Blood, Gore, and Death in Blood Meridian

After watching the first episode of Heimat, the violence, blood, and death in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or the Redness in the West probably seems simply atrocious.  Is the thirst for violence just an innate quality or a product of the kid’s environment?  On the very first page of Chapter 1, we learn the kid “already [has] a taste for mindless violence” (McCarthy, 3).  This desire for “mindless violence” appears throughout the first six chapters, especially in the scene where we first meet the judge and the scene in the bar.  McCarthy also includes graphic passages depicting death, such as the attack on the plane.  What does this overabundance of violence do to the characters?  And what does it do to us as the readers?

The scene with the judge interests me because of the “mindless violence” that occurs.  The judge enters the tent where the reverend is speaking, and announces to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen I feel it my duty to inform you that the man…is an imposter…also wanted by the law…” (McCarthy, 6-7).  The judge seems to want a reaction from the crowd, when he easily could have confronted the reverend after the sermon.  He certainly gets a reaction: a man fired his pistol at the reverend and the tent was filled with “folk stumbling, folk trampled underfoot in the mud” (McCarthy, 7).  Later at the bar, the revelation from the judge, “I never laid eyes on the man before today.  Never even heard of him,” seems to shock the crowd into “a strange silence” (McCarthy, 8).  It certainly shocked me!  What shocked me even more, however, was what happened after the judge spoke: “Finally someone began to laugh…someone bought the judge a drink” (McCarthy, 8).  I am not sure if this type of event is historically accurate, but its inclusion in Blood Meridian implies that people accepted these accusations – of a reverend, nonetheless – and acts of violence as unavoidable part of life.

One time we see the kid’s “taste for mindless violence” is in the bar at Bexar.  The kid has no money to pay for a drink but offers to work for it.  Anger builds in both the kid and the barman, perhaps due to the language barrier, until the barman produces a pistol from under the bar.  There is nothing theatrical about the killing that follows, as one might expect after watching dramatic Westerns with suspenseful scenes.  McCarthy’s words are certainly descriptive, but they do not overdramatize the killing; rather, they seem matter-of-fact.  The kid simply “broke the right one over the man’s head…and he backhanded the second bottle across the barman’s skull and crammed the jagged remnant into his eye” (McCarthy, 25). McCarthy promptly moves on, spending no more time on the death, and neither does the kid.  The kid “took another bottle and tucked it under his arm and walked out the door” (McCarthy, 26).  Did the barman spur the kid into acts of violence, or the kid want a drink so badly that he was willing to kill for it?

If the killing in Bexar seems bad, the later scenes must appear horrific.  Perhaps the aftermath of the attack on the plain in Chapter 4 best exemplifies this horrific violence.  After sweeping through the group, the attackers “pass[ed] theirs blades about the skulls, snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies” (McCarthy, 54).  The attackers even appear “so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs” (McCarthy, 55).

Is it possible to become desensitized from this much blood and gore?  McCarthy’s writing seems to suggest so.  Yes, he spends almost two pages describing the attack, but he focuses on the actions of people, the physical damage, and the flesh, rather than emotional descriptions.  One example of this desensitization occurs when a Kentuckian describes a battle at Chihuahua.  “The dames of the city…picnicked and watched the battle,” seeming to regard the death and war in front of them as entertainment (McCarthy, 76).  They even “could hear the moans of the dying out on the plain,” yet they did nothing (McCarthy, 76).

As we continue reading Blood Meridian, we should pay attention to McCarthy’s descriptions of violence and death.  What else do these acts of violence show us about the characters?  About society at that time?

This entry was posted in Blood Meridian, Student Generated. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Blood, Gore, and Death in Blood Meridian

  1. Charlie says:

    In response to your question concerning the effects of violence on the reader, I can attest to the repulsion and astonishment that I felt when reading some of the more gruesome passages. I think that McCarthy wants to startle the reader with his blatant portrayals of unexplained violence, but I found myself scoffing at some scenes that were simply gratuitous in their imagery. Take for instance the barbarian’s Christmas tree, decorated not with ornaments but with dead infants. Although I understand McCarthy’s intent to depict the limitless savagery of the Indians, who do not hesitate to murder babies, I thought that this scene was simply ridiculous. The babies receive the haunting description of “Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being” (McCarthy 60), and I think it is telling and almost comical that the murderers took the time to delicately hang their victims with “holes punched in their underjaws” (McCarthy 60). However, showing dead babies strikes me as an easy way to show brutality, which is lacking in subtlety. It seems like any time writers want to capture immediate horror, they go straight to dead babies.
    I found the massacre in the church more moving and emotionally jarring because of its enveloping description: “The murdered lay in a great pool of their communal blood. It had set up into a sort of pudding crossed everywhere with the tracks of wolves or dogs and along the edges it has dried and cracked into a burgundy ceramic” (McCarthy 63)” Reading about this blood-drenched pile of corpses propelled me into a state of shock, as McCarthy likely intended.
    The murderous routing of the Filibuster army I found similarly startling, particularly the page-long sentence describing the nightmarish horde of Comanche marauders. But near the end of the battle, I found myself slipping into a near vomit-inducing daze as a result of the shear absurdity of the scene. The Indians receive the horrific yet unwarranted description of “holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals . .. some fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows” (McCarthy 56). Now, I once again understand McCarthy’s need to reach the very heights of mindless slaughter in his description, but quite honestly, I found the previous display of scalping sufficient in communicating this brutality. The “unmanning” and raping of the soldiers descends to the level of a low-grade horror movie. There are scenes from the animated TV show Southpark, which is notorious for gratuitous violence and gore, that use this same imagery for comedic purposes (see “Woodland Critter Christmas”). In a way, I think that McCarthy might intentionally exaggerate some of the scenes to highlight the absurdity of violence. After all, the Indians that slaughter the soldiers are described as “mounted clowns, death hilarious” (McCarthy 55) as well as wearing odd combinations of wedding veils, stovepipe hats (think Frosty the Snowman) and backwards pigeontailed coats. Though the violence in Blood Meridian evokes fearful horror with its vivid brutality, it comes off as excessive at times, perhaps to show how ridiculous the violence of beast-like humans can be.

  2. Clare Welch says:

    I agree with Charlie and Lindsey in that the amount of blood and gore in McCarthy’s writing is a bit disturbing, but what I find most disturbing is the tone McCarthy takes when describing these awful events. The way he writes the tales of the kid’s travels reminds me of the detached and nonchalant tone of Camus’ <>. Meursault, the protagonist in <>, betrays absolutely no emotion when talking of his mother’s death, attending his mother’s funeral, spending time with his girlfriend, or reflecting on killing the Arab man. Similarly, the narrator in <> does not describe any emotion in any of the characters. What is the point of showing all of these violent and disturbing things but describing them as matter-of-fact? Why tell the reader that the kid and Sproule “hobbled past, they looked back. Nothing moved” (McCarthy 60)? I think that the point of all of the numbness to the violence thus far in the novel is to impress upon the reader how violence, and subsequently death, is a part of life. The kid seems numb to the disturbing nature of his acts because to him violence is the only thing that he knows. It is a part of his life, and he cannot dwell on the goriness of his life or he will be swallowed up by the very same violence that killed all of the people we see murdered in this novel.

  3. Clare Welch says:

    Sorry, quick P.S.
    the in my response are book titles that for some reason did not show up. I apologize. The two works I referred to are The Stranger and Blood Meridian.

  4. Cristina says:

    While I was reading, I did find the way that the violence is described to be a bit disturbing. Along with Claire, I noticed a detachment that came along with the descriptions as if these acts of violence were normal or to be expected. Along with the tone, I found myself detached to the violence and did not think anything of it until I thought back and realized how much of it there was and how it was treated.
    I think although it is a disturbing idea, it is definitely possible to become desensitized to violence. It can even be seen in our world with violent video games or movies that leave the audience detached from it happening in the real world.
    I think that telling of the violence in a matter-of-fact way adds another level to the story by having the reader assess their own views of violence. However, there could definitely be a more concrete reason that it is written like that that shows up later in the book.

  5. Lily says:

    I agree with Charlie that the violence in this book is very gratuitous. A lot of the book, actually, seems to be gratuitously shocking. McCarthy focuses on the mean squalor of life that manifests itself particularly obviously in tales of the Old West. The blood-and-guts violence, frequent references to urine and saliva, the sodomy Charlie mentioned, all add up to kind of a gross atmosphere. Yet I also find passages that are very evocative and lyrical: “Within the hour the wind cooled and drops of rain the size of grapeshot fell upon them out of that wild darkness. They could smell wet stone and the sweet smell of the wet horses and wet leather. They rode on ” (McCarthy, 50). McCarthy obviously has talent. Why does he use so much of it to paint this dark, rather nauseating picture? I’m not saying he should be writing about bunnies and butterflies, but does he really need to be so downright disgusting to get his point across?

  6. Erin says:

    I think that Cristina brings up an interesting point about becoming detached from violence in video games and movies. It seems to make sense that this would be a prevailing theme in a book that was published in the 1980’s during the rise of technology and the beginning of teens becoming somewhat accustomed to violence because of exposure to graphic scenes on video games and movies. Something that I find interesting is that usually, seeing something would make someone feel more uncomfortable than reading it, yet reading the descriptions in Blood Meridian made me feel far more uneasy than I would watching a scary movie. Maybe it’s that while reading, you can control your own pace of digesting the details that are being described while typically while watching a movie you take in the events as they come, which is usually pretty quick.

    I also really enjoyed both Charlie’s blunt comparison between the rather “shear absurdity” (Charlie) (yes Charlie.. you just got quoted) of the violent scenes in Blood Meridian and South Park and Lily’s observation and declaration of McCarthy’s talent. I especially like how Lily mentioned an element of the text that most people seemed too distracted by the intense violence to mention, the beauty in McCarthy’s writing. McCarthy clearly is a very talented writer, but he doesn’t hand the reader the plot. I think that McCarthy actually intends for the audience to initially be confused so they can be exposed into the world that he creates, although it may seem absurd and excessively violent, it is the world of the Kid. McCarthy is going to immerse us in this world head first, that is why I believe his descriptions are so violent.

Comments are closed.