Don't let McCarthy's poetic language fool you. The guy describes his characters and setting like a scientist, almost always focusing on things that can be seen from the outside: behavior, statements, or appearances. It's very hard to find passages in this book where McCarthy says, "Character X thought such and such." Instead, we have to make judgments about people and places in this book based on what we can see as outside observers, just like in real life. The thing is, this is tough in this story because the characters aren't the type to lean on your shoulder and open up about their feelings.
It's not fun to admit, but Blood Meridian is pretty accurate in the way it describes the situation in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico around 1850. Yes, there were bounties for Aboriginal scalps and yes, people were running around killing one another for any reason they could find. Remember, they called it the Wild West for a reason. It's true that the main characters in this book are fictional, but the world in which they live isn't. And in many ways, the main character of Blood Meridian is the historical moment McCarthy describes in every line he writes.
So what does Blood Meridian mean, eh? Well for starters, we need to know that a meridian is a vertical line that wraps all the way around the earth and helps people mark their position. In other words, it's a measure of longitude (vertical) as opposed to latitude (horizontal) that marks a specific line in the earth. When you think of America's expansion westward, it's easy to think of the process as one bloody line moving farther and farther west and even down into Mexico. In this case, the line that marks America's movement westward is a blood meridian, bringing gore and chaos to whatever it touches.
One Mexican man thinks his country has its own blood meridian:
Blood, he said. This country is give much blood. This Mexico. This is a thirsty country. The blood of a thousand Christs. Nothing. (8.34)
In the end, he says that all of the blood is "nothing," either because it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things or because it's a completely inevitable process. This book takes a really pessimistic view of human nature. It suggests that once you give people the chance to explore and settle new lands, they'll go insane with greed and blood will pour wherever they go. The book isn't exactly a child's bedtime story, and the title can help you realize that as soon as you look at the cover.
It's easy to forget that the full title of this book is Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. The second title echoes what we've said about the first. The redness here symbolizes blood and violence and the fact that this redness comes at the evening reminds us that this book takes place during the later part—or twilight—of the U.S.'s expansion to the western edge of North America.
"He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die" (23.218).
At the end of the day, the judge is the only dude left standing. It's still tough to say whether he is human at all or some kind of supernatural being. He can dance like a feather even though he's seven feet tall. He says he'll never die, but who knows for sure? The book directly claims that the judge never sleeps, and here's the point where you have to wonder what exactly McCarthy is trying to symbolize with this character.
Does the judge represent chaos or order? Does he represent human progress or human evil? In the figure of the judge, McCarthy melds together all kinds of contradictory qualities. And if nothing else, he definitely wants the judge (like the ending of this book) to make you stop and think about the meaning of the universe and humanity's place in it. And let's just say, it's a pretty pessimistic view of human nature and man's purpose.
If you can get past all the violence, you'll quickly see that Blood Meridian offers one of the most spectacular descriptions of setting that has ever been written. Ever. Just feast your eyes on a passage like this:
They rode that day through low hills barren save for the scrub evergreens. Everywhere in this high parkland deer leapt and scattered and the hunters shot several from their saddles and gutted and packed them and by evening they had acquired a retinue of half a dozen wolves of varying size and color that trotted behind them single file and watched over their own shoulders to see that each should follow in his place. (9.66)
The deer, the wolves, the desert! McCarthy just puts you there with every line he writes. Normally, you'd have to search through an entire book to get a passage this good. But we challenge you to open this book to any page and see if you don't find a passage that's just as descriptive. Go ahead, try us.
"Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time" –Paul Valéry
"It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness" –Jacob Boehme
"Clark, who led last year's expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier showed evidence of having been scalped" –The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982
Talk about bang for your buck. Cormac McCarthy gives us not one, not two, but three full epigraphs to start off Blood Meridian? But what can they tell us about the book, you ask? Let's take a look…
The first quote from French poet Paul Valéry might as well be spoken directly to Glanton in Blood Meridian. Glanton has a dark heart and he murders people as though it were impossible for him to resist. But over time, we can see cracks emerge in Glanton's tortured brain. He stares into his campfire at night and thinks about all the people he's killed and all his comrades who've died. But he always tried to put up a tough exterior until his mind eventually starts to go on him. At this point, Glanton knows that his end will come some day. And to this extent, he's afraid of blood and time just like Valéry says.
The second quote from Jacob Boehme tells us not to comfort ourselves with the thought that cruel people are secretly living a life of sadness. The truth is that they're probably enjoying their lives of sin way more than we're enjoying our normal, non-murderous lives. So next time we see a bully, there's no comfort to be found in thinking, "Oh, well he's sad deep down." Nope. That bully loves the fact that he's bigger than people and he simply enjoys hurting others.
The final quote from the Yuma Daily Sun tells us of a modern team of archaeologists who found evidence that a human skull from 300,000 years ago had been scalped. Or in other words, the practice of scalping has never been unique to any single culture. Scalping is a practice that's part of all human history, not just Aboriginal history. Although to be fair, people have still used it to stereotype Native Americans for hundreds of years, even though the practice was just as common among white American settlers.
This book is just about as dense as books can get. And it's not like McCarthy gives you any chance to take a breather. Every sentence is packed so full with symbolism that it can be hard to keep up.
On top of that, the world of this book sometimes feels like a dream world with characters appearing and disappearing out of nowhere and towns having streets and buildings that make no sense. There's a real funhouse quality to all of it, and we honestly don't blame you for feeling daunted. That said, if you take a moment to focus on any one of McCarthy's sentences, we're confident you'll see just how incredible and beautiful his writing really is.
One look at McCarthy's writing and you'll know what we mean by "Dense and Poetic":
On the day following they crossed the malpais afoot, leading the horses upon a lakebed of lava all cracked and reddish black like a pan of dried blood, threading those badlands of dark amber glass like the remnants of some dim legion scrabbling up out of a land accursed, shouldering the little cart over the rifts and ledges, the idiot clinging to the bars and calling hoarsely after the sun like some queer unruly god abducted from a race of degenerates. (17.49)
Okay… now who's excited to deal with three hundred more pages of writing like this? Seriously though, McCarthy's writing presents us with one of the great dilemmas of reading. On the one hand, we can appreciate that this passage is beautiful. On the other hand, it's hard for the brain to process all of the incredible details that are packed into it. The question then becomes: do you want to step up and do the work of unpacking McCarthy's language or do you want to turn on the TV and watch something that's easier on your brain? Well, if you're reading this guide, you're probably the kind of person who likes a good challenge. You go, Shmoopsters.
Guess what happens to you when you ride into Mexico with forty men and try to conquer the whole bloody country? Yep, you end up with your severed head inside a jar for all to see. It's fair to say that the severed head of Captain White stands as a warning to anyone who might want to follow his example. And it seems to work, as one Mexican prisoner says:
That's the worst thing I ever seen in my life. (5.166)
Another prisoner doesn't take the same approach to White's head. Instead, he says:
Somebody ought to of pickled it a long time ago. By rights they ought to pickle mine. For ever takin up with such a fool. (5.167)
In other words, this guy has no sympathy for Captain White or his grim fate. He knows that Captain White was a fool to go on such an insane mission and he (the prisoner) was a fool for going with him.
Take one look at Anton Chigurh's silenced shotgun in No Country for Old Men and you'll realize that Cormac McCarthy has a bit of a thing for powerful guns. In the early going of Blood Meridian, McCarthy celebrates the craftsmanship of some custom-made pistols that Glanton wants to buy for his gang. As the narrator says:
These pistols would drive the half-ounce conical ball through six inches of hardwood and there were four dozen of them in the case. (7.2)
According to McCarthy, these pistols don't just penetrate their target. They make it not exist anymore.
