Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Defining Human Nature and Questioning Manifest Destiny
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a bleak representation of American westward expansion during 1849 and 1850. The story centers on a character known only as The Kid, and his experiences with a gang of men known as the Glanton gang. John Joel Glanton, and a man known as Judge Holden are the founders of the gang. They lead the gang as they are contracted to protect settlers from Apache Indians, often receiving a bounty per scalp. The Glanton gang participates in such an extreme amount of violence that it may appear gratuitous. However, McCarthy is merely depicting the reality of the brutality that was inherent in Americas Westward expansion. Matthew Guinn (2000) wrote that McCarthy “Employs the past to establish continuous patterns of human behavior” (94). In fact, McCarthy uses Judge Holden as his primary representation of the true nature of humanity, and the real causes for westward expansion during the 19th century. As an openly atheistic character, the Judge represents the best and the worst aspects of humanity in a world without god. The Judge is incredibly intelligent and curious, speaking many languages and possessing in depth knowledge of many subjects. However, the intellect of the Judge is not used for the betterment of humanity. Rather, the Judge espouses a supreme belief in war, stating, “Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way” (McCarthy, 1985: 248). Ultimately, the Judges incredible intellect is only used to further actions of a violent or sexual nature. This reveals that man is not an agent of god, expanding westward to fulfill his “manifest destiny.” Rather, it shows that man is essentially a violent and sexual creature, and that American westward expansion was merely a violent, “aimless westward journey” (Bell, 1988: 118).
From very early in the story it is apparent that Judge Holden is an extremely intelligent man who takes an aggressive stance towards religious figures, and the belief in God in general. One of the earliest examples of the Judge’s disdain for religion comes from his interactions with a man named Reverend Green. The reverend had been preaching in the same town for two weeks, regularly drawing a crowd. However, when the Judge arrives he slanders the reverend, claiming “The gentleman standing here before you posing as a minister of the Lord is not only totally illiterate but it also wanted by the law in the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas” (McCarthy, 1985: 7). The reverend attempts to refute this claim, but is eventually overcome and killed by the crowd. In the next scene, the Judge and the Kid are having a drink at a bar. A patron asks the Judge, “Where did you know him to know all that stuff on him?” and the Judge confesses, “I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him” (Ibid. 8). In addition to committing acts of violence against religious figures, the Judge also questions the faith of the ex-priest that accompanies the Glanton Gang.
The ex-priest that accompanies the Glanton Gang is known as Tobin. Turning from divinity late in his life, Tobin joins the Glanton Gang instead. The irony that an ex-priest is directly involved with a group of men that commit such violent atrocities is not lost on Judge Holden. While discussing the nature of man, and his role in a godless world, the Judge asserts that not only is there no god, but that “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak” (Ibid. 250). And asserting that, “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” (Ibid. 146). Such strong statements naturally caused commotion among the gang, and the judge awaited a rebuttal. When no one dared to refute him, the Judge directly addresses Tobin, saying, “but what says the priest?” (Ibid. 250). To which Tobin responds “I’ll not secondsay you in your notions… Don’t ask it.” The judge merely responds “Ah Priest… What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given?” (Ibid. 251). The fact that Tobin has turned away from his life of divinity to join such a violent gang merely reaffirms the Judges atheistic notions. Having no faith in the existence of God, the judge turns to intellectual study in order to gain a sense of the world.
Having firm conviction in his atheistic notions, the Judge is able to strongly embrace intellectual pursuits, highly valuing the acquisition of knowledge. One of the Judge’s most common intellectual pastimes is to gather different objects and sketch them in a small notebook that he carries with him. Upon finishing his drawing of the object, he destroys it by throwing it into the fire. When asked why he does this, he states, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my permission… These anonymous creatures… may seem little or nothing in the world... Yet the smallest crumb can devour us” (Ibid. 198). The Judge’s study of nature is meant to defy and gain control of it, for “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth” (Ibid. 198). Therefore, for the Judge, knowledge of nature must be an essential part of man’s existence in a godless world. He believes that knowledge essentially amounts to ownership, and “In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation” (Ibid. 199). Essentially, “You have to kill a thing to know it satisfactorily”(Bowers, 1999:15). Knowledge of mankind as a whole is also an essential feature of the Judge’s philosophy. Other men in the Glanton Gang feel that “No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth” (McCarthy. 199). To which the Judge responds, “The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down… But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world” (Ibid. 199). In order for man to assert himself in a godless world, he must first understand nature, and second understand himself. For the Judge, this means we must “recognize our violent nature” (Shaw, 2000: 145).
The Judge’s views on the violent nature of humanity are made explicitly clear during his discussion of war. The judge firmly believes that man is a fundamentally violent creature that will always find outlet through war. While discussing war with the men of the gang, the Judge tells them that war is their primary occupation. They tell him that the same is true of himself, and he agrees that was his craft as well “Very much so” (McCarthy, 1985: 248). The Judge states that war is so prevalent because “All other trades are contained in that of war,” and that “It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them” (Ibid. 250). Moreover, he states, “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (Ibid. 250, Italics added). The Judge regards war and violence as paramount not only in theory, but also in practice. This is evident in the way that the Judge treats other people throughout the book. On page 164 the Judge takes a young Apache boy from a village they have recently destroyed. He sits “with the Apache boy before the fire and it watched everything with dark berry eyes and some of the men played with it and made it laugh and they gave it jerky and it sat chewing and watching” (Ibid. 164). Initially treating the child well, the Judge soon scalps the child without any provocation. A character named Toadvine is outraged by the Judge’s act of senseless violence against the child and threatens to shoot him. The Judge said, “You either shoot or take that away. Do it now.” The Judge then “smiled and wiped the scalp on the leg of his trousers and rose and turned away” (Ibid. 164). The violent nature of the Judge is also exemplified by his confrontations with the Kid and Tobin towards the end of the book. After the gang has been broken up by an attack by Indians, the Kid and Tobin set out together without the Judge. However, when the Judge finds the pair he vows to kill them for abandoning the gang. While the Kid and Tobin are hiding from the Judge he continues to call out threats on their lives. He is waiting by the nearest well and calls “Perhaps… perhaps you have seen this place in a dream. That you would die here” (Ibid. 300). The Judge is ultimately unable to kill the Kid and Tobin, but had extremely violent intentions towards them. McCarthy uses that Judge as a representation of mankind by having him explicitly state that violence and war is an essential aspect of humanity. However, McCarthy also uses the Judge to show that humans are fundamentally sexual, as well as violent.
Two scenes in particular reveal that the Judge is being used as a representation of the fundamentally sexual nature of man. In his article “The Kid’s Fate, the Judge’s Guilt: Ramifications of Closure in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian” Patrick Shaw argues that the Judge’s sexual nature can be seen in his “identification with pedophilia” (Shaw, 1997: 108). The best example of the Judge as a pedophile comes from page 116-119. During this scene the gang finds a young naked child in a ruined village. All of the members of the gang choose to all but ignore the child. However, the Judge is the first to express interest in the child, asking who he is, and eventually taking the boy with him when they leave. Shaw feels that “we can only suspect the Judge of having violated and then murdered this particular boy” (Ibid. 109). However, during the final scenes of the book, it becomes even clearer that the Judge’s actions take on a characteristically sexual nature. During the last scene of the book, the Judge sits inside an outhouse, waiting for the Kid to enter the stall. When the Kid enters the bathroom, the Judge “was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him” (McCarthy, 1985: 333). The “prevailing interpretation of this enigmatic scene is that Holden simply murders the unsuspecting kid”, Shaw, on the other hand, argues that “the kid’s death is not the crucial issue and that the Judge’s essential motivation is to assault the kid sexually” (Shaw, 1997: 103). Once the Kid is dead the Judge leaves the outhouse and returns to the bar. Two men discover the body, and simply say, “good God almighty” (McCarthy, 334). Shaw notes that at no other time in the book is violence regarded as a shocking site, implying that there was something about that kids death that was more perverse or disturbing than mere murder. Based on the sexuality that the judge has previously displayed through pedophilia, and based on the reaction of the men who discover the Kid, it seems apparent that the Judge did not just murder the kid, but raped him in the process.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian forces us to “live intimately with rape, genocide, infanticide, disemboweling, torture, and general savageness” (Shaw, 2000: 134), for this is the reality of mankind. McCarthy uses the character Judge Holden as his primary means of showing that man exists in a godless world, and is fundamentally violent and sexual. By showing that man is not divine, and is responsible for his own will, McCarthy “takes God out of America’s history” (Bowers, 1999: 16). By showing that man is not an instrument of God, McCarthy reveals that the notion of manifest destiny is completely false. Rather, American westward expansion was pioneered by groups of men whose goals were fundamentally violent and sexual. Based on the fact that “only the judge kills out of will and conviction and a deep commitment to the cause and the canons of western rationality,”(Shaviro, 1999: 149) the Judge serves as McCarthy’s primary representation of the true nature of westward expansion.
Bell, Vereen M. “The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy.” Baton Rouge, LA, Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Bowers, James. “Reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Boise, ID, Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1999.
Guinn, Matthew. “After Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South.” Jackson, MI, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
McCarthy, Cormac. “Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West.” New York, Random House, 1985.
Shaviro, Steven. “The Very Life of the Darkness: A Reading of Blood Meridian.” In Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, Edited by Edwin T, Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, 145-158. Jackson, MI, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Shaw, Patrick W. “The Kid's Fate, the Judge's Guilt: Ramifications of Closure in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.” Southern Literary Journal, 1997 Fall; 30: 102 – 119.
Shaw, Patrick W. “The Modern American Novel of Violence.” New York, Whitston Publishing Company, 2000.