Critic Harold Bloom claims that Blood Meridian is not about violence - it is violence. Bloom's assessment is partially based on the matter-of-fact way in which McCarthy describes the atrocities committed by Glanton's gang, the Apaches, and the Mexicans; violence is simply a way of life in this world. For most of the characters in the novel, violence is essential for their survival, but many others engage in violent behavior for its own sake. Certainly, McCarthy's depiction of senseless bloodshed is inherent to his exploration of this particular historical context. However, by eschewing psychological and sociological explanations for his characters' brutal actions, he suggests that man's affinity for violence is larger than that time period and is, in fact, a universal vice.
There is a strong religious undercurrent in the novel, which is ironic considering the unabashed violence that marks the world of Blood Meridian. The kid first encounters Judge Holden at a religious revival, and notes how easily the Judge is able to change religious fervor into violent mania. Later, the kid's close companion is an ex-priest named Tobin. Meanwhile, the Judge often lectures about topics that involve science, religion, and humanity in a way that relates to the religious doctrines of Gnosticism, which prizes mystical knowledge. While McCarthy certainly displays a certain amount of cynicism on the subject of religion, he does not make a specific determination about its relevance in the novel. His writing often alludes to the possibility of a greater purpose, but while he explores the profundity of human existence, he refrains from depicting religion as having the power to heal.
There are no loyalties or rules the world of Blood Meridian. Therefore, every person is out for him or herself, as evidenced by the rampant double-crossing and promise-breaking. McCarthy's characters must continually assert their own power. The kid runs away from his home, where he has no control, and sets off on his own because he wants to fend for himself. Both Glanton and the Judge assert their control by committing heinous and violent crimes in front of their gang. The Apaches and Glanton's gang habitually display the mangled dead bodies of their enemies as warnings or symbols of strength. For example, David Brown wears a necklace of human ears around his neck to show his rivals what might happen to them if they cross him. This theme carries over to a larger context, as well: the governments and cities have no power over the Apaches, which is why they hire dangerous men to facilitate control.
Value of Life
Whereas a few of the main characters in Blood Meridian cling desperately to their lives (like Sproule, the kid, and Tobin), many more nameless individuals meet quick and violent ends. In fact, many characters die out of our sight altogether. Therefore, it does not appear that human life has much inherent dignity or worth in this world. The novel never revels in the suffering of the hundreds of Apaches and Yumas that die at Glanton's hands. Instead, McCarthy's approach reflects the way that Glanton's gang views their mission. By mentally dehumanizing the Apaches, Glanton and his men are able to commit unthinkable atrocities against them. This tragic but accurate mindset mirrors the ways in which the early American government and Mexican leaders saw Native Americans during American expansion. On a grander, more universal scale, Blood Meridian forces readers to reflect on the fact that the path to human progress is inevitably paved with corpses.
Manifest Destiny refers to the popular 19th century belief that the United States was meant to expand across what is now North America. This idea was very prevalent during the time when Blood Meridian is set; the American government used Manifest Destiny to justify going to war with Mexico. Manifest Destiny derived from an inflated sense of self-importance, which exacerbated the mindless violence that was necessary for expansion to occur. The Judge often speaks about the inevitability of war and declares that War is God. His beliefs reflect the mindset of the Americans as they moved forward into Mexican territory - death was a sad but inevitable side effect of Manifest Destiny. This mentality can therefore help the reader to understand how the members of Glanton's gang are able to justify their brutally violent actions.
There are a number of characters in Blood Meridian who start to fall apart as a result of the violent acts they witness or commit. Even the kid, who has a natural violent streak, is haunted by the atrocities he's seen after he leaves Glanton's gang. While Glanton and his gang members seem to disconnect themselves from their brutal assignments, they all inevitably become caught up in a vicious cycle that perpetuates dehumanizing behavior. It is possible to view their constant drunkenness as a potent form of self-medication, but the alcohol ends up fueling a number of fatal arguments within the group. The eventual dissolution of Glanton's gang offers the bleak outlook that once a person explores his or her capacity for violence, there is no return. The kid might try to give up his life of crime when he grows older, but the Judge is always waiting in the shadows to embrace him once more.
McCarthy does reveal the proper names of a number of his characters, the most notable of which is the de facto protagonist (the kid). However, the kid often fails to serve the traditional functions of a protagonist; he does not always drive the action and he frequently disappears for several pages at a time. Other characters, like Tobin, have alternative titles like "Ex-Priest." This fluidity and anonymity make Blood Meridian more experiential than psychological, in that we are not meant to understand these characters but merely to accept that they exist. McCarthy does not try justify his characters' actions to his readers; instead, we must take them at face value. This is one of the elements of Blood Meridian that supports McCarthy's bleak worldview and cynical depiction of humanity.
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