You see McCarthy's fascination with powerful guns again later in the book when he talks about a howitzer that Glanton's men like to play with:
They loaded the howitzer that evening with something like a pound of powder and the entire cast of shot. (19.2)
Like a shotgun, this howitzer shoots a bunch of tiny ball bearing-sized pellets. As you can probably imagine, everything that isn't standing behind this gun gets wiped out.
When he's not killing people, Judge Holden likes to sit with his personal ledger and write down all kinds of things and people he's come into contact with. As the narrator says at one point:
In his lap he held the leather ledgerbook and he took up each piece, flint or potshed or tool of bone, and deftly sketched it into the book. (11.11)
His fellow gang members are skeptical though about his ability to copy down every single thing in existence. As one dude says:
But no man can put all the world in a book. No more than everything drawed in a book is so. (11.13)
At the end of the day, though, the judge is completely undaunted.
When asked why he writes everything down in his book, the judge answers:
Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. (14.61)
In other words, the judge thinks of himself as a godlike figure who gets to decide what deserves to exist and what doesn't—from rocks and plants to human beings. You can call him crazy, but by the end of this book, the judge is the only man left standing. It makes you think.
There are plenty of scenes in this book where you have a group of men sitting around a fire at night. And sooner or later, they're bound to get a little philosophical. As the narrator mentions at one point:
The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. (17.13)
McCarthy connects fire to the most basic existence of humanity in scenes like these, and for a brief second it seems as if these men have found a sense of peace. But it only lasts until the killing starts again, which seems to happen on almost every other page.
Toward the beginning of this book, it looks as though the narrator might be a limited omniscient because it only reports the thoughts and actions of our main character, the kid. But the book opens into other characters' minds as it moves into its second half. When Glanton looks into a fire, for example, we read:
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. (17.9)
These lines clearly show what Glanton is thinking, which means the omniscient narrator has expanded our access beyond the mind of just the kid and into the minds of other characters. That said, the narrator is also very reluctant to make these openings, just like the roughneck characters are reluctant to show their inner feelings to anyone.
At the opening of this book, the kid (our main character) doesn't have a whole lot going for him. His mother is dead and his father's an alcoholic who's drinking his life away. At fourteen, the kid decides he's had enough and runs away to find a better life. Little does he know that the world beyond his home is going to be ten times harsher than he expected.
It's hard to say that the kid's initial venture into the world beyond his home is a dream or a place of fascination. It's more like a really harsh dose of reality. The kid gets involved with an insane American militia and barely escapes death only to find himself in jail. Next thing you know, he's working with another group of Americans to scalp Apache warriors for money. The closest thing he gets to a dream is all the money and free swag he gets fro the Mexicans for killing Apaches. Yes, there's a rock-star quality to his life at this point, but it's never conveyed to us as a happy existence.
Things get out of hand when Glanton's crew starts killing whoever they want and end up getting chased by the Mexican government (on top of all the Aboriginals tribes who already hate them). They continue doing whatever they want, but you get the sense that sooner or later, they'll get their comeuppance. And sure enough, that's exactly what happens when a band of Yumas attacks them in the middle of the night.
After the Yumas attack, the kid barely escapes. But if things weren't already bad enough, one of his own people (Judge Holden) tries to kill him in the desert. The kid doesn't quite know why Holden wants to kill him, though it seems to have something to do with the kid being too compassionate for the judge's liking.
The kid makes a thrilling escape from the judge and makes it out of the desert alive. After that, he returns to a life of wandering around and getting by. Ten years after the Yuma attack, the kid runs into the judge in a tavern. The kid gets up to use the outhouse, and the judge pulls him inside and locks the door. We don't know exactly what happens, but the kid might be dead. In this sense, McCarthy puts a little extra spin on the whole "Voyage and Return" plot. Usually, the main character would make it out of the story alive. But in this one, McCarthy's judge character swoops in at the last second to create some serious doubt about the kid's fate…because who likes happy endings anyways?
We meet the book's main character, the kid, who runs away from home when he's only fourteen years old. He spends a few years wandering the American Southwest, getting himself shot and stabbed fairly often. He survives long enough to get himself enlisted by an American militia that wants to go into Mexico to show the Mexicans who's boss. But the group is barely in Mexico for 48 hours before a group of Apache warriors demolishes them. The kid barely gets away and eventually gets himself thrown in Mexican prison for being connected to the militia. And this is just the beginning of the story.
The kid finds himself bailed out of jail by a guy named Judge Holden, who he met briefly back in the States before he (the kid) and the American militia travelled into Mexico. Well it looks like Judge Holden and a man named Glanton have a contract with the Mexican government to get some Apache scalps. Seeing as how it's better than jail, the kid joins Glanton's group and starts killing Apaches for a living. It's always clear, though, that the kid doesn't like to kill people for no good reason—and we certainly don't blame him. Judge Holden eventually realizes this and criticizes the kid for being weak.
Eventually, a group of Yumas catch up with Glanton's group and slaughters nearly everyone in it. The only ones to escape are the kid, Judge Holden, and a few other guys. Immediately after the attack, the kid has to deal with being shot at by Judge Holden…and this won't be the first time. Holden, you see, thinks that the weaklings of the world need to be cleared away to make room for the strong. He thinks that kid is weak because the kid has always shown hesitation in killing defenseless women and children. We guess they didn't call it the Wild West for nothing.
The kid eventually escapes Judge Holden. Shortly afterward, he sees the other survivors of Glanton's crew being hanged, which makes him and Holden the only surviving members of Glanton's group. Ten years after the Yuma attack, the kid runs into Holden in a bar. Holden tells the kid how disappointing he always was. When the kid heads out to use an outhouse, the judge is waiting for him inside. He pulls the kid in and we never hear from the kid again. The judge has probably killed him, though we don't know for sure.
After he's finished with the kid, Judge Holden returns to the tavern and starts up a big dance. Even though he's seven feet tall, the judge is an incredibly agile dancer. He dances around, telling people he never sleeps and that he'll never die. Come to think of it, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the judge is some sort of supernatural creature. But McCarthy never confirms this one way or the other. You're probably used to hearing that by now.
The main character, named "the kid," runs away from home at the age of fourteen. And boy oh boy, is life ever hard on him. After a few years of getting stabbed and shot in bars, he finds his way into an American band of mercenaries led by a nutty guy named Captain White. This band of merry men rides into Mexico with some vague plan of conquering the country and making it part of the U.S. But they're promptly wiped out by a band of Apaches and the kid makes a narrow escape only to wind up in jail.
The kid gets bailed out of jail by a man named Judge Holden, who met the kid briefly back in the States before Captain White's crew left for Mexico. Holden hires the kid and some other prisoners to join a group of men led by a dude name Glanton. These guys have a contract with the Mexican government to hunt Apaches and trade their scalps for money. It looks like the Mexicans hate the Apaches even more than they hate Americans—go figure. Glanton and his crowd ride up and down the country killing Apaches. But they quickly burn through all their good will with the Mexicans by becoming total bullies and doing whatever they want all the time, which includes firing their guns at random people when they're drunk.
Eventually, Glanton's luck runs out and his whole group gets wiped out by a bunch of angry Yumas (Aboriginal peoples). The only survivors are the kid, Judge Holden, and a few other men who end up getting hanged by the Mexican government anyway. Judge Holden tries to murder the kid for always being such a weak, compassionate fool. But the kid escapes. They don't meet again until ten years later, when the judge confronts the kid in the doorway of an outhouse and pulls him inside. The judge comes out, but the kid doesn't, which suggests that the judge has murdered the kid. In classic McCarthy-esque fashion, though, we never know one way or the other.