The Road

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Violent death has always been a central preoccupation of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, perhaps most memorably in the critically acclaimed Blood Meridian (1985). Now, in The Road, he offers his readers a fascinating if horrifying vision of a world plunged into the throes of a nuclear winter. Dozens of novels dealing with the theme of nuclear holocaust have been written since the end of World War II. Few if any of them achieve the emotional power of this novel’s relentless focus on its two central characters: a nameless father and son, traveling south-southeast on foot out of the devastation and horror of unnamed northern parts, through the Appalachian Mountains where forest fires still burn, and across the coastal plain to the seain the dim hope that there they might find warmth and some hope of survival. Virtually all the usual trappings of postapocalyptic science fiction are eliminated. No explanation is offered about the political events that brought about this nuclear disaster. Readers learn only that several years have passed and that food supplies have been all but exhausted, cannibal cults roam the highways, and the cities are uninhabitable hells populated by gangs of looters.

In spite of the bleak reality that it depicts, The Road’s touching portrayal of the father’s obsessive love for his only son is easily the most engaging of human relationships that McCarthy has created. Much of the novel is in fact extended dialogue between father and son as they haul their few belongings along the road in an old grocery buggy with a broken wheel. Among those belongings is a .45 pistol with two bullets remaining in its chamber: one for the boy, should they fall into the hands of the cannibals, and another for the father himself. As the journey unfolds the man comes to doubt whether he will be able to kill his own son, even though such an act might be construed rationally to be the only merciful option. The reader shares in the intensity of this struggle through a series of internal monologues that reveal the father groping his way toward a conviction that, if a God exists, he will in some fashion ensure the boy’s survival. This is the nearest approach that the father makes to anything resembling religious faith—this tenuous hope that somehow the future depends on the life of the son.

This embryonic faith is challenged not only by the horrors that the boy and his father meet with along the road, but also by a specific encounter with one of McCarthy’s most enigmatic figures, an old man named Ely who, though virtually blind, has managed to survive. It becomes quickly apparent that the old man is a bitterly ironic parody of an Old Testament prophet. His name suggests the name of one of the best known of the Hebrew prophets, Elijah. This latter-day version of Elijah might better be described as an antiprophet, however. He speaks with corrosive conviction of a world that has become uninhabitable not only for men but for gods as well. It is preferable, he says, that men should be alone. He speaks cryptically, too, in a voice that might have been borrowed from radical environmentalism, of a planet that will be better off when humanity disappears altogether, when consciousness itself has become extinct.

Much of the novel’s tension arises from an ineradicable difference between father and son: This devastated world is the only one the boy knows, for he was born after the holocaust. The father attempts to entertain and distract the boy with stories of the world he, the father, remembers: tales of fishing trips, of hunting expeditions, of foods he once enjoyed. He does so partly to reassure the boy that the world was once a richer, more comforting place and might be so again. The boy, though, is not convinced. He seems to regard his father’s tales as fables having their origin in a world that might not have existed outside the father’s imagination. Some readers might justifiably conclude that McCarthy is here commenting, in an indirect fashion, on the fragility of the novelist’s art. Indeed, one might go further and suggest that The Road bristles with allegorical suggestions that its postholocaust world is really an image in extremis of our own world, a world in which so many of the forms and traditions of the past have been eradicated and in which the serious novelist’s art has become suspect.

One of the most disturbing themes of The Road is this inexorable diminishing of the father’s memory of the past and with it the very possibility of enduring meaning. He meditates on a world in which even the names of things are becoming extinct along with the things themselves. As the Genesis account of Creation relates, Adam was given the singular task of naming the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air. According to Jewish Midrashic tradition, Adam, in the bestowing of names, was able to do what even the angels could not and was thus a participant in the very act of creation, of bringing creation to its fruition by granting it individuality. In The Road this process is reversed. The father, a latter-day Adam, is stunned to discover how fragile is the world that he once took for granted. The beasts of the field, the birds, even the fish have all but disappeared. In the midst of this increasingly meaningless world, he clings to his primordial role of father and protector, as if the patriarchal bond between father and son were the one reality that could not be erased.

McCarthy has frequently been criticized over the years for the insignificant role that women play in his novels. It is certainly the case that his fictional worlds are almost exclusively masculine and that the few women who do appear there are not especially memorable. In The Road there is only one significant female presence: the father’s haunted and bitter memory of his dead wife (and mother of his son). In a series of flashbacks we learn that she died, on the day before their journey began, by her own hand. When she announces her intention, the father begs her to reconsider; she is adamant in her assertion that hers is the only morally justifiable choice. Her will to live is paralyzed by fear of being raped and murdered. She feels that it is inevitable. To this her husband has no answer, other than a promise never to abandon her. McCarthy suggests that the father considers her suicide to have been a betrayal of her duty to him and the boy. It is the father’s intention to make a similar exit (with the bullets in his .45) should the necessity arise; in the end this is not the choice he makes, and the narrative implies that his is the morally superior path. In an oblique way, this treatment of the memory of the dead wife may be McCarthy’s response to his critics. Her character is far from insignificant, nor is she a sentimental caricature or an adolescent fantasy (the usual charges levied against McCarthy’s fictional women). However, it is unlikely that the critics will be appeased. On the contrary, many will be infuriated by what might be construed to be a misogynistic parable on the moral fecklessness of women.

