Blood Meridian

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Racism and Partisanship Theme Analysis

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.
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon

Many killers in the novel justify their violence in large part by demonizing their enemy, and this demonization is very often race-based. The racist and therefore all the more aptly named Captain White, for example, justifies his invasion of Mexico by denouncing the Mexican people as “barbarians.” Glanton and his men refer derogatorily to the Indians they hunt and whom they are hunted by as “savages” and “heathens.” The white John Jackson antagonizes the black John Jackson solely because he is black. However, the novel explodes these race-based, us-vs.-them distinctions with its irony. Captain White’s true motive for invading Mexico seems to be barbaric pillaging and plundering for profit, and Governor Trias of Mexico proves to be a far more civilized man than White. Glanton’s gang is just as savage a pack of murderers as the Indians they hunt for profit. And, as their sharing of a name would suggest, the two John Jacksons might as well be identical to one another.

Given that the differences between races, between the savage and the civilized in the novel, are so arbitrary and flimsy, how do characters determine which causes to support? How do they figure out which party to join? The novel suggests that partisanship is really established by a combination of opportunism and pragmatism: how can I get what I want now. It’s because he’s promised the spoils of war that the kid joins up with Captain White, and it’s because doing so secures his freedom that he later joins up with Captain Glanton. To maximize the number of scalps they take, Glanton’s gang betrays their alliance with Mexico by beginning to prey on the Mexican citizenry. The gang hunts the Apaches one week, only to sell them whiskey the next. It is ultimately this haphazard and changeable mode of making and breaking party ties that leads to the gang’s destruction at the hands of the Yuma Indians.

Yet while the gang plays fast and loose with its alliances, the gang, and especially the Judge, allow no defections. When Grannyrat disappears from the gang’s ranks, for example, the Delawares are dispatched and probably murder him for a deserter. The black Jackson also attempts to desert, it would seem, only to be ridden down on the Judge’s orders and restored to the gang naked (he later becomes one of the Judge’s more committed disciples). Toward the end of the novel, the Judge accuses the kid of having poisoned the gang’s enterprise by reserving “in [his] soul some corner of clemency for the heathen,” which is a capital crime in the Judge’s court, if only because the act of defection and desertion, even spiritual, is sufficient to challenge what the Judge alleges to be war’s unifying power.

Racism and Partisanship ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism and Partisanship appears in each chapter of Blood Meridian. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Racism and Partisanship Quotes in Blood Meridian

Below you will find the important quotes in Blood Meridian related to the theme of Racism and Partisanship.
Chapter 3 Quotes

There is no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico. Never will be. We are dealing with a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves. And do you know what happens with people who cannot govern themselves? That’s right. Others come in to govern for them.

Related Characters: Captain White (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

After getting into a vicious bar-fight in Bexar, the Kid is recruited into Captain White's army. In conversation with the Kid, Captain White announces that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), was a betrayal of Americans who fought in that war. He believes that it would have been better had the United States simply conquered Mexico and absorbed it into U.S. rule, because, he says, the people of Mexico are lawless, godless, and barbaric. His plan is to take his own army into Mexico, without authorization from the American government, and to finish what the Mexican-American War started.

The Captain's justifications for conquering Mexico are both racist and merely a pretense: it would seem that he is ultimately less interested in "governing" Mexico than in plundering the country. Moreover, the rest of the novel challenges Captain White's view of Mexico. The leaders of Mexico whom we meet, like Governor Trias of Chihuahua, are very cultured and sophisticated, and the citizens of Mexico are relatively peaceful. Far more barbaric than Trias is Captain White himself, or the anarchic gang of scalp-hunters led by Glanton. However, perhaps the most cultured, sophisticated character in the novel, Judge Holden, is also the cruelest and most bloodthirsty. He introduces a God into Mexico – but it is the god of war.


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Chapter 7 Quotes

In this company there rode two men named Jackson, one black, one white, both forenamed John. Bad blood lay between them and as they rode up under the barren mountains the white man would fall back alongside the other and take his shadow for the shade that was in it and whisper to him. The black would check or start his horse to shake him off. As if the white man were in violation of his person, had stumbled onto some ritual dormant in his dark blood or his dark soul whereby the shape he stood the sun from on that rocky ground bore something of the man himself and in so doing lay imperiled.

Related Characters: The John Jacksons
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Glanton gang proceeds out of Chihuahua City on its first scalp-hunting expedition, the narrator introduces us to the two John Jacksons. There is animosity between the Jacksons, which is ironic: but for the fact that one is black and the other white, the two men are virtually indistinguishable from one another. 

Here the white Jackson is bothering the black by riding beside him in his shadow and whispering to him. He is presumably motivated by racial prejudice, but also, perhaps, by a more complicated feeling. In some ways, the two Jackson's are one another's shadows and doubles – figuratively speaking, they are the same man. The white Jackson, then, is forced to confront the fact, in confronting his black double, that the social privileges he enjoys as a white man have nothing to do with him as an individual, that these privileges are fragile figments of culture and nothing more. The black Jackson is forced to confront the fact, in confronting his white double, that society's racism is an absurdity, but one firmly upheld nonetheless, as though it were a fact of the world.

