Trauma and Mythologies of the Old West in the Western Novels of Cormac McCarthy

  • Antony Harrison

Student thesis: Phd


AbstractThis thesis explores how McCarthy uses figures of trauma to interrogate the creation of myth in three categories: mythic narrative, mythic masculinity, and mythic national identity. Focusing on McCarthy's five most recent novels, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, No Country for Old Men and The Road, I argue that this interdependency of myth and trauma helps explain the repetitive cycles of loss, failure and defeat that pervade his work. Most critics of McCarthy have failed to explain adequately the relationship between these cycles of failure and the various mythologies of the West in these novels, sometimes even praising his supposed rejuvenation of the 'exhausted' myths of cowboys and the Western frontier. But recent developments in trauma theory help explain how McCarthy uses figures of loss and trauma to re-imagine the very structure of myth in twenty-first century America, particularly in relation to mythic models of the heroic quest, heroic masculinity, and American Exceptionalism. Furthermore, this reading of McCarthy also extends trauma theory by enabling a reconsideration of both myth and trauma in terms of futurity. McCarthy's fusing of trauma with myth exposes how myths are typically a cyclically violent and destructive cultural phenomenon, as well as revealing how myths always depend upon the projection of a future event that ultimately collapses into failure. By explaining these connections between trauma, failure, myth, and futurity, I thus revitalize the criticism devoted to McCarthy's writing and open up new ways to think about the larger concerns of narrative, genre, gender, and nation. I investigate how and why McCarthy takes the mythologies of the Old West, and rather than revising or subverting these myths, strives for a further model of myth in the form of heroic narratives that always end in failure and unresolved traumatic experience. And yet, McCarthy does not simply offer the failure or collapse of myth itself. Rather, his engagement with trauma in these Western novels reinstates the mythic as a cyclical pattern in which the present experience of trauma invokes some kind of loss in the past, sometimes even an unspecified loss, and projects some kind of further loss into the future, so as to keep the very notion of myth in constant play or motion. The model of myth that McCarthy offers is thus an eternal cycle that can never resolve itself as redemption. In the process I will examine how McCarthy's traumatic model of myth helps us understand how a failing and defeated cowboy culture, with its heritage based on mythic visions of mastery and loss may, in striving for a sustained mythic experience, remain trapped in unresolved traumatic cycles and patterns of violence, crisis and suffering which nevertheless produce a further cycle of traumatic myth. I engage McCarthy's negotiations of the mythic quest in my analysis of The Crossing in Chapter One, in which I show how the traumatic failure of the quest infuses that quest with mythic symbolism, and spurs the inevitable repetition of the quest in order to preserve that mythic cycle. In Chapter Two I examine the relationship between myth, trauma, and masculinity in All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain where I argue heroic masculinity relies upon the attempt to master the defeat and failure associated with trauma. In Chapter Three I examine how, in No Country for Old Men and The Road, the myth of American nation is associated with perpetual affirmations of chosenness and survival and how McCarthy's novels open up new ways to understand how American culture builds a mythic past out of a sense of traumatic loss and projects that mythic vision onto an illusory and destructive future.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMichael Bibler (Supervisor) & Peter Knight (Supervisor)

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