Many have rated the book Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness In The West (1985) as an artwork in American literature and even as Cormac McCarthy continues to publish books it has remained to be his masterpiece.
Blood Meridian is regarded as one of McCarthy’s best writing as it is a multilayered and complex reexamination of the American West mythology. Blood Meridian is defined as a historical novel as it adds in events that are documented chronicling the gang of Glanton who are hunters between the years of 1849-1850 before evolving to a band of ragged villains who murder and pillage across the desert in Sonora which is between Mexico and Texas. The Indian Yuma people who are the victims of the gang ultimately end up murdering them violently. From the framework of this history, McCarthy has been able to build an account that is gruesome and a portrayal of the real West unlike the romantic movies of the Wild West.
McCarthy presents the blunt face of violence at the same time examining the differences between instinct and conscience, dark and light, weakness and strength within the context of the founding America’s society. The Blood Meridian is not only a novel that readers find to be intense due to its graphic violence, but it also has a style prose that is tight giving the readers a number of alternate readings.
McCarthy has changed some of the details of the basic outline of events. The major theme of the Blood Meridian is basically its senseless rampages, horrifying slaughters and the atrocities of the story. The book works as an indictment of the major violence inflicted by a group to another and gives a sneak peek on the real elements that founded the West.
McCarthy adds to a character ‘the Kid’ who is a witness to the world as a wanderer who is not educated well is nameless from Tennessee and who has a violent taste (McCarthy, p. 4). The first six chapters of the book introduce us to the kid from his birth in an outhouse, then in his arrest in Chihuahua and his recruitment to the Glanton Gang. The events that lead to the degeneration of the Glanton Gang is what comprises the next thirteen chapters, that is from the first operation as a mixed group ethically and a band of former soldiers who are corrupt morally to a change into a murderous mob.
In the beginning the Gang comprised whites, Mexicans, Blacks and American Indians. At the crossing of Yuma in Arizona in actual history and in the novel is where almost all of the Glanton Gang is murdered by the Indians. The totally evil and charismatic Judge Holden and the Kid manage to escape in the killings. The Kid’s final years where he seeks to make amends is what features the last four chapters. In the last chapter the Kid meets Holden once again and the narrative implies that Holden manages to kill the Kid in an outhouse.
Blood Meridian is a story of a ‘Kid’ who is a loner and who is born in a lawless America in the 1830s and is meant to experience an era of some of the worst violence in Mexico. From Tennessee which is his home he goes through stabbing and street fights to Texas in an area called Nacogdoches, and it is here that he meets two individuals who are special in their own way; Toadvine is a criminal on probation whose ears have been cut off; and Judge Holden is a mysterious bald man who is connected to almost everyone (McCarthy, p. 5).
The Kid forms a reputation as a fighter and is hired by Captain White to be part of a group of filibusters on their way to Mexico in search of glory and war. The Comanche warriors bring this mission to an end prematurely and violently and the Kid as much as he survives being killed is arrested by the authorities of Mexico and meets Toadvine in the prison he is taken in Chihuahua.
The Kid and Toadvine are later rescued by John Joel Glanton who incorporates them in his group of scalp hunters. The Mexicans have awarded Glanton a contract to kill Apaches who are at the border of US and Mexico. The enigmatic Judge Holden is the confidante of Glanton. The scalp hunters kill children, women and men in large numbers in their glorious search for the Apaches. Driven by arrogance and bloodlust they widen the killing up to the Mexican soldiers and villagers and nearly anyone they meet. They overindulge in alcohol and prostitution in the border region, leaving dead bodies all over, wrecked towns and accumulating treasure in the process.
In the end the gang reaches the great river of Colorado at Yuma in Arizona, and it is here that evil reigns as they continue to extort fortunes from people crossing the river and they take over the important ferry boat. It is only when the Indians in Yuma attack the gang murdering most of them and Glanton himself that the ruinous reign over the crossing is brought to a stop. The survivors of the gang and the Kid run for safety in the desert where they end up turning on each other. The Kid survives this ordeal and makes his way to Los Angeles, and while here other than the Judge he is the last gang member left.
The Kid now ‘the Man’, many years later travels to Texas, Fort Griffin to be exact. Looking the same as before he finds none other than Judge Holden waiting for him there. Holden kills the man in their final and climatic encounter. As the book comes to an end Holden is playing the fiddle and dancing in a whore saloon with drunkards claiming he will never die.
It is through two avenues that Holden tries to build authority and control as studied in chapter one of the book. Holden hates people who feel view the processes of the world as beyond their understanding, he praises the rigorous methods of science that seek to understand and make natural occurrences predictable. Holden is a child rapist and a killer in several accounts whenever around children they either died or suffered great indignities.
Holden keeps record of as much information in his ledger as possible to be able to control the people around him through this encyclopedic attempt to gain autonomous control and single out the thread of existence. The second avenue is where Holden uses destruction and annihilation to achieve his plans when representation fails him. This is seen in the book both through his practices of religion portrayed in his rampages morally and his exegesis theologically on war rendered through his speeches. Judge Holden is quoted saying, “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god (McCarthy, p. 250)."
Holden has a dark evil inside of him that is unleashed in scenes like when he buys dogs from a young boy and performs a magic trick with a gold coin and makes it appear from the boy’s ear. He then takes the dogs throws the dogs into the river and shoots them dead as the boy is watching.
