The kid is the novel’s primary protagonist, although, like Ishmael in Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (Herman Melville’s 1851 classic, echoed throughout Blood Meridian), he disappears for considerable periods in the narrative. Although he is almost instinctively capable of violence and appears to be undisturbed by the brutality of the life he pursues, McCarthy sets him apart from the other men of Glanton’s gang. The reader is never given insight into the kid’s thoughts; he must be judged solely by his actions and occasional statements. Nevertheless, the book does dramatize its concept of moral struggle through the kid. Judge Holden chooses him as disciple or victim from the first time he sees him, and their final encounter, though delayed for almost thirty years, is, according to the judge, predetermined. In the judge’s words, only the kid, of all the group, holds back from giving himself fully to the act of bloodletting. Throughout, the kid performs acts of minor mercy, which the other members of the group refuse to do. Yet he is never able to confront the judge. After the massacre at Yuma Crossing, the kid seems increasingly haunted, finally sated with murder and gore. Still, when the judge approaches him in the Fort Griffin saloon, the kid, now the man, continues to hold back, refusing either to join the judge or stand against him. His subsequent death seems a consequence of his failure to make a choice.
Judge Holden is the most intriguing, fascinating, and horrifying of this appalling band of killers. Based on a historical figure, he is well over six feet tall, monstrous in build, and completely hairless. Yet the judge seems almost supernatural, invested with marvelous powers and knowledge, which makes his numerous acts of carnage all the more terrible. Indeed, McCarthy strongly suggests that Judge Holden embodies a greater evil than the other men of the band, that he is, in fact, demonic, a “sootysouled rascal” who waits to snare the lives and hearts of those who, like the kid, live ambivalent lives. The judge is aptly titled, for he does render verdicts and enacts punishments. Larger than life, he espouses a philosophy of the world that reduces existence to war and exacts violence and death, but he himself seems beyond death, an eternal figure in a desolate and bloody land.
John Joel Glanton comes from historical record, his exploits as a scalp hunter and outlaw profiteer found in dozens of accounts of the Old West. McCarthy’s version of Glanton accords in detail with these accounts. Glanton is, in McCarthy’s telling, a mad captain pursuing the Indian as Ahab does the white whale. Glanton’s madness, though, is different from that of Captain White, the leader of the expedition into Mexico described in the early parts of the novel. Glanton is shrewd, a tough and hardbitten soldier. His murderous chase of the Indian has metaphysical overtones, as if he, like Ahab, is demanding that God reveal itself. Although the judge is second in command to him, Glanton seems at times manipulated by Holden; in his times of raving, only the judge can calm and quiet him. Glanton faces his death without fear, spitting in the presence of his killer and challenging, “Hack away you mean red nigger.”
Of the other members of the gang, several stand out. Tobin, the former priest, is a paradoxical figure who speaks of the presence of God but participates in the most awful atrocities. He acts as moral adviser to the kid, warning him from the judge and advising him in the matter of survival. Toadvine, a horse thief whose ears have been cropped and forehead branded in punishment, is one of the first men the kid meets in Texas; they engage in a brutal fight in the mud outside a saloon but later become companions in Glanton’s gang. Although Toadvine survives the Yuma Crossing massacre, he is later hanged in San Diego along with David Brown, another scalper. John Jackson is the one identified black member of the gang. Shortly after the kid...
(The entire section is 1,526 words.)