“What’s Wanted is a Clean Sweep”: Outlaws and Anarchy in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

Daniel Butler


In Chapter IV of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), the character known only as the Professor laments that the climate of England does not provide fertile ground for the sowing of anarchist seeds. In America, however, he sees real promise. “They have more character over there, and their character is essentially anarchistic,” he says; “The collective temperament is lawless” (61). The Professor might well be referring to the world of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005), a novel dominated by the outlaw figure Anton Chigurh, who seems to fully realize the apocalyptic American anarchy prophesied by Conrad’s character. McCarthy’s novel affords the opportunity to examine the Professor’s transatlantic comparison. Additionally, these novels investigate the relationship of artist to art and of writer to character, offering stirring examples of the interrelationship of outlaw ethos and aesthetic identity.

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