The novel begins with a history of its protagonist, who is known simply as “the child” and later on, as “the kid.”
The kid is born in Memphis, Tennessee during the Leonids meteor shower of 1833. His father is a drunk schoolmaster and his mother dies in childbirth. He has a sister whom the narrator tells us he will never know.
At 14, the kid runs off to Memphis. He ends up in St. Louis a year later, where he lands a spot on a flatboat bound for New Orleans. He travels on it for 42 days. During the journey, a Maltese boatswain shoots the kid just below the heart. A tavern keeper’s generous wife nurses the kid back to health, but after he heals, he realizes he has no money to repay her and runs away again. He eventually finds employment on a ship and ends up in Texas. By 1849, the kid has worked in both a sawmill and a diphtheria pesthouse. His most valuable possession is an aged mule that a farmer gave him as payment for some work. Perched on that mule, the kid rides into Nacogdoches, Texas.
He arrives in Nacogdoches to find that rain has been drenching the town for the past two weeks. The kid quickly finds refuge in a ratty canvas tent where a preacher, Reverend Green, is giving a passionate sermon. The religious revival is interrupted by a tall man with no hair who accuses the preacher of being unqualified for his job, claiming that he is wanted in 4 states for crimes that include pedophilia and bestiality. This public revelation causes upheaval in the tent. While the kid is able to escape to the local bar with the help of a young teamster, the rest of Nacogdoches’s population erupts into violent chaos. The site of the religious revival soon becomes a battleground.
When the kid and the teamster arrive at the bar, they find the bald man there - the bartender calls him “The Judge." He buys drinks for the young men. Soon enough, all the town’s men arrive in the bar, battered from the tumult and plotting to run Reverend Green out of town. Curious, the kid asks the Judge how he knew about Reverend Green's sins. The Judge reveals that he had never seen the man before in his life. After a moment of stunned silence, the whole bar erupts into laughter.
It continues to rain in Nacogdoches, and the kid drinks most of his money away. One night, he is leaving the bar, stepping on planks laid over the mud, when he encounters a drunk man who refuses to get out of his way. A bloody fight ensues, and the kid's opponent leaves him facedown in the mud. When he wakes, his attacker is still there and helps the kid pull himself together. The kid then follows the man, whose name is Toadvine, to a hotel in town. Toadvine is looking for a man named Old Sidney. The hotel clerk tells Toadvine that Old Sidney is upstairs in bed and warns Toadvine that Sidney intends to kill him. Together, the kid and Toadvine set fire to the hotel and beat Sidney to death when he runs from his room. When the clerk comes upstairs to stop the attack, the kid kills him, too.
As the hotel burns, the kid leaves Toadvine and returns to the Mexican family with whom he has left his mule. He retrieves his old friend and prepares to leave Nacogdoches. As he rides out of town, the kid sees the Judge among the men watching the hotel burn to the ground. The Judge smiles at him.
The kid rides away from Nacogdoches until he is too hungry and tired to go any further. He finally stops when he sees a fire, which belongs to an old hermit in a modest shelter. The kid asks the hermit for some water; the hermit shares his gourd with the kid but he will not let the mule drink from it. After quenching his mule's thirst at a nearby well, the kid prepares to leave. However, the hermit warns him of a coming storm and invites him to stay the night. The kid agrees and that night, he learns that the hermit was once a successful slave-trader. He claims to have made good money and boasts that he was never caught, but he gave up slave trading once he tired of it. He shows the kid a souvenir from that time, however: the heart of a slave who had was hanged to death. In the middle of the night, the kid awakens to see the hermit watching him sleep. The next morning, the hermit is nowhere to be found, so the kid gathers his things and moves on.
Along the way, the kid meets a group of cattle herders traveling from Abilene to California. He lies and tells them that he was robbed and has no food or weapons. The herders offer him a place within their group. While they travel, the kid becomes interested in the herders' story about a group of men from Arkansas that is heading to Mexico by way of Bexar (in Texas). The kid announces that he is going to travel to Bexar. The next morning, he finds a cupful of dried beans, peppers, and a new knife tied to his saddle.
Four days later, the kid arrives in Bexar. In the main plaza, he hears music and sees lots of people, all of whom are speaking in Spanish. He heads straight to the nearest bar, where he offers to do manual labor in exchange for drinks. The bartender gives him a broom and the kid thoroughly cleans every corner of the bar. When the bartender refuses to give the kid a drink, though, the kid attacks. He eventually breaks a bottle over the bartender’s head and kills him. The kid then steals a bottle of liquor and heads out to fetch his mule.
