Thursday, October 6, 2011

Blood Meridian, Or, What Is That Ending?


"When this world was made, was never meant to save, everyone in kind.
I don't believe that God much had me, had me much in mind."

Today I'm doing something that Dave's spoken of before. I'm discussing the ending of a book. If you've not read Blood Meridian then you may not want to read on. I don't think knowing the journey's end ruins the book, but by the same token it never improves it.

Go, read the book. It's worth it.

Still here?

Okay. The ending of the book is something of an obsession of mine. I can put it away in a drawer for months at a time, but when it gets loose, it takes over my brain for days. It's one of my favourite books, and I reckon this obsession with the ending is one of the main reasons behind that.

Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West, is an unapologetic and difficult book. It challenges you to read it, with a more dense and stylised prose than we see from Cormac McCarthy's later work. Just as the prose challenges us with its style, the story challenges us with its themes. And after a long brutal journey, some people can be thrown off by the ending. But I'm not one of them.

The plot of the book follows The Kid, a teenage runaway, and his journey into the heart of darkness. Sometimes the narrator seems to be The Kid, but at other times its far less clear. We follow him through brutality and violence, through some of the worst acts possible to mankind, but somehow there's something inside him that we root for. There's something very human about the kid. Contrasted against this is the antagonist, tormentor, mentor, companion and demon; Judge Holden.

The two characters don't come into contact often, but they circle each other across the narrative. If the Kid is our occasional guide on the journey, Holden is the lure that's dragging us both along.

He's a force of nature, large and hairless, capable of great violence and great mirth. When we first see him, he is inciting a townspeople to kill a preacher by claiming that the holy man had sex with an eleven year old girl. It's an accusation that Holden made up, just to sit back and watch the violence.

I remember watching The Dark Knight and seeing more than a little of Judge Holden in Ledger's Joker. As Alfred says in that film, "some men just want to watch the world burn." And as the clown himself says, "I'm like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one, I just do things."

Holden rises and falls above the plot, he dances around us like a demon around a campfire. He knows the hearts and minds of the people around him, and he seeks to own them completely. Many people read him to literally be the devil, but that's something I'll return to a little later.

The Kid encounters a number of other memorable characters, who each also cross paths with Holden. Each one has a doomed story to tell, each one carries a broken heart or is tainted by a compromise. Toadvine is one of my favourite characters, he's a scarred and branded outlaw, at times both friend and mentor to the Kid, he's not as depraved as some of the other characters, and he doesn't agree with Holden's world view. Ultimately, though, he is part of the violence, he is tainted and compromised, and he can't outrun his fate. There's David Brown, who is something of a more human version of Judge Holden; if Holden is a force of nature, Brown is a dark man who stands too close to the wind. Ultimately, he isn't the unstoppable force that Holden is, and his actions burn him. 

If those two characters mark the dark strings pulling on the Kid's heart, there are two characters who show the other side, something that could save him. Tobin is an ex-preacher, a man who has traded in a life of God for the harsh truth's of scalp hunting. Although, as with Toadvine and Jones, he has bathed himself in blood, he still holds onto his belief in God, and opposes the Judge. His fate is left ambiguous, he gets shot but it's never stated that he died. A man with a similar end (or lack of) is Chambers, a man who has fallen into the violent life of the scalping gang, but holds dreams of a better life. His death is ambiguous, we never see the body. I think your views on the fates of Tobin and Chambers will be informed by your take on the ending. Do you want to believe in a story of redemption? Or do you read a book in which nobody gets out alive?

"There must be a place, where this world and grace, are made to meet."


So what's all this hoopla over the ending? Why, I'm glad you asked.

The Kid, now an adult by the end of the book, encounters Holden one final time. In an outhouse, a "jake," the Kid comes across the Judge, who is large and naked. The narrative tells us that Holden takes the Kid "in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh." And that's pretty much it. We never see, nor hear, of the Kid again. All we know is that whatever fate he meets in that outhouse is so dark, so troubling, that when men come along later and witness the scene, they are stunned into silence and quickly leave.

So what happens?

"Drink up, drink up. 'Cuz tonight your soul's required of you."

The popular theory seems to be sodomy. The Judge doesn't want to simply kill the Kid, he wants to humiliate him, destroy him. That's why he's naked while he waits for him, and why he does it in such a public place.

Fair enough. There's enough evidence in that scene to support that, if that's the way you want to take it. But there's precious little evidence elsewhere of the Judge being a sexual creature. He's a force of nature, yes, but his appetites seem to lean more towards satisfaction through violence and manipulation rather than simply getting any rocks off. And his description seems to point to someone who is either more or less human, as if there's an effort to make his motives seem other-worldly. Why go 333 pages without showing any real sign of being a sexual predator, to then carry out such an act "off screen?"

Another argument is that the Judge is a supernatural figure. That he literally is the devil, as many allude to, and that he is taking his pound of flesh from everyone in turn and that, by the end of the novel, it's simply time for the Kid to be taken.

Again, there's evidence aplenty for this reading. But it seems too easy. The book is such a challenging exploration of human violence, and the dark heart of man, that it would seem to me to be too much of a simple answer to make the Judge into a supernatural being. The book is the horrors of humanity, not the horrors of demons. We can come up with far more depraved acts than any creature of hell.

