Blood Meridian

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Themes and Colors
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Blood Meridian, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate Theme Icon

The narrator of Blood Meridian says that people involved in hazardous enterprises like warfare often become preoccupied with the idea of fate, which is certainly the case in the novel. The kid encounters several prophets on his journey, all of whom rightly foretell doom and destruction. More uncannily, when Glanton is having his fortune told early on he draws a card from a Tarot deck depicting a cart without wheels adrift on a dark river, which the fortuneteller reads as a portent of war, vengeance, and loss. And sure enough, Glanton loses his life at the hands of vengeful Yuma Indians after having betrayed them to secure control over a ferry on the Colorado River.

The narrator is also something of a fortuneteller: several times the reader is told when and how a certain character will die long before the death comes to pass, as is the case with both Bathcat and Sloat. However, these fortunes are complicated by the possibility that such characters are not so much fated to die as they are agents who choose to lead violent lives rife with danger—and how else can a person who spends their life violently die but violently? At one point, when the gang murders a group of placid muleteers and drives their livestock off a cliff, the narrator attributes the meeting not to fate but to sheer “bad luck.”

The characters of the novel also have conflicting perspectives on the idea of fate. The Judge, for one, understands war to be both a revealer of fate’s preference as well as the ultimate fate of the world. He tells a parable about two sons, one born to a wicked father and one born to an absent and therefore idealized father. Both sons become wicked themselves. The moral seems to be that, regardless of how a person is nurtured, he or she is fated for a life of emptiness, despair, and violence. The Judge himself at one point suggests that it’s only by understanding all of creation, while at the same time having the power to destroy those parts of creation of which one doesn’t approve, that one can dictate the terms of one’s own fate. Glanton, on the other hand, believes that a person’s fate is inalterable and absolute, although he nonetheless claims agency by hurling himself relentlessly into his fated course. The kid seems somewhat skeptical of the idea of fate. At a saloon in Texas, he tells the Judge, “Everybody dont have to have a reason to be someplace.” Blood Meridian as a whole is finally ambiguous as to whether or not the world is governed absolutely by fate.

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Fate Quotes in Blood Meridian

Below you will find the important quotes in Blood Meridian related to the theme of Fate.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

Related Characters: The kid
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is among the earliest descriptions of the Kid presented in the novel. Although born to a schoolmaster in Tennessee, the Kid is, ironically, illiterate, which suggests the extent to which culture has decayed in the novel's America by the time of the Kid's birth in 1833. The Kid cannot even read the Bible, and indeed throughout the novel McCarthy suggests that spiritual ignorance has in large part given rise to the world of rampant cruelty and violence represented throughout the book.

The Kid, with his "taste for mindless violence," is little more than a beast in a man's skin. The Kid's "visage" is his facial expression, and based on that expression one could predict that he will lead a spiritually empty, violent life. In that sense, the Kid's history is "present in that visage," and the violent child he is will metaphorically give birth to the violent man the Kid grows up to be.

Surprising as it may sound, this one little quotation holds three allusions: one to Milton's Paradise Lost where God "dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss"; one to Shakespeare's Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth tells her violent husband, "Your face, my thane, is as a book where Men / May read strange matters"; and one to Wordsworth's little poem "My heart leaps up when I behold," where we find the line, "The Child is father of the Man." The first two allusions, to the war in heaven and fall from grace depicted in Milton, the violence, betrayal and revenge in Macbeth, have natural connections to the themes of the novel. The pious hopefulness and love of beauty in Wordsworth's poem seem to be connected to the novel more by their almost complete absence rather than their presence. It's worth noting, also, that McCarthy's supreme knowledge in being able to make such allusions as an author stands in stark contrast to the Kid's intellectual and spiritual degeneracy, and therefore serves as a kind of emphasis of all that has been lost in that degeneracy.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.

Related Characters: The hermit (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

After setting fire to the hotel in Nacogdoches with Toadvine, the Kid flees and begins a life of begging and theft on the prairies. One night, he sees smoke rising from among the hills, and riding toward it discovers a hut where a character called the hermit dwells. The Kid stays the night at the hermit's hut and the two talk.

The hermit used to be a slaver in Mississippi, and therefore knows from personal experience a good deal about the "meanness," or cruelty, that every animal exhibits in nature. However, the hermit holds that the cruelest animal in the world –whose creation the devil must have had a hand in – is man himself. The novel does not contradict this claim. Other animals fight and kill to survive – but men like Judge Holden fight for the sheer pleasure of fighting.

Blood Meridian is set in the mid 1800s, toward the end of the Industrial Revolution when manual labor was being replaced by machines. Although we don't see any factories, for example, in the novel, the hermit reminds us that the same spirit of dominating nature which the Judge sermonizes on is also at work in American industry. Moreover, the hermit's prophecy suggests that industrialization will lead to an evil that can run itself for a thousand years, but no more: an economy that can provide the weapons for mass warfare and also the incentive to use them. Through the hermit's "prophecy" McCarthy, then, connects the shocking brutality on display in the novel to the present world, suggesting that such brutality still exists all around us.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell aint half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman’s making onto a foreign land. Ye’ll wake more than the dogs.

Related Characters: The Mennonite (speaker), Captain White
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

After being contracted into Captain White's army, the Kid celebrates by going into Bexar to drink with some of his comrades-in-arms. There, they meet a Mennonite – a Christian sect of strong moral and religious beliefs and a refusal to engage with modern culture. The Mennonite is one of several prophets in the novel who foretells death and destruction. 

Specifically, the Mennonite gives an account of God's Creation of the universe which holds that God created not just with love but also wrath, and that the wrath of God has been merely sleeping, to be awoken by the evil acts of human beings themselves. This account is an allusion to Herman Melville's Moby Dick, where the narrator thinks, "Though in many of its aspects the visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright." In other words, Love and Wrath are not distinct, but bound to one another. We will see just how frightful our universe is if we persist in our evil ways, the Mennonite implies.

One of the ironies underlying this passage is that Captain White claims to be bringing God and good government into Mexico by making war there. He, like many Americans of his time, are intoxicated with a myth of progress, the idea that human beings can master nature and spread civilization and perfect themselves. The Mennonite sees, however, that unchecked, ruthless progress, far from bringing paradise to earth, will bring a hell instead. 

Of course, no one heeds the Mennonite's words.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The judge smiled. It is not necessary, he said, that the principals here be in possession of the facts concerning their case, for their acts will ultimately accommodate history with or without their understanding. But it is consistent with notions of right principle that these facts…should find a repository in the witness of some third party. Sergeant Aguilar is just such a party and any slight to his office is but a secondary consideration when compared to divergences in that larger protocol exacted by the formal agenda of an absolute destiny. Words are things. The words he is in possession of he cannot be deprived of. Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker), The John Jacksons , Sergeant Aguilar
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Judge introduces the Mexican Sergeant Aguilar to the gang on the outskirts of Chihuahua, he explains in Spanish the black Jackson's racial heritage at length—drawing on racist, false accounts of the inferiority of the black race presented in the Bible, Greek poetry, anthropology, and science. The black Jackson demands to know what's been said of him, and the Judge responds with the quote discussed here.

The Judge is saying, using legal terminology, that the black Jackson, one of "the principals" of the case at hand, doesn't himself need to know the facts of his own racial heritage, because his actions will be consistent with his alleged inferiority as a black man. However, the Judge also says that the facts need to find "a repository in the witness of some third party," that third party being Aguilar. For the Judge, truth must have witnesses before it can be truth at all; but the witnesses don't need to understand the truth for it to contribute to destiny. 

However, doesn't the so-called truth of black Jackson's inferiority to whites already have a third-party witness – namely, the Judge? Why does some random sergeant need to bear witness to it, too? It would seem that the Judge is merely trying to antagonize the black Jackson. The bigger irony here is that the so-called truth the Judge is propagating here isn't a truth at all, and so it has no authority outside of a merely social authority – a myth of Western society that nonetheless is held up by Western society as fact.

Chapter 9 Quotes

And so these parties divided upon that midnight plain, each passing back the way the other had come, pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men’s journeys.

Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

The night after riding away from the squatters' camp near the Mexican copper mine, the gang members come upon a party that is like the mirror-image of their own. The two parties talk — about what we never learn, perhaps what to expect on the roads ahead of them — and then move on. 

The idea that travelers merely pursue "inversions" of others’ journeys — that they are just taking different versions of journeys already made by others — implies that human desires and their endeavors to dominate are inherently wayward, backwards, senseless, and yet the same as they’ve always been. It also implies that the horrific events of the novel are fated to repeat themselves, that the brutality on display in the story has always existed and still exists, today.

Chapter 11 Quotes

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night… This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

While the gang camps amid the Anasazi Indian ruins, the Judge tells the story of the harness maker, in which the sons of both a good father and a bad father come equally to spiritual ruin. So, Tobin asks, how should a father raise his son?

The Judge responds that children should be forced to undergo deadly trials. This is a form of eugenic "culling," or getting rid of the so-called weak members of a species to promote the breeding of the strong. This idea owes something to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by the process of natural selection, but the Judge couldn't have known about this theory, since it is 1849 when he delivers the speech quoted here and Darwin's Origin of Species wasn't published until 1859.

