The Weird Treatment of Women in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy

2231013614_ba6a5b626d_o-BY KACIE COOPER-

Cormac McCarthy is well-known for being a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, a new contributor to the literary canon, an intellectual advocate for the Santa Fe Institute, and is quickly become a literary and cultural icon. However, in an era when women are still continuously fighting against social injustices in regard to gender, Cormac McCarthy is not contributing much to the progression of women in a patriarchal society, at least not in a literary sense. For a writer who has so much influence over his audience, with many of his works now interpreted in film, and as one who is celebrated in popular culture, McCarthy does not appear to be using his platform for the betterment of women.

McCarthy’s overall influence on culture is not the point to be observed here, but rather, his portrayal of women and treatment of them within his novels are what should be inspected. Rather than allowing ourselves to be caught up in the ideaology of the author himself, we must examine the author’s portrayal of a certain ideology. In this case, support of a patriarchal society is reflected in the creation and treatment of McCarthy’s female characters within is novels, most notably reflected in Child of God, All the Pretty Horses and The Road. By looking at these novels through a feminist lense, we find that the depiction of women is written in a way that may be considered counterproductive to feminist progression, as the women are consistently disrespected and made to appear weak, and are mostly unlikeable to their audiences.

Women’s role in society is a topic that has been debated for centuries, and the topic still exists as an issue in modern culture, with many women and men alike claiming that society’s treatment of women is not equal to the treatment of men. Those who believe in equality for men and women are considered feminist, even if they are not female. Feminism as a movement is chiefly concerned with demanding equality for women, regardless of other social constructs such as race, age, or class. In fact, feminism as a movement promotes equality among the sexes despite the other contributing factors. The ultimate goal of feminists is for women to gain treatment equal to that of men in all spheres, including professional and personal levels.

Child of God

When referring to McCarthy’s overall lack of female characters in his novels, Child of God immediately comes to mind. After all, many of the women portrayed in the novel are nameless corpses, existing purely for the sake of a murderous necrophiliac. However, that does not mean that a female presence is absent from the novel. What is the driving force behind most of Lester Ballard’s actions, thus the plot entirely? Women. We discover early in the novel that Lester’s mother abandoned him and his father when Lester was a young boy, an act that undoubtedly affects his consideration of women. Lester grows up with little to no interaction with women, and by age 27, has inherited a skewed perception of how to communicate with the opposite sex.

On the rare occasion that Lester could have a conversation with a woman, any sort of advances on his part are met with rejection. However, that does not imply that Lester is rejected by a sort of high class group of women whose standards he could never reach. In fact, the rejection Lester encounters comes from young women who are not much better off than him, and who are portrayed in a certainly negative light. The first woman to catch Lester’s attention is the daughter of a dumpkeeper who “used to sit with her legs propped so that you could see her drawers” (28). She teases Lester in asking if he would like to see her breasts after a man at the dump comments on Lester’s gazing at them, but requires a quarter from Lester, or half the payment to see one breast (29). When Lester can’t produce the money, the dumpkeeper’s daughter mocks him and laughs. In demanding payment to expose her breasts, this woman is bordering prostitution — a fact which is not the worst discovery made by McCarthy’s audience in this scene. We learn in this passage that the owner of the dump has slept with at least one of his daughters on at least one occasion, and perhaps without much protest from the girl.

We are told that when the dumpkeeper found one of his nine daughters having sex with a young man in the woods, a struggle between father and daughter ensued, and resulted with him forcing himself on the girl. “Daddy quit, she said. Daddy. Oooh” (28). Are we to assume then, based on dialogue alone, that the man’s daughter did not object to his actions? Her response would suggest that she allowed it to happen. Despite whether or not that conclusion is universally accepted, the fact remains that the depiction of the dumpkeeper’s daughters is very negative. Perhaps McCarthy’s readers are disgusted by these girls, perhaps they simply feel sorry for the dumpkeeper’s daughters, but whatever the case may be, the girls at the dump are not likeable characters. Like Lester, the girls exist as a product of their environment, an environment that results in incest, multiple pregnancies, and even an abortion conducted by a twelve year old girl.