Is the clue elsewhere in the book? The whole thing is about violence. It's about the extremes that the characters go to, and how they slowly make themselves inhuman, how they become desensitised to brutality, and wear necklaces made of earrings. Each character slowly becomes removed from humanity, from the "normal" people that they encounter, and those who fight against it, who take a stand against the Judge's world view, seem to die off screen.

Why would the book go to such length's to portray violence and darkness, only to draw the curtain across its final act? And what could be so nasty, so disturbing, that it can't be described?

I often try to get into the Judge's head. To figure out how he sees his role. Does he believe himself to be the devil? Is he acting out a role that he has chosen for himself, sitting in judgement of humanity around him, and figuratively taking the souls of people he can own, and killing those that he can't? He knows each character in the book. He can read their hearts and minds in a way that does border on the supernatural, which would lead back toward the devil theory. After the dark actions in the outhouse, we see him dancing, loud and free, the life and soul of the party. "He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."

If the book is about violence and our own darker places, then those are also the very things that "will never die." So does the Judge even exist, or is he a manifestation of the thing all of us have, but won't admit to? Is he a creation of the omniscient narrator, the voice who sometimes seems to be the Kid but at other times doesn't? Or are both characters creations? If the Kid and Holden seem to be circling each other, opposite ends of the same story, are we seeing the internal struggle of a war torn veteran? Is this someone losing the last vestiges of their humanity, of Holden's ID smothering the Kid's morals? Is this a Tyler Durden-style swerve?

Is Holden a throwback? Is he a creature from our dark past, a reminder that we've not come far? Or is he the future? Is he someone who has evolved beyond the constraints of humanity and morals? Is he, as the Joker says in The Dark Knight, "just ahead of the curve."

You know what?

I don't think it matters.

I think that, just as the Judge shows each of the characters something about themselves, he shows each reader something, too. I don' think the book is the journey of Kid, or Toadvine, or Tobin, or any of them. It's the journey of the reader. The characters are our totems, our spirit guides, and the Judge is, as his name suggests, the mirror that casts something of us back at ourselves.

We hold the book up and see what comes back at us. McCarthy doesn't tell us what happens in that outhouse because nothing does. Not really. It's a black space that we fill in. The judge is a blank face, he's a plot device. Whatever scares you goes into the space behind his eyes, and whatever small hope keeps you going goes into the Kid, and you fill that outhouse with your own world view.

Read the book, and see what it throws back at you.

And I'll leave you with a song. Ben Nichols -lead singer of Lucero- recorded a concept album a couple years ago that was inspired by Blood Meridian. Each song is a character study from the book, each tells a snippet of a character's life, their hopes, dreams and failures. Tellingly, the track dedicated to the Judge has no lyrics. It's dark and ominous, and let's you fill in the blanks.

The album was called The Last Pale Light In The West, and whenever my Blood Meridian obsession comes calling, so does the need to listen to this album on constant rotation. The quotes that I've been sprinkling through this post are lifted from the songs. Here's one of them, both to act as a soundtrack to this post and to try and convince you to buy the album.


"You wouldn't think that out here, a man can simply run clear, out of country but oh my, oh my, nothing but the light."


38 comments:

courtmerrigan said...

Enjoyed this review of BM, which is probably also my favorite book of all-time.

I would agree that what happens in the jakes isn't necessarily sexual; refer to the Judge's treatment of the little Mexican girl earlier in the book - he kills her, but there's no mention that he violated her.

It does appear, though, elsewhere that other members of the gang engage in rape; and when The Kid's column is ambushed by Indians early in the book, there is clear reference to sodomy. But, yeah, I think the Judge rises above that.

I also don't think the Judge is the devil. There's no much sense of the supernatural in BM, other than the supernatural superlativeness of the prose.

As for what happens in the jakes - I can see how you would think that McCarthy leaves it for us to fill in, but that's unsatisfying somehow. McCarthy demonstrates such complete authorial control throughout the rest of the book that I never have been able to figure why he left the blank spot at the end. I don't know. I don't have an answer. (I also don't have the book right in front of me, to read the ending one more time. Now I wish I did.)

I suppose that's one of the reasons the book keeps on drawing me back, besides the magisterial force of the writing: that uncertainty at the ending.

Anonymous said...

I have read the book 5 times. I can't get enough of it. The theory I find most interesting is:

You are never shown the killing of the Kid in the jakes. Another patron arrives on the scene and is warned by an unknown man that he should not enter the jake. He ignores the warning and is greeted by a horrible sight. The theory is the unamed man who issued the warning is The Kid and he committed a horrible act. The next scene is the Judge stating he is never going to die. I think the Judge has turned the Kid into a brutal murderer, much like himself, and in the Kid's acts, the Judge will never die. I've never bought on to the supernatual element of the Judge. McCarthy is to sophisticated of a writer to have an easy answer to the Judge.

Mark Coxon said...

OK, So I just finished this book for the first time.

Here is my take on the ending.

I think that the judge is the devil or at least a representation of him. The Kid avoids him at all costs, and cannot kill him at short distances in the creek, after showing he can hit indians at 100 yards with the pistol.

The judge is at the center of depravity throughout. He is in the hut watching the naked imbecile and a young girl, etc.