The Kid’s ethics are also blocked by his viciousness like his “eyes oddly innocent”, but even with the overwhelming violence behind the scars of the novel his moral ways are still intact (McCarthy, p. 4). At times the Kid’s expressions and moments of his values explicitly or implicitly speak against the judge. Holden is keen to engage the Kid in his beliefs and teachings of life, but the Kid refuses to fall under the patriarchal control of Holden. The Kid does not engage in the war religion of the judge and is emphasized in part through his disobedience in the part where he refuses to “dance”, in worship and celebration of Holden’s war god and this is what gets on the judge’s last nerves.
The kid is portrayed as a hero in the book due to his concessions of morality in a world where compassion is rare and also due to his obstinate ways against the powerful judge Holden and his means of survival. However he also commits random killings without a care. He is seen inflicting sufferings to others as he suffered as a result of the group of Indians being massacred and him being thrown in jail. But later the kid develops compassion and this replacement is crucial in the novel as it is dominated by annihilation of the monstrous judge Holden. The notions of the judge that the animosity of the universe which is unrelenting is a definition of its nature of hostility are opposed by the simple survival of the Kid in the perilous chapters of the Blood Meridian. According to the judge, even with that last encounter with the Kid in Fort Griffin, the merciful actions of the Kid should have taken him out of the game sooner rather than later. The lack of control of the free agency of the Kid exposes the judge’s real character due to the Kid’s continued defiance and this portrays the judge to having a shaky character and he is no longer seen as an indestructible person.
The judge’s self proclaimed authority reduces dramatically as the narrative compels us to viewing the Kid as a hero. The judge is affected adversely by the reduction due to the courage the Kid shows as a protagonist and later rapes and kills him. The raping and killing of the only sympathetic character shows that evil reigns in Blood Meridian.
Violence is what the Blood Meridian is about. It is not possible to ignore the way McCarthy describes the heinous atrocities carried out by Mexicans, the Apaches and the scalp hunters the gang headed by Glanton. The world of Blood Meridian is dominated by violence as a way of life. In the novel violence of some of the characters is partaken for the sake of it but for most of them it is the only means of survival. McCarthy’s explorations are based on violence that is at a specific time in history, but by taking a deeper look into the sociological and psychological reasons for violence he points out that man’s affinity for violence is a universal vice and is much larger than the period of time it has existed.
Most of the major interpretations of Blood Meridian focus on the grim images and the violence that is a characteristic of the novel. For example all the characters in the book even the kid has killed more than once and even at some point the kid wears his victim’s ear around his neck.
Glanton the mercenary gang is seen to commit so multiple murders that he has gone crazy and his men are hungrier for blood than he is. They are seen as a scalp-hunters seriously looking to kill people.
There is bald evil in Blood Meridian and complete absence of justice. This in a matter of fact is witnessed when judge Holden kidnaps the Indian boy and keeps him prisoner after the village raid. Later in the morning the judge kills the boy and scalps him right after “dandling him on his knee.” (McCarthy, p. 70).
The novel gives accounted details of bloody battles from the War of Mexican-American; it portrays scalps belonging to the victims, people’s cut throats and images of babies hanging from trees. McCarthy reveals the darkness in a way that describes horrific images and spread of evil around the West. There is a kill them all unleashed upon the people and the gang members ruthlessly rape and kill children and adults brutally.
The novel gives a very raw account of the aftermath of village massacres and the aftermath that describes sites such as burnt limbs and carbonized skulls. An example is the detailed account of the fiery attack of the Yuma Indians. The description of the people massacred during the attack is very intense. The Yumas not bothered by the blood and skulls around them build a bonfire to celebrate their victory. This is an indication that violence that ended the lives of many people was not viewed as something ugly and wrong but something to celebrate.
The novel’s plot imply that violence is inherent and part of humans and trying to sublimate its power is risking the repressive power in a person which in its own way is may pose as a danger. McCarthy in his novel portrays that life cannot exist without bloodshed and that it is a dangerous idea to assume that all people can live in peace and that the human species can be improved in some way and the people affected by this notion are the first to give up their freedom and souls and this desire will make life vacuous and enslaving.
The natural world of the book looks like it is set in revolt against mankind. There is no hospitality in the landscape waging conflict openly against those who find refuge or tame it. The lack of harmony in the book extends to all aspects of the dessert which is a menace to Glanton’s gang that is, the sun, stars, rocks, fire and flora and fauna. These elements just like the Indians threaten the gang. The depiction of the ill will nature has to humans is another example of McCarthy’s portrayal of traditional features and clichés in the mythology of the West. The Blood Meridian features a line of exiles roaming in the dessert passing flocks of vultures busy feeding on men’s dried scalps. The use of words such as, destiny, austere, reckoning and preordained shows a religious presence in the book even though this is subverted by men like Judge Holden (McCarthy. P.18).
Blood Meridian is a book that is hard to get over and the nature in which it describes the gang’s ordeal in the desert is uncaring to both the readers and the characters themselves. The book’s focus on the Kid is compelling and though he at times fades from the text he always ends up appearing for survival’s sake. Divergent interpretation and criticism seek to place the Kid in the role of a protagonist. The endless violence all through the novel leaves the reader aching for a character with some empathy. The Kid’s evasive ways towards the judge take him out of the focus of the narrative as he becomes difficult to understand, but despite all this he is still the hero for the reader.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. New York: Random House, 1985.