Outer Dark
First Edition Random House
AuthorCormac McCarthy
Publication placeUnited States
Pages242 (paperback)

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 name of the novel is derived from the Gospel of Matthew, specifically the meeting between the Roman centurion and Jesus, during which Jesus says: "But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth".[1]

Writing process

McCarthy began writing the novel on December 15, 1962, in Asheville, North Carolina, and finished the first draft in New Orleans, in 1964. He wrote the early draft of the final version in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the middle and final drafts during a stay in Ibiza, Spain. Several different events occurred in McCarthy's private life during the writing of the first draft, the most important of which being the failure of his marriage to Lee Holleman McCarthy and their subsequent divorce in July 1963. During this time, McCarthy submitted The Orchard Keeper for review to Random House Books, subsequently receiving a lengthy list of suggested changes from his editor Larry Bensky, interrupting his work on the novel. His revision of The Orchard Keeper would at different times interrupt further work on the novel. Aside from the work on his first novel, McCarthy suffered loneliness during this period, with his wife and son having left him, and with McCarthy having moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. He wrote the final version of the novel 18 months after his marriage to Anne DeLisle.[2]

Plot and characters


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, his shame over the child becomes clear. 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.

Culla's journey

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 some distance 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 of 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.

Rinthy's journey

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, which 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 the 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.

Later, she appears to be living with an unidentified man on a small farm. The man insists she speak to him, but she says she does not have anything to say. In the middle of the night, she steals away from the farm and the “dead and loveless house,” going back to the road.

Finally, she comes upon the clearing where her child’s body has been burned, along with the tinker’s cart, and where the tinker’s body hangs in a tree. She lingers in the clearing, and goes to sleep as night falls.


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."


Major themes

Consequences of sin

In his second novel, McCarthy moved away from the naturalistic conventions of The Orchard Keeper. A number of writing conventions which were present in his first novel are here lacking: a distinct chronology, allusions to the modern world beyond the mountain culture, or forays into frontier and absurdist comedy. Instead, McCarthy introduces a Calvinistic conception of sin and retribution, which creates a cruel and bleak world in contrast to a world in the original state of innocence. The state of innocence is here present in the familial isolation, surrounded by nature, which was desecrated by incest. The ugliness of the sin is underscored by the ugliness of the child found at the end of the novel, while the sexual nature of the siblings' sin is underscored by the tinker who found the child, as he is a lecherous and deformed seller of supplies and pornography. Culla further commits a double sin of attempted infanticide. The forces of retribution are present in the trio of murderous men, McCarthy's grotesque equivalent of the Erinyes (or Furies, or Eumenides) of Greek myth. However, cosmic retribution in Outer Dark does not simply punish those who have committed a sin, it punishes those who are innocent and guilty alike.[3]


Ethical considerations do not seem to exist in the world of Outer Dark, while the fates of characters are not determined by the morality of their lives. The world of Outer Dark appears to be devoid of meaning, which can be seen in both the opening and closing scenes of the novel. In the beginning of the novel, the salvation and happiness promised by the prophet in Culla's dream never arrives. Instead, the world remains in cold darkness, unchanged. The last scene of the novel, in which a blind man walks off into the mire of a bog, is a paradigm for a dead-end, paradigmless world.[4]


Thomas Lask gave the novel a positive review, complimenting McCarthy's ability to combine the mythic and the actual in a perfect work of imagination.[5]

Walter Sullivan, one of McCarthy's most demanding critics, noted the power, literary virtuosity, and universality of his characters. He further highlights McCarthy's ability to find devices and characters that grasp us in their strangeness and force us to grapple with the reality surrounding us.[6]


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[7] on the U.S. festival circuit.


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Luce, Dianne C. (2018). "Projecting Interiority: Psychogenesis and the Composition of Outer Dark". The Cormac McCarthy Journal. 16 (1): 2–37. doi:10.5325/cormmccaj.16.1.0002. JSTOR 10.5325/cormmccaj.16.1.0002.
  3. ^ Schafer, William J. (1977). "Cormac McCarthy: The Hard Wages of Original Sin". Appalachian Journal. 4 (2): 111–113. JSTOR 40932138. Retrieved January 16, 2021.
  4. ^ Bell, Vereen M. (1983). "The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy". The Southern Literary Journal. 15 (2): 32, 36. JSTOR 20077701. Retrieved January 16, 2021.
  5. ^ "MCCARTHY, CORMAC. B.1933". bonhams.com. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "Outer Dark (2009)". imdb.com. Retrieved September 26, 2017.