Two other times in the book a young girl goes missing in a town where the Kid is encamped with the gang. I at first thought it was the black Jackson, as he was late to rejoin the gang the first time, but after the ending I think different.

I think the Kid is the sexual predator, the one responsible for the girls disappearing. I think he has been running from himself the whole time. The judge calls him out as the only one not being truthful in his depravity and violence, like he fashions himself better than the rest.

I think at the end, he finds the young girl in the outhouse hiding and crying because of the bear, and "the judge" overtakes him. The devil gets him one more time and he kills her.

It is the Kid that is the unnamed man who tells the onlookers not to go inside. They open and see what has been done, that is the horror.

The Judge is vindicated and dances at the stage, saying that he will never die, as no matter how men try to outrun him, they cannot, and he lives within them forever.

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

...and wear necklaces made of *ears*...

Anonymous said...

I'm with Mark on this one. Children go missing throughout the book when the Gang is around. One would probably assume it's the Judge that's responsible, but it could very well be the Kid. Perhaps him carrying around a Bible he can't read for all those years after was an attempt to (among other things) fight that within himself, but being in the presence of the Judge one more time brought him back over to embrace his evil self.

It's also implied in the scene before that he attempted to engage a dwarf prostitute in her services, but that he couldn't 'perform'. Why would this scene and the others with missing children (especially the last at the end) be there if they didn't have any significance?

Also, why would a sodomized and/or murdered man in an outhouse be that unspeakably horrifying to a townfolk who have seen everything? That town was described as the center for sin in Texas. Seeing a raped and mutilated girl isn't something they see every day, though-- that may garner that sort of reaction.

The ambiguity of the ending is what makes it fun, though. We can all inject a piece of our own selves and fears into it.

Kevin Tuck said...

Don't be too quick to write off a sexually themed ending (or rather, an unthinkably brutal and revolting twist of sexual). Need I remind us all that earlier in the novel, McCarthy introduces the notion that all of the Glanton gang delve in sodomy - I can't recite the page nor any specific details as the book is nowhere near me, but I distinctly remember a scene in a barren barn where a certain undefined commotion stinks distinctly of frank, un-sexual intimacy and sodomy between the gang.

I've only read the novel once, mind you. But I felt there was a very strong notion towards homosexuality as a sort of broken barrier that at least The Judge had no reckoning to ignore nor avoid. When I read the ending, I understood that sodomy/rape was involved sheerly based on the fact that it would be, for The Kid, the most horrendous and strangely appropriate act he could have faced. The Judge spoke of an almost indescribably ritual of routine faced in any social situation - one he named "The Dance". Embracing The Kid sexually would be something so unconventional, so heinous, and so inexplicable, that it would be a total destruction of the 'dance' we would expect them to go through in their final moments.

There's something suffocating and brutal about the ambiguity of The Kid's last scene. I can't write off sodomy sheerly based on the fact that McCarthy had so blatantly avoided it's blatancy throughout the novel, yet it's presence seemed so present and almost looming. I like to think there was something mutual about it - not so much in that either enjoyed it, but rather that it seemed as appropriate to them as it does to most of us reading it for the first time, before writing it off for whatever reason.

It is specifically unspecific though, so I can't say anyone is wrong. However I can't write off something so obvious just because it is obvious. There's significance behind our instinctive assumptions, and I believe McCarthy took that into great consideration.

Anonymous said...

Good review of the book but I disagree that there are no mentions of the Judge being a sexual predator before page 333. It's implied strongly throughout the novel that the Judge is responsible for the missing and murdered children and at the point when the Yuma Indians confront him in his room he's stark naked in there with the "idiot" and a young girl. I think while the ending does not need to be specifically understood as a particular event that it's likely that the Judge rapes and kills the kid.

Anonymous said...

I think the missing bear girl was in the jake with the Judge. That's why he was naked. Why would he "wait" for the Kid there? So Judge is raping the girl and in walks the Kid. Coincidence? It's a story. Stories are full of them. Anyway, the Judge sees the Kid and before he has a chance to run or pull a gun or whatever, the Judge grabs him, locks the door and murders both of them. Perhaps he rapes him too, but I think the element of rape is not so important as the physical power that he holds over mere mortals like the Kid. I don't think he needs to rape the Kid. He needs only to prove to himself that he will be the one to go on living. And he probably scalps both of them...

It's a wonderfully ambiguous ending. Why not leave it up to the reader. Perhaps McCarthy wants us to continue to look inward. What do we see? What are we, as men, capable of? After being continually shocked throughout the book at the depravity, what can be so shocking at the end? We must prove the Judge right by coming up with the deepest, darkest, most horribly disgusting thing we can think of. Then and only then has McCarthy made his point.

Andyhill86 said...

Interesting review. Really loved the book.

Referring to the lack of 'sexual' connotations associated with the judge, what about we he is disturbed by the Yuma Indian whilst standing over the naked imbecile and the 12 year old girl?

My take on the judge is that although he may not be the actual devil, he represents man's evil nature and capacity for unspeakable acts - hence he 'will never die' as somewhere, man will continue to undertake violent acts

Anonymous said...

