Episode XIII: The Judge Told Them A Story
Blood Meridian and Narrative Theory
I. Internal and External Focalization
In his book on narratology and Proust—Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method—literary theorist Gérard Genette appropriates the term focalizer (from photography) in his discussion of Third Person point of view. Genette insists that while a Narrator speaks, a Focalizer sees.
This concept proves useful to an understanding of something Cormac McCarthy is up to in Blood Meridian. His Third Person narrator is a neo-Biblical voice that speaks with the authority of an Old Testament prophet (though not with the omniscience of his God):
“Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they'd heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin?”
The above quote is an example of Blood Meridian’s narrator un-focalized: this voice speaks not from a character’s point of view, but wholly apart from it.
Contrast that to this passage during the Comanche attack on Captain White’s party in Chapter IV where we the Kid becomes our focalizer and we watch the slaughter through his eyes. First, the narrator speaks of the company and the Kid, then the narrator takes up residence behind his eyes and the Kid becomes the focalizer for the passage. The narrator will only describe what the Kid sees and McCarthy will emphasize this by the repetition of the phrase he saw:
“[NARRATOR SPEAKS] The company was now come to a halt and the first shots were fired and the gray rifle smoke rolled through the dust as the lancers breached their ranks. The Kid’s horse sank beneath him with a long pneumatic sigh. He had already fired his rifle and now he sat on the ground and fumbled with his shotpouch. A man near him sat with an arrow hanging out of his neck. He was bent slightly as if in prayer. [NARRATOR ENTERS THE FOCALIZER/THE KID] The Kid would have reached for the bloody hoop-iron point but then he saw that the man wore another arrow in his breast to the fletching and he was dead. Everywhere there were horses down and men scrambling and he saw a man who sat charging his rifle while blood ran from his ears and he saw men with their revolvers disassembled trying to fit the spare cylinders they carried and he saw men kneeling who tilted and clasped their shadows on the ground and he saw men lanced and caught up by the hair and scalped standing and he saw the horses of war trample down the fallen and a little white-faced pony with one clouded eye leaned out of the murk and snapped at him like a dog and was gone.” (55-56)