Whatever conclusions one might draw from this about McCarthy’s position in the gender wars, it is clearly not so much the father as the son who is the moral heart of the novel. In spite of all the horrors that they have witnessed, his conscience remains as tender as an open wound. The most touching scenes in The Road are the frequent exchanges in which the boy implores his father for reassurance that they are making the correct moral choices. For the most part, the father is aware that to remain fully human, they must adhere to certain clear guidelines. They must not kill, save in self>defense; they must not steal; they must not eat human flesh, even if the alternative is to starve. All these precepts the father keeps, though sometimes he must make hard decisions that trouble the son. On one occasion only does he appear to cross the line. When all that remains of their food supply is stolen, they track down the thief and confront him in the middle of the road. In retaliation, the father forces the man to strip naked and then releases him, exposed to the elements, to face an almost certain death. The son will not be comforted until the father relents and agrees to return the thief’s clothes, but their efforts are fruitless. The man has disappeared. The father recognizes that his son’s moral instincts have proven to be more reliable than his own (hardened as they are by the struggle to survive). In fact, as the novel nears its end, he nourishes a conviction that the boy is destined to live and bear the burden of some messianic destiny. This is presented in ambiguous fashion. The reader may choose to believe that the father has fastened upon such a faith to relieve his mind of thoughts of the harm that might come to the boy after his own death or that it might prove to be true.

Dedicated readers of the McCarthy’s works often fall into two camps. One argues that the novelist’s reputation will endure primarily on the basis of his early books. The opposing camp prefers the lighter touch, heightened lyricism, and more frequent humor of the later novels, beginning especially with the first of the border trilogy, All the Pretty Horses (1992). Though the contrast between the early and later work has been exaggerated, the detractors of the earlier novels do correctly identify there what might be called an overwrought stylistic tendency to lapse into obscure and convoluted diction. In his more recent productions, such as No Country for Old Men (2005), and even more impressively in The Road, McCarthy has wisely pruned such excesses from his prose, relying more heavily on taut, razor-sharp dialogue and less frequent but more effective description.

Despite the passages of almost nihilistic pessimism scattered throughout The Road, it is nonetheless McCarthy’s most hopeful novel to date. For the first time he is suggesting that there is a redemptive power in self-sacrificing human love that transcends the futility of human existence in a lawless and indifferent cosmos. This hope is all the more impressively achieved against the background of global annihilation.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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1. Discuss the clues provided in the story and try to guess where the man and boy are and how far they travel.

2. Although the landscape and its destruction are mentioned, what do you think caused the devastation? What clues are provided?

3. At the end of the story, the boy asks the stranger if he is “carrying the fire.” What do you think this means? How many interpretations can you come up with? Point out passages in the story to back up your conclusions.

4. How are good people distinguished from bad people in this story? What are the major characteristics that good people have that bad people lack? Use lines from the story to strengthen your statement. Make a note of which character provides this information. Are there differing points of views from the characters?

5. If you were forced to live under the conditions presented in this novel, what things would you have in the shopping cart?

6. Why do you think the mother of the boy killed herself?

7. Do you think the author ended the story with a hint of hope? Or do you think the author meant to suggest that there was no hope left in the world?

8. Read the last paragraph of this novel about the trout in the stream. What is the author doing here? What is he saying? Why do you think he used this paragraph and these thoughts to end the story?

9. Why do you think the author did not provide names for his characters?

10. Is the young boy just naive, or is he more compassionate than his father, when he constantly appeals to his father to help the strangers they meet along the road?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

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1. Write a paper in the form of a letter from the mother to the son, meant for the boy to read when he turns eighteen. In the letter, try to explain why the mother left him. Read your letter to your class.

2. From the clues provided in the story, decide how the world was most likely devastated—climate change, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, or the explosion of nuclear bombs? Then research one of those catastrophes and write a detailed report of the consequences of such a disaster as science might predict it. How close do these predictions come to the details provided in the story? Report your findings to your class.

3. Choose three passages from The Road, and then find three different pieces of music that you believe match the tone of the passages. Practice reading the passages with the music in the background, and then present your performance to your class. Take a vote at the end to see which one they liked the best.

4. In the middle of their journey, the man and the boy come across a well-stocked underground sanctuary where they hide for several days. Write a mock journal that the boy might have kept while they stayed there. What did he enjoy most about this place? How does he reflect on what he has already been through? What are his thoughts of what lies ahead?

5. Research the author’s life as well as the themes and topics of his previous novels. Look for clues as to what might have inspired the topic of world destruction as found in this novel. What elements of hope exist in this story, if any? Is hope expressed in the author’s other books? What types of destruction are found in his previous novels? Is anything as dark as this novel? Present your information to help to enlighten your classmates as they discuss this book.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements