden with ideas, but seems deficient in characterization and plot. Some readers may complain that the story wanders unnecessarily, perhaps pointlessly. Others will be gripped by its tale of grace and punishment, emphasizing the awesome implications of the outer dark. Discussions will probably be most successful by concentrating on the interplay of symbols such as the child or the figures who follow Culla. Another good approach would be to compare the novel to fairy tales, noting how both use stereotypes and archetypes to communicate basic cultural ideas to their audience.

1. Outer Dark carries a heavy load of symbolism. Its characters and their actions seem burdened with meanings beyond the simple story and action. What does Rinthy represent? What does Culla represent?

2. Can Culla ever find grace?

3. Who are the figures who follow Culla? Why is Culla blamed for their actions?

4. In what ways is Outer Dark like a fairy tale? In its plot? In its characterization? In its conflict?

5. Why do good people suffer in the novel?

6. The title of Outer Dark is suggestive of its themes. What is the outer dark of the novel? Who...

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Literary Techniques

Outer Dark is told in a spare style, with much emphasis on dialogue to carry the action. The story is episodic but, as one critic has noted, many of the episodes center on acts of judgment as is appropriate for this tale of guilt and punishment. There are numerous biblical echoes beyond the title itself, the most significant of them coming from the gospels of Christ, and the book reads almost as an extended parable. Despite the bleakness of most of the story, Outer Dark is not without hope, but it refuses to offer easy salvation and suggests that grace can be a frightful gift.

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Social Concerns

Outer Dark is not set in a definite time or locale, but it appears to take place in the Southern Appalachian mountains during the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Basically, however, the story is more like a folk tale than a realistic rendering of events, and the uncertain, sometimes nightmarish quality of the world it portrays adds to its almost surrealistic style. The book tells the story of Rinthy and Culla Holme, a sister and brother who live together in an isolated mountain cabin. Although McCarthy indicates their poverty and lack of learning, he is more interested in their moral state than in their social or economic condition.

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Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Aldrich, John W. “Cormac McCarthy’s Bizarre Genius: A Reclusive Master of Language and the Picaresque, on a Roll.” The Atlantic Monthly 274 (August, 1994): 89-97. Traces the evolution of McCarthy’s fiction, from the publication of Orchard Keeper in 1965 to All the Pretty Horses in 1994. Offers brief analyses of Outer Dark and Suttree.

Arnold, Edwin T. “Blood and Grace: The Fiction of Cormac McCarthy.” Commonweal 121 (November 4, 1994): 11-14. Arnold asserts that McCarthy’s novels often explore the more negative aspects of the human condition in meaningful, religiously significant ways. He discusses several of McCarthy’s works.

Arnold, Edwin T., and Diane C. Luce, eds. Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. This collection of ten essays explores the historical and philosophical influences on McCarthy’s work, the moral center that informs his writings, and the common themes of his fiction. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Jarret, Robert J. Cormac McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1997. Jarret offers a detailed examination of all seven of McCarthy’s works, including Outer Dark and Suttree. His masterful study compares McCarthy’s early fiction to the regionalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, discusses McCarthy’s shift of locale to the Southwest, and analyzes the distinctive aspects of McCarthy’s writing.

Literary Precedents

McCarthy is often linked with the "Southern Gothic" tradition, although that term is itself an ambiguous one. Certainly he shares with many Southern writers a predisposition to grotesques and acts of violence. He also displays a kind of wild folk humor, a love of dialect, and a richness of vocabulary. The two writers McCarthy most clearly brings to mind are William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Like Faulkner, he experiments in language and narrative form, and creates a very personal world with each novel. He studies the outsider and admires those who endure and who probe beneath the surface. He shares with O'Connor a Catholic fascination with evil and redemption and the awesome power of grace. There is always a strong sense of the religious in his work, as well as an awareness of moral irony. A character like Culla Holme or Lester Ballard (in his third novel Child of God, 1974) could easily be identified with an O'Connor character. But McCarthy has developed his own voice and style, products of extensive labor.

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