Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843
With Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West, a novel of epic proportions and startling originality, McCarthy shifts his eye from Tennessee to the American Southwest and northern Mexico. The novel, set in the 1840’s, when the border between the United States and Mexico was under dispute, is an orgy of violence, vain striving, and desperate marauding. It gives form to the frontier theory, the idea of manifest destiny, which inspired Americans to seek dominion over the land and to expel, murder, or subjugate those peoples who stood in the way of their dominion over the mission. As the subtitle of the novel suggests, the book has elements of the Western, though McCarthy rigorously subverts the convention and its values. There are indeed cowboys, Indians, and Mexicans, but the shoot-outs, massacres, and raids (all depicted in graphic detail) take place in a vacuum of values where there is no such thing as a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” Alan Cheuse is on track in calling Blood Meridian “a Western that evokes the styles of both [film director] Sam Peckinpah and [artist] Hieronymus Bosch.”
The narrative loosely follows a young protagonist whom the reader knows only as “the kid” (born a hundred years before his creator, in 1833) as he leaves his Tennessee home at the age of fourteen, winds his way west to Texas, and is enlisted in a vigilante army of Americans who, under the command of Captain Glanton, march through the inhospitable plains, deserts, and mountains of Texas, Chihuahua, Sonora, Arizona, and southern California, terrorizing Indians, Mexicans, and one another along their wrathful path. Hosts of colorful characters appear and vanish through the journey’s course. Most important among them is Judge Holden, who first meets and observes the kid early in the novel and then picks up his trail later, following him until their ultimate showdown near the novel’s end.
Early in the novel, the kid meets a hermit who propounds his belief in evil and its mysterious, self-generating nature. This is one of the first instances of the novel’s preoccupation with evil, and it serves as a reference for one’s acquaintance with the judge, an embodiment of evil as formidable as any found in American fiction, Herman Melville’s Ahab included. Judge Holden propounds and elaborately defends his Nietzschean worldview in a long speech to his companions:Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. . . . Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and however much he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all questions of right.
Knowledge, for the judge, is a weapon. To know things is to control them. His imperialistic view of knowledge is an extension of eighteenth century European Enlightenment attitudes. “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” he proclaims at one point. In this spirit, he carries with him a journal in which he scrupulously records the minute details of flora and fauna, preserving specimens of birds, catching and drawing butterflies. To what end? In order to gain mastery over things, people, and new territory.
If this novel is about the nature of tyranny and the violence it looses on everything around it, it is also about the unconquerable mystery of the world and its laws, omnipresent and omnipotent. The force of the natural world challenges an anthropomorphic view of the universe. The novel itself is a veritable catalog of plant and animal life, a verbal map of the territory. The landscape is described with the same scrupulous attention to detail that has characterized McCarthy’s writing since his first novel, The Orchard Keeper.
What is amazing in this picture of things is that humans survive at all. Characters in this novel live far longer than either logic or luck would have it. That, too, is part of the mystery and awe. Figures trudge through the landscape, often freezing in snow or parched and hungry, dressed in tatters, covered in dust, and caked with blood from their last battle. The novel miraculously transforms such grotesque ghouls and hideous happenings into objects of aesthetic beauty.
In the end, in an unavoidable face-off, the judge—now in the garb of the authority that society has bestowed on him—overpowers the kid, annihilating the witness, the potential promulgator of stories of his malicious deeds. Once again McCarthy prompts a critique of the moral underpinnings of society, opens to question the goodness of the man in the white hat, and ominously entertains the possibility of evil’s triumph.
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