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 eight chapter of Gospel of Matthew verses 11 to 12: I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” There are thus two options for this world: the kingdom of heaven and the outer dark of hell.
Major motifs in the setting
- Nature - described a number of times, frequently unearthly and menacing such as the anthropomorphized forest through which Culla runs 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 Culla and Rinthy Holme, and the result of their incestuous 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 wetnurse, 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.
Culla finds himself in the town of Chetham again looking for work, and is falsely accused of having cholera by a man. It is also found out that someone has desecrated the graves of the town. He is blamed and runs away from the town.
His next job is painting the roof of a barn, near Chetham, but is found by its 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 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 aboard the ferry. Threatening him they take his boots, and force Culla to eat what appears to be human flesh.
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 confesses his crime for a lighter sentence, and works off his fine.
The final episode of his journey that involves his false accusation, is being accused on inciting a herd of pigs off a cliff and murder of a young pig herder. This time, to evade being executed, Culla jumps off a cliff himself into a stream, injuring his leg. Coming ashore, he yet again finds the trio, as well as seeing his child (burned of one side of his body and missing an eye) and the body of the tinker. This time he is unharmed by the trio. The child is sacrificed and cannibalized by the three men.
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 with a dislike for 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 medication for her breasts which are still lactating, and which have begun bleeding.
Rinthy finally catches up to the tinker, who takes her to his cabin on the promise of giving her her child. He does not in fact do so, but berates her for abandoning her child and her incestuous relation with her brother. He is in fact, one of the first characters that doesn't treat her kindly. He ends up murdered at the hands of the trio.
Culla talks to a blind man who tells him he will pray for him. The blind man continues walking into 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 wrongdoing by the local 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 fabular 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 aspect of humanity in which man is an extension of Death and does his work for him.
Rinthy's name is 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 reflects her own kindness which is met with reciprocal kindness and her lack of shame for giving birth and forgiveness for Culla.
The trio who follows Culla and murders 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.
Just as Rinthy is returning to the glade, that is salvation, so Culla is destined to always return to swamp, which represents 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, according to the last words of the book.
- Culla Holme - the male main character, brother and lover of Rinthy Holme
- Rinthy Holme - the female main character, sister and lover of Culla Holme
- The Tinker
- The unnamed child - abandoned, and later killed child of Rinthy and Culla Holme
The Trio of Men
Band of murderers who harry the community are representative of reapers who are born of Culla's sin of incest and attempted infanticide.
Thomas Lask gave the novel a good review, complimenting McCarthy's ability to combine the mythic and the actual in a perfect work of imagination.
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 forces us to grapple with the reality surrounding us.
In 2009, a 15-minute short 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.