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Image Identity and Reality: The West in Contemporary North American Literature Research Paper


Introduction

Blood Meridian

When McCarthy wrote the book, he probably did it out of financial desperation. The book did not immediately make a financial breakthrough as he would have expected but when it finally did, it was magnificent. The book gradually gained world wide popularity and in the process became a literary masterpiece.

The violent nature of the book’s content creates a lot of controversy in literary circles but its themes remain relevant through time. Most of his characters are based on real life people which gives further credence to the issues discussed in the book. The background research conducted for the book is self evident as the author tried to stick to facts as much as he could.

The book is set in the 1800’s in the area between America and Mexico, an area known for frequent cases of unrest and violence up to date. Due to the socio-economic inequality between the two states the area was a playground for marauding gangs and outlaws. The main character, whom the author gives the unlikely name -the kid, is one such outlaw.

He establishes himself as a fiercely independent and violent teenager who has a knack for getting himself into trouble. He roams aimlessly until he gets recruited into a gang. This happens in turbulent times when meteor showers are quite frequent and destructive.

His first gang is under leadership of Captain who is a former soldier who takes the civilization of Mexicans and Red Indians as the American’s God-given duty. The gang’s main aim is to keep in check the terror meted out on American settlers by Native Americans. Such gangs were labeled “scalp-hunters” due their mode of operation which involved hunting down red Indians and cutting their scalps off for reward.

However, greed and recklessness saw these gangs pursuing and killing innocent victims including children. Since there was no authentification process carried out to prove whom the scalp really belonged to the gangs took to harvesting any available Native American scalps.

It is through his involvement with the Galton gang that the kid meets the main antagonist, who goes by yet another unlikely name, the judge. The judge is extremely violent and seems to have the uncanny ability of appearing when least expected. He is described as having no hair whatsoever on his body. This childlike appearance is quite deceptive since the judge is a cold blooded killer who thrives on violence.

His sadistic nature revolts even the toughest of the gang members who not spared of his wrath either. The kid remembers the judge from an earlier incidence where he single handedly incited a mob to killing a preacher by accusing of defiling a child and raping a goat.

Despite his tendency to kill for fun the judge inspires some sort of respect from the gang members by cunningly saving them from a pursuing gang of natives. It also comes to their attention that they all had previous encounters with the judge before joining the gang. This reinforces their view of him as an extra-ordinary, omnipresent person.

As time goes by, the gang graduates from scalp-hunting to broad daylight robbery. They rob a ferry which they later use to lure and rob people trying to cross the river. Their fortunes change for the better till; they are hit by a band of red Indians whom they had earlier betrayed when they took initial control of the ship.

Some of the gang members are killed during this attack. Captain Galton is among the unlucky ones who perish during the attack which leaves the kid and the surviving gang members without a leader. The kid finds himself wandering in the dessert once more together with Tobin and Tovine.

As they head west the trio comes across the judge who tries to rob them of their few processions. Tobin is killed in the ensuing scuffle and the judge and the two survivors eventually find their way to San Diego.

The judge (Holden) reappears in the kid’s life when he tries facilitating his release from prison by lying that he is the one who finished Galton’s gang.

The kid is understandably reluctant to go along with the judge’s plan. The judge abandons him and the kid is finally released from jail after telling the real truth. The kid continues on his never ending adventures while across the barren Wild West. Toadvine and other gang members are apprehended and executed for their crimes.

The kid is later reintroduced as the man after a several-decades break. The man latter meets the judge who seems not to have been changed by time. The judge hails him as one of the few remaining true and seeks a reunion with him. The man has reformed and avoids association with the judge who is still riotous and seems to be in the middle of every conflict.

The book ends with the judge and the man engaging in some kind of physical struggle, though it is not clear whether the man survives it. The judge latter joins a pack of revelers and is heard saying that he would never die.

The author has set the book in the Wild West which is a common setting in movies and literature that has violent characters. The west is usually associated with senseless violence such as the kind meted out by the Galton’s gang. As the kid wanders in the dessert the author the author describes scenic settings of endless dessert strewn with rocks, shrubs and intermittently broken by cliffs.

The kid’s wandering in the wilderness has a biblical allusion perhaps comparing him to a disturbed prophet who wondered in the wilderness till he fulfilled his mission. In the same way the kid wandered the wilderness till he settled and became the man. Though the writer does not tell in what brings about the kids redemption the kid seems to settle down for several decades before being referred to as the man.

Perhaps due to excessive solitude that is common in the west most characters exhibit anti-social tendencies. Perhaps the authors take advantage of the loneliness of the dessert to bring out raw human qualities. The themes of violence and betrayal are most common

The judge epitomizes a perfect villain and is sometimes comparable to the devil himself. Though every one seems to know him from the past his background remains mysterious. His lack of hair and an unusually large body that is made even weirder by small hands and feet all reinforce the perception that he is not an ordinary man.

He is said to have the ability to appear in two different places at the same time or to appear at distant places within short intervals. He takes over leadership wherever he surprisingly does the same in Galton’s where he relegates the Captain to a puppet. He has a particular liking for killing children and claims that he will never die.

Violence is a common theme in the book that seems to have no particular effect on the plot as it is often used most plots. Most of the gang members use violence for survival but Holden draws a certain sadistic pleasure from killing and inciting riots.

He seems to thrive on violence itself and for it he claims that he’ll never die. The unruly nature of the book is further indicated in the authors writing style which seems to have no regard for rules of grammar such as punctuation marks.

The open spaces in the book signify freedom and the effect that it has on the human soul. The rule of law is corruptible as is indicated by the frequent times the kid is jailed and released on negotiating with the jailers. The dessert is a symbolic where one can literary do anything they want. Under such circumstances of complete freedom the evil nature of man comes into view.

The west as portrayed in the book is a place where one the gang operates without being bound by any laws. In such circumstances they are forced in evil acts for survival. The kid could be anyone which is probably why the author does not give a concrete identity. By simply referring to him as the kid the author avoids any bias, he intends to simply bring out his human nature.

The Role of the American West in Contemporary Literature

The Wild West has been a favorite setting for radical movies and literature due to its legendary lawlessness. It therefore serves the purpose of portraying people in their true colors when they are free to follow their hearts desires.

The blood meridian bears a resemblance to the movie “The Broke Back Mountain” whose main characters are to men with homosexual traits which they manage to keep under cover in the real world. The two men keep up their relationship despite being married. The judge in the blood meridian seems to exhibit such homosexual tendencies which he attempts to hide.

Towards the end it remains unclear the physical encounter with the man ends in rape or murder. Popular cowboy movies are characterized by revenge killings and gangs that terrorize ranchers. In this mythical land guns are part and parcel of life and the people do not hesitate to use them when the occasion demands.

The theme of colonialism is prominent in such literature is quite prominent. In the case of the red meridian, the gang’s agenda was to take complete control of the Mexicans and Native Americans.

In a similar way the books tend to display the Red Indians as hapless victims or as violent and uncivilized people. In the real sense, however, they were just a people keen on defending their rights and dignity. When one considers the behavior of the white American’s it becomes clear just how relative the term civilized can be.

The Americans considered themselves civilized yet they employed the services of reckless gangs whose only agenda was material reward. The scalp hunters are known to have gone to the extent of killing innocent Inuit children for their scalps. To them the Indians were no more important than wild game and their scalps were equivalent to animal hides.

Through popular Wild West the role of Americans as bringers of civilization is often highlighted. McCarthy attempted to correct such misleading notions by laying bare the activities of bounty hunters such as the Galton’s gang. The imbalanced portrayal of frontier families as victims of raids by Indian gangs is corrected by literature that attempts to show both side of the conflict without favor. (McCarthy 78)

Just like in any society the west operated on codes of conduct which regulated the way the people related with each other. The code conduct relied heavily on personal and instant justice and responsibility only to close relatives, neighbors and age mates. The frontier life in such movies and books is described at best as nomadic.

To underscore the survivor spirit of the American people, the challenges they faced such as having to endure harsh climatic conditions in a country infested with lawless Apaches who took every chance to kill a settler.

Themes

In the red Meridian violence and betrayal are the most prominent themes. The violence starts when the kid gets involved in a bar brawl that gets him recruited into a gang whose main work is violence. The judge incites the crowd to violence based on a bunch of lies.

