Evil in Cormac McCarthy’s Novel The Road

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“Morality is not the doctrine of how we make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness” (Immanuel Kant). In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a father and his son, both of whose names are unstated, struggle to survive the results of an unspecified apocalyptic event; inevitably, virtually all life has disappeared and there is a lack of supplies and food for the life that is left.

As they journey south to find warm weather close to the ocean and avoid the brutal winter, the father and his son meet various people described as the “bad guys” and face numerous obstacles from their cart, which carries their belongings, almost being thieved to being near death. Due to an unmentioned illness that makes him cough frequently, the father tragically expires in his sleep, which leaves his son companionless and unaided.

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Mercifully, though, the boy finds safety with a “good guy.” While the father is somewhat unprincipled, his solicitous son follows his moral code. Among others, criminal acts such as robbery, assault, and cannibalism result from this catastrophic event. Through the utilization of setting, characterization, and symbolism, McCarthy explains that survival occasionally influences a person to compromise their morality but at other times, survival is the product of not compromising morality.

By using symbolism, McCarthy expresses that unlimited positive outcomes rise from surrendering goodness in deadly situations. The flaregun gives a glimmer of hope by serving as both a tool for defense; however, other times it is used as tool for communication, which is not its intended purpose.

The father and son use it to reveal to others that they are not alone, but “ . . . there’s nobody to signal to”; instead, the father chooses to handle it as an instrument of defense (McCarthy 241). Bearing in mind that even least important acts may be what separate one from death in this wasteland, the flare gun also “comes with the origination of the challenge to efficiently use every obtainable resource, as this is a requirement that survival demands,” (Sauder and McPherson 476). The father puts his ethical code aside to guarantee his and his son’s survival.

Compromising integrity also functions as a beam of hope, which is what the flare gun symbolizes. When a “bad guy” injures the father leg by shooting a bow into his leg and before he tries to do so again, the father does not refrain: “He . . . grabbed the flare gun and raised up and cocked it . . .  [H]e fired. The flare went rocketing up toward the window in a long white arc and they could hear the man screaming” (McCarthy 263).

Reacting skillfully by harming the “bad guy,” the father recognizes and “applies the view that protection for himself and his son,” who was also near death, “involves the temporary withdrawal of his value system” (Decoste 70). This decision is entirely, if not, mostly justifiable. If the father did not use the flare gun, then he would be unable to lead his son around this desolate landscape. McCarthy effectively applies the flare gun to display the effects of exchanging decency in for subsistence.

Regardless of the gloomy surroundings that they live under, the fire overrides such adverse effects, creating a general buoyant attitude in the father and the son, both believing that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Serving as a source of illumination and crucial in encouraging the boy in making him persevere, the fire creates solidity in the father’s and the boy’s sense of virtuousness. Despite being without food for the night, the father smiles and forms an optimistic outlook towards the future: “We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa? Yes. We are. And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That’s right. Because we’re carrying the fire. Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire” (McCarthy 83). Suffering due to hunger is not a justification to eat animals or cannibalize. Because of the fire that the pair have within themselves, “the father is given a blessing in that he keeps to his son’s knowledge of goodwill and avoids the contaminated world from stripping him of his benevolence” (DeCoste 84); moreover, this reverence is demonstrated when the duo notice a dog: “We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa? No. We’re not going to kill it . . . He bent over and kissed [the boy] on his gritty brow.

We won’t hurt the dog, he said. I promise” (McCarthy 82). “Carrying” it like it is holy, this fire has given them goodwill and hope for humanity, stopping them from acting cruelly and eliminating their rectitude. The father’s and son’s meaning of survival supports them in that they still retain and apply the standards of the prior world to the present world. Retaining one’s morality can be difficult, but serenity is the outcome of considering the alternatives than opting the path of depravity.

Signified by the multiple symbols, the expectations of the recent world are still applicable to the current world, since the father and the son constantly express goodness in the current world. Apparent by McCarthy incorporating the Coca Cola can, “[t]he good of the past is a link to how a new culture and language can be developed” even if one continually thinks about the representation of this ostensibly dreary planet (Sauder 477).

Coca Cola being a connection to what once was and turning up in the post-apocalyptic world suggests that a good, if not, better world can be produced even while maintaining one’s principles. Perhaps the father has been given a “prize” for not denying himself of his sense of wisdom: “By the door were two soft drink machines . . . He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder.

He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola” (McCarthy 23).  These characters are not being deprived of these pleasures, providing them with more explanations to not manage their environment otherwise (Sauder and McPherson 477); furthermore, Coca Cola can be understood as their reinforcement for overcoming the hardships that arise from trying to stay alive yet still have grace. Coca Cola is mentioned again when the two are in the bunker: “ . . . [T]hey drank Coca Cola out of plastic mugs . . . “ (McCarthy 148). Emblematically, Coca Cola is support for determination and triggers genuine content. At least briefly and although unstated, the father believes that a civilized society can be created. Not altering or erasing one’s philosophies leads to joy in surviving, as he or she does not have to change his or her personality.

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Evil in Cormac McCarthy’s Novel The Road. (2021, Sep 28). Retrieved from


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