Just completed the book - good read. Great points and discussion.
I agree with those that believe that the "third man" who was relieving himself by the jakes in the last pages of the book is the Kid, but he is now a person that is no longer a kid but now one that has embraced the same evil and lack of morals as exemplified by the judge. This explains why the judge says later that he will never die as now the kid has embraced his own dark side of evil and that evil will live on forever - through others.
First, the Judge locked the door of the jakes once the kid entered, so no one was going to walk in on whatever was occurring.
Second, the "third man" knew what was in the jake, thus his warning to the two men that they should not go in there. The only way that he would have known what was in the jake (and known that it is was no longer locked from the inside) was to have either been in there prior OR that he came to the jake after the door was unlocked from the inside and the judge had departed (as the judge is the only one we know for sure that departed the jake).
Third, The "third man" was relieving himself and NOT affected at all by what was in the jake, while the "first man" opened the jake and exclaimed in horror, "Good God Almighty." I believe the third man (the kid) had committed the crime observed in the jake by the first man and was no longer ashamed or bothered by his evil acts.
I believe that the Judge had taken the missing girl (organ grinder for the dancing bear)and had her there for the Kid to violate, mutilate and murder. By doing this in the presence of the Judge, the kid no longer hid or denied this evil part of him but embraced it as evil (the Judge) embraced him. The judge had told the kid that he could have been his son.
I think the author uses child rape and murder in the story as an example of the ultimate evil. The reader can and will be somewhat dismissive or accepting of the other crimes and horrors perpetrated by Glanton and his gang. The average modern readers can’t relate to scalping, genocide or attacking villages and wagon trains. We tend to think of those crimes as more remote, primitive or from a time in the past. HOWEVER, child rape and murder is still very present and still resonates with all as one of the most horrific crimes a person can commit and that such a person that commits this act is pure evil.
Further, the author gives us several indications that the judge has a tendency to violate little boys and NOT little girls. First, early on the author tells of the death of the 12 year old half-breed found naked is an indication of the judge’s actions. He asks who boy is this? No one answers and all look away – as if they know his desire and intentions. Later, we know for certain that the Indian kid that the judge took after the raid on the Indian village was killed by the judge. Rape in both cases are assumed. I also contend that the judge took control of the imbecile for his sexual perversions. The Imbecile is the eternal man-child. Unlike the boys that the judge raped, the Imbecile remains a child after the rape. The Expriest Tobin knows that the Judge has this relationship with the Imbecile and thus that is why he prods the Kid to kill him in the desert. The fact that the small Indian girl was alive in the Judge’s room when the Yuma’s attack Glanton’s gang at the ferry, indicates he does not like little girls.

Anonymous said...

... part two

The book does tell us of girl children being abducted and killed, with no indication as to who committed the crime. I contend that this is the work of the Kid but a part of the evil in himself that he is ashamed of and wants to hide – but the Judge knows. The Kids’ selection of the dwarf prostitute and the mention of the missing girl at the end of the book are further indicators as to what occurs in the jake.
I don’t believe the judge is the devil, but the embodiment of pure evil. He knows right from wrong as defined by man and society but sees no difference or divider – but more importantly does not control his actions based on the difference. If he saves the Imbecile from drowning for his own sexual perversions, is that act of saving good or bad? Also, the Judge states that the Expriest Tobin always speaks the truth. The Expriest Tobin tells the Kid to shoot the Judge as he is a man and can be killed.
Thought provoking ending.

Tony said...

It's an old trope, the vanishing west, and almost too obvious to suggest but the evidence is right there. I reckon the Judge is modernity.. For example, amongst his very sophisticated characteristics, he's a scientist and desires to know the world around him in order to exploit it. The book is full of amazing, otherworldly scenery and the final scene takes place in a squalid man-made structure. The kids death is necessary for the Judges new world order to be complete. Also, dying in the toilet is about as modern an occurrence as you can get!

Anonymous said...

I really think I have figured this ending out, it seems fairly obvious to me.
The "judge" and the "kid" are one in the same throughout the book. The characters are merely different representations of the mind of the main character of the book (the reader?).
Throughout the book it is strongly implied that the judge (the kid as well) is a child molester. The obvious reason why he takes the idiot along as someone else said, the idiot is always a child.
At the very end of the book, the kid gets a midget prostitute, but the book seems to imply he could not get aroused, so left for the outhouse. When he goes to the outhouse, he finds the bears lost little girl inside. He also finds the judge, aka his evil side....guess what happens to the little girl. The kid is consumed by the judge.
Great, great ending.

Anonymous said...

I think anonymous (Sep 2012) is pretty close. I will add that the only other time in the book when anyone reacts strongly to violence is when the judge told the crowd that the preacher had sexually molested a little girl. All other violence in the novel was met with not so much as a raised eyebrow. The reaction of the 1st man looking into the jakes suggests to me that there was a dead and violated little girl in there, otherwise there would be no strong reaction.
Likewise, the dwarf prostitute scene sets up the idea that it was the kid who killed the little girl in the jakes (the little girl was missing, by the way).
What the judge is, I surmise, is "the master". Animals play a major role in this novel. There are horses and mules and dogs, and they are out in the godforsaken desert suffering, getting snakebit, getting eaten, and starving to death all because they are following their masters. They are contrasted by wolves and vultures and snakes, who are also in the desert but that's where they belong. They are violent to, but their violence serves a purpose. The members of the Glanton gang are similar to the mules and horses. They are out in the desert, a place where they really have no business, they are suffering badly and often dying. And why? Because they are following the orders of Glanton. They are animals. Glanton is their task master. the judge, on the other hand, is their spiritual master. He breaks their will, much like a cowboy breaks a wild horse. His toughest task, perhaps, was the kid, who resisted being broken. He scalped and killed, but still resisted the judge's preaching. In the end, after the conversation with the judge, and after the failure with the dwarf prostitute, the kid was finally broken. He succumbed to his wild and/or evil nature. This is what the judge was happy about, this is why the judge was dancing.

