Cormac McCarthy uses disturbing imagery, memorable characters, and the sparse hopelessness of the American Southwest to convince us that violence is a central, perhaps inevitable, feature of not only the American West, but all of human history.
Blood Meridian: or the Evening Redness in the West is Cormac McCarthy’s great contribution to what’s commonly referred to as the “anti-Western” genre — that body of literature that follows the same stylistic tropes of a Western in order to offer a rebuttal to American culture’s romanticization of the Old West.
Blood Meridian‘s wide critical appraisal owes much to the unique fever-dream manner in which McCarthy uses the Southwest as a stage to explore a dilemma about the place of violence in human history: are humans violent because they choose to be through their actions, or is man’s propensity for violence simply beyond our control, a destiny handed to us by God?
Notes on Blood Meridian
“For those who have been entranced by the language of Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, but are left wondering where the line between reality and fiction is demarcated in Blood Meridian, this volume is a fine piece of scholarship that explains page-by-page the historical sources of the novel.”
– Robert Bolton, Amazon review
McCarthy teases this question out by developing complex yet befuddling characters and situating them in a richly detailed setting that is at once grim and poetic. These men, together known as the Glanton gang (a historical group which, in this book, is largely fictionalized), wander parts of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest — initially on the hunt for riches through Apache scalps, though eventually it becomes clear that what they’re really after is violence itself.
Let’s explore the madness of McCarthy’s novel together with these ten astonishing passages.
Before we do, a quick disclaimer: plot spoilers abound ahead; if you’ve not yet read the book, you may wish to do so before reading on. Chances are, though, you just finished the book and you would like some perspective on what the hell you just read.
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10 of the Most Memorable Quotes from Blood Meridian
1. “See the child”: Introducing the Nameless Protagonist
From the very first lines of the novel, McCarthy calls upon us to regard unflinchingly the dark tale that’s about to be told: “See the child.”
It’s a demand, not a request, to witness the coming horror with the child at the center, who for most of the novel McCarthy simply refers to as “the kid.”
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”
The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.”
It’s clear enough from this passage that we should expect the kid to be “mindlessly violent.” But, the child the father of the man? Already we get a hint of the maddening ambiguity of McCarthy’s style.
We love it anyway, and eventually we surmise that what McCarthy probably means is that the child’s life trajectory is predetermined. The kid, after all, is referred to as “the man” at the end of the novel. Hence the child being “the father of the man.”
After describing the kid’s ominous beginnings, McCarthy immediately throws his character into the great drama of the West, “terrains so wild and barbarous,” he writes, where men can “try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”
Are we makers of our own destiny, or is our destiny handed to us?
2. A “Legion of Horribles”: The Kid Bears Witness to a Comanche Attack
The kid’s brush with Comanche warriors while attached to a company of incompetent filibusterers is perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the novel.
It is in this violent sequence that we receive a healthy dose of McCarthy’s fever-dream style of descriptive prose, as well as his use of run-on sentences to put readers right in the action.
While in Mexico on a foolish mission to seize the country for the United States, the filibusterers encounter an army of nightmarishly dressed Comanche riders.
Here is what the kid and fellow riders see:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horse’s ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Oh my god, said the sergeant.”
After the sergeant says this brief but impactful line, the Comanches attack: first delivering a volley of arrows to stop the filibusterers in their tracks, and then moving in for a swift slaughter.
The company was now come to a halt and the first shots were fired and the gray riflesmoke rolled through the dust as the lancers breached their ranks. The kid’s horse sank beneath him with a long pneumatic sigh. He had already fired his rifle and now he sat on the ground and fumbled with his shotpouch. A man near him sat with an arrow hanging out of his neck. He was bent slightly as if in prayer. The kid would have reached for the bloody hoop-iron point but then he saw that the man wore another arrow in his breast to the fletching and he was dead. Everywhere there were horses down and men scrambling and he saw a man who sat charging his rifle while blood ran from his ears and he saw men with their revolvers disassembled trying to fit the spare loaded cylinders they carried and he saw men kneeling who tilted and clasped their shadows on the ground and he saw men lanced and caught up by the hair and scalped standing and he saw the horses of war trample down the fallen and a little whitefaced pony with one clouded eye leaned out of the murk and snapped at him like a dog and was gone. Among the wounded some seemed dumb and without understanding and some were pale through the masks of dust and some had fouled themselves or tottered brokenly onto the spears of the savages. Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandy-legged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows. And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind and some were feathered with arrows and some lanced through and stumbling and vomiting blood as they wheeled across the killing ground and clattered from sight again. Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.”
3. Jackson vs. Jackson: A Moment of Racial Violence
At this point in the novel, “the kid” had been riding with the Glanton gang for some time, his previous riding companions having been mostly wiped out by Comanches. This new group, the Glanton gang, had already proved themselves more tight-knit and competent warriors than the filibusterers.
The Glanton gang was not, however, without their internal divisions. This was especially true in the case of two men, both named Jackson — one man white, the other man black.
One night, Glanton’s company split organically into two separate campfires — one occupied by all white men, the other by the company’s one Mexican member and the handful of Delaware Indians who rode with them.