The judge seems like a man who engages in the scalp-hunting trade mainly for the thrill that he gets from killing. His favorite victims are helpless children whom he kills in cold blood. He betrays the kid and the other gang members in the dessert when he tries to rob them.

He is accused by the kid of betraying them by not laying out the issues as the others are doing the same. He takes over the gang leadership and openly rebels against his orders. The gang members betray the Yumas with whom they had planned an attack on a ferry.

On a wider scale the book seeks to uncover the betrayal of the Native Americans by the frontiers who had signed treaties with them promising to protect them. They turned back on their and started killing in what can be termed as genocide in today’s terms.

The justice system betrays the citizens by pardoning and releasing captured criminals on negotiation. The kid was released twice from jail. It further betrays the Natives by setting loose the criminals on them as bounty hunters. This encourages the senseless murder of innocent natives for their scalps.

In Brokeback Mountain, a story set in 1963, the controversial topic of bisexuality is aptly addressed in the cowboy setting where the two married men find space to release their gay feelings. In an ordinary urban setting the men would have found it hard to organize such liaisons due to constant public scrutiny. In the west they find lots of space and are therefore to keep in their affair going in secret.

The west therefore provides a novel setting where several factors can be manipulated in the writers mind without straining the readers’ imagination. It is literary a place where anything can happen. Its turbulent past makes it all the more interesting. The cowboys and gun slingers in western movies and literature are similar to the knights of England or the Samurais of Japan.

They are simply an embodiment of the spirit of the people, a set of heroes whom people look up to when they need encouragement. As such their character and heroic deeds are often distorted and exaggerated with the passage of time. The protagonists are usually cattle rustlers or natives who wonder in the desserts with no permanent place to live.

The movies are often set in sleepy ghost towns where the only forms of entertainment are bars where the men folk meet to keep up with the news and socialize. Disputes are often settled in the form of gun duels where only one man can walk out of it alive. The duels however much they might seem irrational to the reader are a way of ensuring that the dispute is permanently settled.

The role of women in the Wild West seems to be entirely domestic. Women are not known to venture to far from home. In The Last Picture Show a movie adapted from a novel by the same title written by Larry McMurtry women are displayed as promiscuous and manipulative(78).

The main characters Jackson and Crawford are high school athletes who are completely different in character which reflects on their choice of girlfriends. Jacy Farrow befriends Jackson who is outgoing and popular. Likewise she is independent minded and attractive. Crawford is shy and withdrawn and end up with an equally grumpy Charlene for whom he feels no real affection.

Crawford dumps Charlene and has a fling with the coach’s wife, Ruth. Jacy latter gets attracted to Bobby, a rich boy whom she meets at a naked party. Bobby refuses anything to do with her until she loses her virginity to someone else. The characters get caught up in tragic romantic whirlpool that leaves them confused and devastated.

The women in the last picture show play role of villains who betray their men and tend to dessert their men at impulse. The men are equally manipulative as the boy who introduces Jacy to Bobby. The theme of betrayal comes out quite clearly in this movie. Sonny betrays Charlene by acting like he loves her while he is well aware that he doesn’t (McMurty 138).

Jacy betrays Duane’s love by dumping for the richer bobby who in turn betrays her by demanding that she looses her virginity before they can get into a relationship. Marlow invites Jacy to Bobby’s party with the intention of breaking up her relationship with Duane. She comes to realize the betrayal when she is already too deep in it. Ruth betrays her husband by having an affair with Sonny who is her husband’s student.

She in a sense betrays Sonny who is only looking for affection after breaking up with his girlfriend; instead she takes advantage of his youth and folly and lures him into sex. The coach, in a fit of revenge, betrays Ruth bequeathing his wealth to everyone but her.

Perhaps to make a statement he leaves his pool hall to Sonny. Jacy betrays Duane’s trust a second time by inviting him to a motel for sex to break her virginity in order to satisfy Bobby’s condition. After that she breaks up with him over the phone. Jacy betrays her mother by having sex with her mother’s lover.

Women are said to have had a particularly hard time in the Wild West since they were maligned from social and political issues. (Glenda 37)

In yet another novel, The Virginian, by Owen Wister the Wild West is yet again depicted as a lawless country where dark side of the human heart is displayed. The writer talks about a kind of civil war that emerges between to sets of ranchers with the richer ones accusing the poorer of cattle ranching.

