Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road has become an instant American classic, since its publication in 2006. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and not without good reason; its dark post-apocalyptic take on the relationship between a father and son cuts deep into the core of the worst and best aspects of human nature. Their development throughout their journey in the novel reveals much about manhood and the conflict between morality and what’s needed for survival.
The plot follows a father and his son after an unexplainable catastrophe virtually wipes-out human existence. By the time the reader is introduced to the characters, they have been traveling for a while on an empty road across what is left of a desolate America. McCarthy’s description of a desolate and dark America, communicate the level of despair the characters feel. He says, “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world (McCarthy, p).” The idea that the days are getting worse and more morbid than each one prior is very clear and it is continuously stressed throughout the book.
It becomes immediately clear that this world McCarthy has placed the characters in would be too much for the reader to bare if the boy were on his own, as innocent as the child is presented. This makes the man’s character even more admirable; he is not a just a father protecting his son but a good man guarding innocence from the harsh realities of the dark nature of man.
This dark nature is best represented through the dialogues shared between the man and the boy’s mother.
After a the boy reveals to the father that he wishes he was with his mother, basically admitting to his desire to die, the man has a flashback remembering his wife, who killed herself. This is a very powerful part of the novel because McCarthy manages to make the reader sympathize with the woman and actually consider suicide as a better alternative to survival. The moment starts with the man saying, “We are survivors, he told her across the flame of the lamp” and then the woman responds, “what in God’s name are you talking about? We’re not survivors, we’re the walking dead in a horror film. I should have done it a long time ago when there were three bullets in the gone instead of two.” These passages prove to be very telling about human nature and the will to survive and the measures necessary to kill that will. It is also telling about the nature of the relationship between a man and a woman and their roles in a family.
The threats posed to the characters by McCarthy represent the very height of human fear as the woman reveals to the reader when she says, “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me, and they will rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us, and you won’t face it. You would rather wait for it to happen but I can’t. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like (McCarthy, p).” This provides the reader with an understanding of what exactly the man and boy are running from, but it also reveals the dark core of human nature. The woman decides to kill herself rather than die the miserable death that she feels ultimately awaits her. McCarthy is very observant of the connection shared between a man and a woman and this can be seen when the woman says, “I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you can’t” referring to her own demise and then the man responds “Death is not a lover/ Oh Yes he is” and finally McCarthy closes the passage with, “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift.” All of this speaks of the complex nature shared between two lovers, or a husband and wife. At one point the woman even admits that her will to live had gone once she had given birth to her child, and that if not for him she wouldn’t have made it that long, but she does not identify herself as the boy’s protector; she sees the man as that, and acknowledges this when she tells the man that the only reason she won’t take the boy’s life is for the man’s sake. This hints to the theme of the identity of manliness established through usefulness, and it introduces the complexity of the relationship between the boy and man.
The relationship between the man and his son is significant because it makes parenthood relevant as its most essential obligation, the role of protector. Near the opening of the novel the narrator notes that the man sees the boy as his ‘warrant’ and then the man says, “If he’s not the word of God, God never spoke.” This is used to communicate to the reader that the only thing the man lives for is the boy. This theme is also made apparent when the boy asks the man what he would do if he died, and the man responds by telling him than he would want to die too to be with the boy. This reveals an ultimate truth about the nature between a father and son that when there is no more society or luxuries to be provided by that civilization then there is nothing left to hold onto or live for but your family. McCarthy expresses this more poetically when he says, “No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you (McCarthy, p.)” This passage is very telling of the relationship between the man and the boy because it shows that he finds just as much comfort and self worth providing protection for the boy as the boy does in having that protection.
