In The Road, what does "Carrying the fire" mean?
Fire has incredible importance to our species. It is no coincidence that many cultures consider it divine (or a gift from the gods). It does, after all, represent a major separation between people and animals. Anthropologists believe that the invention of language closely followed our species' ability to produce fire, as having light in the evenings created the space for nascent culture. Cooking food, too, separated us from other animals, and was impossible before we could consistently produce fire.
In The Road, "carrying the fire" represents carrying the seeds of civilization. The father and his son don't break the most sacred rule of civility: people don't eat each other. Animals do this; people don't.
The other bandits on the road are usually cannibals. They represent further destruction of the world that once was—bringing people back into their beast-like, animal state. They prey upon each other. By contrast, the father and the son carry the fire. They represent hope. They would starve rather than become animals.
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The phrase "carrying the fire" comes up four times in Cormac McCarthy's The Road and is said eight times in those four scenes. It also appears as "carry the fire" in the scene where the man dies. Carrying the fire signifies hope for the human race; though the world seems all but over, as long as someone is alive and trying to thrive, they're still carrying the fire, which means the human race still has hope.
When the boy is scared early in the novel, his father assures him that they will be okay. When his father agrees nothing bad will happen, the boy says, "because we're carrying the fire." His father affirms this, saying "Yes. Because we're carrying the fire."
The next time the phrase appears, it's after an encounter with cannibals. The man promises the boy that they won't ever eat anyone. He says they're the good guys and that they're carrying the fire. That light for humanity means that they can't turn their back on being the kind of people who don't exploit others and eat them for food.
The third time the boy says the phrase, he's asking his father about the possibility of finding another father and son like them. He says, "And they could be carrying the fire too?" The man assures him that it's possible but that they can't be sure. He's trying to teach...
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What does “carrying the fire” mean in The Road?
Part of what makes a work like The Road so rewarding is that meaning and significance aren’t necessarily static or fixed. Most of the great writers—and this holds true for many artists, regardless of their medium—would tell you they didn’t always have a definite, specific meaning in mind. The allusions, images, and other elements they use to construct the story are often a little ambiguous, and their meaning can change as the story develops.
You’ve probably experienced the way a song you enjoy can sound a little different over time. It might sound upbeat one day, but not on another. Maybe you found it exciting on Friday night but slightly irritating on Monday morning. It might have always sounded like an expression of happiness to you but then comes a time you notice that, actually, there’s a stealthy element of sadness running through it. This doesn’t mean you weren’t listening correctly before or missed something important along the way. It’s just that the sense of the song shifts depending on when and where you’re hearing it.
The same principle is at work in The Road, and what it means to be “carrying the fire” seems to change during the trip. All dictionaries will define fire as a sort of fuel or energy, and that’s true- —figuratively and literally—for the Man and the Boy.
In the folktales, parables, legends, and faiths of people around the world fire represents different things. For some people, fire destroys and punishes, or has hellish, tormenting qualities. Others have considered fire to be a cleansing agent that refines out impurities. Many understand fire as a necessary part of renewal or regeneration, or as emblematic of a type of knowledge or wisdom, of something illuminating. A number of ancient people thought that fire was one of the basic, foundational elements from which matter and life are made. With civilization in The Road wiped out so thoroughly that it’s almost a return to prehistoric ways of living, fire here takes on the same primordial, elemental significance. It’s no wonder that the man uses it as such a central metaphor.
So asking what “carrying the fire” means is really another way of asking, what is the nature of the energy the Man and the Boy carry?
Certainly, fire has destructive qualities throughout the story. The Man recalls seeing the night sky lit up by flames when the unnamed cataclysm first occurred. The travelers have to evade wildfires sparked by lightning. Ashes—the by-product of fire—are present in the world with such abundance that everything is dusty and gray.
Fire is sustaining and life-giving, too: it keeps the father and son from freezing to death. It allows them to eat foods that otherwise might be teeming with harmful, even deadly, pathogens. It keeps them from getting lost or parted from each other during completely lightless nights.
And, of course, fire in The Road has spiritual qualities, too. It serves as a source of motivation and purpose when the Man tells his son that “carrying the fire” is reason enough to persist with their journey. The duo repeatedly make fire a metaphor for goodness and morality, as when they affirm they’ll never resort to eating others because of the fire they’re carrying, and they consider their type of fire to be a way of separating themselves from those who don’t have it and a badge by which to identify others who do—think of the boy asking the stranger at the book’s end if he, too, is “carrying the fire”?
But McCarthy often won’t allow elements like this to be an either/or proposition. Campfires may be a source of sustenance to the father and son, but the fires help sustain the lives of other travelers who will harm them, and need to be avoided; on a few occasions the Man foregoes lighting a fire so he won’t attract the attention of those others. And as much as fire can help people survive, it sometimes comes at someone else’s expense. Remember, for instance, what the Boy and the Man find when they stumble onto a campfire in the latter part of the book.
As readers, we tend to root for the characters with whom we’re most familiar. The “good guys” are often the ones getting the bulk of an author’s attention. We come to understand those characters better and gain more insight into their motivations, and that familiarity guides where we put our sympathies. So it’s worth asking whether you think the Man and the Boy—the good guys, the characters we spend the most time with—do the right thing at every point in the book. Chances are, you disagree with a few of the decisions they made and actions they took that might be more typical of the “bad guys.” The longer we spend with the Man and the Boy, the more we align ourselves with them, and the clearer it becomes that ethics and surviving can sometimes be at odds. It’s safe to say that the Man and the Boy are no less aware of this than the reader.
McCarthy several times shows us the Man’s uneasiness with what he’s done to keep his son and himself safe and alive. It’s this type of ambiguity and ambivalence—seeing both the positive and negative of something in a way that makes it difficult to sit in judgment of it—that helps keep The Road’s narrative so taut and compelling. McCarthy uses the idea of “carrying the fire” as one way to encapsulate the uncertainties the Man and the Boy wrestle with as they come to understand that the nature of the fire—and their own natures—isn’t constant.