Blood Meridian

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Witness and Mercy 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.
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon

The Judge affirms to Tobin that nothing can exist without a witness, and later, when the black Jackson murders Owens in Tucson, the Judge secures Jackson’s freedom by explaining that without a witness willing to come forward, there are no grounds for arrest; it is as if no crime has been committed at all. The scalp hunters exploit this principle: to protect their true image as ruthless indiscriminate traitorous murderers, they often go so far as to kill those who witness their acts of brutality.

However, there are witnesses that the scalp hunters cannot eradicate: the novel and its readers. It is a fitting irony that the Judge, who takes notes and sketches copiously in a ledger book, should himself be but a sketch in a book whom we witness from a jurisdiction higher than his own. (One might argue that the Judge bears witness to the world, nicely sketching it and studying it as he does; but he does not so much bear witness as survey, with the object of domination. The true witness, in contrast, desires no power over what they see, but only to testify to having seen.) In witnessing, the novel also gives life and voice to human suffering which would otherwise be lost to history.

Intimately connected with the act of witnessing are self-judgment and, more importantly, mercy. Though only faintly, the kid, more than any of his fellow scalp hunters, is capable of witnessing what is cruel in his own actions, and of standing in judgment on them. It is perhaps this quality in the kid, this odd innocence, which accounts for his small acts of kindness, as when he accompanies the wounded Sproule through the desert, or spares Dick Shelby’s life in defiance of Glanton’s order. Such acts are small consolation next to the Judge’s vision of eternal, nameless night, but it is all that the novel offers.

Witness and Mercy ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Blood Meridian related to the theme of Witness and Mercy.
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.


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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 10 Quotes

For let it go how it will, he said, God speaks in the least of creatures.

Related Characters: Ben Tobin (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

One night, while sitting around a campfire, Tobin and the Kid discuss in hushed tones the Judge. Tobin, one of the only gang members with a shred of humanity intact, acknowledges that the Judge is profoundly gifted and immensely learned. This leads him to speculate that God doesn't much care about learnedness – if He cared about it, Tobin implies, He wouldn't have given it to such a devil-man as the Judge.

Instead, Tobin believes that God doesn't speak to the great like the Judge, but rather to the silent, the meek, "the least of creatures." This is in keeping with the Christian value of humility that Tobin would have been familiar with as a novitiate to a religious order; for it was Jesus Christ himself who said that the meek "shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). Contrast this belief with the hermit's, who says that there's "meanness in the least of creatures." The hermit is referring to the cruelty that is a part of the order of nature, whereas Tobin is referring to the divine grace that belongs to the order of divinity.

Tobin's belief is borne out in the case of the Kid. The Kid is virtually silent throughout the novel, and he is a very small creature in its pages indeed, little more than a name on a page. But it is precisely in the Kid that the novel sees some grace in the world of war. He holds mercy in his heart, unlike almost every other gang member. The Judge eventually kills the Kid, but it is the insistent voice of God that speaks through the Kid which more deeply impresses us. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

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 14 Quotes

Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker)
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

While riding with the gang through a jungle toward Sonora, the Judge shoots birds to stuff and study. He also collects leaves, sketching them in his notebook at camp at night. Toadvine asks him why he does so, and the Judge responds with the quote given here.

The Judge thinks of nature as a great brutal force, a vicious cycle of birth and death, the stern necessity of surviving in the face of terrible hardship. It is because nature can overpower us that it "can enslave man." The Judge, however, refuses to be the slave of nature. He wants to "rout out," or find and expose, all of the different "entities" or things in nature: every animal, plant, mineral, and phenomenon. As he sees it, only when we have all the facts can we be "properly suzerain of the earth," – that is, the absolute ruler of the earth. This is an allusion to the Bible, where God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" (Genesis 1:26).  

The Judge's vision of nature derives from the Enlightenment, a historical period in which reason, science, and technology came to be valued over all other domains of human knowledge. The Judge is confident that science can unravel entirely the mystery of nature, to the extent that human beings can control nature as they see fit. But whereas many Enlightenment thinkers thought that reason and science would lead to freer human societies, the Judge wants to understand nature only to use it in perpetuating warfare and in killing more effectively.    

Chapter 16 Quotes

The judge emerged from the darkness. Evening, Lieutenant, he said. Are these men the witnesses?
Couts looked at his corporal. No, he said. They aint witnesses. Hell, Captain. You all were seen to enter the premises and seen to leave after the shot was fired. Are you going to deny that you and your men took your dinner there?
Deny ever goddamned word of it, said Glanton.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker), John Joel Glanton (speaker), Lieutenant Couts (speaker)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

While eating with the gang in Tucson, the black Jackson murders the racist proprietor of the place, a man named Owens. Lieutenant Couts confronts the gang and announces that he needs to arrest Jackson. However, the Judge complicates what should be a rather clear-cut case by pointing out that nobody actually witnessed the shooting (or at least nobody outside the gang...).

The fact that the Judge emerges "from the darkness" has a faint symbolic charge here. The Judge himself avoids being seen, because when one goes unobserved, one can act freely without consequences. He is also someone who muddies and darkens what should be clear. Couts appeals to a very commonsense understanding of Owens's murder: the gang went into his premises with no one else there, a shot was heard, and the gang was seen to leave. But the Judge, and under his influence Glanton, explode this commonsense understanding by appealing to extreme skepticism. Without witnesses, they suggest, no one can really know what actually happened in Owens's place. By undermining the plain sense of things like this, the Judge gets the gang off of many hooks.

The novel, though, as a whole seems sympathetic to Couts's point of view; after all, it bears witness to the fact that Jackson killed Owens. 

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.

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.

Chapter 23 Quotes

The judge watched him. Was it always your idea, he said, that if you did not speak you would not be recognized?
You seen me.
The judge ignored this. I recognized when I first saw you and yet you were a disappointment to me. Then and now. Even so at the last I find you here with me.
I aint with you.

Related Characters: The kid (speaker), Judge Holden (speaker)
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

The Kid grows up and becomes the Man. In Fort Griffin, he goes into a local saloon where he meets, after all these years and for the last time, the Judge. The Judge approaches the Man, and it is during their conversation that we find the exchange quoted here.

The Kid is silent in the face of the Judge's questions. He knows that the Judge can out-talk anyone, and that silence is the only viable form of resistance to his powerful rhetoric.The Judge, after all, wants everything to stand naked before him; he wants to understand in order to control. The Kid defies him by concealing his mind in silence, rendering himself unknowable.

The Judge claims to have always recognized the Kid as "a disappointment," someone who could not entirely serve the god of war. The Kid again defies the Judge. "I aint with you" means something like, "I don't want to have anything to do with you, we're not in any way related, and I don't support your cause." This is the ultimate declaration of the Kid's independence from the Judge's party of war, and it echoes his claim earlier in the novel that he is in no way kin to the mad Captain White.

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.