According to the Judge, it is because human beings can cull themselves through warfare and the like that we can make cultural progress and achieve great things. He contrasts this progress – in which "there is no waning" – with the waxing and waning cycle of death and birth in the natural world. However, we can't take the Judge at his word: for he himself shows that there is waning in the affairs of men, namely when a culture collapses at the height of its greatness, "the noon of [its] expression," as Rome collapsed, or the Anasazi culture in whose ruins the gang is camping. The Judge wants us to believe that human progress is limitless, precisely because such a belief will lead us into "the onset of night," and the Judge desires to bring about a bloody night that does not end.

Chapter 12 Quotes

They rode on. They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.

Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

While riding in pursuit of the first Indians they've had any sign of for days, the Gileños, the gang crosses into Mexico, through a forbidding landscape. This quote describes the men as they ride through a swallowing darkness.

The narrator says that the origins of the men's purpose seemed "antecedent" to the men themselves – that is, the men's purpose existed before the men themselves existed. In other words, the men are instruments of fate, and they do what they do because they are fated to do it. This is a point of view verging on fatalism, the belief that all events are predetermined and inevitable. But predetermined by what or whom? The physical laws of the universe? God?

Furthermore, the narrator compares the men of Glanton's gang to "blood legatees," that is, people who have inherited their bad blood and their penchant for spilling blood from a will. This will was signed, so to speak, by the same fate that gives the men (or forces upon the men) their purpose. Although we cannot see the order the men descend from – one of anarchic warfare and ritual violence – because it is "remote," the will of this order must be executed, for it is "imperative."

Simply put, then, the men ride as though they are fated by a higher power to commit acts of violence, with the implication that men ride to commit such acts because men are inherently violent and always have been.

The trailing of the argonauts terminated in ashes and…the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence. The posting of witnesses by a third and other path altogether might also be called in evidence as appearing to beggar chance, yet the judge…said that in this was expressed the very nature of the witness and that his proximity was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?

Related Characters: Judge Holden , Ben Tobin
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly before slaughtering the Gileños, the gang comes upon five wagons burning in the desert, surrounded by mutilated corpses. "Argonauts" refers to the mythical band of Greek heroes led by Jason who successfully recovered the Golden Fleece after overcoming many trials and monsters; this is an ironic allusion here, given that Jason's Argonauts were heroic, god-like men, whereas "the argonauts" in McCarthy's text are merely the anonymous dead.

Tobin sees the mutilated dead and wreckage, and he speculates that god must be "cynical" and even malignant. After all, what other kind of god would bring together killer and victim, despite all odds, to one little place amid an immense desert? The "congruence," or meeting of the two parties, was "fatal" in the sense of "deadly" and "fated." Moreover, Tobin says, the very fact that there are people to witness the resulting carnage further suggests that what happens is not coincidental, that is, it "beggar[s] chance," and therefore must have been determined by fate.

The Judge's response implies that before anything can be said to exist, it must first be witnessed or observed. Witness, then, is "the prime," or the thing that comes first, before an event can be said to have taken place. The Judge himself wants to witness everything so that its existence depends on him, yet he himself would go unobserved so as to remain free. Of course, though, the Judge is observed – by the novel's readers.

Chapter 13 Quotes

Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.

Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Glanton's gang has exchanged their first batch of scalps for gold in Chihuahua and they've just ridden out of Coyame, a little Mexican village. They're now seeking signs of the Apaches along the Texas border. This quote describes the men as they ride.

Although the gang members have a mission – to kill Apaches on behalf of the Mexican government – they ironically appear "at venture," that is, as if they were just where they are at random. These men have no respect for the promises they make to other people, nor do they respect the social order. The men are so "devoid of order" they more closely resemble "absolute rock" than human beings –in this, they are like the mythological monsters that appeared in the chaos out of which the world began. Indeed, the narrator calls them "gorgons," or monsters in Greek mythology with snakes for hair and who turn anyone who beholds them to stone.

The men are "at no remove from their own looming," that is, they are incapable of intellectually distancing themselves from, and self-consciously reflected on, what they are and what they do.

One of the arguments this passage is making is that mindless violence is universal. It existed in "Gondwanaland," one of the supercontinents that existed on earth millions of years ago, and as then, so now. People think we live in an ordered world, but this passage suggests that language-less chaos, where "each was all," exists everywhere, even to this day.

Chapter 14 Quotes

The man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from the same conversation between the Judge and Toadvine as the quote above. The Judge is contrasting the superstitious man who thinks the world's mystery is forever hidden to the scientific man who finds order in the world.

In the Judge's metaphor, the world is a "tapestry," or an image woven out of colored threads, and the scientific man is he who finds "the thread of order." This sounds compelling at first, but we might respond that a tapestry is a work of art, something that has order built into it, while the natural world is the very opposite of a work of art. To single out a thread in a tapestry is to miss the whole of which that thread is part. To put it bluntly, the things the Judge compares here – the tapestry and nature – are not really comparable.

