Analysis

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Cormac McCarthy, winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, has created a story filled with some of the most horrendous acts human beings could ever commit. But it also demonstrates a bond between father and son that not even the near destruction of the world can tear apart. Only death could come close to accomplishing that, and even death fails. Fittingly, then, McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey in a rare interview that his four-year-old son John practically cowrote the book: “I suppose it is a love story to my son.”

In a storytelling style that is stripped as bare as the novel’s setting, McCarthy recounts the journey of an unnamed man and boy, in an undefined location, who search among the debris in the aftermath of some cataclysmic event for morsels of food and warmth. Though their lungs are tortured by the thick ash that discolors and taints the air and their feet blistered and almost frozen, they trudge forever forward, always hoping for something better, something similar to the past. They rarely find it. And they dare not linger, because other wanderers, likewise cold and hungry, will inevitably come upon them, fighting for the tidbits that the man and boy have found or even taking them captive or consuming them.

In stark contrast to the devastated surroundings stands the man and boy’s unshaken devotion to one another. In a landscape where nothing blooms, their love flourishes and grows deeper, even as they wonder all the while which one of them will die first. They keep three things in mind as they move south toward a dream of warmth: they must find food, they must find clean water, and they must continually hide.

There are marauding groups of cannibals who look upon the man and boy as they themselves once looked upon livestock: as meat. The lone bullet in the man’s gun is saved for the boy, who has been instructed on how to kill himself should something happen to the man. This young boy, the only hope in a dismal environment, is all that matters to the man. He promises the boy that he will never leave him, but he cannot keep death at bay. The man finally succumbs. And the boy—still young in years, but aged through his challenging experiences—must find his own way.

The Road is perhaps the most chilling commentary of the post-9/11 world. The novel’s postapocalyptic setting plays upon the public’s fear of terrorism, pandemics, genocide, and weapons of mass destruction. Other readers hear the poetic passages of desolation and think of Dante’s descent into hell or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Michael Chabon, in his essay “Dark Adventure,” says the novel is both horror and epic adventure, that McCarthy deftly blends the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner and the extreme naturalism of Jack London. Still others see McCarthy continuing to wrestle with the existence of God, as the character Ely tells the father, “There is no God and we are his prophets.” 

The novel 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. The father and son’s journey to “carry the fire” is not only a testament to McCarthy’s love for his son but also a testament to his enduring faith in humanity.

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