Unable to trust the corrupt government for justice the ranchers decide to take the law into their own hands and settle it out between themselves. The larger ranchers carry out a series of lynching on the small ranchers (Winster 113).

The writer takes sides with owners of the large ranches as they hunt for the smaller ranchers an subject them to kangaroo courts which were usually followed by lynching. The rich ranchers find the task detestable but unavoidable while the poor ranchers find their fate inescapable. The theme of violence here is self evident although the author tries to show it as a necessary evil.

As in all the other cases the government betrays its citizen by sluggishness and being unwilling to enforce. The dueling style of solving arguments and disputes still remains the most preferred method as portrayed in the following extract.

Therefore Trampas spoke. “Your bet, you son-of-a–.”

The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE.” And he looked at Trampas across the table.” (Doris 63)

Such minor arguments and name-calling could almost always end up in a fatal shooting, after which the murderer could walk away unperturbed. The Sheriffs response was usually dismal if any at all.

Thus the victim’s relatives or peers were required to carry out a revenge killing in order to maintain their honor. The vendetta could go on and on until the law intervened which was u after a score or more people had been killed. Violence was simply part of everyday life.

While some critics argue that the bravery of the cowboys is overrated, its only fair to note that the Native Americans were no angels either. Cases of beheadings carried out by red Indians braves were not unheard of. They also carried out frequent raids on ranches and carried away cattle and burnt down barns.

While it can not be said that these acts were entirely unprovoked the revenge culture elevated the violence to extremes. The violence occurred even among the Natives as they ought for the meager resources.

The American people draw inspiration from Wild West literature and movies. However few authors or directors ever attempt to tell the Natives side of the story. The continued portrayal of the Natives as villains only serves to fan the fire of hate that burns within the native’s hearts.

Considering the fact that most of them became outlaws since there were no more hunting grounds left to carry out the only way they knew how to make a living.

The violence portrayed in such literature only serves to encourage children to imitate the cowboy lifestyles and encourages hatred against Native Americans.

Some useful lessons can also be drawn out from such movies and books. Readers learn to take caution and to choose carefully whom they trust as they get exposed to frequent instances of betrayal that is common in wild west literature.

The genre brings out the stark contrasts between the mentalities in the west and east. The sense of honor in the Wild West literature demands that once a family member is killed the peers or family members had the responsibility of carrying out revenge. The east considers it more honorable to commit suicide on failure. The role of the west in the propagation of such movies is simply to strengthen their role as world leaders.

By popularizing western literature the world comes to associate America with the fearless and infallible cowboys. All this is done at the expense of the Native who were more of victims than the bandits they are often painted as.

In the case of the blood Meridian, the book ends with the judge declaring that he would never die, probably from his violent nature. He further declares that war is God. Perhaps the author only meant to show that violence is natural part of human nature that is only limited by artificial rules and laws.

The setting of the plot in the wilderness further reinforces this notion as it symbolizes an open place abundant with freedom. He seems to be opinion that humans are naturally predisposed to war.

He further insinuates that given a chance all of us would hostile and war-like jus like the members of the kid’s gang. The use of the name the kid further exemplifies the innocence of the character and suggests that violence is not a learned but an inborn trai (Cowie 106).

Works Cited

Cowie, Peter. The American West. New York: Harry Abrams, 2004.

Doris, Thompson. Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories. London: Harper Perenial, 2006.

Glenda, Riley. Women in the American West. Illlinois: Harlan, 1992

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. London: Picador, 1990.

McMurty, Larry. The Last Picture Show.NY:OUP, 1962.

Winster, Owen. The Virginian. Dalas: Harlan Davidson, Inc. 1994

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IvyPanda. "Image Identity and Reality: The West in Contemporary North American Literature." May 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/image-identity-and-reality-the-west-in-contemporary-north-american-literature-research-paper/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Image Identity and Reality: The West in Contemporary North American Literature." May 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/image-identity-and-reality-the-west-in-contemporary-north-american-literature-research-paper/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Image Identity and Reality: The West in Contemporary North American Literature'. 6 May.

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