Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West Summary and Analysis of Chapter 21 - Epilogue

Summary:

Tobin, who is still bleeding from the neck, asks the kid to save himself. However, the kid refuses to abandon Tobin and instead, they both run away from the judge and the idiot. Tobin warns the kid that they should hide, since the judge will continue to track them; the kid agrees, but only so as to facilitate an ambush on the judge and kill him once and for all. He and Tobin sneak into a wagon and wait. 

Soon enough, Tobin and the kid see the judge and the idiot approaching them. The judge has Brown's rifle and canteen, suggesting that Brown has died. Judge Holden is also wearing a parasol made of hide and human bones. The judge passes Tobin and the kid's hiding spot, but the kid does not fire. When they look out of the wagon again, however, the judge is walking towards them once more. The judge announces that he has passed through the kid's line of fire three times already and will continue to do so. He once again offers to release the kid from culpability - he knows the kid is not an assassin and is certain that the plan to murder him is Tobin's idea. He also claims that Toadvine and David Brown are still alive.

After the judge leaves, Tobin and the kid continue on their journey. They are growing steadily weaker. They encounter some Diguenos Indians, who give them water and invite them to their camp at San Felipe. While they are eating, one of the men asks to see the kid’s pistol. The kid keeps refusing, but the man perseveres until the kid eventually puts the pistol to the man's head. After a few moments, he lowers it and everyone resumes eating. The Diguenos describe the Yumas as very bad people, and the kid tells them that he and Tobin are awaiting several companions from the east to join them.

The next day, after they bathe, Tobin and the kid travel towards Warner's Ranch. After a few days there, they go to San Diego, and Tobin immediately seeks out a doctor.

The kid ends up in a tavern, where four soldiers arrest him without even asking his name. While in his cell, the kid babbles about "things few men have seen in a lifetime" (305). The jailers believe that he has cracked under the guilt he feels for his violent actions. One morning, the kid awakens to see the judge standing before him. The judge has told the authorities that the kid was the ringleader of Glanton's crew, and now the kid will be hanged for his alleged crimes. The judge informs the kid that their animosities were formed before they ever met, but despite that, he once loved the kid like a son. He says that only the kid had the power to change the course of their relationship. After the judge leaves, the kid tells the corporal that there is gold and silver buried in the mountains. The kid is released two days later, at which point he visits a doctor to have leg surgery. Before the operation, the kid has a fevered dream in which the judge appears before him. The next day, he hobbles around the town on crutches in search of Tobin, but nobody has even heard of the ex-priest.

By June, the kid is living in a hostel in Los Angeles. He is a bit older and wearing a suit that is too large for him. The narrator adds that the kid has seen the inside of every saloon in the region. Later, the kid hears about a public hanging and discovers that Toadvine and David Brown are the victims. The kid uses his last two dollars to purchase the necklace of ears that Brown once wore.

After that, the kid gets various jobs moving animals from place to place. Everywhere he goes, he hears rumors about the judge. One day, while on a mission escorting some pilgrims across the country, the kid rides off on his own. A few days later, he finds that the pilgrims have been hacked to pieces. When he sees an old woman crouched among their bodies, he promises to lead her to safety. However, when he touches her arm, he realizes that she has been dead for many years.

In the winter of 1878, the kid is living on the plains in Northern Texas. One day, he meets an old man and they share tobacco over a fire. The old man tells the kid about his time killing buffalo. Later on, the kid encounters a group of bone-pickers, and then another group who invites him to share their fire that night. This group asks him if he is heading towards Griffin, which is home to many whores. They also ask about his necklace of ears. The kid lies and says he bought the macabre ornament from a solider in a saloon. When his companions press him for the truth, however, he admits that the ears belonged to Apaches and that he not only knew the man who collected them, but he also saw that man hanged.

A wagon train approaches, and the kid (now called the man) suggests that his new companions join it. Once they leave, the kid sleeps until he is awoken by a young boy with a rifle. The kid shoots him; it turns out that his young victim was the older brother of another young boy. Both children were supposed to have left with the wagon train, but now, the kid has made the remaining boy into an orphan. The orphan looks longingly at the kid as they carry his brother’s body away.

The next day, the kid passes through the McKenzie crossing of the Clear Fork at the Brazos River. He rides into town and enters the local bar - the only building in town that shows any sign of life. In the bar, the kid encounters a dancing bear and Judge Holden. An altercation breaks out, and someone shoots the bear in the chest. 

The judge addresses the kid (again, now called the man) and tells him that he has always been a disappointment. He compares life to a dance, in that everyone has a specified role and there is always a plan. He extols the virtues of violence and death. He then talks about rituals, which are different from ceremonies in that they involve bloodletting. Soon, their conversation lands on the topics of death, fate, and destiny.