Anonymous said...

Despite the many who cling to the obvious motive of violence when speaking of what this book is about, it is actually about the nature of history, the creation of history and our remembrance of history. the judge sees great power in seeking control of this dynamic. he wishes to control what those who will come after him know of what happened today. he sees an immortality in this. my thought of the end is that he erases the kid from existence. merely killing him would leave behind a body, evidence of his existence others could interpret and add to the historical record, the judge erases him, as if he never existed.

Anonymous said...

There are a few Judge/Kid as the same person ideas going around, I thought it was interesting that the kid is small with big wrists and big hands, while the judge is massive with tiny feet and hands - probably nothing to it, but between them they average out to a fairly well-rounded (physically) individual.

Anonymous said...

i didn't have time to read everyone's comment, but here is mine. there may not be evidence of a definate sexual theme re: the judge and kid through the book, but there is certainly evidence of kids getting killed. several times. i believe the the judge lured/abducted the young girl (associated with the bear) back to the jakes. when the kid walks in he embraces him 'cause he is overwealmed with joy because after all these years, the kid still has the inhume desire they bath always shared, albiet grudgingly (for the kid anyway). they jointy slay the young girl, as they probably did all the kids mentioned in the book before hand. judge being nude suggests possibly rape/murder. the kid is the bloke pissing in the mud when the two other dudes approach the jakes, the judge has shot through. judge is over the moon and making the big call "he will never die" as he is refering to his legacy. he has seen that after all these years the kid can come back and be as downright evil as he always will, possibly after years of this behavior being redundant. the judges belief that some people are born evil cu nts like him is reinforced. now he is certain his legacy of death and horror will live forever, and he boasts it will never die. that's simply my take, i believe it is very plausable. great book. i sure hope the judge does die, what a prick! kayne, melbourne, aust.

Anonymous said...

just finished the book for the 1st time. i think the jakes contains the dead, raped bear-girl for sure. we know it also contained holden, naked. and eventually, the kid. i really don't believe the author intends holden to be supernatural i.e. the devil/ the other side of the kid coin. Holden was a real person (according to Chamberlain's account). also, as previously stated by another, the whole point of this book is human evilness. it is not supernatural. our evil is real, has been, and always will be.
i believe the instances of child abduction/death/rape plus the kid's unsatisfactory experience with his chosen little whore plus holden's kinship with the kid plus...

basically, i think the kid had a part in the horror of the jakes aka bear-girl rape. maybe holden ended up killing the kid as well and left him to be framed as the sole perpetrator, hearkening back to their conversation in the jail cell in San Diego. either way, the kid succumbs and holden continues on.

Anonymous said...

I would say the kid is dead solely for the fact that he owed the judge, the very least his life. The judge alluded to this fact while he was chasing the ex-priest and the kid. Plus, the judge smiles upon seeing the kid. Remember though, that the kid is now a man, probably of no sexual interest to the judge. I think the kid knew is his eventual fate and left it in the hands of the judge. What man can embrace what they have done without becoming one with it. The judge realized the realities of control in that environment, that's why he sought to catalog everything he saw. He lived through violence and embraced it. The kid was had too much "humanity" to live with the reality of the situation. He forfeited his soul to the judge by riding with him. I believe he finally gave the devil his due in the end. Great book by the by.

Anonymous said...

The Judge is neither god nor devil, nor a mirror.

He represents government, capable of good, as in making the gunpowder in dire emergency-but mostly a force of evil bent on control of his followers. Government lives forever, makes war and leads people to a fate not of their own choice. The dream the Kid has prior to surgery show the Judge involved in minting currency, who else does this but government?

A Judge in the old west was often the only government official in large areas of territory, so it is in the book as he make treaties with a government in Mexico and joins their war.

People die, but the Judge will live forever because he represents government and that ideas power over others for both good and evil.

Anonymous said...

Just finished BM for the first time. Enjoyed comments and reviews above.
My short take om the Jakes is that whatever happens is intentionally left to the imagination of the reader.
McCarthy is making a point - through out the book every horror has been explicitly described; but what happens in the Jakes is the most frightining effect of all - it ledt to imagination.

TR said...

Just finished the book and I enjoyed all of the insightful interpretations here. My immediate reaction as I was reading the jakes scene is going to sound weird, although it's been alluded to in the comments above: I felt the judge was the embodiment of evil, not necessarily Satan but an entity that grew more powerful with every horrible act it committed against humankind. And it hunted, took pleasure in the hunt, and when done with the killings in the expedition, it turned its attention to its own party. The hug is what gets me, and the description of the "terrible skin" that the Kid felt as he was embraced. I pictured as I read the Kid being enveloped by the judge, absorbing his being, or soul, I suppose. And in that jake the men saw not only the raped and murdered child, but what was left of the Kid, perhaps just his bones. I know that sounds wacky, and more Stephen King than Cormac McCarthy, but that was my immediate thought as I read that passage. After reading all of these great interpretations, it's difficult for me to come to a confident conclusion. But that's McCarthy's genius. Reminds me of The Lady or the Tiger, which also left the reader to decide the ending.