A few days later, a rider approaches the kid while he is resting under a tree. The rider is a recruiter for Captain White, who is seeking the man responsible for killing the bartender in Bexar. Apparently, Captain White believes that the bartender's killer would make a good recruit for an expedition he is leading to Mexico. The recruiter (Sergeant Trammel, though we do not learn his name until later) argues the value of joining the Captain's gang: each man gets his own horse and weapon. Trammel claims that he was living a wasteful life before he joined up with Captain White. His arguments convince the kid to meet the Captain, so they head to the hotel in town where the Captain is staying.
During his interview, the kid tells Captain White that he is 19 years old and that Mexicans robbed him outside Nacogdoches. The Captain describes the Mexicans as barbaric, as they don’t believe in God. He argues that that the Americans are doing well in the conflict with Mexico and claims that a commission is being drawn up in Washington, D.C. to establish a boundary between Mexico and the U.S.A. Soon, Americans will be able to travel to California without having to encounter any Mexicans en route. Captain White calls his company an instrument of liberation and he promises the kid his own tract of land once the Mexicans are defeated. The kid accepts the Captain’s offer.
The kid follows Trammel and the Captain to the camp, where other company members are tasked with selling the kid's mule to provide him with a new shirt, some money, and a saddle. After doing so, the company stops at a tavern on their way back to camp. Trammel buys whiskey for the lower ranking men. While there, they meet the acquaintance of an older Mennonite man who warns them that they will never make it past the river because General Worth and the U.S. Army will stop them. He further cautions the company against stealing land. These words incite tension in the bar and a fight erupts. One member of Captain White's company dies. As a result, the kid has a horse of his own the following morning.
The next day, all 46 members of Captain White's company file out of town, sporting wagons, rifles, and brand-new Colt revolvers. They are led by a Mexican guide. After ten days of riding across the plains, four men have died. They are all so covered in dust that they look like a ghost army. The men pray for rain, but they see nothing except dry, open plain for days. Finally, they come upon an old hut with a rawhide door. It is abandoned except for a mad old man living in the stable. Later, they pass through Mexican villages that have been torched and abandoned. At one point, Captain White stops to observe a massive herd in the distance. It turns out to be a bloodthirsty drove of Comanche Warriors, decorated with human scalps. Captain White’s company is no match for the warriors, whose arrows are more efficient than the Americans' guns. A brutal battle ensues, and the kid witnesses several atrocities - the warriors decapitate some of White's company members and sodomize others before scalping them.
The kid is one of eight survivors of the bloodshed. His horse has died as well. Another survivor is Sproule, who has sustained a severe arm injury. He accompanies the kid in a quest to find water. On the outskirts of an abandoned Mexican village, they find a bush hung with dead babies. Everyone in the village has been killed, excepting the odd cat or burro. The kid does manage to find some food in an abandoned kitchen, however. Sproule confesses that he has consumption and probably won’t make it all the way back to Texas if they decide to attempt the journey. The kid promises nothing in return.
They decide to spend the night in the empty village. It is like an open graveyard; even the church is littered with corpses. The next morning, they set off again. Sproule’s arm injury is starting to stink, but he won’t let the kid see the wound. Because of their intense thirst, they see mirages. Sproule feels too weak to continue and tells the kid to desert him, but the kid refuses. Instead, the kid addresses a passing group of Mexican riders and requests water. The group's leader offers him a canteen, which the kid gulps down, even after its owner demands that he stop. Finally, the Mexican leader has to knock the canteen out of the kid's hands, at which point Sproule manages a few desperate gulps. The leader is irritated but impressed by the kid’s audacity.
Sproule and the kid keep moving. One night, a bloodbat bites Sproule on the neck. The next morning, they hitch a ride on the back of a Mexican family’s carretta. By the time they reach the next town, Sproule is dead. The kid is captured by Mexican soldiers and locked in an empty room in an adobe building.
The soldiers parade the kid through a local circus and traveling bazaar. There, he sees Captain White's head displayed in a jar of clear liquid. However, the kid shows no signs of intimidation when the Mexicans flaunt their macabre treasure. He is then locked in a stone corral with three other refugees from Captain White's expedition, who inform him that they are all meant for Chihuahua City. Clothed in rags, they walk for five days and nights until they arrive in their new home, a cool stone prison. The kid’s cellmate there is none other than Toadvine.
