In Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", what are some symbols and their meanings that he employs?

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most significant symbols is that of the fire that the father and son "carry" with them.  The father tells his son over and over that they carry the fire, and the son asks about it often,--"Do we still carry the fire?".  This is not a literal fire; in fact, they have trouble starting fires in the damp, ash-ridden world that they live in. It is a symbolic fire representing humanity's decency, kindness, goodness, morals and beliefs.  The world that they live in is a result of war, of evil, of cruelty and desecration of any semblance of goodness.  And, all that they encounter in their world is barbaric, depressing and uncivilized.  So, the fire the father speaks of is a symbolic fire--the light and warmth of good, decent, human love and happiness.

Another symbol itself could be the environment--the constant rain, cold and ash that falls and surrounds them symbolizes the darkness of a world without hope, without decency, and without kindess.  The setting that this boy and his father live in is so merciless, so unrelenting, and so hopeless that it is very depressing, just as a world that has no good in it would also be hopeless, dark and cold.

The father also mentions "godspoke men" and how they are gone from the world.  This is a symbol of any people that will represent goodness and morals.  It isn't a literal man who speaks of God, but people who represent the virtue, integrity and upstanding behavior that typically went along with a god-fearing society.  That is gone now, and so are all of the "godspoke men."

I hope that those ideas give you some things to think about; good luck!

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The road itself is arguably the most important symbol in the story. It provides a means of escape for the man and his son yet also represents danger in this frightening dystopia. Yes, the road can help them reach the coast, but the man and his son are still vulnerable, as they don't yet know what they will find at the end. It's often said that it's not the destination but the journey that counts, and that's particularly pertinent here. It is the road itself, and the opportunities for bonding and self-understanding that it creates, that prove more significant than the final destination.

In the final paragraph of the book, McCarthy paints an evocative portrait of how life used to be in an awe-inspiring landscape of extraordinary natural beauty in which the flowing amber of the mountain streams teemed with trout. Yet in this post-apocalyptic world of nightmare and darkness, all that's now gone. The trout symbolize the ancient mystery and uniqueness of a vanished world, a world destroyed forever by man. This world cannot be put back, cannot be made right again. The trout showed man how to live in accordance with nature and its rhythms, but man, in his foolishness, willfully ignored their example. And so, in his ignorance, man squandered his inheritance of this earth with disastrous consequences.

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The Road

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