Welcome to the Ending Explained of ‘Blood Meridian,’ an epic historical fiction novel written by Cormac McCarthy and published in 1985. Since then, the novel has become, in the minds of many, one of the best novels ever written and also one of the best stories in the Western genre, if not the best. Even at its short length, the novel still manages to create a sense of splendor, scale, and mystique that not many other stories can achieve. Not even those that spend over a thousand pages fleshing out words and characters.
Cormac McCarthy’s style has always been challenging for most audiences, but even his other famous works, like The Road and No Country for Old Men, are way more accessible than Blood Meridian. This is why those other novels have managed to jump to the screen while Blood Meridian is still on the page. Many filmmakers, including some of the best, such as Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott, have tried to adapt the novel, only to fail. Among the many things that would be a challenge to adapt is the novel’s ending, which can be infinitely intriguing but also confusing. However, this is what makes the book such a special reading experience.
The following paragraphs contain spoilers for Blood Meridian. Read at your own risk.
Why did the Judge kill the Man?
Blood Meridian is mostly famous for its style of writing, which often tells more off the page than what it tells on it. The reader needs to extrapolate the information the page provides and take it to the next level, something some scholars call “the third meaning.” This meaning goes beyond what is literally happening in the story, the plot, for example, and also goes beyond the symbolism. Here, the story becomes something different for each audience member, and this richness in meaning and interpretations gives the book, the film, or even the video games their special sauce.
The novel is also very violent and shows a group of scalp hunters and their journey to get as many scalps as possible. In the middle of this journey, two characters seem to be in focus. One is a teenager from Tennessee, known as “The Kid,” and on the other hand, there is a terrible pale giant named Judge Holden. The kid joins the campaign, which degenerates into a massacre of guilty and innocent people in the name of money, while the Judge seems to test the kid at every opportunity. However, the kid never really joins in the massacre but just expects from afar. He does his bit of violent acts, but he is on the fence. His values tell him to have limits on what to do.
It is well known that Judge Holden, the novel’s villain, is more than just an evil man; he represents something beyond himself. That third meaning. A lot of symbolism throughout the novel confirms that more than being a human judge, Holden is also a manifestation of everything evil in this world. He is Satan-made flesh upon the Earth and here to represent sin. Judge doesn’t only judge others for their actions but also represents everything humanity needs to be judged for. The novel’s end jumps forward in time and sees the kid, now a man, meeting Holden once again.
The Kid is now The Man and has survived the terrible world around him. He has also tried to become something better than he was before. He has been trying to help others and become a force for good. However, when The Man meets Holden again, their conversation returns to a simple question: “Will you dance?” The Man meets Holden at a saloon, where a party occurs.
Holden tells The Man that he is here for “The Dance,” but The Man denies the offer and goes out of the saloon to the outhouse, where Holden expects him all naked and kills him. Unlike all other killings in the book, we are not told what Holden did to The Man, but it wasn’t pretty. This ends the book’s plot. But what does it mean?
What does the epilogue mean?
Why did Holden kill The Man for not wanting to participate in the dance? Here, we have to put on our big brain hats and understand that what is being told in the novel is not really what the characters are talking about. This last conversation between The Man and Holden has nothing to do with a proper dance but with life itself.
The dance is the life, the battle we fight daily. Holden might be evil, and The Man might be on the road to becoming a force for good in this world. However, the moment he decides not to fight the battle of life, it is at that moment that he is dead.
Edmund Burke is often credited with saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The ending of Blood Meridian is that quote made a story. In here, The Man is the good man who chose to do nothing; he chose not to dance, and just for that, Holden, who represents evil, wins.
On a plot level, it is implied that Holden not only killed The Man, but he also raped him. Holden is depicted as a recurrent child rapist, and it might be that the kid is now an adult, but Holden’s beliefs would not let The Man escape that fate. Everything Holden does is only for the benefit of his own ego; he does things to impose his will on others. And there is nothing more furious than rape and murder to show that.
In the end, Holden goes back to the dance and claims he, evil, will never die, and he is telling the truth, he won’t die, he never will, and at this stage, it seems there will be no figure that will become his opposite.
Evil rules and goodness hides. McCarthy then goes into an epilogue that is just as mysterious as the rest of the novel. This epilogue shows men digging holes, searching for bones, and creating fire from stones. The language is beautiful and very confusing, but what does it mean? We must go into the third meaning again to understand these small paragraphs.
The images and allusions found in the epilogue paint a picture of change. The Old West is gone, but evil will transform into something new. We see capitalism’s rise as America’s primary economic system in this case. We see the start of the oil industry that this time will not only create a war between men but also destroy the land they walk on. Evil might take a new form, but it will always be present.
The best thing we can do is not follow The Man’s example, participate in the dance, and do our best for the others dancing with us. To win the game, you have to play it, and if you don’t, then evil will win unopposed. Go and dance.