The Road Themes

The main themes in The Road are the challenges of survival, the importance of family, and father-son relationships.

  • The challenges of survival: In the novel, McCarthy emphasizes the importance of not only bodily survival, but also the survival of human generosity and kindness.
  • The importance of family: The connection between the man and his son—and between both of them and the boy’s late mother—are crucial for their existence in a postapocalyptic world.
  • Father–son relationships: The lessons, values, and strength the boy learns from his father offer hope for both present and future people.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Challenges of Survival

Cormac McCarthy’s harsh vision of a postapocalyptic world emphasizes the countless small choices that can mean the difference between life and death. The element of chance is an unavoidable constant, but the main characters show remarkable resilience and concern for each other. While the universality of the characters’ experience is heightened by the lack of names, the man and the boy still exhibit individual characteristics that make the reader root for their survival. Similarly, the author avoids providing details about the holocaust that decimated the planet. Far more than physical survival, which still requires them to keep their wits about them, the struggle to maintain common human decency and bonds of affect demands constant effort. With society in tatters, there is no rule of law to guide people’s interactions, and most descend into an unprecedented level of barbarity. Frightening encounters with characters such as the Barbarian and the Thief draw attention to the differences between types of people.

Maintaining ethical and moral standards is a crucial element of survival for the man and his son. The symbol of carrying the fire, beyond the practical necessity of actually having fire, is central to the issue of maintaining certain humane standards. McCarthy offers the clear dividing line of cannibalism. Physical survival might be extended by consuming another person, but the price is too high, as it would require one to give up one’s standards of decency. A horrific scene with humans kept prisoner to provide a source of foodstuffs to others is one indelible image of those who have lost that distinction. The man understands that if he participates in cannibalism, he would be rationalizing his behavior by attributing his motive to helping his child survive. Instead, however, he would be condemning his son to spiritual death. The distinction he draws between his own behavior and that of the marauding bands is a key element of the survival skills that he is imparting to his son—skills that will contribute to the perpetuation of human society at some future date.

Generosity and compassion are also stressed as elements of survival. By the novel’s end, the father has died, and his orphaned son is temporarily alone. The generous spirit of the woman and man who take him in further suggests the likelihood of species survival for those humans who extend kindness toward one another.

The Importance of Family

The novel shares some characteristics with the classic coming-of-age story in that it reveals the boy’s development over time. As he gradually comes into his own, he draws strength from formerly having a close family—but he must eventually cope with losing both parents. The reader gradually learns that the boy’s mother has died, which is one reason that he and his father are traveling alone. Although the boy’s mother is not with them physically during most of their journey, the emotional connections among the family members are meaningful for both the father and the boy. They must come to terms with her absence, as well as the abruptness of her disappearance. The assumption is that she took her own life. The mother preferred to choose when and how she died than to fear an inevitable end at someone else’s hands. She could not decide which would be worse—for her child to witness her rape, murder, and even consumption or for her to be unable to save him from the same fate.

The ongoing importance of the mother in her husband’s memory is indicated by his carrying her photograph. When he decides to divest himself of reminders of his past life, including his driver’s license, this photograph is the last token he gives up. By doing so, he also marks a turning point in his acceptance of total responsibility for the child’s well-being.

Father–Son Relationships

The loss of his mother has brought the boy much closer to his father, and McCarthy’s story is a touching portrait of this vital relationship. The man assumes the all-important role of caring for his son and draws strength from their bond. The boy’s purity and innocence are partly conveyed by his inquisitive nature and the kinds of questions he asks his father. Because of the novelty of their situation, the man cannot rely on fabricated answers or assumptions about the nature of society. The journey along the road is a voyage of discovery that the two must take together.

The boy is shown as absorbing his father’s lessons—and even surpassing what he has taken in. He initiates acts of generosity, such as offering to share food. These positive signs indicate the boy’s personality and his closeness with his father. Even more, they offer optimistic clues about his future ability to parent the next generation of children.

The success of the father’s parenting is confirmed in the end, as he nears death and then passes away. The reader can see that he passed on the necessary values and internal strength that will keep the boy going. The fire he carries within him, the father tells him, is visible and was always present. The father’s understanding that his son has learned what he needs to carry on is expressed as confidence and pride in the boy himself, not as vanity that he has done a good job raising him.

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Chapter Summaries