Religion and Suicide – Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited

If you have ever read any of Cormac McCarthy’s works, you know that he is willing to accept and portray the dark, grotesque underbelly of life. Whether entangled in works such as The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel depicting the chaotic travels and tribulations of a father and son duo, Child of God, a novel set among 1960s backwoods Tennessee and telling the story of the dispossessed, manic, hyper-violent necrophiliac Lester Ballard, or Blood Meridian, an 1850s-based Western portraying the lives of the Glanton Gang, a group of Native American scalp hunters along the United States-Mexico border, readers of his novels understand that he is afraid of human depravity. Similar to one of McCarthy’s most prominent influences, William Faulkner, readers and critics have also found immense references to religion within his works, most notably the Old Testament.

The Sunset Limited, subtitled as “a novel in dramatic form,” is a 143 page McCarthy play that essentially discusses the matters of religion and suicide. The play is set entirely within a small tenement apartment within a black ghetto in New York City. Only two characters are present throughout the entire play, one sitting across from the other, particularly referred to by their skin colors, Black and White. However, it is revealed in the first line of speech, spoken by black, that White is a professor. For the rest of the play Black refers to White as “Professor.”

In McCarthy’s early descriptions of the two characters, we know that the two of them have little longstanding connection with one another, with there being an uncomfortable tension within the room and Black questioning what he is going to do with White’s predicament. White responds to Black saying that nothing needs to be done, that “Everything that happens doesnt mean something else.”

As the play shuffles along, the conflict of the story is revealed: early that morning, White had attempted suicide at the train platform, attempting to jump in front of a train called The Sunset Limited, only to be saved by Black. After this attempted suicide transpired, Black invited White back to his apartment, engaging him in discussion in an attempt to understand his reasoning for wanting to commit suicide, as well as trying to bring him to salvation.

We discern from the unfolding plot that Black is a religious man, converted to the salvation of God while recovering from near-death injuries brought about from a prison fight, and has spent most of his life since trying to help others turn their troublesome lives around, most notably alcohol and drug addicts within his tenement building. On the other hand, White is a professor who does not believe in God and has lost the will to live after finding how frail life was (foremost due to learning that the arts were not indestructible).

The conversation enveloping within the play twists and turns from discussions about whether Black might be White’s guardian angel, contemplating whether Jesus is sitting alongside them in the apartment, exploring and examining the individual experiences in their lives prior to their current conversation, considering the usefulness and need of religion among man, and most importantly, Black attempting to keep White within the apartment, hoping to sway him from leaving and returning to the train station. For most of the story, Black talks of the light of both God and life, presenting an argument in contrast to that of White. Speaking on the depravity and meaningless of life, White responds saying, “Whatever the darker story is, that’s the one that’s usually true.” Not only is this an absolute presentation of White’s mindset, but it accurately describes most of McCarthy’s works, as I discussed in the opening paragraph.

This dichotomy between Black and White continues throughout the bulk of the play, with the two of their beliefs subsisting on opposite ends of the spectrum (unsurprisingly, like the colors that are used to depict them). It is interesting to point out that their morals are in opposition of the usual characteristics attributed with the colors black and white – wherein the character Black is not the depressed and brooding, but he is the character who once lived a depraved life and has found the light of God, whereas White has lived a prodigious life and has neglected and shunned all forms of love and salvation for a life of nihility.

The bulk of the play keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, hoping that Black is able to convert White, if not for the acceptance of God, to persuade him not to take his life. However, as the play nears its ending, White’s perspective is revealed in full, depicting the full extent of his depression and intention to die:

“You say that I want God’s love. I dont. Perhaps I want forgiveness, but there is no one to ask it of. And there is no going back. Now there is only the hope of nothingness. I cling to that hope.”

White’s words, and his prior vitriolic condemnations of life and religion, as well as his yearning for death, are incredibly perverse and daunting, reminding the reader of McCarthy’s power in the use of language while expressed with such simplicity and brevity.

The play ends with what the reader and Black feared most, White walking out of the apartment and off into the void, accepting the void and walking off towards what we can assume is the station of The Sunset Limited. With nothing more that he can do, Black kneels his doorway, weeping and rocking back and forth, looking up and asking God whether or not White meant the words that he said, also asking why God did not give him the words to save White while he could.

While not as strong as some of McCarthy’s other works, I believe that The Sunset Limited is a notable piece of writing that explores that depths of religious ideology and the mindset of depressed individuals staring into the abyss of absolute nothingness.

A particular criticism that I have for the work is that it does present stereotyped portrayals of the characters based upon their skin colors – Black being uneducated, living a crime-ridden past life, having gone to prison, and now living in a economically rundown tenement building in the ghettos of NYC, where White is a well-to-do, educated professor,  and having a stable family prior in life. Also, McCarthy’s stage directions consistently refer to Black as “the black,” while White is instead referred to as “the professor.” That alone creates an imbalance between the two characters based on perception of the authorial narrator. While Black is still made out to be the good character between the two, the one with a belief in the human condition and life having purpose no matter the depravity one might face, these moments are rather problematic.

While I have not seen it, I do  know that there was a 2011 television film made of the play starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. Reading into it, the film has received likewise favorable reviews.

McCarthy presents these characters, their beliefs, and the dilemma at hand, with an unapologetic and unreserved tone. Whether or not you agree with the characters ethics or morals, I think this is a worthwhile, fast-paced read that leaves you with a great deal of contemplation.

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