The next time Lester encounters a woman, the scene becomes much more violent. Upon finding a half-naked woman passed out in the leaves near Lester’s roaming grounds, his merely touching the woman sends her into a post drunken frenzy. The whisky-breathed woman hits Lester with a rock, despite his unthreatening manner towards her. Lester in turn rips the nightgown off of the woman and leaves her naked and screaming at him. Later, the woman unjustly accuses Lester of raping her, simply because the men that should have been prosecuted remain free. Although she knew all along that Lester was innocent of her allegations, the woman that he stumbled upon in the leaves placed the blame of rape completely on him, simply out of spite. Once again, we are presented with a very unlikeable female character — one who is not just unlikeable, but venomous and hateful.

With Lester’s interaction with women becoming increasingly volatile, it is no wonder that his treatment of them becomes increasingly morbid. 

At first glance, the novel suggests that Lester becomes a homicidal necrophiliac because of his own warped perception of reality. For example, in a scene where we find Lester at a carnival marveling at the fireworks alongside a little girl, his gaze alone makes her uneasy. “In the flood of this breaking brimstone galaxy she saw the man with the bears watching her and she edged closer to the girl by her side and brushed her hair with two fingers quickly” (65). However, a closer look at Lester’s interaction with women up to this point proves that it is the negative experiences with females such as this that are the root cause for his eventual treatment of them. It should come as no surprise then, that the subsequent female characters in the novel that possess any sort of likeable traits are either already dead, or dead soon after contact with Lester Ballard.

For the audience of both the novel and film adaptation, there is a sense that Lester’s first corpse — a young woman he finds dead in a parked car — is more than just a corpse. Lester decides to have sex with the  body, and while doing so, “poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman.” (88). He immediately becomes emotionally attached to the corpse — carrying it home to interact with like he would a living being. Lester buys clothes for her, talks to her, and has sex with her in a way that a male his age would have with an actual woman, if allowed the chance. Lester’s relationship with the corpse exhibits the gentlest side of the necrophiliac that we are ever privy to, and he treats the woman’s body as if it were a living, breathing, human. He especially enjoys dressing the corpse, applying makeup to her face, and standing outside his window to gaze at her body through the glass, as if viewing his fantasy from an outsider’s perspective will make it real.

Although this “female character” is merely a lifeless body, she is depicted in a way that allows a hint of life. McCarthy personifies the corpse through Lester’s treatment of her, and writes her in a way that allows us to see her as more than a corpse. While Lester is struggling to haul the body up a ladder and into his attic, subtle imagery and language imply that she holds a presence all her own, as “she rose slumpshouldered from the floor with her hair all down and began to bump slowly up the ladder. Half-way up she paused, dangling. Then she began to rise again” (95). These lines appear to give the corpse a will and action of her own, as if she is moving herself up the ladder. In order to truly view this female as nothing more than a motionless corpse, “she” would need to be replaced with “the body” or “the corpse” consistently. you

However, since a likeable female character cannot exist in this novel — dead or alive — the corpse cannot stay with Lester for long, and he loses her in a devastating fire. Even in death, Lester is inevitably rejected by the opposite sex, and he loses the first girl he’s had any sort of positive relationship with.  

We later find that after the loss of his first companion, Lester then takes matters into his own hands — murdering young women to collect their bodies. He has passed the point of no return, is aware of what he desires from women, and is willing to take for himself what is not given to him. This newfound drive to take what he wants at any cost leads him to a challenge and rejection brought on by arguably the strongest female character in the novel.

Lester, at this point, has spent most of his time interacting with dead members of the opposite sex, and his ability to interact with living females has not improved. When the young daughter of one of Lester’s other acquaintances rejects his advances, telling him “I ain’t got nothin for you to see,” Lester responds with, “Why don’t you show me them nice titties,” an obvious regurgitation of an early conversation involving the dumpkeeper’s daughter (117,118). Apparently, Lester believes that imitating the attitude of the type of man worthy of the dumpkeeper’s daughter’s attention would illicit the attention from this young girl. When Lester is instead rejected again by the young girl, he kills her.

The scenario with Lester and the young girl is the only instance we see a female character asserting her will, and for that — she must be killed. Of course the woman found in the leaves asserts her will to Lester, but she was not actually harmed by Lester, so her vile reaction to him is unwarranted. The young girl here, however, is completely justified in her reaction to Lester, though the incident is described as being her own fault. McCarthy writes, “she thought about it before she swung the door back. You could see it in her eyes. But she let him in, more’s the fool” (116). Just as the dumpkeeper’s daughters allow their father to have sex with them, this young girl allows Lester to kill her.

