Study Guide

Sunset Limited

By Cormac McCarthy

Sunset Limited Introduction

How's this for an exciting premise? Two men sit down and have a conversation.

Okay, yeah, we feel you: Not super intriguing. We sit down and have conversations all the time, and while we find ourselves fascinating, we're willing to bet that the majority of our chats have absolutely no business being turned into plays. The Sunset Limited, however, is different, Shmoopers.

Published by Cormac McCarthy in 2006, The Sunset Limited takes a strikingly simple premise—a conversation between two men—and uses it to pack a philosophical punch so large we're amazed any theater can contain it. As the play opens, White (the characters are referred to by their race) has just been saved from certain death by Black, and the two men have returned to Black's apartment. The only trouble is that White most definitely is not grateful for his second chance.

What ensues is a conversation of epic proportions within Black's meager home—we're talking Jesus, collective humanity, the value of culture, and even the Holocaust—as these two men duke it out over whether or not there's a purpose to life. Given White's suicide attempt that launches their entire interaction, the stakes are super high: If Black can't convince White that life matters, then he'll have to send him back out into the world with his death drive intact.

So is The Sunset Limited simple? Yes, if you're counting numbers of characters and costume changes, and considering the elaborateness of the set. The answer is a resounding no, however, if you consider the subject at hand, which is none other than the meaning of life.

What is Sunset Limited About and Why Should I Care?

Question: What is the meaning of life?

What's that? You don't know? Well, you should definitely sink your teeth into this play, then, because The Sunset Limited is a (pretty polite) smack down between two dudes with differing views on this subject. And yes, they're both absolutely positive they're correct in their understanding.

Oh, sorry—you say you do know what the meaning of life is? First off, congratulations. We bet you sleep well at night with this knowledge. That said, it's good to hold your beliefs under a microscope from time to time, to re-examine them and see how they hold up. This play is guaranteed to help you do that. And who knows? Maybe you'll finish reading with your beliefs completely intact, but maybe when you turn the last page you'll find yourself wondering what it all means all over again. Either way, you'll be confident in your beliefs… or lack thereof, as the case may be.

Sunset Limited Resources


The Cormac McCarthy Society
This is the official website for McCarthy's most avid fans. If you click on the "Works" page, there's a whole section devoted to The Sunset Limited. Now go get your nerd on.

The Sunset Limited HBO Site
This website has behind-the-scenes footage (briefly featuring McCarthy), clips, and other goodies related to the film production of The Sunset Limited, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

The Sunset Limited: Actual Amtrak Train
Here's the official website for the actual Sunset Limited—we're talking about the train, folks—which winds its way from New Orleans out to California. Road trip time…

Movie or TV Procuctions

The Sunset Limited (HBO Films)
This is a very faithful adaptation of the play (there are some slight differences) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. It's Jones's second collaboration with McCarthy, having starred in the Oscar-winning adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men previously.

Articles and Interviews

A Conversation, Not an Interview
Okay, this totally is an interview, but McCarthy prefers conversations, so we'll oblige him and call this that. Here, McCarthy mentions a bit about religion, and talks about how he was a better painter (as a child) than his son and what might cause the end of the world. The interview is pretty much focused on The Road, though—Sunset's not mentioned.

McCarthy in the 90s
This is a classic McCarthy interview from back in the day, and it gives a good amount of detail about his earlier life.

This is an overall positive review of the Sunset movie, courtesy of some folks down in New Orleans.

Let's Throw Tomatoes
This review of the filmed version of Sunset is actually pretty negative. It's still worth looking at, though, to see how people react to the play in different ways.

Mixed Messages
A review that's kind of mixed—while praising the play's dialogue and calling it "brilliant," it also claims that it's "not a play," since there's not much going on beyond the conversation.

An Article on Sunset from the Cormac McCarthy Society
This is a very useful and sturdy little article. It contains insights like the following: "McCarthy seems to have no ideological agenda here, but rather he aims at capturing the internal debate of the thoughtful individual seeking to navigate the subway of earthly existence, who hears within him- or herself the competing voices of, on the one hand, empirical reasoning and world-wearying experience and, on the other, hope and the transcendent spirit."

Samuel L. Jackson's Perspective
This lets you in on the actor's take on the play, including how he prepared for his role as Black. Oh, and he also talks about Snakes on a Plane a little.


An Inside Look at The Sunset Limited from Triad Stage
The actor who played White in this production has some insights to offer—particularly his idea that Sunset is about the fight between faith and reason in everyone.

The Big O
McCarthy might appear a little uncomfortable in this interview with Oprah, but he says some interesting things. This is McCarthy's first television interview ever.


Cormac McCarthy Discussing Science and Art on NPR
If you want to hear Cormac McCarthy talking about cave paintings, or Werner Herzog reading a passage from McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, now's your chance.


The Movie Poster
This is the promotional pic for the movie—Jones and Jackson look like they're in it to win it.

A Still from the Production of The Sunset Limited at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theater
Just a picture of some actors caught mid-play. That's what it would look like, if you were to go see Sunset somewhere.

The Train Itself
Just a normal Amtrak train, right? That's what it appears to be—although thanks to the play, we now know that it's a despairing portal into oblivion.

Production Photos of the Set Design for the Movie Version
Here are some sketches of the set for the movie, courtesy of HBO… Yeah, just like you were imagining it.

A Photo of the Author
Here's a photo of McCarthy. Doesn't he look capable of getting into some pretty profound territory?