Blood Meridian

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Bathing Symbol Icon

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.

Bathing Quotes in Blood Meridian

The Blood Meridian quotes below all refer to the symbol of Bathing. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Blood Meridian published in 1992.
Chapter 18 Quotes

The Borginnis woman waded out with her dress ballooning about her and took him deeper and swirled him about grown man that he was in her great stout arms. She held him up, she crooned to him. Her pale hair floated on the water.

Related Characters: The idiot , Sarah Borginnis
Related Symbols: Bathing
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

In Tucson, the gang agrees to escort Cloyce Bell and his brother James Robert, referred to throughout the novel as the idiot because of his severe disability, to California. The idiot travels in a filthy cage. One morning, on the banks of a river, a group of women sees the idiot, and they resolve to clean him and burn his cage. Sarah Borginnis is one of these women.

Women are a rare sight in the novel; they are usually mourners or prostitutes, and are very seldom named. As such, Sarah stands out. She achieves high moral dignity when she rebukes Cloyce for mistreating his brother, and with strength of character she takes charge of James Robert's care. McCarthy is careful in his diction to point both to Sarah's power and her tenderness. She has "great stout arms," but these arms don't do violence, like the Judge's massive arms, but rather they cradle. Her dress delicately balloons on the water. She has delicately "pale hair." Sarah is also something of a maternal figure – she even tucks James Robert in to bed later – and as such she acts as a strong foil to both the war-monger judge and to Mother Nature, who is painted as alien and bloodthirsty in the novel.

The bathing of the idiot is also, symbolically, a baptism. This is a physical and a spiritual cleansing, and for one brief moment in this novel strewn with abominations we see what a good society might look like: selfless, with a respect for human dignity and liberty.

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Bathing Symbol Timeline in Blood Meridian

The timeline below shows where the symbol Bathing appears in Blood Meridian. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
...responds that he saw something with long ears come down the road toward the nearby river a while ago; and, at the river, the kid does indeed find his mule, grazing... (full context)
Chapter 13
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
In Chihuahua City, the scalp hunters go to the public baths where they strip and submerge themselves, turning the water to bloody filth. Behind them, merchants... (full context)
Chapter 18
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
While singing hymns, the women bathe the idiot and dress him in clean clothes. Sarah orders, while she wades in the... (full context)
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
In the night, the idiot wakes, and naked he wanders to the river. He enters the water, but soon loses his footing and sinks from sight. At just... (full context)
Chapter 20
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
...to do so, then moves back toward the creek where he sits to drink and bathe his leg. (full context)