Jackson, often referred to as “the black,” transgressed this unspoken racial boundary by deciding to join the white men at their campfire, which drew the ire of “the white man Jackson,” who “with a gesture and a slurred oath warned the black away.”
Here beyond men’s judgements all covenants were brittle. The black looked up from his pipebowl. About that fire were men whose eyes gave back the light like coals socketed hot in their skulls and men whose eyes did not, but the black man’s eyes stood as corridors for the ferrying through of naked and unrectified night from what of it lay behind to what was yet to come. Any man in this company can sit where it suits him, he said.
The white man swung his head, one eye half closed, his lip loose. His gunbelt lay coiled on the ground. He reached and drew the revolver and cocked it. Four men rose and moved away.
You aim to shoot me? said the black.
You dont get your black ass away from this fire I’ll kill you graveyard dead.
He looked to where Glanton sat. Glanton watched him. He put the pipe in his mouth and rose and took up the apishamore and folded it over his arm.
Is that your final say?
Final as the judgement of God.
The black looked once more across the flames at Glanton and then he moved away in the dark. The white man uncocked the revolver and placed it on the ground before him. Two of the others came back to the fire and stood uneasily. Jackson sat with his legs crossed. One hand lay in his lap and the other was outstretched on his knee holding a slender black cigarillo. The nearest man to him was Tobin and when the black stepped out of the darkness bearing the bowieknife in both hands like some instrument of ceremony Tobin started to rise. The white man looked up drunkenly and the black stepped forward and with a single stroke swapt off his head.”
Glanton rose. The men moved away. No one spoke. When they set out in the dawn the headless man was sitting like a murdered anchorite discalced in ashes and sark. Someone had taken his gun but the boots stood where he’d put them. The company rode on.”
In this violent encounter, it certainly seems as though these two men are agents of their own destiny, each making choices that determine their future.
Jackson, “the black,” after having made his choice to remain by the fire occupied by white men, offers “the white man Jackson” a final opportunity to revoke his bigotry; the white man does not, and as a consequence he loses his head.
4. Ex-Priest Tobin Describes a Place in the Earth Where Hell Crosses into the Land of the Living
The kid, still finding his bearings in the Glanton gang, makes trusted acquaintance with Tobin, often penned the ex-priest, who possesses deep insights both on the men who comprise Glanton’s company and the world they navigate.
While providing an account of a remarkable feat performed by Judge Holden, ex-priest Tobin describes a literal hell on earth scenario.
Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there’s no up nor down to it and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock? I’d not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed the fiery vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It’s a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And somethin put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself.”
Tobin’s account at this point in the story does much to underscore the Biblical dimensions of McCarthy’s novel. It also provides a sense of the significance of Tobin’s perspective on the novel as a whole.
After all, Tobin’s language — religious motifs and all — matches closely that of the author, and his knowledge of the landscape and of the characters who populate the story certainly lend him a narrator’s authority.
5. The judge on the Ancient Anasazi Civilization and the Destiny of all Men
Finding time for respite from their hunt for Apache scalps, Glanton’s men stop at a spot in the canyons where can be seen the ruins of a long-gone people. The site causes Judge Holden to wonder at human history and the fate of civilizations.
What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many. The people who once lived here are called the Anasazi. The old ones. They quit these parts, routed by drought or disease or by wandering bands of marauders, quit these parts ages since and of them there is no memory. They are rumors and ghosts in this land and they are much revered. The tools, the art, the building — these things stand in judgement on the latter races. Yet there is nothing for them to grapple with. The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of an ancient laughter. In their crude huts they crouch in darkness and listen to the fear seeping out of the rock. All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity. For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.
None spoke. The judge sat half naked and sweating for all the night was cool. At length the expriest Tobin looked up.”
Tobin asked the judge, that if the world is a cruel place and all who are born into it are equally disadvantaged, what should be the proper way to bring up a child?
At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until…”
Hold now, said Tobin. The question was put in all earnestness.
And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.”
In this passage, readers get a glimpse into the inner workings of the Judge’s mind. Specifically, the judge signals his belief that man’s nature is inherently violent (“more predacious” than wolves, humans are), and that there is no sense or virtue in interfering with human nature.
Man’s violent nature, it seems, is as inevitable as the rise and fall of all human civilizations.
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6. In the Vastness of the Desert, Glanton’s Company Rides through the Night, en route to their Grim Destinies
Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked ground. They rode on. They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds.”
Here’s a fine example of McCarthy’s ability to inspire awe out of hellish landscapes, and the way he firmly establishes his characters in that environment. The characters, in fact, are perfectly melded with the setting — and with one another, for that matter.
We get a sense of these men as being part of something bigger than themselves, “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them.” McCarthy’s language evokes a feeling that the story of all humankind bears upon these men in this particular time and place, and that the fate of all is being written at this precise moment.
7. Glanton, Pensive, Contemplates Man’s Destiny
That night Glanton stared long into the embers of the fire. All about him his men were sleeping but much was changed. So many gone, defected or dead. The Delawares all slain. He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”
Even mass murderers have occasion to stop and wonder at “what it’s all about.” The Glanton gang’s killing, having now become indiscriminate and almost divorced from financial gain, presents the leader with a quandary: am I the agent of this violence, or are my actions simply dictated to me from on high?
In this passage, Glanton seems to want to say both, allowing that “men’s destinies are given,” yet also usurping this basic fact (or God’s will?) by claiming ultimate agency.
It’s an internal tension that, as we have already seen, doesn’t inhibit the Judge, who presents himself as far more certain about the meaning, or the wanton necessity, behind the group’s violent deeds.
8. The judge Wanders the Desert with a Strange Companion
We fast-forward now to the book’s scorching climax. The Glanton gang’s survivors have been separated after a brief stint of robbing travelers — many, we imagine, prospective gold-miners — coming through Yuma, Arizona.
Ex-priest Tobin and the kid travel the desert together. Alone, at first, until they come across a familiar member of Glanton’s now-defunct concern.
It was the judge and the imbecile. They were both of them naked and they neared through the desert dawn like beings of a mode little more than tangential to the world at large, their figures now quick with clarity and now fugitive in the strangeness of that same light. Like things whose very portent renders them ambiguous. Like things so charged with meaning that their forms are dimmed. The three at the well watched mutely this transit out of the breaking day and even though there was no longer any question as to what it was that approached yet none would name it. They lumbered on, the judge a pale pink beneath his talc of dust like something newly born, the imbecile much the darker, lurching together across the pan at the very extremes of exile like some scurrilous king stripped of his vestiture and driven together with his fool into the wilderness to die.”
The Judge, a mad king, exiled with his court jester who follows him like a dog. His sense of mission at once readily apparent yet also elusive.
Perhaps this ambiguity results from the Judge’s clear understanding of his role in the world, set against the kid’s hostility towards the Judge’s philosophy (the kid’s perspective being the lens through which we glimpse the judge in this particular scene).
9. The Kid and the Ex-Priest in the Desert: Nowhere and Yet Also at the Heart of Creation
Let’s juxtapose the Judge’s comportment in the desert with that of the kid and ex-priest Tobin.
They were much reduced by their wounds and their hunger and they made a poor show as they staggered onward. By noon their water was gone and they sat studying the barrenness about. A wind blew down from the north. Their mouths were dry. The desert upon which they were entrained was desert absolute and it was devoid of feature altogether and there was nothing to mark their progress upon it. The earth fell away on every side equally in its arcature and by these limits were they circumscribed and of them were they locus.”
As far as these two can see, there’s no direction to their journey, and certainly no meaning behind their wandering, nor all their violent acts that came before.
Nevertheless, the barren land itself grounds them and centers them, inscribing the kid and the ex-priest, should they like it or not, in a grand tale, a story of humanity.
10. Judge Holden Haunts the Kid in his Dreams
Visions of the Judge, both real and imaginary, plague the kid in the novel’s closing act. On one hand stands the judge who, as we have already seen, accepts his role in mankind’s destiny; on the other stands the kid, who badly desires to disavow himself of any such role.
There’s tension in that desire, though, and that tension, ironically enough, is rooted in his resistance towards playing what the judge calls “the game.” After all, the kid had his chance to kill the judge in the desert, but to do so would have meant giving into the Judge’s game, or accepting the inevitability of violence. Quite the bind.
Presently, the kid is hospitalized for the physical toll endured from journeying through the scorched Southwest. Here, in a bed-ridden state, he is haunted by the Judge’s hallucinatory apparition.
“You came forward,” the judge tells the kid, “to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgment on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned in all its enterprise; [For,] if war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.”
Such is the basic division between the judge and the kid: the one believes that violence is man’s destiny; the other, that violence is mere madness.
The only destiny that the kid can perceive is his destiny to be haunted by the judge who, unlike the kid, is fully resolved in his commitment to war and killing.
In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing. In the white and empty room he stood in his bespoken suit with his hat in his hand and he peered down with his small and lashless pig’s eyes wherein this child just sixteen years on earth could read whole bodies of decisions not accountable to the courts of men and he saw his own name which nowhere else could he have ciphered out at all logged into the records as a thing already accomplished, a traveler known in jurisdictions existing only in the claims of certain pensioners or on old dated maps.”
Following this nightmarish depiction of the Judge, the novel jumps through the decades, and we meet the kid once again — but this time as “the man.” The conflict between the book’s unnamed protagonist and the judge is brought to an ambiguous conclusion in a random saloon.
We’re largely unsure about the man’s fate after he’s caught, once again, in the Judge’s mighty embrace (quite literally this time), but at least we have some closure — or the best resolution we’re bound to get out of this novel.
In McCarthy’s capable hands, the Southwest becomes a landscape of Biblical, sometimes cosmic, proportions in which the violent drama of human history enters a new, albeit familiar act. By the end of the novel, we’re left quite certain that such violence will repeat itself ad infinitum.
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by Miles Reding
Miles Reding is a freelance writer from Austin who writes about history and politics, and enjoys writing fiction as well. He received his BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in history from Northwestern. More of his work can be found at his website, milesjreding.com. He can also be reached on Twitter @HSAuthorship.