Terry Brandborg said...

A difficult but impossible to not finish read. I think the Judge finished off the Kid by drowning him in shit, literally, and that's what shocked those that opened the door, head down, boots up.

Anonymous said...

After reading several, but not all of the comments, and having just finished the book today for the first time, my impression is that the Kid is manifestation of survival, left few options from his birth he seems to follow the path of least resistance, wary of all father figures, and willing to help a fellow survivor as long as it doesn't put his own survival in jeopardy.

Glanton is a sadistic Alpha male archetype, inciting violence even when it is not necessary to financial benefit of the group, and even if it puts the survival of the group at risk. As such, it is not until Glanton succumbs to the financial lure of the river crossing that he is undone.

The ex-priest is caught between his spiritual past and the materialistic lures engendered by acts of violence.

The other party members have no discernible motive and are willing to believe any narrative the judge doles out to them. As Malcolm X said "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything" I believe this is born out in the Judge's dance monologue.

The Judge is a microcosm of modernity. He is a person whose knowledge, though often times esoteric, can always be summed up to justify his thoughts, not to be mistaken with his beliefs (he has none). The Judge is not Satan, the Judge is not evil, he is the logical delineation of extreme moral relativism. Criminals can justify their mistakes to themselves well beyond their conviction, the judge can logically justify his most deviant concoctions, this does not mean that logic is evil in and of itself, any more than a religion that conducts inquisitions or jihads is intrinsically evil. But rather that humanity itself seeks places like the jake where people go to have a good time, like the jake, and will justify it with whatever means they have available, this is why the Judge holds Tobin in contempt, religion is no more a modifier of fanaticism than logic.

Now the end... I honestly have no idea what happened, I have even less of an understanding as to the meaning of the epilogue. Other than that people will sometimes perform tasks as a means to preserve their own perception of normality and to pass the time of their lives in a semblance of order, no matter the consequences. After all this was written before the internet was able to distract the masses from the horrible truth that they were inexorably moving towards their own death.

All people die, those that died early in Blood Meridian were spared witnessing the horrors of those those that survived, the Kid, by surviving, witnessed horrors unspeakable and unknowable to the authorities in San Diego, his punishment for achieving his goal of survival, was to be a part of the last chapter, an atrocity so horrifying that McCarthy, who was able to enunciate brilliantly the atrocities of the entire novel, left himself unable to describe the final veneration of the Judge. To paraphrase Vonnegut in Bluebeard, "Be wary of survivors, you have no idea what they did to survive." Just picture the judge naked, dancing above you in the bar and try to get a good night's sleep.

Anonymous said...

I always pictured the kid as being dismembered ripper style. Guts hanging around the room. Its a common trope in fiction to leave the goriest of details to the reader's/viewer's imagination.

MC said...

Hmm - "they become desensitised to brutality, and wear necklaces made of earrings". Man, that is indeed harsh. It's like wearing, I dunno, pants made out of shirts. Now, necklaces made out of EARS would be even worse - but not to a fashionista!

Alastair Roberts said...

I think the kid was responsible for the rape and murder of the girl in the Jake and the others through the book but only when the Judge (devil) was by his side, perhaps representing his inner evil. This is telling in the line 'was it always your idea that if you did not speak you would not be recognized?' To which the kid replies 'you seen me' I think this reveals that the kid has been hidding his evil deeds from himself (and the reader) but the Judge knows all. When the Judge appears to the Kid in the final scene the kid wants to distance himself from him, as he wants to distance himself from his evil desires 'this night, thy soul may be required if thee'. The kid tries to satisfy his urges with the midget prostitute but to no avail and succumbs to the rape and murder of the girl.

callmeishmael said...

you are right; it doesn't matter what happens to the kid; it's nature vs. man. The kid is Ishmael; Holden is Moby Dick. There is no animosity, only nature. Melville was an optimist; Ishmael survived. McCarthy not so much.

Garrett LF said...

I have to disagree with the people who said that the judge and the kid are the same people. From what I read, they are different and interact differently. They are definitely different characters because at some points it seems like the kid could be the narrator or at least it seems like the narrator is telling us the way that events would appear through the kid's eyes.
I really appreciate everybody's comments though because the first time I read this it was really confusing and I appreciate everybody shining some light on it for me.
As I went back and was rereading it today I noticed something that I didn't see anybody else mention (and if someone did then ignore this).
This book seems like a mirror to me because it has so much parallelism. The beginning is like the end. The kid first sees the judge in the tent (where the Reverend Green calls the judge the Devil when he says "This is him, cried the reverend, sobbing. This is him. The devil. Here he stands." page 7.) and then immediately sees him at the bar where drinks are on the judge and the barman won't take the boys money because the judge is buying.
I think McCarthy is setting this up to show a little light on the ending of the book because the beginning mirrors it.
Then they leave the bar and there was a man coming up from the jakes at the beginning of the book (page 9) just like how two men came up from the jakes at the end and asked what happened.
As we know, the man coming up from the jakes is Toadvine at the beginning and the kid is coming down.
I think that the kid is one of the people at the end and I think he is the one who says that they don't want to go in. So you get a really interesting image of foreshadowing where the kid descends into the jakes (the outhouse, metaphorically the sh*thole of life when he goes scalping for years) and then ascends out of the jakes at the end. I want to think that this could at least bring the possibility of a "happy" or "rebirth" kind of story.
Maybe this means that he has become more like Toadvine and just matured, I don't know for sure.
Excellent story and please let me know what you think about this, cause we're all in this together.

kiki90291 said...

As a visual artist I have such a difficult time with the violence of humans. I can tolerate some reading with levels of bloody violence because I monitor the scene to the words. I read this book over 6 days because I had to put it down and walk away. In a near waking level of sleep the naked Judge came walking into my bedroom. Needless to say I was soon sitting up and not happy to be waken with this image of horror.

Having read "The Road," several years ago I'm unable to watch the movie, along with "No Country for Old Men."

The ending of "Blood Meridian," is driving me crazy due to it's let your imagination run wild and am I close to what other's may think happened?

In my imagination it was the Judge all along raping and killing the children. The first little girl was spoken about in the tent revival by the Judge himself, Jesus Maria's towns missing girl, then the young halfbreed boy who the Judge plays with and then the child is found dead with a broken neck. He runs around spouting I AM GOD in his nakedness. Then the last scene in "the Jake," is the little girl raped and killed by the judge and makes the kid part of the sexual crime, the ultimate horrific act of our kind.

If "The Kid, - broods already a taste for mindless violence," killed the children thru out the story he would have been killing himself over and over but I truely believe the clues point in the direction of the ultimate level of animal killing animal, the Judge who could commit murder with a few words and step back and watch the darkness of mankind surface again and again.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting comments. I'm reading this a third time, last night I reached the discussion between the judge and the kid at the bar before the jakes.

I can only paraphrase, the words they use seem to imply that the kid is telling the judge "I didn't come here hunting you", and I always felt this was a strange comment, as if the judge would be afraid of one man. But having read the above, I now believe that he is talking to evil, about killing the girl. I didn't look for evil. No one does. It finds us. You run into it in a bar, you don't have to look for it. The kid had seen the girl before this conversation, so the judge appears.

The judge also says, again paraphrasing, of the whole gang, you alone were not honest with who you are. The kid simplistically accuses the judge of being untrue.

This fits with the idea that the kid is hiding something, something so terrible that he can't share it with the murderous Glanton apostles.

Food for thought.

Then the judge says something like drink up, tonight you may be required to forfeit your soul.

Anonymous said...

I finished Blood Meridian five days ago. Needless to say, I was stunned by its breathlessly bold, epic end. I rushed online to see what others thought, and how they interpreted McCarthy’s vision, only to be disappointed. The majority of the readers seem to think that the Kid was raped. He wasn’t. What really happened is much, much worse.
“Do you believe it’s all over, son?”
The Judge is speaking of their odyssey together. He makes it very clear that there is unfinished business between them. He goes on to describe a destiny to be fulfilled, and how all of the people in this room will play a role, even if they don’t know it yet. He describes a ritual. “A ritual includes a letting of blood,” he says.
The Kid knows and understands what the Judge wants, and what he has always wanted. The Judge tried to break his will in the desert, but the Kid refused to bend. Tobin gave him his hat. The Judge cut it apart with a knife. Presumably, Toadvine and Brown gave him their weapons. The Kid refused, and the Judge followed him relentlessly through the desert.
The Kid knew that the Judge would be waiting for him in the jakes. When he enters, he is not attacked, but embraced in a biblical sense (McCarthy uses the word “gathered”) by the Judge’s philosophy. This is when the ritual occurs. As the others in the group have done before him with all children encountered who later went missing, the Kid raped and killed a child at the Judge’s behest.
Remember the missing girl whose bear was killed. She is linked to that bear. The bear was slaughtered at the behest of the Judge, as was the girl. The descriptions of her, sobbing and her dress covered in blood while mourning the bear, prefigure what is about to happen. In the very next paragraph, the candles around the dead bear have blown out, save for one, which is compared to a votive lamp. Look up votive in the dictionary. It meants fulfillment of a vow.
What the Judge seeks is a sacrifice. Each of the men in that company made a vow for their lives. What the judge asked in return was their humanity. That is what the kid had been holding back from the Judge, and that was what he gave up in the jakes. The Judge himself says that there was only one man in the group who failed “to empty his heart into the common”. The Kid resisted him. In the end, the Kid wasn’t killed, but he was no longer “the Kid.” He was the man pissing in the mud who warned, “I wouldn’t go in there if I was you.” He was the man who walked off toward the lights.
McCarthy’s theme exists in a larger sense. The deaths of these children were sacrificed for the birth of a new nation. The Indian children were killed so that new people could settle the land. The girl who the Kid murdered was killed at the end of this period, when the land was all but conquered, and in a town whose industry was based on the systematic slaughter of the buffalo. These deaths allowed a new nation to form, and McCarthy’s epilogue fulfills it. It shows a man with a fence post digger “striking fire from the rock”, stealing the life and wonder from the land. He’s building a fence, the apothesis of the wild and open frontier.
A girl was sacrificed in that outhouse. Other children were killed and mysteriously went missing. The Judge forced these men to confront their most base and depraved depths of their souls (“Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee.”). According to McCarthy, that is the nature of war and of man.
Don’t believe me? Think of all the coins that appear in this book. They’re money, but they’re also tiny circles, much like the circular nature of life itself as suggested by McCarthy. Think of the girl who went missing after her bear died. Now think of the first words of the book.
“See the child.”

