51 pages 1 hour read

Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Blood Meridian, a 1985 novel by Cormac McCarthy, is one of the most celebrated works of modern American literature. The novel was inspired by people and events of the mid-19th century in the borderlands of the United States and Mexico. McCarthy’s works have won many honors including the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Blood Meridian is often considered his greatest novel. This guide uses an eBook version of the 1992 First Vintage International edition. Please note that Blood Meridian contains graphic violence, racism, prejudice, and the use of offensive language in reference to race and parentage. This study guide places problematic language in quotation marks.

Plot Summary

The protagonist of Blood Meridian is referred to only as the kid (and, later, as the man). The kid is born in Tennessee in 1833 during a meteor shower. His mother dies during childbirth, and he is raised by a father who is abusive and has alcoholism. Eventually becoming tired of life at home, he runs away at the age of 14. Traveling west, he works menial jobs and earns enough money to survive. He gets into occasional fights and becomes accustomed to violence.

The kid arrives in the Texas town of Nacogdoches. He sees a large tent and, ducking inside to escape the rain, he watches a religious ceremony held by Reverend Green. The sermon criticizes contemporary society for its sinfulness and decadence. Reverend Green is interrupted by a gigantic, pale, bald man named Judge Holden. Holden talks over Green and accuses him of a series of sexual crimes involving children and animals. Though Green denies these accusations, the crowd becomes so angry that they attack and kill him. The kid escapes and meets a branded, earless man named Louis Toadvine. After helping Toadvine kill a man, the two leave town. Holden watches them as they leave.

While traveling across the prairie, the kid meets a group of soldiers led by Captain White. White believes he can defend the interests of the United States by crossing the Mexican border and killing anyone who opposes him. The kid, tempted by the promise of loot, joins the soldiers and is given a change of clothes, a gun, and a horse. White leads his men south, where they encounter harsh conditions. They deal with dehydration and a lack of food before being attacked by a group of Comanche warriors. Though most of the soldiers are slaughtered, the kid manages to escape.

The kid travels to Chihuahua City, where he is arrested and thrown in jail. One of his fellow prisoners is Toadvine. From the jail, the prisoners see a strange band of mercenaries parade through the city, led by a man named Glanton. Holden is with them. Glanton has been hired by the governor of the region to kill the leader of a group of Apache named Gomez, whose warriors have been terrorizing the city’s inhabitants. For each Native American scalp that Glanton brings back to the city, he will receive a considerable sum. Toadvine and the kid strike a deal. For their freedom, they will join Glanton’s gang. The kid, Toadvine, Holden, and Glanton’s mercenaries leave the city to rapturous applause as they set out to kill Native Americans.

Before the gang is far from Chihuahua City, it runs into trouble. While purchasing weapons, Glanton arouses the interest of a group of Mexican soldiers. Only Holden’s intervention and charisma allow the situation to be resolved without violence. After traveling across Mexico and meeting a group of magicians, the kid pays more attention to the eloquent and strange judge. Holden holds court each night around the campfire and speaks at length on many subjects. The night after having his fortune told by a magician, Glanton scalps an elderly Native American woman. Over the coming days, the kid notices ominous signs in the gang. He is warned about Glanton and Holden. Soon, members of the gang begin to desert and others argue with one another, resulting in the death of at least one man.

A short time later, the gang encounters a band of Apache warriors. The fight ends with a single dead Native American. Holden scalps the man. As the journey becomes long and arduous, the gang crosses mountains and deserts, passing through abandoned towns. Again, the kid is warned about Holden, but he dismisses other people’s fears. One of the members of the gang is a former seminarian named Tobin. He takes many dissenting positions during Holden’s lectures, but Holden’s eloquence and charisma cause many of the men to favor him over Tobin. One day, Tobin explains to the kid that the gang found Holden sitting alone and naked in the desert. He joined their gang and, since then, he has had an outsized influence on Glanton. However, he has helped the gang escape impossible situations and delivered them into very profitable ventures. The kid mentions his previous encounter with Holden; Tobin says that every man has a story about meeting Holden earlier in their life.

The gang spends many months marauding across Mexico. Though the men were originally tasked with protecting Chihuahua City, they lose sight of their original mission. Eventually, they begin slaughtering anyone they dislike. They kill Native Americans and Mexicans, including women and children. They scalp everyone and claim the bounties. At one point, they seize control of a ferry and fight with the local Native Americans for control of the river. The Native Americans kill Glanton but some of the men escape. The kid, Toadvine, and Tobin escape into the desert, where they are pursued by Holden, who blames the kid for the defeat of Glanton’s gang. After a long and dangerous pursuit, the kid and Tobin escape.

The kid and Tobin reach San Diego, where they become separated. The kid is arrested, and Holden visits him in jail, reiterating that the kid is to blame for the gang’s failures. Eventually, however, the kid is released, and he spends years wandering the west. Much later, when he is in his forties and now known as the man, he travels to a Texas saloon where he spots Holden. They talk about war and death; Holden compares life and death to a long dance. That night, the man visits the outhouse, where Holden seizes him and drags him inside. Later, two men open the outhouse door and are horrified by what they see inside. Back in the saloon, Holden dances and insists that he will never stop. In a short Epilogue, a man digs holes and people wander behind him, gathering bones. 

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