McCarthy’s language is stripped-down and matter-of-fact, even when he describes the most inhuman actions. He introduces his protagonist in the very first sentence of the novel, directly addressing the reader, asking us to “see the child.” This opening sentence sets the tone for the entire novel, as McCarthy peels back any literary flourishes to tell his tale as bluntly and clearly as possible, asking the reader to see the story for what it is. This perspective is bleak and simple; the world of Blood Meridian is not governed by psychology, deep meaning, or beauty.
Blood Meridian seems to clearly fall within the Western genre, although it is closer to the 'revisionist western' mold in that it serves as a critique rather than a celebration of the frontier lifestyle. McCarthy's chapter headings summarizing the plot echo traditional picaresque adventure stories, thus anchoring the novel in a particular historical context. However, this era is littered with such violence and depravity that readers are forced to question any preconceived notions about both the genre and the history itself.
McCarthy does not offer the reader much information about the kid. His most defining characteristic is his penchant for violence, which McCarthy presents quite simply at the beginning of the novel: "in him broods already a taste for mindless violence" (3). It is unclear whether this "taste" derives from his father's disinterest or whether it is innate. McCarthy expects the reader to accept this ambiguity as the sum of the boy's psychology, and never delves any deeper into it. He never reveals what the kid is thinking, nor does he give him a name. This shroud of mystery places the kid more in the role of a guide through McCarthy's world as opposed to an emotional lynchpin, which would be the traditional function of a protagonist in a novel. Meanwhile, there is a very subtle character arc within the first five chapters of Blood Meridian. By the end of this section, the kid exhibits loyalty and compassion in his refusal to abandon Sproule. Whether this glimmer of humanity is a result of innate goodness or a response to a world that devalues the individual is left to the reader's interpretation. Nevertheless, the kid's development becomes more pronounced as the novel continues.
In these first five chapters, McCarthy also introduces many of his primary themes: survival, God, and human nature. There is a great deal of unprovoked violence in the story, and the kid’s steely exterior and stubbornness prove to be requisite survival tools in this brutal landscape. For instance, when the kid accompanies Toadvine on his mission to kill Old Sidney, he knows exactly what Toadvine is capable of, having just lost a fight to him. Therefore, the kid has little choice when Toadvine demands that he kick Old Sidney. As a result, the kid's participation in the violence against Old Sidney does not stem only from cruelty, but also from necessity. The kid is a young, wiry man alone in the Old West with no allies. Hence, he must adapt to its brutality if he is to survive. Throughout the novel, McCarthy expects the reader to judge how much of the kid's behavior is conditioned, and how much is simply a manifestation of his "taste for mindless violence."
Another main theme in these opening chapters is religion. McCarthy reveals later on that the kid, despite being illiterate, carries a Bible with him. While many characters in the novel invoke God, there is a serious disconnect between any moral code and the brutality of this world. The underlying implication is that humanity has long since abandoned a moral compass, yet religion is the channel through which we keep pretending to be capable of good. The way that people quickly transition from willing participants in Reverend Green's sermon into a bloodthirsty mob underlines this idea.
There are further suggestions that McCarthy intends to craft a world in which humans beings have battered one another past the point of purity and now all of mankind has become inherently mean. For instance, the hermit, a former slave trader, observes, “you can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at the elbow.” He believes that humanity’s worst characteristics are on display in the Old West, and his statement serves as a warning to the kid about the Godless world he is about to enter. McCarthy even alludes to religions outside of Christianity to emphasize the uselessness of faith in the face of bloodthirstiness. After Toadvine burns down the hotel, McCarthy describes him as “a great clay voodoo doll made animate" while “the kid [looks] like another.” Voodoo came to America from West Africa during the slave trade and differs greatly from any kind of Christian practice. Thus, McCarthy does not simply denigrate Christianity, but rather, he makes a larger statement about humanity in general.
Furthermore, McCarthy does not shy away from the physicality of violence. He rattles off a list of heinous images in describing the attack by the Comanche warriors; he calls the "savages" “a legion of horribles.” His blunt, non-judgmental tone serves as an ironic counterpoint to the brutality of these crimes, which forces the reader to accept that human beings are capable of such acts.
Lastly, McCarthy infuses Blood Meridian with plenty of historical and mystical detail. In the years following the Mexican-American war, vigilantes and fortune-seekers exploited the frontier for their own gains. Furthermore, McCarthy introduces characters and incidents that serve to create a mythical frame around the kid's journey. The hermit could be an oracle along the kid's path, since he offers sage advice. Meanwhile, the crazy man in the stable has metaphoric value in reflecting the destruction around him. Blood Meridian's evocative landscapes and larger-than-life mystical elements combined with McCarthy's brand of gritty realism create a unique blend of historical commentary and mythic contemplation.