In a novel as unrelentingly bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, references to “survival” are plentiful, but contexts and meanings can diverge radically. This is a story filled with metaphors and soliloquys, many pertaining to survival and the futility of struggling to survive in a dystopian society. In fact, McCarthy’s “world” is sufficiently dysfunctional and violent as to render notions of survival essentially meaningless. That said, what follows is a series of quotations from The Road that reference, to greater or lesser degrees, the concept of survival. Page numbers are omitted because an electronic version of the text was used, rendering citations useless.
“It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond fell away on every side. It's snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom.” In the novel’s opening pages, the man contemplates the end of time – a logical reaction to the apocalyptic events that propel the story forward. In the wake of natural and man-made catastrophes, people often question the existence of God.
“The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the name of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.” Survival has become an end in itself. The world as it once existed has disappeared, never to return. The bare necessities of existence are all that matter, and are all that remain.
“If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.” This is a quote, like many in The Road, that suggests that survival is, at best, a dubious proposition. McCarthy seems to saying, ‘don’t let down your guard – ever.’ The only way to survive is to always be anticipating threats to your existence.
“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you're happy again, then you'll have given up. Do you understand? And you can't give up, I won't let you.” Dreams play a large role in The Road. They serve to remind characters of life pre-catastrophe and serve as metaphors or allegories for existence. This particular quote follows the man’s inquiry regarding the content of the boy’s dream – content the boy does not wish to share, but which he confesses frightened him. The father is suggesting that, allowing oneself to think happy thoughts or to dream of better times will serve only to weaken one’s ability to survive. The cold, hard reality of these characters’ existence does not allow for fantasizing about a better life.
“Are we going to die?”
“Sometime. Not now.” This exchange, early in the novel, and which is followed by the next quote, is as direct a reference to survival as one will find in this story. The boy is, understandably, quite afraid. When he asks whether he and the man are going to die, the man cannot bring himself to lie, as death, whether from gunfire, decapitation, explosions, disease, starvation or old age, is inevitable. The prospects of surviving the current situation, though, are bleak, and the man wants the boy to grasp the severity of their situation and the stakes involved in carrying out the types of acts that will be necessary to survive.
“If only my heart were stone.” Anyone who has survived a bleak, protracted situation in which suicide or the conduct of brutality in order to survive are the only two viable options understands the burden of caring for another human being, especially a child whose well-being is dependent upon one’s own. Under such circumstances, loving something or someone can present a serious vulnerability that can impair one’s ability or willingness to take those steps necessary to either end one’s suffering or to survive the conditions that present themselves.
“Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.” Fire has a symbolic meaning as well as a practical one. In an environment where warmth and cooked meat are a luxury, maintaining the fire is no small thing. Fire also, however, symbolizes the visceral drive to survive. This quote embraces both meanings. “Keep a little fire burning” is directed at the notion of never giving up, of persevering in the face of adversity. Delivered in the context of how own imminent death, the man relates that he does love, and that he desperately hopes for his son’s survival.
“All the trees in the world are going to fall sooner or later.” Again, this is an indirect reference to survival. The boy hears a loud sound that the man explains is the sound of a falling tree – another victim to the need for wood for fire. This quotation, though, has a second, more profound meaning: eventually, we’re all going to die, no matter what we do or how we do it.
“He was just hungry, Papa. He's going to die.”
“He's going to die anyway.” Again, the inevitability of death is related from man to boy, and, again, caring for another is a weakness they can’t afford.
“Every day is a lie. But you are dying. That is not a lie.” See previous comments regarding the inevitability of death. Survival in this environment is not compatible with delusional notions of a better world or a better life, and no matter how you carry yourself or no matter what you do to survive, ultimately you will be dead anyway.
Maybe you'll be good at this. I doubt it, but who knows. The one thing I can tell you is that you won't survive for yourself. I know because I would have never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.” This quote, early in the story and made by the man’s wife before she kills herself, is her attempt at encouraging the man to retain some semblance of humanity. To her, survival absent someone to care about is an empty endeavor.
The man watched him. Real life is pretty bad?
What do you think?
Well, I think we're still here. A lot of bad things have happened but we're still here.
This exchange indicates that the father, whose hope for his son remains eternal, and whose mission of keeping the boy alive has sustained him through horrific times, has retained a level of humanity that exceeded expectations. The boy’s survival, a spiritual as much as practical quest, has enabled him to mature into a self-sustaining entity capable of continuing on his father’s absence.
“What's the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.” This exchange suggests that survival is a day-to-day struggle, which it clearly is in the context of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic scenario. Just waking up each day is itself a victory against overwhelming odds. In the case of the man, however, just getting up each day is extra important as it means he has kept the boy alive and safe.
“If we were going to die would you tell me?
I don’t know. We're not going to die.” Another discourse on death, the man trying to assure his son that they’re survive.
“When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: where did everybody go? And that's how it will be. What's wrong with that?” Ely, while a survivor of the apocalypse, is a fatalist who believes, to borrow from the old Cold War-era adage that the survivors of a nuclear war will envy the dead, that the man and especially the boy will be better off dead than to continue to struggle to survive in this world.
“What is it?
Nothing. I had a bad dream.
What did you dream about?
Are you okay?
He put his arms around him and held him. It's okay, he said.
I was crying. But you didn’t wake up.
I'm sorry. I was just so tired.
I meant in the dream.” Again, dreams play a major role in The Road. This dream – more a nightmare – involves the boy’s fear that he’ll be left alone in a violent world where his survival will be anything but assured and where his father will no longer be around to protect and comfort him – a scenario that will eventually transpire.
“Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesn't fire? It has to fire. Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock?” Perhaps the most painful quote related to survival, the man contemplates whether he has the strength to kill his own son to spare the boy a worse fate – the same dilemma that haunted his now-dead wife.
“There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn't about death. He wasn't sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or goodness. Things that he'd no longer any way to think about at all.” The ubiquity of death and the ugliness that is all-encompassing envelope the man’s mind. As noted above, thoughts of “beauty” and “goodness” are a luxury he can ill-afford, but his love for his son is overwhelming and weakens him, exposing him to his own emotions.
“How would you know if you were the last man on Earth? He said.
I don't guess you would know it. You'd just be it.”
Ely is given to nonsensical rambling, and it is uncertain whether McCarthy intended some of those ramblings to contribute to the substance of the novel. This quotation is a somewhat superficial colloquy between the man and Ely on the nature of being. The man poses the question to Ely, who actually responds with a reasonable suggestion.