Immense and Terrible Flesh: The Ending of Blood Meridian

This post contains plenty of spoilers for Blood Meridian.  Turn back while you can if you are into that kind of thing.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West has one of the most spectacular final chapters in recent memory.  All of the books themes are thrown in the air with one final confrontation between The Kid and Judge Holden.  While the book is riddled with grand scenes of violence and aggression, this final scene centers around a lone conversation between these two characters — the readers are pulled close to the mysterious Judge Holden who is now more frightening than ever before.  The chapter serves somewhat as a Rosetta Stone for the rest of the book — for those hoping to seek answers for some of the events through the book, this conversation retroactively sheds light on these past events.  Even so, Blood Meridian is slippery — I’ve yet to come across any one interpretation that is conclusive and all-encompassing.  There’s no doubt that the book is about many things; the most prevalent themes are that of violence in the human condition and the all-consuming greed of America’s own Manifest Destiny.  What is less clear is what exactly happens in the final moments of the book, when The Kid approaches the outhouse.  Below are some of the possible endings to the novel.

The Judge is a Pederast. (version 1)

One of the leading theories about what happens in the jakes is that Judge Holden captures The Kid and brutally sodomizes him.  What people can’t seem to agree on is whether or not the sodomy is consensual.  The man who approaches the outhouse gasps in horror at what he sees — it’s one of the only genuine shock-reactions from a character in the book, suggesting that this act is more heinous than your normal everyday scalping.  This act of sodomy serves two purposes: it expresses complete control over The Kid, and it demonstrates an act of submission (willing or no) by The Kid to the Judge.  The entire book, Judge Holden has attempted to control The Kid in some way — in the saloon he tries to appeal to his reason, and even this doesn’t seem to work.  Homoeroticism is suggested by the stark naked antagonist with the phrase “gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh.”

The Judge is the Devil.

The most unsettling moment in the conversation between the Judge in the Kid comes after a shrug from the Kid:

Judge: …And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?
Kid:  You ain’t nothin.
Judge: You speak truer than you know.

Judge Holden is described as a 7-foot, hairless, pale giant of a man.  He’s easily the most cunning and wily of the Glanton Gang — he gains notoriety with the group after an act of magic involving using men’s piss to turn sulfur into rudimentary gunpowder.  He speaks often of science, and he’s dismissive of religion (he especially hates Tobin, the ex-priest).  The first time readers encounter the Judge, he is inciting a crowd to random violence against a priest.  During storms, he strips naked and dances against the thunder and lightning.  It seems that Glanton’s gang encountered the embodiment of true evil out there in the desert, and the turning point in the Judge and the Kid’s relationship (when the Judge becomes overtly hostile to him), seems to occur around the same time as when the Kid and Tobin forge a friendship.

The world around the Judge certainly ages, but when the Kid meets him again decades later, he appears unchanged.  In their conversation, the Judge revels in humanity’s evil underbelly: mankind’s instinctual aggressive and violent nature; its propensity for war; its need to harbor no sympathy for the enemy.  The Kid had a chance to kill the Judge in the desert, but he didn’t take it; years later, the devil claims his stake and takes the Kid’s soul in the outhouse.  Later, he sings, and dances claiming that he will never die — whatever happened in the outhouse seemed to have reinvigorated and renewed the Judge.

The Judge is a Pederast (version 2).

One of the most memorable events in Blood Meridian involves the Judge and a young male Native American child.  After befriending the child, he seems to sodomize and scalp one night for seemingly no real reason (although, the reason, as we learn in this chapter is to avoid harboring “clemency for the heathen.”)  There are other moments throughout the book when children seem to go missing: chapter 9 details a conspicuously missing halfbreed boy; chapter 14 contains a few passages about a missing girl after the Las Animas feast; chapter 16 illustrates the Judge harboring an abducted Mexican girl.  This theory suggests that the unspeakable horror witnessed in the outhouse is the body of the young girl who notably goes missing.  This scene would certainly give reason for the third man at the outhouse to shudder those lone words: “Good God Almighty.”  This interpretation of the events is also notable for the springboard is provides for the next theory.

The Judge and the Kid are the Same Characters

Similar to the conceit behind Fight Club, it has been supposed that the two main characters of Blood Meridian are indeed one and the same.  By the final chapter, it’s been made clear that they are opposites: the Judge follows a very distinct and unrelenting set of principles while the Kid doesn’t seem to have much of a philosophy at all.  To bring things into perspective, by the end of the book, there are three lone survivors from Glanton’s Gang: the Judge, the Kid, and Tobin the Ex-Priest.  By the end of the book, Tobin has completely vanished from the narrative even though the narrator attempts a search for him.  These three personalities all represent different things: the Judge is an embodiment of humanity’s dark impulses, the Kid is a tabula rasa, and Tobin is some broken personification of the human spirit of goodness. The above exchange between the two characters is given a new light in this context.

