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In movies, T.V. shows, and books, the American West is often depicted as a time when the good guys defended themselves from the harshness of the Frontier and the evil bad guys. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridan (1985) is an anti-Western that depicts the brutal and lawless reality of life on the Frontier. Graphically violent, the novel received little recognition upon release, but it is now considered by many to be the Great American Novel.
The Great American Novel is a hotly debated subject in the literary world. Writer and critic Carolyn Kellogg defines the Great American Novel as "A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and troubled conscience, its individual voices, and strivings, our loves, and losses." 1 There is no generally agreed-upon consensus on which novel deserves the title.
The novel's protagonist, the kid, was born under a violent meteor shower in Tennessee in 1833. After his mother dies in childbirth, the kid is raised by an abusive and alcoholic father. From an early age, the kid develops a taste for violence. He runs away from home at 14 and travels to Texas. Attending a religious ceremony in a revival tent, the kid sees a giant, hairless albino known as the Judge. The Judge accuses the preacher of bestiality and incites the crowd to attack him violently.
A few days later, the kid beats becomes involved in an altercation with a bartender. After savagely beating the bartender, an army sergeant, impressed by his fighting skills, recruits the kid into his brigade. As a veteran of the Mexican-American war, the sergeant is leading an illegal attempt to recapture part of Mexico. The company is attacked by a band of Comanche warriors, with only the kid and a few others left alive. The survivors are rounded up by Mexican authorities and taken to jail.
In jail, the kid is scouted to join the violent Glanton gang. Hired by Mexican authorities to protect locals from roaming bands of Apache warriors, the Glanton Gang receives a handsome bounty for each Native American scalp they retrieve. The kid discovers that Glanton's second in command is the giant Judge from the revival tent. Extremely well-read in science, philosophy, and history, the Judge conducts lectures for the gang each night around the campfire. The men listen, enraptured as he eloquently discusses the nature of being.
Tobin, a gang member, referred to as an ex-priest, tells the kid the story of how the gang met the Judge. Pursued by a band of Apaches, the gang, heavily outnumbered and running out of bullets, faced certain death. Just as the Apaches were about to catch up with them, they found the Judge perched atop a boulder. He instructed the gang in manufacturing gunpowder using only natural resources. They were able to stave off the Apache attack. When the kid confides that he has encountered the Judge before, Tobin informs him that everyone has a story about meeting the Judge before joining the gang.
Over the next few months, Glanton and the Judge lead the gang on a bloody killing spree. Rather than focus on Apache warriors, they begin to massacre and scalp any humans they encounter on the plains. The kid proves himself to be highly adept at killing. As they ride into Chihuahua City to collect the reward money, days of drunken partying end with the gang killing several citizens.
Blood Meridian is set in the American Southwest and regions of Northern Mexico. Cormac McCarthy includes many vivid descriptions of landscape and scenery. What impression does he give the reader of this time and place?
Chased out of town and wanted by authorities, Glanton receives a contract from a different Mexican state. Back on the plains, the gang continues to attack and scalp any parties they encounter. They team up with a group of men from the Yuma tribe to scam a ferryboat company, but Glanton doublecrosses the tribe, slaughtering many of its members. The surviving Yuma men hunt down and ambush the Glanton gang to seek revenge. Most of the gang is killed, but the kid manages to escape, carrying a badly wounded Tobin.
As they flee for their lives across the desert, they encounter the Judge. He blames the kid and Tobin for the gang's demise and accuses the kid of weakness of having spared Tobin's life. As the Judge walks away, Tobin implores the kid to shoot him in the back. The kid pulls the trigger but narrowly misses the mark.
Stalked by the Judge, the men trek through the desert and arrive in San Diego. The kid is arrested for membership in the notorious Glanton gang and faces execution. The Judge appears at the jail, convincing the authorities that the kid had doublecrossed the gang and was responsible for their downfall.
Later that night, the kid goes to an outhouse. Opening the door, he finds the Judge, naked and grinning, waiting for him. The Judge embraces the kid in a bear hug and drags him inside the outhouse. The story ends as the Judge dances and plays the fiddle in the saloon while declaring to the crowd that he never sleeps and will never die. Outside, two men discover a gruesome scene in the outhouse.
Blood Meridian is full of graphic descriptions of violence; however, McCarthy chooses not to include any details of the kid's death. Why would he omit such an important scene?
Most of the novel's action revolves around the members Glanton gang as they travel across the plains. Here is a look at Blood Meridian's most important characters.
