First Edition Random House
Outer Dark is the second novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy, published in 1968. The time and setting are nebulous, but can be assumed to be somewhere in Appalachia, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. The novel tells of a woman named Rinthy who bears her brother's baby. The brother, Culla, leaves the nameless infant in the woods to die, but tells his sister that the newborn died of natural causes and had to be buried. Rinthy discovers this lie and sets out to find the baby for herself.
The world of Outer Dark is a brutally nihilistic one. It represents a gestalt of irrationality and incoherence, a world that is completely strange and unapproachable. McCarthy might have had in mind the 8th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew verses 11 to 12: "And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Major motifs in the setting
- Nature - described a number of times, frequently unearthly and menacing such as the anthropomorphized forest through which Culla runs through after leaving his child, and the forest around the house of the old crone Rinthy visits.
- Shadow - Pervasive throughout the novel, mentioned at the very beginning as a result of eclipse in a dream, with the crowd turning hostile towards Culla. Mentioned at the scene of abandoning his child as well, when the shadow pooled at his feet, and a dark stain around him. Rinthy is the only character in the novel that, literally and allegorically, shines with light.
The novel begins with the introduction of the siblings Culla and Rinthy Holme, and the result of their sexual relationship with Rinthy being only a few days from labor. Here, the Tinker is introduced as well, and from his interaction with Culla and Culla's unwillingness to call for help during the birth, we see his shame over the child. The child is soon born, and after Rinthy falls asleep, Culla leaves it out to die in the woods telling her that the child died.
The child is found by the tinker, who takes him to a wet nurse, without knowing who his parents are. Rinthy finds an empty grave and sets out to find the child.
After abandoning the child, Culla, trying to escape his sin, sets out across the country to find work.
His first job is with a local squire, who puts him to work chopping wood, for which he is paid half a dollar. After he leaves it is found out that a pair of expensive boots have been stolen. Immediately blaming him, the squire pursues him. The squire is set upon by a trio and soon killed.
Travelling to the town of Cheatham looking for work, it is found out that someone has desecrated three graves near the church. He is blamed and runs away from the town.
His next job is painting the roof of a barn a ways from Cheatham, but is found by law enforcement. Again forced to run away, he injures himself in flight. The trio going in wake of Culla finds the three men he assumes framed him for the desecration and kills them.
Further on his journey Culla finds an old man who gives him a drink of water and shows off his gun and hunting trophies. He invites Culla to stay and learn snake hunting from him. He refuses. The trio again shows up and kills the man.
His next stop is Preston Falls, where he finds employment digging graves. Returning to town for payment, he finds it abandoned of all life and quickly runs away from it. Culla tries to cross a river on a ferry with the ferryman and a man who came aboard on horseback. During their night crossing, the river surges too quickly and soon the ferryman, the man and the horse are killed. Near dawn, Culla is helped ashore by the trio that was following him, who suspect him of murdering the two men aboard the ferry. Culla is obliged to eat some of the strange, unknown meat from their fire and, threatening him, the men take his boots.
Culla afterwards stumbles upon an apparently abandoned, unlocked home and takes refuge in it. In the morning, he is welcomed by an armed man who takes him to the squire, again accused of a crime, this time of trespassing. He pleads guilty to this crime for a lighter sentence, and works off his fine.
The final episode of his journey of false accusations is being accused on inciting a herd of pigs off a cliff and the murder of a young hog-driver. This time, to evade being executed, Culla jumps off a cliff himself into a river, injuring his leg. Coming ashore, he again finds the trio, as well as his child (burned on one side of his body and missing an eye) and the body of the tinker. After accusing Culla of fathering and abandoning the child, the leader of the trio slays the baby, after which a companion appears to begin to eat it.
Careful to avoid her brother, Rinthy sets out to look for the child. After travelling a while, during the night she stumbles upon a house. Here she finds a family who take her in, feed her and offer her a place to sleep. The oldest boy of the family expresses interest in her, whom she rejects. Travelling to the town with them, she is unable to find the child and sets out again to try and find him.
Travelling further she stays briefly with two families, where she finds out she is still lactating and retains hope for child's well-being. She stays for some time with an old woman living in a forest with a dislike for snakes and dogs.
Next she meets a lawyer who treats her kindly and allows her to rest at his office while she waits for a doctor, who keeps business across from the lawyer. The doctor gives her hope her child is still alive, and gives her a salve for her breasts which are still lactating and have begun bleeding.
