Blood Meridian

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Blood Meridian Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the winter of 1878, the kid, now referred to as the man, is on the plains of North Texas. At night he sees a campfire, which belongs to an old buffalo hunter with whom the kid shares tobacco. The hunter tells about how he and others like him drove the buffalo to extinction. The hunter wonders aloud whether there are other planets like earth, or if this is the only one.
The buffalo hunter’s story mirrors the kid’s own participation in acts of genocidal violence. His question about other planets like earth seems motivated by a quiet despair, that it is possible for hideous violence to exist elsewhere as here.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Riding through barren country for three days, the man comes upon a great many people filling wagons high with bones. At night, five young bonepickers approach the man’s campfire. They learn that the man is going to Fort Griffin, Texas, home to many prostitutes. The man shows them his necklace of ears and explains its origins; one of the bonepickers named Elrod, fifteen years old, hassles the man and suggests that he’s a liar. The man refers to Elrod as son, to which Elrod responds: “I aint ye son.” As the bonepickers leave, the man threatens to kill Elrod if he sees him again.
Elrod is about the same age as the kid was when he ran away from home and fell in first with Captain White, then with Captain Glanton. He also shares with the kid what seems to be a violent streak, combative for the sake of being combative. In a way, this scene is like the man’s encounter with his younger self. Elrod is defiant of the idea of having a father; he wants to be a free agent—yet he does not know how to be free wisely. And here the “father” threatens death upon the ungrateful child.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
Later in the night, Elrod returns to the man’s camp bearing a rifle. The man kills him. At dawn, Elrod’s companions from the night before come. They collect Elrod’s effects, including his rifle. One of the boys, insane-looking, is revealed to be Elrod’s brother; he now has no family in the world. The young bonepickers then pick up Elrod’s corpse and bear it away.
Despite the man’s threat, Elrod returns to sate his developing taste for violence, and perhaps to test his strength against the man, to have his fate revealed by the god of war. The man anticipates this and kills Elrod, which metaphorically suggests the man’s rejection of his own past self, an affirmation of his having taken his fate into his own hands.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
The next day, the man rides to Fort Griffin. He arrives at dark, and enters a local saloon. A little girl inside is playing a barrel organ to which a trained bear wearing a petticoat dances, and a showman goes around collecting money. The man orders a whiskey when he notices that sitting at a table is the Judge, who looks unchanged. The man pays, and when he turns the Judge is speaking to a group of men. The man turns his attention to a showman in the room, and a group of prostitutes. When he gazes back across the room, the Judge is gone.
This trained bear recalls the wild bear that carried off a Delaware. Like this trained bear, the man has shed his brute animal instincts, his taste for violence, and is living as peaceful a life as he can. Unlike the Judge’s pet idiot, the bear is not bound, it would seem, but has accepted its role in a community of performers.
Themes
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
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The showman collecting money gets into an altercation with a group of men. One of the men draws his pistol and shoots the bear dancing onstage, which moans and, shot again, falls to the floor. The little girl who had been playing the barrel organ runs over to the bear and hugs its head to her, sobbing.
Yet another act of violence disproportionate to its cause. That the girl hugs the bear and weeps suggests that the bear was not merely an object of exploitation like the idiot, but a valued member of a community.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
The Judge approaches the man and speaks with him. He notes that he and the man are the last survivors of Glanton’s gang. The Judge asks the man if he’s there for the dance, but the man remains silent. The Judge asks if the man thinks that just because he doesn’t speak he won’t be recognized for what he is: he is, in the Judge’s estimate, a disappointment.
The man’s meeting with the Judge in this bar seems almost fated, as the Judge himself will later suggest. The Judge’s observation about the kid’s silence recalls Tobin’s hypothesis that God speaks most profoundly in silent beings.
Themes
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
The Judge tells the man that all of the people are gathered in the saloon for the dance, and have in fact been brought here seeking their fate. The dance, the Judge says, is a ritual, and rituals necessarily include bloodletting. The Judge points to a man and speculates that his complaint against the world is that people have never done his bidding. He concludes that as war becomes dishonored, the dancers will become false dancers and fall into oblivion, and eventually there will only be one true dancer who knows that war speaks to his inmost heart. The man responds that even “a dumb animal” can dance.
The Judge’s association of the dance and warfare intimates that he takes an aesthetic pleasure in violence, a pleasure he values more than anything. As did the kid’s dream of the forger, the Judge foresees a time when war will be abandoned for other trades, presumably economic—but the Judge claims that he will always be a true warrior. The man’s retort, a reference to the bear, implies that human beings are capable of something higher than mere violence.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
The man leaves the Judge and goes into another room where he hires a prostitute. After they have sex, the man is reluctant to leave her room, but does so. He goes downstairs and watches musicians begin to play and the dance commence. He goes to the jakes, or outhouse, and opens the door: seated on the toilet waiting for him is the Judge. The Judge gathers the man against “his immense and terrible flesh” and shuts the outhouse door. Later, as the night winds down, two men go to the outhouse and a third warns them not to go in there. The two men look into the outhouse anyway and are disgusted by what they find. “What is it?” one asks. The other man doesn’t answer.
For a novel that details in horrifically minute detail outrageous acts of violence, it is all the more shocking that the man’s fate in the outhouse remains untold, as though too terrible to be witnessed. In fact, it seems as if it is so terrible that the men can’t at first even understand what they are seeing. The Judge’s gathering of the kid against his flesh is a grotesque parody of a father hugging his son, or of a dancer embracing his partner. The juxtaposition of the scene with the prostitute and the scene in the outhouse also raises the possibility that the Judge not only murders but also sexually violates the man.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
In the saloon, there is a lull in the dancing. Men and prostitutes stagger through the gloom. A fiddler tunes his instrument and the music resumes and the dance continues. Towering over everyone is the Judge, who dances expertly, bowing to the ladies, laughing, a great favorite. He takes possession of a fiddle and plays and dances at once. Dancing, dancing. The Judge says that he never sleeps, and that he will never die.
With the man dead, the Judge’s true image is represented in no mind but his own. Indeed, much as he was in Green’s tent in Chapter 1, he is a great favorite of the people around him. The Judge’s supernatural aura is enhanced by his claim of sleeplessness and immortality; the implication seems to be that he will perpetuate the night of war forever, that he himself has become or has always been the god of war.
Themes
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon