Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: Death, Love, and a Dying Earth
The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy, is a powerful and poetically convincing exploration of a dying earth riven by an unidentified apocalyptic event. Within this setting McCarthy’s protagonists lead the life of hunted and exhausted nomads, of rodents moving from one scene of fleeting safety to another. The father and son duo – the unnamed ‘man’ and ‘boy’ – travel the road of the novel’s title to the ill-defined destination of ‘the coast’ and towards the flickers of hope that may bring them warmth and ensure their survival .Their life is one of constant dangers, be it from freezing weather, starvation, wild fires, or the evil intentions of their fellow survivors. Thematically, this is a novel about life, death, and love. McCarthy presents a black, heartless world – of that there is no doubt – but, amongst the rubble and decay love exists. This is presented primarily through the man and his son. McCarthy agreed, in an interview in 2007, that the novel can be considered a ‘love song to his son’, John Francis McCarthy, who was eight at the time of writing. Throughout the narrative, in sublime prose, we see McCarthy examine and contrast these themes masterfully.
McCarthy’s novel is infused with death. His setting is one in which all animal and plant life are dying or dead. His planet is a cold ‘glaucoma’, slowly getting darker with the ‘days more gray each one than what had gone before’. Vanished is the beauty of warmth and life – in its place is extreme cold, ashes, disaster and decay. The colour palette is predominantly that of monochrome blacks, whites and grays. At times we see brush strokes of red, the colour of blood and fire – symbols of destruction – if only to be reminded of the tools in which the grey world was created in the first place.
While the character of the man does not narrate the story directly, his reflections on the dying earth hold strong emotional resonance with the readers as he acts as our guide and analogue for ourselves. He reports seeing migratory birds fly for the last time; he takes note of how there are no longer fish to be caught – ‘the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see like an isocline of death’. We also see his joy when he finds tiny mushrooms and, later, shrivelled apples to eat, although we feel his defeat in knowing that such pathetic scraps are the last of the once luscious cornucopia of the past; to see this environment give life can only exist in dreams. At the end of the novel, McCarthy poetically describes ‘brook trout’ – they move ‘softly’ and ‘smell of moss’. While this beauty appears like a non-sequitur, it is a tender epitaph for ‘a thing that could not be put back, not be made right again’ – a thing that is dead. In this writing there is a love for what was, for the ‘mystery’ that ‘hums’ in the Earth and will now never be.
While the ecosystem has been destroyed, so too has morality, justice and love – leaving us to question whether they are all but artifice of an organised society. McCarthy’s apocalyptic America is a world where ‘murder was everywhere upon the land’. This is a place where life is a struggle against not only the cold, barren landscape but the predatory and desperate cannibals, the most fearful symbol of societal degeneration. Indeed, the man and the boy are a rarity amongst survivors in that they still possess a moral compass, still possess humanity, still ‘carry the fire’ – a motif in the novel. Other men, such as a ‘roadrat’ they have a terrifying confrontation with early in the novel, are closer to animals, getting by in a Tennyson-like definition of survival: ‘red in tooth and claw’. The cannibal is described as possessing ‘Eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes’. Malicious intentions clear, and with animal quickness, the stranger grabs the boy. The father unflinchingly kills the assailant with a bullet through the brain. It is in these encounters that the boy’s father becomes life keeper and death dealer.
Undeniably, he sees himself as the protector of the boy, his ‘warrant’. He tells his son that it is ‘My job is to take care of you’ and because of this devotion he ‘will kill anyone who touches you’. And he does. Throughout the novel he brings death to those who would hurt his son with all the justification of a zealous holy warrior – ‘I was appointed to do that by god’. Later, a thief, again characterised as an animal: ‘Scrawny, sullen, filthy’, brandishing a butcher’s knife, is vengefully left to die, striped naked by the vengeful father after a failed attempt to rob the protagonists. What we experience as readers is the shocking result of the man’s love for the boy, the extent to which he will go to maintain his son’s existence and his reactions to those who would imperil it. We are left to reflect on how he becomes this avenger because of his love, and question: how would we react if such a world were thrust upon us?
If the father proves his love through his willingness to, albeit reluctantly, engage with the death and violence of the world he and his son exist in, the presentation of the boy’s mother shows an alternative. Painted for the audience through the man’s dreams and memories, his wife is someone who sees the world for what it is: a hopeless one in which the only things that can be guaranteed for her and her family are both terrifying and inescapable. The mother decides to kill herself, despite the man’s frantic pleading. Her justifications are clear:
‘I’m speaking the truth. Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won’t face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I can’t. I can’t.’
She wants to end the boy’s life too, alongside her own, but the man will not allow it. ‘I’d take him with me if it weren’t for you…it’s the right thing to do,’ she exclaims. Previous to this section, we have been positioned to see the man’s point of view as noble. His mission to keep his son alive and keep ‘carrying the fire’ despite the hopelessness of the future seems to be the ‘right’ and ‘good’ thing to do. When we encounter the mother’s contrasting attitudes it initially reads like a betrayal. In fact she sardonically frames it as such by metaphorically comparing her impending death to a ‘new lover’ who can give her what her husband cannot. We feel that she is letting her family down by opting for suicide. But is this the case? Does she love her son? The answer is not immediately clear, but it can be said that in not desiring to allow her son to exist in a world so torturous is a reflection of parental love. In her mind, killing her son is ‘the right thing to do’ because keeping him alive is but to delay a more gruesome end. The man’s lack of a convincing rebuttal, ‘You have no argument because there is none’, throws into doubt his actions too, making us examine his motivations for keeping his son alive in such a bleak and traumatic world.
In one gruesome scene this fact is starkly bought to life. Desperate for food, the father leads the boy into the cellar of a seemingly empty, grand Southern house where they discover the following scene:
‘An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see parts of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and steeped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.’
These are victims being kept alive for slaughter by cannibals. After discovering this pen of human husks, the man and boy panic and just barely escape the returning man-eaters. Here, having come so close to such a horrible end, the idea of killing the boy seems to be perhaps the kindest and most loving thing that can be done in such a world.
The Guardian’s Alan Warne commented that ‘Cormac McCarthy’s vision of a post-apocalyptic America in The Road is terrifying, but also beautiful and tender’. After reading this novel one comes away with such a conclusion. The man and the boy exist in a setting devoid of hope and life. A hostile environment and a collapsed society with ‘the frailty of everything revealed at last.’ is all they have. McCarthy uses the setting of his novel, a cold and terrifying world, to explore the themes of death and love, as well as reveal a tragic gieving for a vanishing natural world. McCarthy’s characters’ divergent expressions of love for their son -both the father’s and the mother’s – are self-justified reactions to their environment: brutal and violent.
McCarthy, C. (2006) The Road. London, Picador.
Oprah’s Exclusive Interview with Cormac McCarthy (2007) Retireved from: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Oprahs-Exclusive-Interview-with-Cormac-McCarthy-Video
Warne, A. (2006, November 4) Book of the Week – Road to hell. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/nov/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview4
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