Although the kid is the novel's protagonist, little is revealed of his inner thoughts or feelings. Instead, McCarthy presents him as an observer, rarely intervening and often partaking in the gang's grotesque violence. The kid has a talent for violence from an early age. He was born under a meteor storm, and even his entrance into the world was an act of violence, as his mother died during childbirth.
The kid proves himself to be a capable and deadly member of the Glanton gang. In youth, he shows a talent for violence but mellows as he grows older and eventually becomes weary of killing by the time he reaches middle age. When he spares the life of a wounded gang member and brings the man to safety he angers the Judge, who believes such acts of mercy taint their solemn commitment to violence. In the end, the kid completely refuses the Judge's beliefs on war and violence.
The Judge, also known as Judge Holden, is a giant, hairless albino man. Shown to be extraordinarily smart and relentlessly brutal, literary critic Harold Bloom once described the Judge as "the most frightening figure in American literature." 1 As a calculated killer, the Judge is shown to enjoy the gang's violent activities and likens man's commitment to war as a sacred oath. He rejects religion and superstition as coherent orders for life. He sees life as inescapably cruel and violent. The Judge believes that war is man's nature and should be embraced. Rejecting the Christian version of God, the Judge is instead pledged to the god of war.
Although Blood Meridian is a gritty work of historical realism, McCarthy employs subtle elements of magical realism to suggest that there may be something supernatural about the Judge. When the gang first encounters the Judge, he seems to be awaiting their arrival. Each man claims to have met this mysterious figure before joining the gang. The Judge never sleeps, appears to be unaffected by age, and claims he will never die. Using his immense intelligence, he can easily manipulate the people and elements around him.
What does McCarthy's subtle suggestion of the Judge's supernatural abilities contribute to the novel's central themes?
Glanton is an actual historical figure who led a notorious gang of murders through the American Southwest in the 1840s. Cunning and bloodthirsty, Glanton is shown to be obsessed with the idea of fate and predetermination. Early in the novel, Glanton has his tarot cards read. The fortune-teller draws a card representing war and loss, which Glanton sees as representing his inescapable fate. This spurs his bloodlust and serves as his justification for the gang's crimes.
Blood Meridian is known for its extremely violent and graphic sequences. McCarthy uses the setting and action to explore important ideas about the meaning of violence and the influence of religious beliefs.
In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy presents a disturbing and historically accurate depiction of everyday life on the American plains during the 1840s and 1850s. This extremely violent and lawless period saw the American and Mexican governments commission bands of ex-military men and mercenaries to murder Native Americans. Violence is so common throughout the novel that it almost becomes part of the sprawling landscape.
At many points in the novel, characters debate the human's drive for violence. The Glanton gang is driven by relentless bloodlust, and as they partake in the prolonged killing binges, the Judge can eloquently justify their deeds each night at the campfire. Arguing that war and violence are inherent in humanity, the Judge assures the men that killing is an inescapable and continuous part of humanity. It can be interpreted that the Judge is the embodiment of war, while others may suggest he is a god of war.
While the Judge argues for the necessity and pleasure of violence, McCarthy avoids moralizing and presents it as an everyday occurrence in this harsh terrain. Violence is a recurring theme throughout his works and the author once stated, "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed." 3 Blood Meridian is the most violent of all his novels, as he presents the drive to violence as inherent within man and the larger development of history.
While the novel is set in a highly religious society, McCarthy often presents the landscape of the American Southwest as a God-forsaken land. The plains are shown to be a hellish landscape that destroys human life. In such a brutal setting, men have abandoned morality and any concept of God. For example, the kid sleeps in a deserted and desecrated church, the Judge incites a crowd to attack a preacher, and one of the gang members is an ex-priest who has ditched his faith. Where traditional religion has failed, the Judge proposes a new belief system, and so he argues that war is a solemn religious ritual.
As with most Cormac McCarthy works, religion is an important theme in Blood Meridian. He continually uses biblical language and imagery to represent the characters and settings, yet the world of Blood Meridian is defined by the absence rather than the presence of God.
In Blood Meridan, Cormac McCarthy analyzes critical questions of morality and explores the darker side of human nature. One of the key literary techniques he uses is imagery from the Bible to create a hellish landscape. The Glanton gang travels through a bloody and barren land, killing for fun and survival without an end goal in sight. They are trapped in this hellish cycle and show little use for religious beliefs. In the world, religion has become useless to men. McCarthy symbolizes this at several points; as the Reverend tries to defend himself against charges of molestation, he hopelessly searches his bible for a defense. When the kid grows older, he carries a bible with him on his journey—but he is unable to read.
McCarthy's prose style in Blood Meridian is often compared to Biblical verse, particularly the Old Testament. He uses outdated language and phrases and makes references to biblical figures like Lazarus, Ezekiel, and Judas. Much of the chaotic violence in the book is on a similar scale to the bloody stories of the Old Testament.
In the brutal frontier of the 1840s, a variety of cultures interacted violently. The novel's violence is constant and present across all groups. The American and Mexican people, as well as the Indigenous tribes, are all shown committing acts of violence and destruction against one another. McCarthy represents this violence as not just an inescapable fact of the foundation of modern America but part of man's inherent nature.
In a historical context, the novel exposes the violent formation of the United States of America and questions the long-established myths of Manifest Destiny and the Western genre.
Manifest Destiny is a nineteenth-century idea, informed by the religious beliefs, that God preordained the colonialization of North America and the genocide of Native American tribes. This idea informed American policy and culture throughout the period. Literature, art, history, television, and film depicted the Western plains of America in the nineteenth century as a landscape that needed to be settled and civilized by white Americans. The Native Americans are often described as savage and murderous, but in reality, they were responding to the savage murder of settlers and the continual betrayals of the U.S. government.
The Western genre of movies, books, and television shows romanticized the settlement of the West. Western stories usually glorify the struggling settlers as they overcome the Native people. Many feature cowboys and cattle hands who are forced to take the law into their own hands. These depictions often feature justified use of violence to defend the cowboy's family or property.
Blood Meridian is an anti-western that shows the real, bloody history of the American West. Rather than glamorizing the violence or using it to drive the story along, McCarthy presents the bloodshed as a grim and inescapable fact of life in the West. While the gang is initially contracted to protect settlers of the region, they soon descend into a cycle of mindless violence. Whereas traditional Westerns usually depict an individual being forced to fight back against a corrupt system or evil figures, the Glanton Gang enjoys their wanton violence and attack with little reason or justification. To Harold Bloom, the novel was "both an American and a universal tragedy of blood." 2 While McCarthy did focus heavily on the violent nature of the time and place, he makes a grander point about man's true nature. The book's ideas on violence and man's nature can be expanded beyond the time and place to all of human history.
Cormac McCarthy's writing is distinctive for his use of colloquialisms and archaic language. Here are a few important quotes from Blood Meridan.
"Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.....War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god." (Ch. 17)
During the Judge's final lecture, he explains his belief in man's drive for war and violence. In the lawless and violent West, man has abandoned religious morals and embraced war as a sacred ritual. While the Judge tries to convince the kid that he should embrace and celebrate his darkest desires, the kid refuses to believe the two men are the same.
It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire." (Ch. 15)
McCarthy references the biblical burning bush Moses encouraged in this short but memorable image. While the bush in the bible represents God, the landscape in Blood Merdian is a hellish nightmare that the gang must try to survive.
Blood, he said. This country is give much blood. This Mexico. This is a thirsty country. The blood of a thousand Christs. Nothing." (Ch. 8)
An old man in a bar describes the bloody history of his country to the kid and his friends. While the Christian faith is based on the blood sacrifice of one man, the world is full of many violent deaths, all of which are meaningless. Throughout Blood Meridan, McCarthy represents people from different cultures committing violent acts, representing the universality of war and bloodshed.
Cormac McCarthy uses Blood Meridian to explore man's drive for war and violence.
Blood Meridian deals with themes of war and religious beliefs.
The word "meridian" refers to the sun's highest point during the day, or the height of a person's powers. Coupled with the word "Blood", McCarthy uses the title to refer to the Judge's idea that war is man's sacred duty.
The main characters in Blood Meridian are the kid, a young runaway who joins a gang of murders, and the Judge, a giant, hairless albino man.
Blood Meridian was written by Cormac McCarthy.
Blood Meridian is set during which historical period?
The Old West
The gang the kid joins is led by which real-life figure?
John Joel Glanton
According to the Judge, _________ is an inescapable part of man's soul.
The kid joins a gang that is contracted to collect ________ throughout Northern Mexico.
Which American region is Blood Meridian set in?
Some literary critics consider Blood Meridian to be ______________.
The Great American Novel
Each night, the Glanton gang gathers around the campfire to listen to lectures from which character?
Blood Meridan is a good example of the traditional Western.
Blood Meridian supports the idea of Manifest Destiny.
Which character is known as "the ex-priest"?
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