The symbolism of the man and boy’s circumstance is eerie and oddly relevant to conditions of American life after the 9/11 attacks. The concept of terror and fear, and the sense that there were unknown threats that only the government understood fully can be paralleled with the relationship the two characters share with each other and their environment. In this case the man is like the government and the American citizens represent the boy. This connection between the novel and 9/11 intuitively made in Warner’s article in which he says,
How will this vital novel be positioned in today’s America by Savants, Tough Guys or worse? Could its nightmare vistas reinforce those in the US who are determined to manipulate its people into believing that terror came into being only in 2001? This text, in its fragility, exists uneasily within such ill times. It’s perverse that the scorched earth which The Road depicts often brings to mind those real apocalypses of southern Iraq beneath black oil smoke, or New Orleans – vistas not unconnected with the contemporary American regime. (Warner, p256)
Here Warner points out how McCarthy’s work is so thrilling that he ponders whether readers will make the same comparison to modern times. Near the opening of the novel right before the man and boy about to rest, the two share a dialogue starting with the little boy asking, “Can I ask you something? he said. /Yes. Of course. /Are we going to die? /Sometime. Not now.” The irony of this conversation is that despite the dire straits that the two are in their circumstance still parallels the true nature of life and death. The boys asks if they are going to die and the man says yes but not now, which is universally true for everyone.
The desolation of society reveals human nature naked and bare, similar to the way the western genre does. In fact, many critics have noted McCarthy’s infatuation with the western hero, the tough guy trying to maintain the status quo. Alan Warner takes note of this in his article titled “The Road to Hell” in the 2006 November issue of The Guardian “But in both content and technical riches, the Tough Guys are the true legislators of tortured American souls. They could include novelists Thomas McGuane, William Gaddis, Barry Hannah, Leon Rooke, Harry Crews, Jim Harrison, Mark Richard, James Welch and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy is granddaddy to them all (Warner, p256).” The difference McCarthy’s world has from the classic western novel is that his world is even more lawless. It represents the chaos after chaos has occurred, just death and nothingness. The motif of ‘the road’ plays a significant part in this world of nothingness in that the world hasn’t completely gone back to the dark ages, the human population has just been devastated. “On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: how does the never to be differ from what never was?”
There are many times throughout their travels that the characters find abandoned trucks, cars, and gas stations. Train tracks, bridges, trailers, burnt tires and other road debris present an image of Americana left behind by devastation. These images are essentially what makes the novel American and not just written by one. The old America is always vaguely present among the new one which has been thrust upon the two main characters. There is the America the reader knows and that the man struggles to remember and the America which McCarthy describes as, a dark empty nothing ness. McCarthy even likens the two characters to pilgrims discovering a new land when he says, “Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.” McCarthy’s descriptions are poetic and gothic Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see.
A major theme of the novel, and common in most of McCarthy’s work, is the concept of morality and doing what’s necessary to survive. This happens multiple times throughout the book. One time in particular occurs when the boy and man come upon another man as they are walking down the road. The man was struck by lightning and the boy wants to help the man but they can’t it will be a risk to their own survival. “Papa what’s wrong with the man/ He’s been struck by lightning/ Can’t we help him/ No we can’t help him (McCarthy, p)” “I’m sorry for what happened to him, but we can’t fix it, you know that don’t you,” Here the boy learns a valuable lesson about survival. He learns that one must be selfish to survive. But it also opens up the boy’s eyes to the complexities of the good and evil ideology, when the man says “You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?/ Yes./He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said./Yes. We’re still the good guys. And we always will be. / Yes. We always will be.” The boy comes to understand that what is necessary for survival is not necessarily good, but it also is not bad. Waren comments on this good and evil concept in the novel when he notes that, “Camus wrote that the world is ugly and cruel, but it is only by adding to that ugliness and cruelty that we sin most gravely. The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose (Waren, p256).” This is a lesson that would come into play when the man would have to contemplate killing the boy for his own good, or trying to convince the boy he might have to kill himself for his own good as well.
In sum, McCarthy’s The Road reveals the dark realities of human nature while at the same time leaving the reader with hope in humanity. Unlike most post-apocalyptic science-fiction McCarthy’s work is more resembling of a Western and it has the same theme of manhood and coming of age into manhood common of the genre. McCarthy is very skilled at writing about the plight of manhood; he is the same author who wrote No Country For Old Men
Mccarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Waren, Andrew “The Road to Hell”. The Guardian. November 4, 2006. http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,,1938954,00.html.