Toward the end of Blood Meridian, Judge Holden says a curious thing to the kid when the two are hunting each other in the desert:

There's a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. Do you think I could not know? You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen.

Then, shortly afterwards when the kid is in prison the judge visits him and says:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the judge is referring to several moments in the book when the kid showed mercy to members of the gang when others would not. He helps David Brown pull an arrow from his thigh and, later, refuses to execute a dying man, Shelby. There are other examples.

In one of her lectures on the book, Amy Hungerford makes the case that the judge is wrong. There is no moral difference between the kid and the rest of the gang. Her argument is that these moments of goodwill are meaningless against the staggering brutality of the gang's acts, the literal piles of innocent corpses they stack up, which the kid participated in without showing any degree of mercy or remorse, at least that we are told about in the narration. Indeed in showing mercy to members of his own gang, he is, in fact, making things worse by storing up yet more suffering and brutality for those unfortunates they encounter.

Correct or not, she clearly has a point here, which made me wonder: what, then, is McCarthy trying to tell us in having the judge set the kid apart like this?

2 Answers 2


I’ve watched the Yale Hungerford lectures multiple times (they are available for free on YouTube #17, #18, and are fantastic), and the only conclusion I can come to is that she’s just wrong. Her argument is fine, but I side with Harold Bloom here who she actually cites in her lectures as someone who disagrees with the point she is trying to make.

The kid clearly exhibits traits or at least inclinations towards (inherent, I might add) mercy, empathy, kindness, and perhaps I think redeemable spirit (importantly however,only when he is the kid, not the man)—for my money, the kid is “wrapped up” in the atrocities committed by the gang, as the gang is representative of any sort of group, tribe, or loose society, but is not defined precisely in moral character by the collective actions of that group, and possesses an innate internal ethic that actually resists (when he is the kid) the degeneracy of the gang, and when he is put in a position to use this power (which he is otherwise stripped of in almost all circumstances within the gang), he does.

The excerpt referenced in the original post:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise.

The Judge to me is clearly evoking language and reference to what I think can be correctly characterized as a sort of geist—the spirit, moral center, historical story, moral arc, what have you, of all mankind and its groups, that is represented again in the novel by the gang. He condemns the kid for resisting and fighting against his (the Judge’s) conception of human nature and the human story because such resistance stands to invalidate the philosophical orientation the Judge has towards such concepts. For this, he wants to destroy the kid—or better yet, convert him. This is the whole point of the “paradise lost” chapter within the novel in which we see the judge create gunpowder for the surrounded gang in a flashback, he is, among other things, an entity that represents the devil. This little flashback lets us know that the Judge has an agenda, and if he has an agenda, then he has an agenda to fight against or address something

In the novel, my proposition is that this something is the small, but still very much there, innate moral ethic possessed by the initially untouched young man—the kid, who is yet to give into the corruption completely (as he does somewhat, he is teetering for most of the novel as he does participate in atrocities), the origins of which may lie within his nature somewhere as well. This is the choice the kid is faced with, multiple times within the novel.

McCarthy gives us an ending in which the kid fails, becomes the man, and the Judge ultimately reigns victorious. Or so it seems. In this way, the book is a warning.

Resist, as you did as a child, with your innate ethic—or be doomed to grow old, having given in to the corruption within yourself and others, and find yourself no longer able to resist.

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    If you are saying, to the truly evil, simply destructive, Judge, the Kid's flaws are his goodness, that is almost certainly true. The Judge, despite his intellect, has absolutely no redeeming features and he sure knows that. The worst human in history arguably, as portrayed in the book. It is an honor to be accused of being flawed by that bastard.
    – releseabe
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 3:26

There's a scene near the end of the book where the kid is captured, and he speaks of his experience with the scalpers:

In his cell he began to speak with a strange urgency of things few men have seen in a lifetime and his jailers said that his mind had come uncottered by the acts of blood in which he had participated.

I saw it as proof that he felt guilt at the actions he had taken and things he'd seen. The smaller moments earlier where he helps fellow members of the gang also set him apart from their number; it's clearly stated that the other members would not have done the same.

All this to say that these small acts are not nothing. He is with, but not a part, of the group. He sits in judgement of himself.

In my mind, he's both literally and metaphorically the kid. He's simply along for the ride, with little agency, absorbing the world as he encounters it. I mean, he's barely mentioned for 2/3's of the book, presumably just following along with Glanton and the Judge.

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