Now, this interpretation is certainly a slippery one: there are moments when the Kid interacts with people seemingly independently of the Judge or Tobin, but it does offer an interesting new way to view some of the events in Blood Meridian.  The Judge chasing Tobin and the Kid through the desert?  The Judge performing rudimentary chemistry on the mountaintop to simulate gunpowder before the Kid even entered the gang?  There’s probably a few ways to go about interpreting it all.  The crux of the argument though is that by the end of the novel, the Kid has lost the angel that used to sit on his shoulder (Tobin).  Directly after the Judge and the Kid’s conversation, the Kid seems to solicit a “dark little dwarf” of a whore (but notice that the prostitute seems to pick him).  It never states that the two have sex, but McCarthy suggests that the Kid was unable in some capacity to go through with the sexual act as she tells him “You need to get down there and get you a drink.  You’ll be all right.”  Directly after this, the young girl (the one dancing with the bear) is said to have gone missing — the Kid goes away from the music and away from all others toward the outhouse where the Judge is waiting on him.  Did the Kid give into pedophilia after botching the attempt at sex with the dwarf?  Judge Holden’s dark embrace could be the Kid giving into his basic primal urges.

I believe that McCarthy’s novel is slippery for a reason — you can’t coerce the ending to make a neat and tidy conclusion.  Readers are meant to work with the final moments to come to their own conclusions.  We can only “Accept the Mystery” (more on that in a previous posting).  For more reactions on Blood Meridian‘s ending, I would recommend the following link: http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=7931 .

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2 thoughts on “Immense and Terrible Flesh: The Ending of Blood Meridian

  1. Desmond O'Connor says:

    Cormac McCarthy is a Catholic. For religious people, and especially Catholics, with their felt intimacy with God, the biggest problem in the world is the presence of evil. Blood Meridian is a metaphysical allegory that attempts to reconcile the presence of evil with the existence of God. Judge Holden represents God. He is above good and evil. These are concepts that man has devised to describe acts or thoughts that are compatible or not with God’s will. To God they mean nothing. The Judge is totally amoral. The ex-priest Tobin is the devil. Like Satan, he was once God’s servant (priest or, in the metaphysical realm, angel). Just as the devil tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, so Tobin tries to tempt the Kid in the desert. He tries to get him to kill the Judge. There is no reason why the Kid should do this. The only reason we think the Judge wants to kill the KId is that Tobin implies it. In fact we know that the Judge did not kill Brown or Toadvine, and he had ample opportunity to kill the Kid but did not do so. He is in fact, throughout the book, looking out for him. He pursues him through the desert to save him from the devil. The Kid is the human embodiment of God, or as Catholics would have it, God the Son. (God the Holy Ghost is the idiot. Remember, in literature the word “idiot” may not have its conventional meaning, cf Dostoevsky). At the end of the book, the Kid goes to a dark place a bit removed from where people gather. Jesus was buried in a cave, from where he ascended to heaven, or as is sometimes stated “gathered to the bosom of the Lord” or “gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh”. For Catholics, the mystery of the Trinity, which this scene represents is sublimely “terrible”, hence the onlookers’ shock at seeing it enacted. Anyone who thinks that the act in this scene is an act of sodomy, should read the book again and realise that such a facile ending would be totally incompatible with the intricate structure of theological allegory that the author has painstakingly built over the previous 300 or so pages.

  2. tom says:

    the theme of blood meridien is actually very clear, to me, and to a few others youll find discussing it on the internet- it is about the nature of history, the power that controlling history holds, and how to wield that power through violence and destroying those who would reveal that which youd prefer to keep hidden.

    in light of this, the interpretation of the ending is that the judge “erases” the kid from existence. what does this mean exactly? who knows, but it is more than simply murdering him. the kid is the only witness left alive who kid contradict the version of the events the judge would want passed down into history, and leaving behind any trace of him risks this happening. what the bystanders see is not the kids body, but some unidentifiable trace of something that was once there and is somehow gone.

    but, there is reason to believe the erasure is not complete. we know nothing of the kid, not his name or much of his backstory, but some fragment remains, just as the tale of the real glanton gang, “my confession” somehow survived history and reappeared decades later.

    as the judges dances, he repeats a phrase 3 times. mccarthy’s wording though is key. on the first statement the words are “he never sleeps, he says, he says he will not die.” there are two claims the judge is making. on the 2 subsequent repetitions, it is “he never sleeps, he says he will not die.” the claim that he never sleeps is now stated not as a claim, but as a fact, however, “he will not die” remains only something that the judge claims to be so, but mccarthy is telling us it is not, the judge will ultimately fail.

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