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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