The kid goes to another room, where a dance is taking place. He watches for a while, and then heads outside to the latrine. When he opens the door, the judge takes the kid into his arms. It is not clear what happens after that. 

Later, a few men are urinating at the jakes, and one man warns the other not to open the door of the latrine. When a third man opens the door, all he says is “Good God Almighty.” It is possible that he has found the kid's body, though McCarthy never elaborates. Back in the saloon, the dead bear is being loaded onto a wagonsheet. The judge enters the room and dances naked above everyone. He says that he will never sleep or die. 

In the epilogue, a man moves across the plains, digging a succession of holes in the ground and setting a fire in each one. Meanwhile, a group of wanderers follows steadily behind him.

Analysis:

In this section, McCarthy introduces the Digueno tribe, whose hospitality serves as a counterpoint to the violent behavior of the Apache and Yuma people. The Diguenos try to care for the kid, even though he pulls his gun on one of them. If not for this group of Indians, Tobin and the kid would certainly have died in the desert. In specifying different tribes, McCarthy inserts some nuance into his interpretation of the Western genre, in which Indians were traditionally depicted as a faceless group of whooping savages. While McCarthy certainly does not romanticize the old west, his American, Mexican, and Indian characters are all equally vicious. 

In this section, the conflict between the judge and the kid appears to be resolved at last. The two men have an inconsistent but profound relationship, evidenced when the judge chases the kid and Tobin through the desert. The judge continues to offer the kid clemency and repeatedly points out that the kid does not want to kill him, which is clearly true considering how many times the kid passes on the chance to do so. In this way, the kid and the judge have an antagonistic version of a father/son relationship, in which the elder man manipulates the boy's respect in order to win him over. However, when considering the judge's symbolic function in Blood Meridian, it is possible to see the larger thematic implications of the relationship. The judge is the embodiment of pure evil, which is something the kid has fought throughout the novel. The kid might have an inherent violent streak, but he also has a sense of loyalty and compassion; even in this section, the kid refuses to abandon the wounded Tobin. Yet he is torn; he can neither give up his kindness nor vanquish his darkness.

The kid's symbolic battle between good and evil comes to a head in the final chapter and the epilogue. To best approach the ending, it is first useful to consider the distinction between "the kid" that McCarthy introduces his reader to at the beginning of the novel and "the man" that he becomes. After leaving his scalp hunting days behind, the kid matures. As an adult, he is still a drunkard living on the fringes of society but has given up engaging in useless violence. Instead, he finds honest work. He wears Brown's necklace as reminder of that violent past but does not let it control him. The change in the kid's behavior is marked by the mental break he experiences while in prison. The kid's jailers are actually accurate in diagnosing his madness as the result of his guilt for all the heinous crimes he has committed; after his release, the kid does appear to take his life in a new direction. 

And yet the final pages of the novel suggest that the kid's attempts to change the course of his life are ultimately meaningless. The man encounters the judge in a bar once more, which speaks to the inevitability of his fate. Through the judge, McCarthy espouses the viewpoint that a man's nature is somehow pre-determined. After all, he first introduces the kid as having a "taste for mindless violence," implying that it is inherent and not conditioned (3). Thus, the ambiguous scene in the latrine could be the kid's death, but it could also indicate that he has finally decided to embrace his own darkness. It is telling that the judge embraces the kid in a dark, ugly setting, rather than explicitly killing him (as he to many of his victims). Perhaps being swallowed into the depths of his own internal darkness is a fate worse than death. The judge's subsequent triumphant dance, in which he claims never to sleep, could mean that just because evil lies dormant does not mean it is gone. Sooner or later, every human being's violent side will surface again, just as the judge keeps appearing in the kid's life without any warning or premeditation.

Throughout these final chapters, the kid comes across many omens that further support this interpretation. When he is supposed to be escorting the group of pilgrims, he leaves them behind and the are brutally massacred. Though the kid does not actively kill them, he does facilitate their death by leaving them, suggesting that he cannot control the appearance of violence. The kid tries to atone by helping the old woman seated among their remains, even calling her “abuelita” (an affectionate term for 'grandmother'). However, his compassion turns out to be meaningless because she is already dead. 

No matter how one interprets the final moments between the kid and the judge, the scene functions as a distillation of McCarthy's style: it is gritty, realistic and dark, and it also carries great symbolic weight. It is both rooted in the western genre and applicable to the universal conundrums of man's depravity and taste for violence. The scene is both matter-of-fact and yet beyond our comprehension.

The enigmatic epilogue could potentially serve as a final statement on the futility of the human struggle. We travel onwards through the barren plains of life, attempting to mark our way with fire. However, time ultimately proves these efforts to be worthless. Not only do the fires ultimately burn out, they also serve the double purpose of alerting our enemies to our whereabouts. In our attempts to live, we only invite violence and death.