The damage to Lester’s psyche from a lifetime of negative experiences with women is clearly evident in his attack on John Greer, the new owner of Lester’s former home. When Lester returns to the property to shoot Greer, he has made himself into a woman in the best way that he can. Lester dons the clothing of his female victims, and goes so far as wearing women’s scalps as his own hair. Although Lester is seeking unjust revenge on Greer for living in Lester’s home, he is acting out his revenge in the form of a woman. Losing his home to Greer was not the event that sparked Lester’s spiral into murderous necrophilia, nor was finding the first woman’s corpse the trigger. The obsessive hatred toward women was rooted in Lester long before any of that, and for Lester Ballard, the blame is placed on women.  

All the Pretty Horses

One might argue that strong female characters are present in one of McCarthy’s western themed novels, All the Pretty Horses, as both Alejandra and her aunt Duena Alfonsa first appear to possess tendencies of strong, independent women. Alejandra risks her societal reputation and rebels against her aunt when she seduces the young ranch hand and engages in an affair with him, and she initially appears to value that relationship over her societal expectations. However, it becomes evident over time that Alejandra remains a victim of a patriarchal society, and her responsibilities within that realm trump her desires anywhere else. Through Alejandra we see an instance where a strong female character could emerge in a McCarthy novel, but instead, she falls to the male-influenced rules of society. Although the time and setting of All the Pretty Horses warrant the tragic result of this sort of affair, Alejandra was given every possibility to choose love over duty, yet she still values her father’s governing more than she values her own desires.

In every scene with Alejandra, her physical beauty is noted before anything else. Most of Alejandra’s descriptions are devoted to her appearance, with each mentioning of her character including how she is dressed at that moment — what her skin looks like, her hair, and so on. We know more about what Alejandra looks like before we even know her as a person, as the first image of her in the novel is a detailed account of her appearance on horseback. “She wore english riding boots and  jodhpurs and a blue twill hacking jacket,” McCarthy writes, also adding that “she wore a flatcrowned hat of black felt with a wide brim and her black hair was loose under it and fell halfway to her waist” (94). When we see Alejandra later on at the dance, she is described wearing a blue dress and red lipstick, “her black hair done up in a blue ribbon and the nape of her neck pale as porcelain” (123). The constant recognition of her appearance and beauty are necessary reminders of her role in society, which is a role likened to a porcelain doll. Despite her stunning appearance, wealthy family, and brief rebellion, Alejandra never truly transcends her placement in the patriarchal society, regardless of her aunt Alfonsa’s intent.

Alejandra is provided with the means to challenge her role in society — which she does for a time —  through an exhilarating romance with her father’s ranch hand, John Grady Cole. Alejandra is undoubtedly feeling the pressure placed on a young woman of her status, and uses Grady as an escape from that pressure. Alejandra is aware of her beauty and demanding presence, which she uses to get what she wants. When Grady meets her unexpectedly one night while breaking one of her father’s stallions, she demands that Grady let her ride the stallion while he returns her horse to the stable. “I want to ride him now,” she tells Grady, to which he responds, “I don’t know if the patron would want you to ride him. Your father” (130). That fact does not matter to Alejandra, though, for she is testing her independence and challenging those in her way — including Grady. “She smiled at him a pitying smile and there was no pity in it. She stepped to the ground and lifted the reins over the black horse’s head and turned and stood looking at him with the reins behind her back. Get down, she said” (130). With one flirtatious smile — a smile with no pity in it — Alejandra pulls Grady into her own personal rebellion and inevitably jeopardizes his life.

Like Grady’s mother, Alejandra’s mother left the country-bound atmosphere in pursuit of a more exciting city life — leaving Alejandra on her father’s ranch and in the care of Duena Alfonsa. Once Duena Alfonsa becomes aware of Alejandra and Grady spending time together, she immediately interjects. Alfonsa explains to Grady the importance of a woman’s reputation in their society, telling him, “here a woman’s reputation is all she has… There is no forgiveness. For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a woman cannot. She cannot” (136,137). In a society governed by men, Duena Alfonsa recognizes the limits of a woman’s placement in that social order, and stresses the fact that any progress made by a woman to improve her station in life can be easily lost because of a bad reputation. Alfonsa believes it is her duty to preserve her grandniece’s reputation, and that she must guide Alejandra in the right direction. “I had no one to advise me, you see,” she tells Grady. “Perhaps I would not have listened anyway. I grew up in a world of men. I thought this would have prepared me to live in a world of men but it did not” (135,136). Rather than preparing her to live in a world of men, Alfonsa’s history led her to become trapped in the ideology of a patriarchal world. She claims that she is not an oldfashioned woman, yet her treatment of Alejandra suggests otherwise.

