A Modest Proposal

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A staple of American fiction is the wide reaching and nearly immortal Western genre. Often referred to as the “Wild West”, the Western genre was birthed from the dangers and adventures of the American Frontier set mostly in the later half of the 19th century. Western fiction captured the attention of American audiences from its onset with it’s tales of cowboys, Indians, guns, heroes, and villains. The genre was captured in virtually every medium available including films, novels, art, and radio programming. Westerns embody a powerful form of American myth; that is creating very dynamic archetypes and ideas that are still prominent in today’s culture. One of the most defining archetypes established in Western fiction were the very clear “good guys” often referred to as “White Hats”. These heroes of Western stories often were law men who righted wrongs and rode off to into the sunset after a courageous battle while literally wearing a white hat to identify the hero as such. These White Hats raised their guns against another powerful archetype, the “Black Hat”. As the name very easily describes these were evil figures who would draw out the hero to do battle while cloaked in black. As the Western genre grew long in the tooth those defining qualities became muddled and not quite as cut and dry and anti-heroes rose in prominence. Those physical attributes that allowed viewers and readers to identify those archetypes became less important to the genre. In Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men” he turns the idea of the Western on it’s head by taking those archetypes while subverting them and our own expectations from past works in this particular genre. Nearly every character in his novel lacks a physical description but their motives tend to reflect their place as post-modern Western archetypes. In the Coen brothers adaptation of the novel by the same name released in 2007 they chose to directly costume the main characters in those defining colors of black and white as the genre once called for. The fidelity of McCarthy’s novel and message remains mainly intact despite this powerful imagery. The character of Anton Chigurh; this stories black hat, represents a darker villain that is not easily summed up as the archetypal Black Hat. Despite his complexity, the Coen’s cloaked him in a very distinct choice of clothing and hair style dipped in a deep black. This begs the question; how did the Coen’s and McCarthy depict the Western archetypes within No Country for Old Men and how does this reflect the evolution of good and evil archetypes within the 21st century Western?
The great importance of Western fiction and it’s familiar archetypes are undeniable in American culture. My purpose in this investigation is to detail the changing landscape of the Western genre in the 21st century, most notably it’s major archetypes. Western fiction has gone from depicting it’s characters as one note archetypes representing a simplistic personification of right and wrong. The genre has gone through a notable transformation that now can envision a complexity that was never truly been realized before in Westerns. The blurring of the lines and deeper mysteries of humanity is greatly depicted within the lives of McCarthy and the Coen’s No Country for Old Men. The social critique that exists in both versions of the story has a great deal to say about America’s views on itself, it’s people, and the genre of Western fiction as a whole. I wish to explore these depictions and their metamorphosis from it’s grass roots to it’s current incarnation while illuminating what these changes mean to Westerns and America. Fiction can be both a reflection of it’s creators and it’s society as a greater whole outside of it’s genre. Cormac McCarthy and the Coens have carefully constructed these more complex archetypes to something a bit more human and modern than what we have digested before. No Country For Old Men, in my eyes, represents a touchstone for the post-modernist archetype and I wish to gain a greater understanding of what that is and what it means.The importance of this change, I feel, is of great importance to our understanding of Western culture.
My method of investigation will primarily focus on pulling apart the source and it’s adaption and examining the characters depictions, their moral ambiguity or lack thereof, the story’s structure and how these element are a departure from the earlier norm. Along the way I’ll be looking at early depictions of Western archetypes in both text and film and how they relate or differentiate from those in No Country for Old Men.
To highlight the vast changes in the genre I’ll need to look at scholarly articles about said genre along with various examples of this particular brand of fiction. Most importantly I’ll be finding articles that speak on both versions of the story by the Coens and McCarthy as a great deal has been written about them. As recommended one of the pieces of the puzzle can be helped along with John G. Cawelti’s book The Six Gun Mystique which details the ideas and messages within the Western genre. I’ll also be looking at Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western by Will Wright which also explores Western fiction and it’s larger implications on American society. I think I’ll also be able to find some good information within The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glen Frankel which details the making of John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers which stands as a touchstone of the genre and it’s muddling of the Western archetypes.

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Published on May 22, 2013 at 9:52 am Comments (0)

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