However, the Judge himself seems to know this. Later, in Chapter 17, he will say that there is no mystery or order in the world save for what we put there, and that order is "like a string in a maze." This doesn't seem to reflect a change in the Judge's philosophy, but is like a more advanced presentation of the same topic, just as a math student learns calculus only after learning algebra. The Judge is giving the gang a devil's education, and they need to believe they can find order before they can believe that our own minds make order. The logical conclusion of the education offered by the Judge is nihilism and total war.

Chapter 17 Quotes

War is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within the larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker)
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:

One night, as they try to escape from from Colonel Garcia and his troops, the gang makes camp and the Judge discourses at length on the nature of warfare. He says that war always has and always will exist because people love it. He also says, in the quote at hand, that war is the truest way of seeing into the future and the unknown ("divination" is defined as "foretelling of future events or discovery of what is hidden by supernatural means").

How is war a form of divination, according to the Judge? When two parties fight, one has to win and one has to lose. We might think that this is just a test of brute strength and strategy, without anything to do with fate. But the Judge thinks otherwise. Specifically, he thinks that the victor in warfare is determined precisely by "the larger will" of fate, which brings warriors together and then decides who lives and who dies. By resolving the contradiction of conflicting wills (i.e. having one army defeat another), war forces unity into existence, and in this sense war is god. If this sounds like metaphysical nonsense, loaded with tenuous assumptions and logical gaps, that's because it is – McCarthy is testing his reader's critical power here, and inviting us to find the holes in the Judge's powerful rhetoric.

Also note that the Judge implies here he wants to be at war forever, in an endless night of battle – not, as he says earlier, to be the lord of the earth. He uses ideas of omniscience and absolute rulership as pretenses to help bring into reality his real, more insane vision of constant, total war. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

All else was heaped on the flames and while the sun rose and glistened on their [the Yuma Indians’] gaudy faces they sat upon the ground each with his new goods before him and watched the fire and smoked their pipes as might some painted troupe of mimefolk recruiting themselves in such a wayplace far from the towns and the rabble hooting at them across the smoking footlamps, contemplating towns to come and the poor fanfare of trumpet and drum and the rude boards upon which their destinies were inscribed for these people were no less bound and indentured and they watched like the prefiguration of their own ends the carbonized skulls of their enemies incandescing before them bright as blood among the coals.

Page Number: 268-269
Explanation and Analysis:

Glanton's gang conspires with a band of Yuma Indians to seize Dr. Lincoln's ferry on the Colorado River, but Glanton swiftly betrays his Indian allies. In revenge, the Yumas launch a surprise attack on Glanton's gang, which results in the gang's decimation. The Yumas celebrate with a bonfire fueled by their enemies' corpses.

The violence of the Yumas' attack is starkly contrasted with the calm of the morning after, full of domestic touches: the fire itself, the pipes, the comparison of the Indians to "mimefolk," or mimes who earn their living through public performances. Were it not for the faces "gaudy" with blood and the burning, "carbonized skulls," this scene might strike us as downright picturesque. Mayhem and carnage are business as usual in the borderlands McCarthy depicts, a part of the daily routine. Of course, this makes the violence all the more shocking for us.

The comparison of the Indians to the mimes accomplishes a few things. It transforms a group of violent men to peaceful performers. This is an eerie transformation, because it is so at odds with the massacre we've just witnessed these people commit. Second, it suggests that what these men did was part of a script, as though in accordance with fate, to which the narrator says the Indians are as much slaves as anybody else is. Indeed, the burning skulls are a "prefiguration," or an image foretelling the violent deaths of the Indians themselves. Finally, the comparison suggests how surreal this violence is, and how swiftly its traces will disappear, like a performance ending. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.

Related Characters: Judge Holden
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

After being released from jail in San Diego, the Kid finds a surgeon to remove the arrow lodged in his leg. Under the influence of the surgeon's ether, a kind of painkiller, the Kid in his delirium has a dream of the Judge in which a "moneyer," or person who mints money, forges coins with the Judge's image on them, all of which the Judge determines to be inadequate. This moneyer uses "gravers and burins," chisel-like tools for engraving in metal, and a "crucible," a container for melting metals down.

This passage is the first in which we get any idea of what, exactly, Judge Holden is a judge of. The fact that it comes in a dream suggests on the one hand that we can never really know – but also that this account of the Judge is in some way inspired, or closer to the truth than any waking account could be.

Generally, the face of a ruler is impressed into a coin. Earlier the Judge claims that he desires to be a supreme ruler, and yet in this dream he never approves of the moneyer's representation of him. It is as though the Judge’s true aim is not to be a ruler after all, for this would mean the end of the eternal night of warfare, a shift from warfare into rulership via economic power, suitable for the "markets where men barter." The Judge wants no part of that shift. Further, The Judge does not want to be understood and seen, he does not want to be witnessed, for he can more effectively remain completely free to wage war when shrouded in mystery and darkness.