Blood Meridian

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The Dance Symbol Analysis

The Dance Symbol Icon
Characters dance throughout Blood Meridian: the black Jackson dances along with the family of magicians in Janos, the scalp hunters dance debauchedly at a feast Governor Trias holds in their honor, and even the idiot dances “with great gravity” while drunk on the shore of the Colorado River. However, it is the Judge who most loves the dance and most excels at it; and it is also the Judge for whom the dance symbolizes warfare as a ritual. (It is worth pointing out here that the connection between dancing and warfare is ancient—for example, Mars, the Greek god of war, is often characterized as a light-footed and nimble dancer.) Specifically, the Judge tells the kid in Fort Griffin that the dance is a ritual in the sense that it is a strictly ordered activity where each participant has a specific role to play, a role through which a given participant can transcend merely personal emptiness and despair. He also claims that any ritual which does not involve bloodletting is in fact a false ritual. It might seem counterintuitive that a dance must involve bloodletting, but indeed most dancing in the novel takes place against the backdrop of carnage, like the taking of scalps and the shooting of the dancing bear in the novel’s final chapter, and most dancing also tends to degenerate into drunken debauchery and violence. Of course, warfare as the Judge understands it, also constitutes a ritual, in which combatants advance through the stations of fate and transcend their own wills by submitting them to the judgment of fate. That the idiot and even a bear can dance suggests that the need to participate in ritual is a primordial and essential animal need, which perhaps explains why human beings have always engaged in warfare and, the novel prophesies, always will. At the end of the novel, the Judge makes another prophecy: that people will more and more dishonor warfare, turn to lesser trades, and be forgotten, while he alone dances the dance, an immortal god of war.

The Dance Quotes in Blood Meridian

The Blood Meridian quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Dance. 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 23 Quotes

He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Related Characters: Judge Holden
Related Symbols: The Dance
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Judge presumably murders the Kid in the Fort Griffin saloon's outhouse, he deftly takes to the dance floor. The dance is a symbol in the novel for warfare as a ritual that enables individuals to transcend their own feelings of emptiness and despair. The Judge, of course, is as great a dancer as he is a killer, and he is also "a great favorite" of the people watching him dance, which is ironic because he wants to see their world plunged into perpetual warfare. Perhaps, though, people do subconsciously desire either the "glory" or brutality of war or even their own deaths, as Freud theorized, which would help explain the Judge's mass appeal.

Throughout the novel, it is implied that the Judge isn't quite mortal, or even human; there is something malignantly supernatural about him. This implication finds some confirmation here when the Judge announces that he never sleeps and will never die. If we believe the Judge, we might think that he is indeed an immortal, a god of war like the Greek Ares or Roman Mars. However, we might instead take the Judge to be merely a man who embodies the spirit of warfare, such that his claim never to sleep and never to die is really a claim that war will always exist. McCarthy never conclusively resolves the question of the Judge's mortality for us.

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The Dance Symbol Timeline in Blood Meridian

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Dance 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
...up water for his mule to drink. He hears horns and guitars, and sees people dancing in the street gaudily dressed and speaking Spanish. (full context)
Chapter 13
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
...among the bones and rinds of the feast. The Judge arranges for musicians to play dance music, and while the other scalp hunters lurch and stomp, he skillfully dances with two... (full context)
Chapter 14
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
...Carroll and are drinking. The Judge throws a coin to the fiddler and begins to dance “with a strange precision.” (full context)
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
...They feast on goats, listen to music, and hire prostitutes. By nightfall, the Americans are dancing and debauched; dogs begin fighting in the courtyard of the hostel. Glanton goes out and... (full context)
Chapter 23
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship 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... (full context)