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Toward the end of Blood Meridian, the gang encounters a man whose brother is so severely disabled that he is kept naked in a cage. Obviously, this character cannot speak and does not contribute to the novel's dialogue.

Despite this, McCarthy mentions him frequently, and this "idiot" (as McCarthy describes him) is central to the narrative over the next couple of chapters. He is released, cleaned and dressed by women at the ferry encampment. Then, set free, he accompanies the Judge, at first willingly and later being lead like an animal with a collar and leash.

It seems unlikely that McCarthy would expend so many words on a character without meaning for readers to reflect on them to some extent. But I'm not clear on how the idiot - who is passive and vacant - fits into a novel about violence and religious philosophy?

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  • His disability is not why he is kept in a cage -- it is his brother's willingness to exploit him. I sure hope you do not think disability is a valid reason to keep someone in a cage.
    – releseabe
    Dec 9, 2023 at 11:42

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Partly, I'd argue that the idiot, or James Robert Bell, is a continuation of the novel's Moby-Dick allusions. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab takes the young sailor Pip under his charge after a whaling accident makes Pip psychotic. Moby-Dick is often cited as a core intertext for Blood Meridian.

Similarly to Bell, Pip is a minor character until very late in the book when he returns unexpectedly as Ahab's confidant.

Other possible character references are Dostoevsky's The Idiot and Christ (this Reddit comment is enlightening on the matter). But aside from allusions McCarthy may be making with Bell, the ways in which Bell is treated by the Judge and others tells us something of the meaning of his character. Like Pip, Bell is an innocent, who seems oblivious to the fallen world of the novel. And both Ahab and the Judge take seemingly inexplicable interest in their charges. The potential reasons for the Judge's special interest in Bell are many, but most of all I would argue that it is precisely because of Bell's innocence that the Judge is driven to possess him. Leashing Bell is, in another sense, leashing an edenic innocence that is unaware of the fallen world that the Judge's legal verbiage is emblematic of. Controlling Bell reaffirms his philosophy that War is God.

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