Literature: Blood Meridian
This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. I dont see what that has to do with catchin' birds.
The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I'd have them all in zoos.
Also known as Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
, this 1985 novel is Cormac McCarthy
's Magnum Opus
. An extremely dark and esoteric novel, it's a total deconstruction of the Wild West
and Injun Country
, and its main theme, such as it is, could be reasonably argued to be the darkness and ugliness at the heart of the American Dream
. It was controversial when it came out because of its relentless scenes of amoral violence. It was named by literary critic Harold Bloom as the greatest American novel
by a living author.
The novel follows a teenage runaway, only known as the kid, who by coincidence stumbles into the company of the Glanton Gang. This troupe of historical scalp-hunters and later outlaws are employed by the Mexican government at Chihuahua to exterminate the native tribes waging war against the settlements of the surrounding countryside. Needless to say, it's not positive reading.
Soon to be a film by Todd Field.
Shows examples of:
- The Ace: The judge does everything perfectly. He's always perfectly composed and never seems to be troubled or hindered by anything. This all goes toward implying his supernatural nature.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Inverted. Samuel Chamberlain describes Judge Holden as "hairless," but this means that he had no beard. Chamberlain drew the man with a full head of hair. McCarthy exaggerated this description to depict the judge with no hair on his body whatsoever.
- Affably Evil Toadvine and Tobin are sympathetic for being scalp-hunters, and sometimes act as father figures to the kid. Tobin is particularly fond of the kid, and the feeling is mutual; after the gang's defeat, when given the opportunity to join the judge or Tobin, the kid chooses Tobin, and the two flee Holden together.
- Anti-Hero: The Kid slides between this and Villain Protagonist.
- Anti-Villain: Toadvine and Tobin are both murderous scalp hunters but they show some morals and both seem to care about the Kid becoming mentors of a sort to him.
- Axe Crazy: John Joel Glanton, the leader of the mercenary gang, has killed so much he has gone insane. Many of his men are even more blood-crazed than he is, but not Judge Holden, who is the sanest man in the group.
- Bad Ass: Monsters as they are, all gang members are seriously badasses.
- Badass Preacher:
- Tobin the expriest. There is some in-universe confusion about just how much of a priest he really is/was (he claims to have only been a seminary student and no real priest, while the judge says he used to be a "respected Doctor of Divinity" at Harvard), but he's still pretty faithful to the Christian God in his own way, and doesn't really show the typical traits of the Sinister Minister.
- Holden may not be a Christian, but his science lectures are more like sermons than academic discourses. Tobin even says that when Holden first joined the group, he gave a sermon on the nature of the world unlike any that any of the group had ever heard.
- Bald of Evil: Judge Holden.
- Based on a Great Big Lie: The book is based on My Confession, Samuel Chamberlain's autobiographical book about his time in the Glanton gang. The veracity of Chamberlain's story is often questioned.
- Bigger Bad: While Glanton the leader of the gang it's apparent that the Judge is the one that's really in charge.
- Bilingual Bonus:
- The Glanton Gang operates on the border of Texas, and they speak Spanish with the natives.
- The prophecies of the traveling circus band are entirely in untranslated Spanish.
- The last scene of the book is inexplicably described in untranslated German in the chapter summary.
- Black and Gray Morality: And the gray is very, very dark.
- BFG: The judge during the Yuma massacre. "When they entered the judge's quarters they found the idiot and a girl of perhaps twelve years cowering naked in the floor. Behind them also naked stood the judge. He was holding leveled at them the bronze barrel of the howitzer."
- Bullying a Dragon: An innkeeper staunchly refuses to sell liquor to the Glanton gang, claiming that he doesn't serve colored folk. The gang takes that insult as well as you'd expect.
- Con Man: The reader's introduction to Judge Holden. He convinces a crowd that their preacher is a child rapist and a wanted criminal in another town. The crowd is soon worked up into a rage until they riot and lynch the preacher. Judge Holden later admits he made it up, and got the preacher attacked simply For the Evulz. The men in the crowd are at first horrified, then laugh and buy Holden a drink.
- Contemplate Our Navels: Judge Holden is prone to discoursing on various esoteric or philosophical topics around the campfire, speaking with an odd eloquence his illiterate rapist companions obviously lack.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Whatever the Judge truly is, he is something that is beyond the capicity of the human mind to comprehend. He never sleeps, he says he will never die...