Zach Johnson said...

Very well done and I completely agree with you. And thank you for making the epilogue clear to me. I would have never put the two together but it makes a whole lot of sense now.

I like that McCarthy uses "embrace" in the end. McCarthy chooses his words carefully and this allows the ambiguity in his novels to be somewhat non ambiguous as you can assume what happens based on connotation. The Man gave in to Holden and fulfilled the ritual that night and went on with his travels, to continue as a vessel of he Judge. The Judge is older and lives his life dancing at that point but will live on in the child. Thus continuing the perpetual violence of nature and man. He sketched he kid, understood his dimensions, and destroyed him, leaving only the Man. Man, as in, all men.

I am not above considering the Holden as a spiritual or even alien nature. To say it is too obvious of McCarthy is to sell the book short. You can be simplistic and still have something worthwhile. The fact that Holden exhibits otherworldly strength and intellect is evidence that he is not natural to his environment. Added to this is his alopecia, and constant juxtaposition to an infant, makes him a sort of blank slate of a human. The faceless evil of nature that we all carry with us. To refer to The Road, he didn't carry the fire.

Last thing I felt odd was how the Judge always say bare chested towards the fire. As if absorbing it's primal energy.

Melissa F said...

Everyone seems to think the judge represents the devil. Consider the opposite chilling alternative in the context of his supernatural ability to appear out of nowhere, claim whatever exists with his knowledge exists without his consent, his anatomically physical masculine presence and McCarthys repeated examination of paradox of a loving God creating all things evil in the world. Rape. Murder. War. Destruction. Fire. Wrath.He has a symbollically white hue to him and likes to walk around naked as if it's the garden of Eden. Who was naked first but Adam?

I think McCarthy is reminding us the God created man in his own image.

And his name? The judge? Well who is the ultimate judge?
He will come again to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
Judge not lest ye be judged.
Who are we to question His motives?

This world is but a passage. We are stewards for salvation. IF AND only if one believes without a doubt. It is hard to swallow when we see the depravity of mankind around us but there is a design. A plan.

So, dis McCarthy intend for the judge to be the devil or someone else?

Melissa F said...

The name Holden means "hollow valley". Valleys in the Bible denote more or less what is profane in worship.

Anonymous said...

So many see the obvious clues and Incidents of Great Importance that jump from the pages and plant themselves in memory. There are other whiffs of the truth, as though a distant cookfire warms some undefinable yet enticing victual whose subtle aroma is borne by the wind calling those who hunger for knowledge to fill their bellies.

To understand the Judge, and for that matter the Kid, look to those nuggets of insights that recur. The astronomical and astrological. The numeric. The secrets of the tarot. Above all, the geographic. What the ending means is all it could ever have meant.

And don't fail to reference the others' who marks are born in words spoken by others. As Nietzsche, who also advocated culling the weak said, I would not believe in God who didn't know how to dance.

There is an answer, though saying it as an absolute dilutes it from an unspoken Truth to a conjecture to be debated and debased, called a lie and blasphemous, before ultimately being accepted as what should have been known as manifest from the begining.

Anonymous said...

Great comments. I just finished Blood Meridian and as I read the ending I was shivering with fear. The ending is absolutely fantastic and for someone to attach the word disappointment to it would be doing the entire book a disservice.

Here's my take.

The Judge is indeed the embodiment of evil. Great, large, ugly and powerful. Intelligent and cunning and terrifying. He is the only character that smiles during the book. An act itself which is chilling since the violence committed is so deplorable that for someone to smile through it reveals a psychotic nature.

The Kid is warned several times not to do the Judge's bidding. He claims "I ain't afraid of him". This implies that the Judge is most definitely a child deviant who wants to possibly rape and murder him for his own gratification. Or simply control him like he does the others. It matters not.

Children go missing and the Judge-Children connection is pressed several times during the book which alludes to the fact it is his doing. He is the only one intelligent enough to mastermind such nefarious and heinous evil as to raping and murdering young children.

He is the darkest heart of man. You cannot know the ending for you must look inside your own dark heart to come up with something beyond the horrors so described in the writing. Excellent ending to a masterful piece of writing from Cormac MacCarthy.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on the Kid and the Judge being the same character (a la Fight Club's Tyler Durden). In this interpretation I would say the Kid's demise in the jake symbolizes the character's corruption, and complete embrace of the Judge side.

Also, the ending reminds me of Kubrick's The Clockwork Orange, where Alex is having sex in the snow, surrounded by Victorian crowd as they applaud him. That symbolizes society's love and obsession with sex and violence - just like the dancing naked Judge, who is the star of the party, and who will "never die" and who is a "great favorite".