Extreme circumstances bring about substantial changes in people. At least that is what Paul Bowles and Cormac McCarthy seem to be saying in the writing of their respective books, The Sheltering Sky and Blood Meridian. Both authors place their characters in difficult locations, dealing with difficult people and expect them to emerge changed, for better or for worse. In The Sheltering Sky, Bowles takes his American trio and places them in the desert lands of the African continent where the wide, dry impossibly desolate terrain takes its toll on their minds and bodies. Likewise, McCarthy takes his ragged bunch of marauders, most prominently the Kid, and has them wandering the massive expanse of the untamed west. This convention of forced growth is constant throughout both books, and the reader gets the unique opportunity to observe those changes from an objective point of view.
In The Sheltering Sky, we meet Port, Kit and Tunner initially as continental Americans on a sort of tour for spoiled expatriates. They seem oblivious to the fact that the area and the people who inhabit it are recently war-torn and decimated. The countryside has been ravaged by the war but the three of them seem to ignore that fact and continue through it in a sort of dazed, self indulged coma. The same, or a similar, situation is present in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, his characters, mainly the Kid, are making their way across the Old West, looking for money an adventure. They venture into Mexico, encountering peasant villagers, both hostile and peaceful, as well as numerous tribes of Native Americans. Both parties chance upon characters, both eccentric and dangerous, and all involved seem to get themselves into the most impossible situations imaginable. Apparently the point Bowles and McCarthy are trying to convey to the reader is that great change and substantial inner growth can only come about through intense emotional stress and physical challenge.
Kit, in The Sheltering Sky, learns some very interesting things about herself through the course of our travels with her. She starts out as Port’s wife, a secondary character of sorts, afraid to voice her opinions on virtually everything. We have the inside track on her thought s and feelings though, and are privy to the fact that she is unhappy not only with her situation and current location, but also with her marriage and identity. We get our first glimpse of her realization of these problems on her train ride with Tunner, as Port is traveling with the Lyles. Her spontaneous affair with Tunner is a symptom of her unhappiness and is the beginning of a downward spiral that takes her to the brink of insanity and far beyond. We see the beginning of her growth in her encounter in the Fourth Class cabin of the train when see comes in close contact with the miserable peasant folk and she realizes that aside from their cultural differences she is no better than these simple folk and in some ways she is far worse. As her story progresses we, the reader, get to see the progress of her downfall due to the incredible hardships she meets such as the loss of Port due to illness. This is significant for her because she becomes nurse and caretaker to Port in strange and secluded town where she is under suspicion by the local French Legion commander, who places the sick Americans in isolation, causing Kit to go stir crazy watching her husband wither away in a bout with death and insanity.
The Kid in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness In The West goes through similar experiences of severe hardship throughout his journey in the West. Kid is thrust into numerous situations where he seemingly has no idea what exactly he is getting into, and most of the time he does it with a naive blind ambition. When he joins the Captain’s party, Kid is unprepared for the excess of violence and depravity he encounters from both his own crew and the hostile Indians. After joining the Judge and Glanton, Kid experiences incredibly difficult situations for a boy his age, (fourteen years old) such as the time he spent in the snow covered mountains, losing his horse and having to walk a good portion of the way. Kid comes up against some truly incredible odds, surviving the most impossible traumas in cartoon character fashion. These situations like the ones Kit, Port, and Tunner came up against in The Sheltering Sky, are designed to promote some kind of growth in the Kid. This makes the story of Blood Meridian into some kind of twisted coming-of-age story wherein the protagonist battles his demons and emerges a man the reader can not only identify with but wants to be more like.
The similarities between these two novels run much deeper than I’ve had time to elucidate here, but the main point I was trying to convey is that both authors used a comparable convention to create a similar effect in the characters. Port and Tunner, for their part, both change immensely in the novel (not withstanding Port’s death) and “emerge” quite different from the people we initially meet in the cafe. Tunner realizes his frailties and becomes a “tougher” man more tuned in to what is happening around him, and Port comes to face what he was running from all along, realizing he was fleeing his own shortcomings, and finally having to face his fear of himself in the final throes of death. Kit becomes her own person only to eventually go insane through grief and anguish, her rape and subsequent loss of her identity in the Arab community sending her flying back to the state we first encountered her. Kid, in McCarthy’s novel, grows to manhood in a short span of time due to the vast amount of grief and hardship he meets with along his travels. I enjoyed this device and think that placing everyday characters in outlandish surroundings really forces them to become “real”, forcing them to really look at themselves as their true colors finally begin to show.