Rinthy finally catches up to the tinker, who takes her to his cabin with the suggestion of giving her her child. He does not in fact do so, but berates her for abandoning her child, and telling her he deserves the child far more than she. Beginning to surmise the truth, the tinker demands to know if Culla is the child's father. When Rinthy tells him he is, the tinker refuses to believe it, calling Rinthy a liar and storming from the cabin saying he will kill her if she follows him.
Years later, Culla talks to a blind man who tells him of the blessings of being blind, and that he prays for what he needs. Culla later watches the blind man walking towards a swamp, which for him means certain death. The novel ends with Culla thinking "Someone should tell a blind man before setting him out that way".
Recent essays have questioned the physical existence of the three bad men. Critics have posited that they could have been a projection of Culla, who, everywhere he went, was suspected of wrong-doing by the townspeople. It seems that he's wrongly persecuted at every step, but questions of whether the narration complies with his psychological denial abound. Or that the three bad men represented the evil in Culla, and consequently in man, and that he was actually responsible for all the killings in the countryside in addition to the death, or metaphysical death, of his baby. The fabulous tale has been open to myriad interpretations by its readers, and various theories abound regarding the ending: Culla meets Death on the road, and Death lets him by, denoting the idea that man is an extension of Death and does his work for him.
Rinthy's name may be a shortened version of Corinthians, referencing the First Epistle to the Corinthians.
Rinthy is described as simple-minded, but this could be a reference to 1 Corinthians 3:18: let him become a fool that he may be wise. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 13 could reflect her own kindness which is met with reciprocal kindness, and her lack of shame for giving birth.
The three men who follow Culla and murder those he interacts with are figures that could be the agents of retribution mentioned in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The deeds they commit are blamed on Culla, as if his own sin has called these figures forth, a sort of Curse and mark of Cain.
Book of Revelation 3:15-16 references people who have, according to Dante, committed themselves to neither God nor the Devil are put into a waste land. Dante's description of people who from cowardice failed to commit is applicable to Culla.
Rinthy's return to the glade her child was killed in may represent her salvation, whereas Culla's final arrival at a swamp could represent his refusal of salvation. In the world of Outer Dark sins must be confessed and owned up to in order to be forgiven, something Culla is incapable of and unaware of, underlined in the last words of the book.
- Culla Holme - the main male character, brother and former lover of Rinthy Holme
- Rinthy Holme - the main female character, sister and former lover of Culla Holme
- The Tinker
- The unnamed child - abandoned, and later murdered child of Rinthy and Culla Holme
The Three Men
The band of murderers who harry the community are likely representative of reapers who are born of Culla's sin of incest (and perhaps rape) and attempted infanticide.
Walter Sullivan, one of McCarthy's most demanding critics, noted the power, literary virtuosity and the universality of his characters. He further states ability to find devices and characters that grasp us in their strangeness and force us to grapple with the reality surrounding us.
In 2009, a fifteen-minute film based on the book, directed by Stephen Imwalle and with Jamie Dunne and Azel James playing as Rinthy Holme and Culla Holme respectively, was released on the U.S. festival circuit.
- Arnold, Edwin T.; Luce, Dianne C. (January 1, 1999). Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy (Southern Quarterly Series). Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. p. 46. ISBN 978-1578061051.
- Cooper, Lydia R. (2013). Frye, Steven (ed.). "McCarthy, Tennessee, and the Southern Gothic". Cambridge University Press. pp. 45–46. ISBN 9781139087438.
- Edwin, Arnold T. (January 1, 1999). Arnold, Edwin T.; Luce, Dianne, C. (eds.). "Naming, Knowing and Nothingness: McCarthy’s Moral Parables". Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 44–47, 49–52. ISBN 978-1578061051.
- Grammer, John M. (1993). Arnold, Edwin T; Luce, Dianne C. (eds.). "A Thing Against Which Time Will Not Prevail: Pastoral and History in Cormac McCarthy's South". Jackson, Mississippi: University Publishing of Mississippi. pp. 33–36. ISBN 978-1578061051.
- Edwin, Arnold T. (January 1, 1999). Arnold, Edwin T.; Luce, Dianne C. (eds.). Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. p. 6. ISBN 978-1578061051.
- "Outer Dark (2009)". imdb.com. Retrieved September 26, 2017.