The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2007. The postapocalyptic work ostensibly marked a thematic shift in McCarthy’s corpus. His first novels—The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), and Suttree (1979), set in the mountains of Tennessee—are often broadly classified as Southern Gothic. A later set of novels began with Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985) and continued through The Border Trilogy (1999; includes All the Pretty Horses, 1992, The Crossing, 1994, and Cities of the Plain, 1998) and No Country for Old Men (2005). These novels explore decidedly Western themes and terrains. Physical landscapes are of primary importance to McCarthy, often suggesting the interiority and moral compass of his main characters. The Road marked McCarthy’s literary return to the southeast and explores themes, motifs, and concerns posed throughout the McCarthy canon.
In 2007, Oprah Winfrey selected The Road for Oprah’s Book Club, heightening favorable mainstream reactions to the novel. Significantly, The Road was the first McCarthy novel to receive both popular and academic appreciation. The book’s language is sparse yet poetic and philosophically motivated, and the text is composed not of chapters but of discrete, punctuated paragraphs that mirror the movements of the father and son on their journey.
The Road employs a third-person narration that is generally omniscient but that often lapses into a limited third-person perspective to develop the father’s internal despair. Stylistically resembling Suttree and The Crossing, the hinge novel of The Border Trilogy, The Road employs the narrative shifts that emphasize the protagonist’s moral compass, as well as the metaphorical nature of the titular road. The father and son journey, but their quest to reach the coast reveals a spirituality that supersedes the tangible. The man often sobs as he watches the boy sleep, but his sorrow is not about death: “He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness.” The father continually resurrects the rites he believes once brought beauty and grace to the world.
Born after the apocalypse, the boy has no memory of ceremonies and privileges of the previous world. At one point, the man realizes that he is like an alien to the boy, “a being from a planet that no longer existed.” Throughout the novel, the man evokes the forms of his vanished world as he struggles to imbue his son with a sense of the lost civilization. Although the narrative often highlights the father’s agnostic crisis and the man exhibits the ego necessary for his own survival, he ruminates on the loss of the world and the humanity he once shared. As the father contemplates his complicity, moral and otherwise, in the devastation of the world, so do readers. The man tells the boy that he was appointed by God to care for him. Unlike the father, however, the boy exhibits no ego but only the altruism required for the survival of a species. The boy practices hope in a hopeless world; he appears to know no other way.
There is a mythic quality to all of McCarthy’s works, and in The Road the ultimate challenge of humanity’s cosmic insignificance is found in the fire spoken of by the man and the boy. As the man lies dying, he tells his son that the fire is real and that the boy must assume responsibility for it. “It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it,” the man says. The man’s journey has ended, as readers have come to know that it must. The woman who appears to instruct and love the boy after the father’s death also reminds readers that, although keeping alive the memory of human kindness may be difficult in a seemingly forever-barren landscape of ash and human horrors, the fire of humanity—the breath of God—yet remains to kindle their hearts. The fire, in the end, burns strong, and it illuminates the boy. The man sees the light, which moves with the boy, all around him. Significantly, although the boy survives, it is the father whose vision readers share.
Regardless of the many charred bodies, ghastly horrors, evils, and vanished ethics of the human race that The Road portrays, the novel evinces an ambiguous hope in the possibility that goodness lies buried deep within the human frame. The forms are gone, but love can yet evoke that which can be known beyond language. This attitude makes The Road a profound and poignant work. There is a fearless wisdom in McCarthy’s speculations. The novel invokes a fierce vision, but it is a vision wrought by shreds of optimism and the rules of redemption. The Road, despite the emptiness it ostensibly professes, nonetheless brims with a penetrating insight that obliges readers to reckon with the uneasy precariousness of what it means to be human. The collapse of the world is secondary to the collapse of all that is humane.