The narrator speculates that the black Jackson shakes off the white to protect his own shadow, as though the shadow were part of the man who cast it and endangered by the white Jackson riding on it. In one sense, the shadow here represents the authentic part of oneself, which exists outside of social categories like race or class. In driving off the white, the black Jackson is metaphorically protecting the inmost part of himself.

Chapter 8 Quotes

The nearest man to him [the white Jackson] was Tobin and when the black stepped out of the darkness bearing the bowieknife in both hands like some instrument of ceremony Tobin started to rise. The white man looked up drunkenly and the black stepped forward and with a single stroke swapt off his head.

Related Characters: The John Jacksons , Ben Tobin
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

One night at camp, the gang sets up two campfires, one around which the whites sit, and one around which all the other men sit. When the black Jackson attempts to sit with the whites, the white Jackson drives him off, going so far as to draw and cock his pistol. The black Jackson avenges himself by cutting, or "swapping," off the white Jackson's head.

Later in the novel, the Judge will announce that war is god. This seems to be the case for the gang members in general and for the black Jackson in particular who, after all, handles his knife "like some instrument of ceremony." Now it is one of the effects of a ceremony, often performed in worship of a god, to bring people together and solidify their group identity. Black Jackson's killing of the white seems to do just that. The other white gang members do not rise to avenge the white Jackson but accept his death without so much as a word. That is because they are men of war first, and members of racial categories second. War and violence really do make these men closer, then, but only by pitting them against the whole world.

Significantly, Tobin rises here just as the black Jackson offers a sacrifice to the god of war, so to speak. Tobin was once a novitiate to a religious order, and he alone questions, however faintly, the Judge's religion of total war.

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 13 Quotes

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted. The scalps of the slain villagers were strung from the windows of the governor’s house and the partisans were paid out of the all but exhausted coffers and the Sociedad was disbanded and the bounty rescinded. Within a week of their quitting the city there would be a price of eight thousand pesos posted for Glanton’s head.

Related Characters: John Joel Glanton
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

Glanton's gang returns to Chihuahua City in triumph the first time, because they bear with them many Indian scalps. The second time they return, however, they bring with them the scalps not of the Indians they were contracted to kill, but the scalps of Mexican citizens, the very people the gang was hired to protect. The government in Chihuahua does not yet know this, however, and so it pays Glanton's men for "the scalps of the slain villagers" – which is what the gang was counting on. 

McCarthy's description of the gang's second return to the city is at once anticlimactic and grisly. The gang is no longer greeted with fanfare, it would seem, after they so abused Chihuahua's hospitality the last time. They are paid from the public funds, or "coffers," and that's it. "The bounty rescinded" means that the government of Chihuahua ended its offer to pay for Indian scalps.

The gang's betrayal of the Mexicans is nowhere more hideously represented than in the detail that slain Mexicans' scalps "were stung from the windows of the governor's house." This goes beyond irony – the governor's house decorated with the skin of those he's supposed to govern – into abject horror.

The government of Chihuahua must eventually discover Glanton's betrayal, for a week after he and his men ride out, the governor offers money to whomever kills Glanton. The hunters have become the hunted.

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 21 Quotes

There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. Do you think I could not know? You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker), The kid
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

After the surviving gang members flee from the Yuma Indians into the desert, the quiet antagonism between the Kid and the Judge becomes explicit. The Judge hunts the Kid; the Kid hides from the Judge. While searching for his quarry, the Judge cries out that the Kid was "mutinous," or rebellious, against the gang by having "clemency," or mercy in his heart, for the "heathen," or the Indians and Mexicans the gang hunted.

The Kid is mutinous in the sense that, in his meager mercy, he could not commit himself wholly to the gang’s rampantly destructive cause, could not give himself to war the way the Judge himself does and, perhaps, the way the judge thought the Kid might be able to. The Judge was hoping that the Kid might be a spiritual son to him, a god of war, but the Kid's mercy prevents this. That he couldn't absolutely support the gang in its mass murdering is for us, the reader, the only unflawed aspect of the Kid's heart. This shows how perverted the Judge's judgment of human character can be, as he condemns the Kid for the one thing for which the reader can (slightly) admire him.

Epilogue Quotes

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there.

Related Characters: The Digger
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel's epilogue is a mystery, even to scholars. Who is the "man progressing over the plain"? Does he come in the name of the machine of death which the Judge hopes to build, or is he an anonymous hero bringing life out of death, living fire from dead stone? And what is he doing, literally, with his two-handled implement? Building a fence, perhaps, or laying a railroad track? Perhaps he is helping to settle the Wild West, with the effect that crimes like the Judge's can no longer go unobserved. Perhaps he is an agent of industry, someone whose work will make America more effective in waging its wars abroad. 

We suspect that the digger is heroic, and maybe even a metaphor for the historical novelist like McCarthy who cuts into history so that he can turn dead records into a luminous work of art. We should also point out that some critics think the "implement with two handles" is an allusion to Milton's poem "Lycidas," in which someone with a vague "two-handed engine" stands ready to strike down the corruption of the world.