The Road by Cormac McCarthy Themes

Themes

Destruction, survival, isolation, and death are prominent themes in The Road. Most life has been wiped out by some unnamed catastrophic event. Cities are destroyed; plant life is gone; animals have disappeared. Civilization has broken down, and chaos reigns in its place. No matter where the man and the boy go, houses have no roofs and are rotting from the rain and wind. The natural cycle of seasons has been destroyed: it seems to be perpetually winter. Even the stability of the earth is off-kilter, for an earthquake shakes the ground on the East Coast—where the story presumably takes place—an earthquake-free zone under normal conditions.

The man and boy are constantly hiding and staying on the move to keep their chance encounters with other people at a minimum. There is not enough food to feed everyone, so survivors fight, steal, and resort to cannibalism. This is definitely a low point for human beings, who must resort to basic animal instincts, as only the strongest will make it.

So the man and the boy isolate themselves, hiding in the woods, constantly on the lookout for others when they travel on the road. The only time they experience anything close to having a home is when they hide in an underground bunker, the trap door of which they must conceal. They can stay there for only a few days because the man senses that sooner or later someone will happen across the bunker, just as they did. The bunker is filled with creature comforts: a bathroom, a stove, heat, food, and warm clothes. It is like an oasis, but it is also a death trap. They must leave it and return to the shadows of the woods. When the man and boy finally reach the ocean, they both wonder if there might be life on the other side of the wide expanse of water. Even if there were just another man and boy like them, sitting on the beach across the ocean, it would give them hope. But the man thinks there is no one.

Death is a constant companion on the road. A wrong move, a moment of letting their guard down, could allow someone to sneak up and cut their throats. A carelessly discarded empty can of food could reveal their trail. Then there is the bitter cold and their inability to light a fire, either because there is no tinder or they fear that someone will see the smoke. And of course, there is hunger. They often go days without food. When they do eat, their meal usually consists of a shared can of beans. The boy catches a cold and comes down with a fever for which the man has no medication. The man, too, becomes feverish and coughs up blood, but they dare not stop their journey. Finally, though, death can no longer be resisted. The man succumbs, like so many millions before him.