- Crapsack World: The bleak but gorgeously described frontiers of America and Mexico.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The Comanches absolutely obliterate the filibusters early on. The Indian tribe suffers no casualties and only a handful of survivors escape. The kid is the only one alive by the next day.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to every other story set in the Old West, even the violent and profanity-laced Deadwood, this one is by far the darkest of them all.
- Deconstruction: Of The Western genre and most cowboy tropes.
- Defeat Means Friendship: The kid and Toadvine have a street fight, during which they're both beaten unconscious by a mob. After waking, they're perfectly civil to each other. Once they both join Glanton's gang, they have more of a connection to each other than to most of the other filibusters.
- Depraved Bisexual: The judge, who rapes children of both gender.
- Devil in Disguise: Strongly hinted at in Judge Holden's case:
- The judge has an unusual appearance, seemingly supernatural strength, and doesn't seem to age.
- The judge's backstory is mysterious. He simply appeared in the desert, waiting for Glanton's gang.
- Everyone in Glanton's gang (except for Tobin the expriest) recalls meeting the judge at some point before he joined the gang.
- The judge displays a dizzying array of knowledge and skill, from remarkable works of chemistry to seemingly impossible tricks of prestidigitation.
- The judge makes sermon-like speeches about worshiping war as God.
- Being called "the judge" evokes Biblical judgment.
- The scene in which the judge makes gunpowder is an allusion to Satan doing the same in Paradise Lost
- Downer Ending: The judge apparently kills the kid and then dances in exultation of his depravity, declaring that he'll never die. However, the allegorical epilogue seems to suggest some hope for humanity.
- Equal-Opportunity Evil: Glanton's gang recruits blacks, Mexicans and Delaware Indians, and everyone is treated equally. The whites are still racist, however, particularly against Native Americans.
- Establishing Character Moment: The judge is introduced falsely accusing an innocent preacher of raping children. He admits later to having done it For the Evulz.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Toadvine threatens to kill the judge after the judge kills a small child.
- Evil Albino: Judge Holden is said to be so pale that he almost looks albino. Given that he spends most of the story traveling through the Southwestern desert, this is one of the judge's unusual physical characteristics.
- Faux Affably Evil: Judge Holden is often an eloquent gentleman, who takes off his hat for ladies and whores alike.
- For the Evulz: The name of the game for the judge, and consequently for Glanton's whole gang.
- Gainax Ending: The ending is unusual and open for interpretation.
- Genius Bruiser: The judge is a giant of a man, strong enough to crush a man's skull with his bare hands, but he's also highly educated, eloquent and Wicked Cultured.
- Gorn: Most of the book consists of the kid's travels through the deserts and prairies, intercut with sickening scenes of violence.
- Historical Fiction: A great deal of Blood Meridian is drawn from My Confession, the historical account of Samuel Chamberlain, who claimed to have ridden with the real Glanton gang. The character of Judge Holden is taken directly from this record, and a surprising number of details for McCarthy's character are derived from Chamberlain's account.
- Homage: Many, including Moby-Dick, The Bible and Paradise Lost
- Humans Are Bastards: Every single character; even the hero is a multiple murderer who later on carries a necklace of ears around his neck. The only possible exception is The Judge, as though he's the worst of the bunch, there's a suggestion he's not human.
- Humanoid Abomination: The judge is heavily implied to be a supernatural creature of some sort, or even the personification of a concept.
- Holy Burns Evil: When the Judge turns on Tobin and the Kid, Tobin constructs a crucifix out of a couple of steer bones and starts waving it around frantically at the Judge. It doesn't work.
- Karma Houdini: At the end of the story, the judge is joyously dancing and proclaiming that he'll never die. Tobin's fate is never established. The kid's fate is never concretely stated, but it's implied that the judge raped and/or killed him in the outhouse at the very end.
- Kick the Dog: The judge has plenty, including buying dogs off of a young boy just to throw them in a river and then shoot them as the boy watches.
- Kill 'em All: Welcome to the Old West.
- Knife Fight: Quite a few of these transpire during the course of the novel.
- Left Hanging: Most readers come out saying the Judge raped and murdered the kid in the outhouse.
- A Lighter Shade of Black: The kid is a violent murderer who presumably took part in the Glanton gang's various atrocities. However, he's never specifically mentioned when the filibusters commit atrocities. On a number of occasions, the kid chooses to help, refuses to abandon, or simply decides not to kill a fellow member of his gang, always against the advice of his fellows. The judge criticizes him for holding "clemency for the heathen" in his heart and for rejecting the judge's violent philosophy.
