What is the importance of the father-son relationship in The Road?
The Road chronicles a father and a son who tread along a forsaken patch of highway peopled by marauders and cannibals. The father and son may be the last of the “good guys” left on earth. The book certainly plays upon a parent’s worst fears, but because its father-son relationship is crafted so tenderly, the overall effect is, ironically, anything but morbid.
According to McCarthy, the key to survival in the post-9/11 world is keeping his son, "the fire," alive. We learn that the father is going to die, so his survival is not the question: he has a horrific cough because he has breathed so much ash. The boy is a personification of the fire and survival. The father is holding on to dear life to get his son on down the road, out of harm's way, toward a new family, to the coast. The entire human race may very well depend on the boy's survival: he is a kind of savior (Christ-figure) and Holy Grail. The boy is prince Hamlet to his father’s Ghost of King Hamlet. The boy is the meek and forgiving Christ to his father’s vengeful Yahweh.
The conversations they have keep the fire going as much as anything. They are a joy to read. McCarthy omits conventions (commas, quotations, and sometimes question marks) because they intrude on the poetry and prose. He's a poet novelist, and he's got a lot of e.e. cummings in him. He wants to expose the words in their bare beauty.
Since they only have each other to talk, the two resort to this Socratic method of dialogue. The boys asks, and the father answers. Toward the end, the boy arrives at a conclusion, and the father answers. The boy is the student, and the father a teacher. The Road, then, is a kind of mobile Socratic seminar, a walking discourse.
The father-son relationship in The Road is all-important. It is the central focus, the source of all hope and goodness, and the driving force behind the plot and themes. Think of the total lack of humanity, hope, variety, and happiness that makes the world that the father and the son live in. Day in and day out, they travel in a wasteland, encounter the same desolate situations, and really don't have much to live for. If it wasn't for their relationship, the entire story would lose any sense of hope or meaning. The mother sensed this before she took her own life; she said that he would survive for her son. Their son was the only reason, the ONLY reason, to survive in that world. Otherwise, there would be no point.
Along these lines, McCarthy inserts the symbolic fire, which is humanity, and it is the boy that holds that fire. He is the one that will be able to remain human and decent in the barbaric world that they live in. As long as goodness lives through the son, then the world still has a glimmer of hope. The father recognizes that in his son and nurtures it.
McCormac has referred to The Road as a love story for his son; essentially, it is a story about how a son keeps his father alive, and how a father's entire world resolves around protecting and nurturing his son. It is touching for that reason; their relationship in the story give it its poignant intensity.