McCarthy, a Pulitzer Prize winner (for his novel The Road) and highly respected novelist, is said to have gone into a lot of research on the history of the Southwest prior to writing Blood Meridian. And so, while this is fiction, the novel has a basis for its plot. Indeed the Mexican-American War (during which the U.S. annexed Texas) and the concept of Manifest Destiny are definite themes in the novel. Also, there actually was a "Glanton Gang" of rowdy scalp hunters and marauding killers, led by John Joel Glanton. McCarthy researched their antics and movements and uses that historical record very effectively in his novel.
Meanwhile, the story features a runaway teenage boy called "the kid," who was born in Tennessee during the Leonids meteor shower in 1833. The kid meets up with the novel's protagonist, Judge Holden in Nacogdoches Texas, and Holden, a mysterious, bald yet very violent man, is impressed with the kid's fighting ability. A gang of men, The Glanton gang, including the kid, go into Mexico and become bounty hunters and make their living killing and scalping Indians. Soon they are killing non-threatening Indians and just about anyone who crossed their path. The story takes the reader on the kid's adventures across the American West; the constant killing and violence is outrageous and often mindless, but McCarthy's descriptive prose and story-telling gift creates a fascinating -- albeit terribly bloody book. The moral wasteland that is presented in Blood Meridian would be blasphemous if it were not presented in such original and brilliant prose.
McCarthy infuses Nietzschean into the novel at numerous points. The Judge, for example, on page 250, responds to Irving's statement that a man who wins (at a card game or in a combat situation) is not "vindicated morally."
"Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak," the Judge explains. "A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test" (p. 250). Moreover, the Judge continued, "Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all questions of right" (p. 250). Those remarks could have come right out of Nietzsche's philosophy. An evil person with twisted values, the Judge nonetheless comes up with thoughts and remarks that embrace Nietzsche's viewpoints.
As to Nietzsche, Scholar Simon Robertson explains that Nietzsche "denies the objectivity of value upon which morality's claim to authority rests" (Robertson, 2009, p. 67). Presented another way, Robertson writes that Nietzsche's work challenges the foundations "underpinning morality's claim to authority" and that Nietzsche objects to "…the ways morality frustrates impersonal goods like excellence…"(Robertson, pp. 66-67). [The Judge often challenges morality's role in social experiences.] Nietzsche stated, "There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena"; and "There are no moral facts whatever. Moral judgment has this in common with religious judgment that it believes in realities which do not exist" (Robertson, p. 69).
Seemingly the Judge shares the view that morality is more myth than fact, and that the decision as to what is moral is to be made within the mind of the individual.
"Clearly there is no moral hierarchy in Blood Meridian," writes Jason P. Mitchell in the journal Critique (Mitchell, 2000). Mostly, Mitchell continues, "we can only argue that some characters are less inclined toward cruelty than others," which does not exactly echo Nietzsche's view of morality, but is close enough to make a comparison. The Judge, certainly not one emblazoned with morality in his character, believed that the kid's "moral flaw is precisely his failure to 'empty out his heart into the common" (McCarthy, p. 307).
How Violence and Blood Play Roles in Blood Meridian
Although blood images are found everywhere throughout the novel, an alert reader does not view those images as purely gratuitous. The characters lead horses across a lakebed of lava "…all cracked and reddish black like a pan of dried blood" (p. 251). McCarthy uses violence craftily and purposefully, although killing and perverted acts of hatred seem routine. For many soldiers and others in the 19th Century American West, life was cheap and quickly expendable. This isn't McCarthy's fictional vision but in fact it is the reality of how life really was during those times. Characters respond to bloodshed, brutality and death with no more than a shrug of the shoulder, if that.
Example one: soldiers enter a beachfront bar where Toadvine and Webster had been drinking. "An altercation took place" (p. 268), and with no explanation as to what the dispute was about, Brown pours a pitcher of "aguardiente" (alcohol) on a soldier and "set him afire with his cigar" (p. 268). The flames are "pale blue" and can't be seen in the bright sunlight, but the burning soldier can't snuff them out and "burned up" in the road, "blackened and shriveled in the mud like an enormous spider" (p. 268).
And so Brown is jailed but talks the soldier into letting him go; the two set out to find that thirty thousand dollars Brown claims he has hidden in the desert, and "in the first light Brown raised the rifle and shot the boy through the back of the head"; the "entire foreplate of his skull gone and the brains exposed" (p. 269). If this seems terribly callous and immoral to the reader, it is just a drop in the bucket of grossness that washes through this novel like a tsunami. After the boy is killed his ears are cut off and mounted for everyone to see. On page 272 men were "beaten senseless" and a young Mexican girl is seen "crouched naked" with a rawhide collar around her neck. She is chained to a post like a dog but has the human instinct to cover her breasts (p. 272).
Among the many descriptive narratives authors and scholars have offered with reference to Blood Meridian, Andrew Hislop (writing in The New Republic) calls McCarthy's book a "rootless quest for blood, money, loot and women" (Mitchell, 2000). Hislop goes on (quoted by Mitchell, 2000):
"There are hundreds of brutal killings in this book. Dying men are sodomized, babies are strung up through their mouths, and tied to trees, a tame dancing bear is shot full of holes and bleeds to death in the arms of its little girl keeper.
Everyone the kid meets is either a killer, a victim, or a pervert. Everywhere he goes turns into a scene of horrible massacre or sickening degeneracy. None of This grotesquerie earns its place in the landscape, or in the kid's story"
Mythical / Spiritual / Religious Themes
The birth of the kid is on night of the Leonids meteor shower in 1833, which was said to be "one of the most sensational" meteor showers in history (Peebles, 2003, p. 237). In fact, McCarthy uses that particular night for the kid's birth as some vaguely religious experience, given that Jesus Christ was said to have been born on a night in which very bright stars guided the Wise Men.
The Leonids meteor showers in 1833, according to Peebles (p. 237), resulted in "some meteors" looking as "bright as streaking full moons." And a New York observer, A.C. Twyning, estimated that at the height of the storm "at least 10,000 bright meteors were visible per hour" (Peebles, p. 237). Interestingly, the Yuman Indians -- a tribe very prominent in McCarthy's novel -- believed that meteors were "a signifier for fire" and in fact they believed that the Leonids of 1833 marked "the beginning of recorded time" (Peebles, p. 238).
The Quechan Indians also used a Leonid-based calendar, Peebles writes, basing his conclusion on studies by Trippel and Spier. So if the kid's birth is to have significance, and it obviously does, Peebles argues that the "nominal if somewhat overshadowed protagonist's" birth is "arguably a Christ-like significance" (Peebles, p. 239). Moreover, the Quechan believed that "shooting stars are messages from Coh-coh-mak" [one of their two main gods], communicating to the Indians the death of one or more white men"(Peebles, p. 242).
McCarthy begins the fifth chapter with what Peebles calls "an image of resurrection": "With darkness one soul rose wondrously from among the new slain dead and stole away into the moonlight" (McCarthy, p. 55). But are the Quechan Indians and the kid aligned mystically because of the Leonid event? Peebles (p. 249) suggests that the Quechan land of the dead, the "Cop-lah-pahl," is just west of the Colorado River and Gila River junction -- "Exactly where these characters" [the kid and the Judge] travel after the ferry massacre" (Pebbles, p. 240). On page 333, "Stars were falling across the sky myriad and random, speeding along brief vectors from their origins in night to their destinies in dust and nothingness" (McCarthy, p. 333). And so, as Peebles notes (p. 242), the kid's death, like his birth, is commemorated by the silent tracks of stars."