While the dance symbolizes a ritual of violent motion that seeks to perpetuate itself, bathing is a symbol in the novel, often explicitly, for baptism—a ritual of serenity, radical transformation, and redemption. However, most of the baptisms in the novel are in fact failed or perverted baptisms, reflective of a dark and troubled world in which the atrocities and horrors of history repeat themselves without end. The day after he savagely beats a bartender in Bexar, the kid wades into a nearby river, the narrator tells us, “like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate,” as though this were an opportunity for him to cleanse himself of his life of crime and begin anew. However, the kid does not then change his life, but only hurls himself all the more relentlessly into acts of blood. Later come the perverted baptisms. For example, after the successful massacre of the Gileños, Glanton’s scalp hunters return to Chihuahua City as heroes and make straight for the public baths to wash from their bodies the filth and gore that result from their trade; but the scalp hunters are so contaminated, literally and morally, that they turn the bathwater to bloody filth. From this blood, the men are reborn higher in the eyes of the world, neatly dressed and loaded with gold, but also men more dedicated than ever to making a debauched bloodbath of the world.
While these are examples of a failed and a perverted baptism, respectively, the novel also presents successful baptisms. The most notable is that in which the upstanding and gentle Sarah Borginnis wades out into the Colorado River with the grossly misused idiot—and, further, reclaims for the idiot his rightful name, James Robert Bell—to clean him, demanding also that his filthy cage be burnt. Albeit momentarily—for the Judge soon indentures him thereafter—James Robert is reborn with human dignity and liberty. More obscurely is what we might call the kid’s spiritual baptism while he looks out over the Pacific Ocean for the first time in his life. The sea physically marks the limit of the American frontier where violence reigns supreme, it is the ultimate challenge to the Manifest Destiny that drives the United States and its people to dominate the land, and as such it takes on a serenely moral quality. Although the kid does not wade out into the sea in body, he seems to do so in spirit, for it is soon after his encounter with this great baptismal font that he gives up his life of gratuitous violence and transforms himself into someone who ceases to live by the sword and instead bears with him, despite his illiteracy, a copy of the Bible, the ultimate foundation for the efficacy of baptism.