- The Man Behind the Man: The never-seen Mr. Riddle is initially this to the Glanton Gang, which he has unleashed upon the natives of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. However, Judge Holden also fits this trope. He's not officially the leader of the gang, but he's clearly the brains as well as the most dangerous member.
- Man in White: When the judge has some money and the opportunity, he buys white suits.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
- Is the tarot reading a real divination or just a mundane show?
- Is the judge a supernatural being or just a very unusual man?
- Meaningful Name:
- Captain White looks down on Mexicans and Indians, and aims to take their land for white America.
- Judge Holden is implied to be a supernatural being heavily associated with mankind's evil nature. The fact that he's almost always called "the judge" adds to these implications.
- Miles Gloriosus: Captain White talks a good game about wresting control of the land from the savage Mexicans, but he proves to be incompetent.
- Murderers Are Rapists: Glanton's gang rapes a lot of their victims. The judge rapes children in particular.
- Never Learned to Read: As the kid ages into adulthood, he carries a Bible, which the narration says he cannot read a word of.
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Judge Holden.
- No Name Given: The kid's name is never given. He's referred to as "the man" in the very end, once he's an adult.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The lack of description of the book's final death, the implied death of the kid, is a stark contrast from the rest of the book where scenes of brutal violence are described in detail. It's also the only scene that provokes a specific reaction of horror from witnesses. This seems to imply that the death is so shocking and gruesome that no possible description can give it justice.
- Omnidisciplinary Scientist: The judge states that he wants to know everything about everything.
- One Steve Limit: White Jackson and Black Jackson. Neither Jackson is amused by the nickname. Black Jackson eventually decapitates White Jackson, but the nickname sticks.
- Pet the Dog: Subverted by the judge several times.
- When a small mexican child is found by the gang, the judge spends the evening innocently entertaining and conversing with it. The child is found scalped the next morning.
- When the gang finds a young boy selling dogs, the judge buys the dogs cheerfully with the trick of making a gold coin disappear and then making it appear from behind the boy's ear. He then throws the dogs into the river and shoots them, all with the boy watching.
- The judge rescues the idiot from drowning for seemingly no reason by goodwill. From then on, the judge treats the idiot like a pet.
- Private Military Contractors: Captain White's filibusters are hired to retake land from Mexico for the US. Glanton's filibusters are hired to kill Apaches.
- Psycho for Hire:
- The Glanton Gang is on the payroll of the Texan state, until they go rabid in the wilderness and begin to rape and slaughter Mexican civilians and Indians alike.
- The Delaware Indians are this to the rest of the Glanton Gang.
- Red Right Hand: The judge's alopecia and unusually pake skin gives him an eerie appearance and indicates his inner corruption.
- Reference Overdosed: The Bible, Melville, and Milton are just the three you're most likely to catch. Watch this for some more insight.
- The Runaway: The kid, of the vagrant kind.
- Scenery Porn: For all the violence, a lot of the narrative is simply descriptions of the Southwestern landscapes that the kid passes through.
- Scenery Gorn: The descriptions of the village massacres' aftermath, with mounds of burned limbs and carbonized skulls.
- Signature Style: McCarthy doesn't believe in punctuation and has actively declared war on it.
- Stupid Evil: Glanton's gang becomes so depraved by the end that they go against their self-interest and common sense. Even after amassing a fortune, they stay in their impromptu fortress and continue slaughtering and robbing everyone who comes by. In one notable instance, Brown insists on sawing off a priceless ceremonial shotgun in spite of the local gunsmith's refusal to destroy such a valuable item. Brown does it himself, nearly getting himself arrested in the process.
- Token Good Teammate: The kid is probably the closest thing to one that the Glanton gang has.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: If you get the many references, it's Rule of Symbolism instead of What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic?.
- What Happened to the Mouse?:
- What becomes of Tobin is never revealed.
- A chunk of narrative is spent on showing Brown sawing off a ceremonial shotgun. The judge later mysteriously acquires the clothing and rifles of Brown and Toadvine, but no mention is made of Brown's shotgun.
- What happened to the idiot?
- Would Hurt a Child: Children seem to disappear and die whenever Holden is present. There's also at least two incidents where it's all but stated that he's raped them.
- Zerg Rush: The Comanches travel in a colossal herd of animals and swarms their targets, disorientating them and then rushing in to kill them in the chaos. Captain White's filibusters don't realize how screwed they are until it's too late.