After Alfonsa’s meeting with Grady, Alejandra visits him in the night, having already learned about her aunt’s cryptic warning. That night Grady “saw in her face and in her figure something he’d not seen before and the name of that thing was sorrow” (140). Despite Duena Alfonsa’s best intentions for her niece, forcing Alejandra to ascend to her highest potential in society actually imprisons her, and will drive Alejandra further into rebellion. By pulling Alejandra away from Grady, Duena pushes her deeper into his arms. After Alfonsa’s warning, Alejandra visits Grady for nine nights straight, and each time she steps out of her clothes, lays with Grady, and tells him “I don’t care, I don’t care” (142). Although Alejandra is undoubtedly passionate about Grady, her feelings for him do not hold a flame to his for her. Duena Alfonsa may be justified in protecting Alejandra’s reputation, though at the present, Alejandra has only her father to be concerned with. She can tell Grady she doesn’t care because it’s true. Compared to Grady, Alejandra has nothing to lose if the two of them are caught, and this rebellious affair with her father’s employee is merely a way for her to test her independence.

When Grady is later arrested, it is Duena Alfonsa who arranges for his release. Grady then learns the nature of his release, which requires Alejandra to never see him again. “I can scarcely count on my two hands the number of women in this family who have suffered disastrous love affairs with men of disreputable character,” Duena tells him. “A family curse. But no, she will not see you” (229). She then recites to Grady her own cursed history — one full of tragedy, death, and loss.

Duena Alfonsa tells him of an earlier time when she was incapable of opposing her own father’s will, perhaps eluding to Alejandra, and how she lost love because of him. “He made me an exile in my own country. It was not his intention to do so… For all his strictness and authority he proved to be a libertine of the most dangerous sort” (230). Duena explains that her disappointments have only made her reckless, and so Alejandra is the only future she contemplates. “I would like my grandniece to have the opportunity to make a very different marriage from the one which her society is bent upon demanding of her,” and to Duena, that marriage does not include John Grady Cole. “She will not break her word to me. You will see” (240). As she departs, Duena leaves Grady with her own explanation to fate, saying it is human nature to name responsibility, as all of us are “determined that not even chaos be outside of our own making” (241).

After much pressing, Grady does in fact convince Alejandra to meet him once more, and he sees in her eyes the same sadness he saw the first night she came to his room. Grady tells Alejandra about his imprisonment, about his friend, Blevins, about the cuchillero that died in his arms. “How do I know who you are?” she asks him. “Do I know what sort of man you are? What sort my father is? Do you drink whisky? Do you go with whores? Does he? What are men?” (250). When her rebellious affair existed within the safety of her father’s ranch, Alejandra welcomed it. Now, however, the implications of her actions are magnified, and she cannot allow herself to go on this way any longer. “I broke my father’s heart,” she tells Grady. “I didn’t know he would stop loving me I didn’t know he could. Now I know” (251,252). Alejandra is still bound to the will of the father, and it is not out of her love for her father that prevents her from staying there with Grady, but rather, it is her fear of a losing that love from her father that dictates her decision to leave. In this regard, Alejendra is literally allowing the patriarchy to make her choices for her. She may have been able to disobey Duena Alfonsa, but she cannot disobey her father — she cannot disobey the patriarchy.

The Road

Despite the fact that the female characters mentioned above possess a heavy presence in their respective novels, and “the woman” from McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, does not appear as often as females in the other novels, her actions and placement within the novel hold much more depth than the females depicted in Child of God and All the Pretty Horses. However, we must consider whether or not that “depth” of character is helpful or hurtful to her likeability as a character. Of course the woman appears to be a headstrong — even stubborn — female, as she makes the decision to end her own life. But can that desire also be considered a weakness? For a novel that draws a fine line between life and death, hope and despair, giving into death can be seen as giving into despair. To be a strong female character in a McCarthy novel, such a woman can’t be a despairing woman.

Although The Road is centered on the relationship between a man and his boy as they try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, recognizing the role of the woman is crucial in fully grasping the relationship between the father and son, and the relationship among the rest of existing humanity. We only see the woman as a character in the man’s flashbacks and dreams — “he could remember everything of her save her scent” — as his memory of her exists as the last tie to the man’s life before the apocalyptic event. The man often reflects on happy memories with the woman, such as when they were “seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music… She held  his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress” (16). Though the first few glimpses presented of the woman in the man’s eyes are a beautiful memory of her, they are a stark contrast to the reality of what she becomes.

The transformation of the woman’s presence in the man’s dreams suggest a gradual feeling of guilt by the man, as he later dreams of caring for her at a time when she was sick. “The dream bore the look of sacrifice but he thought differently. He did not take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark and there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no other story to tell” (27). The man wants to believe that he took care of her — even dreams that he did — but ultimately he reasons with himself that it is his fault the woman is gone.

We know, however, that his belief is wrong. In his depiction of the man’s guilt for the woman’s suicide, McCarthy elicits sympathy for the man and creates unfavorable consideration for the woman. In order to survive, however, the man must move on — physically and metaphorically — so he takes his wife’s photo out of his wallet and leaves it on the road. He later thinks about the photo, and thinks that “he should have tried to keep her in their lives in some way but he didn’t know how” (46). With every guilt ridden reflection by the man, we are being subtly groomed for the following flashback of the woman — a flashback which solidifies her depth within the novel.  

The scene begins with the man and woman talking in candlelight, as he tells her across the flame that they are survivors. “We’re not survivors,” she responds. “We’re the walking dead in a horror film.”  

“I’m begging you,” the man tells her. The woman tells her husband that she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care if he cries, because it doesn’t mean anything to her. The woman tells the man that she should have killed herself a long time ago, and that the man can’t protect them anymore. “You said you would die for us but what good is that?” she asks. She tells the man she would take the boy with her in death if it weren’t for him. “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.” The man responds that death is no lover, but the woman declares that he is. Despite all of the man’s pleading — even for her to just wait until morning — the woman leaves without saying goodbye. “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift” (47-50). The coldness of the woman in this scene is the attribute that we are left with, as this is the only dialogue allotted for her in the entire novel. All other instances of her exist only in the man’s memories and dreams.

Where one may argue that the woman had the best intentions for the family, and that her acceptance of death proves her strength as a female presence, another could argue that her suicide is an act of weakness. Although she claims she would take the boy with her if she could, the reality is that she cannot, so she abandons the boy instead. Not only can her suicide be argued as an act of weakness or despair, but it can also be seen as an act of extreme selfishness. Rather than attempt survival for the sake of her son, she succumbs to her “new lover,” and chooses to escape with this new love, leaving her family behind.

In contrast to the boy’s mother, another motherly presence — one who made the decision to survive — appears at the end of the novel. After the man’s death, a family that had been following the man and boy on the road welcomes the boy into their group. “The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you” (241). Despite the deep presence of the man’s wife throughout the novel, the depiction of the other woman and her children at the very end of the story dissolve any shred of likable characteristics possessed by the boy’s mother. While the boy’s mother claims before her suicide that they are not survivors, the woman on the last page of the novel disproves such claims. She embodies what the boy’s mother should have been, and tells him “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time,” echoing the man’s love for the boy. This sort of surrogate mother to the boy is the only strong, likeable character in the novel — which is maybe why she doesn’t appear until the very last page. Though, critical theory aside, I must admit that it makes the ending so much more beautiful. 

In all depictions of a female presence, the fact remains that most of the females can’t be both likeable and strong at the same time. For the few that initially appear to be strong female characters, such as Alejandra or Duena Alfonsa, they inevitably fall victim to the patriarchal society they exist within. For the others, they can’t hold much of a presence in their work. In each of the novels examined, the male character has been abandoned by his mother — an attribute which immediately creates an unlikeable female presence before any other female characters are even mentioned. Lester Ballard has been abandoned by his mother and subsequently rejected by women, John Grady Cole has been abandoned by his mother and subsequently loses Alejandra as well, Alejandra herself has been abandoned by her mother, and the boy has also been abandoned by his mother. When considering the depictions of women in these novels in a feminist perspective, it’s hard to see how these characters promote the progress of women. 

Cormac McCarthy is still my favorite, though.


McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage International, 1992. Print.

Child of God. New York: Vintage International, 1973. Print.

The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

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