Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: Death, Love, and a Dying Earth

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy

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.

The man and the boy as played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in John Hillcoat's 2009 film version of The Road.
The man and the boy as played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film version of The Road.

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?

The man, in Hillcoat's film version of the novel.
The man, in Hillcoat’s film version of the novel.

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.

A scene of desolation. Hillcoat's film version captures the sense of death and decay that permeates McCarthy's Novel.
A scene of desolation. Hillcoat’s film version captures the sense of death and decay that permeates McCarthy’s Novel.

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.

Works Cited

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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21 Comments

  1. Alvera Mccaskill
    0

    Wow. This may be one of the saddest books that I have ever read, yet I couldn’t stop reading.

    Essentially, I’ve been hearing rumblings on the Internet now and again that McCarthy is the Faulkner of our age, so I grabbed this book haphazardly off the shelf from the library to give him a look.

  2. Redmond
    0

    Sadly, I found this to be totally believable for a post apocalyptic type novel. One only needs to look back at footage from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to realize that when the chips are down, human beings can get really ugly really fast. Although I loved this book, I wouldn’t recommend reading it for anyone who is uncomfortable about getting all freaked out and then rushing to the grocery store to stock up on non-perishable food items.

  3. For a novel in which nothing major occurs or is accomplished, The Road has a stunning way of keeping the reader engaged.

  4. I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction and “The Road” is probably in a tie with “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute for the most depressing example of the genre ever written. It was so relentless that I was very surprised by the ending.

  5. Stratton
    0

    It was all right. Choppy. Short. Easy to read. I didn’t find myself particularly caring about the characters.

  6. Easily the worst of McCarthy’s works. I’m a little heartbroken that this is the one the modern reader is most likely to pick up of his immense and stunning body of work. Where his other books are richly layered and nuanced, this book gave me very little to hang on to. It’s like an egg with the yolk blown out of it; when you glance at it it seems intact but once you really start to look at it, you notice that there is no substance to it. Also, I’ve always loved McCarthy for being the rare christian writer who is able to look at faith and god and goodness with an objective eye. He’s never been afraid to stare into the utter chaos of existence and give it its due. In The Road, he just doesn’t seem to have the heart for it. Instead of doing what would be real and true and meaningful (killing the boy, leaving him on his own) he gives us this whole bit about the family that just happen to be good, god-fearing people who take him in. Sure, the boy has come to the point where his god is his dead father (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me, but it was something about his “new mother” asking him to pray and he chooses to talk to his dad instead) and so there is just a tiny tiny bit of that good ole McCarthian doubt, but c’mon. I guess I’m just not that into narratives about faith making good for its adherents; it’s boring, sentimental, and false. I guess even the greatest writers of the era can get soft in old age.

    • John McDonald

      Firstly, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I don’t agree with ‘easily the worst’, but that’s an obvious from me, I guess. But the reason is I don’t think The Road is like his other work in terms of form as it is very accessible and relatable to a general audience. It’s a novella with a simple narrative and a unfulfilling and cliche ending, sure, but the language, the construction of setting/ sense of place, creation of tension at times, the allegorical elements, the measured brutality, the ending… Oh wait, thatt stinks.

      I really love what you said about McCarthy’s ability to stare into he chaos. That’s superb.

      I always suggest ‘All the Pretty Horses’ to people who have read ‘The Road’ because it is an amazing novel but very different to The Road.

      • Rubio, it is interesting that you bring up McCarthy’s Christianity. I have read all of his work aside from Suttree, and he I am in love with almost all of it. However, I never got a distinctly christian vibe from it. I haven’t read anything about his religion, or how it is deployed in his work. If you have any articles you would share, I’d love to give them a look.

  7. Lorrine Orta
    0

    The realism that Mr. McCarthy presents in his apocolyptic landscape is stunning and added hugely to the sympathy I felt for the survivors (even the bad ones :o))

  8. It is ultimately a hopeful book, but McCarthy’s vision of the future is too dark for me to want to keep revisiting.

  9. I hope this book remains a sobering work of fiction.

  10. This book really would have been better served being of novella length.

  11. shelbie
    0

    Even when they reached the coast to find nothing, I was pleased that the father delivered the child. He did his job and when he died he left a boy who had to find the “good guys” on his own. Which is exactly what all fathers hope to do, let there sons find their own way.

  12. The ending, while bleak, gives us a ray of hope and thank God. Cormac must have taken some pity on us..

  13. Roon Tyree
    0

    I liked how much McCarthy changed his writing style for The Road. He has demonstrated an ability to be dense and detailed (Blood Meridian), beautifully American with a Steinbeck voice (All the Pretty Horses) and in this book, something very different. It is like this guy has the ability paint like Rembrant but decided, for what he had to say here, that we would instead paint like Rothko.

  14. Ryan Errington

    Fantastic article. The Road sounds like an extremely poignant story.

  15. Greg Beamish

    Nice article John. McCarthy always gives us a lot to think about.
    Something you wrote in your article made me question your interpretation of the man’s motivation to keep the boy alive. You describe “the extent to which he will go to maintain his son’s existence…” I’m of the opinion that it’s not merely a matter of keeping the boy alive, but a matter of keeping the boy’s innocence intact. This is where the discrepancy between the mother and father’s choices comes in. While the mother gives up hope immediately, the father maintains hope that he can lead his son to a better life. From the beginning we understand that the boy has been trained to kill himself if they’re ever captured. The father did not agree with the mother that they should end it before they begin. His hope led him to stay alive while still keeping suicide open as an option. Both parents agree that a “peaceful” suicide is better than the alternative of rape, murder, and cannibalism. To an extent the father is protecting the boy from having to experience these evils, but on the other hand he also fears the boy’s broken innocence through exposure to these evils. The story is certainly thematically centered on life and survival, but more in the sense of what the moral nature is of that life. There is no reason to survive if staying alive breaks the spirit or the “fire” they carry.

    Also, Blood Meridian is one of my favorite books of all time.

  16. Great article. I think the decision to leave the actual cause of the apocalypse ambiguous does a lot for the book. With no one and nothing to blame you have no choice but to focus only on how humanity reacts, and that lack of knowledge outside the man and the boy made me feel vulnerable and small. Which is, I’m sure, what McCarthy intended.

  17. The Road (novel) is a great work that shows how McCarthy refined his prose and his use of depravity, horror, and the dissolving of American values in the face of a horrific reality. This is a great analysis of the movie/book. I, however, was a little disappointed with the movie. There are certain scenes which I felt would have portrayed a more faithful adaptation to the novel, like eating of a fetus.

  18. The Road was the first (and only) Cormac McCarthy book I’ve read so I can’t comment on this versus his other writings. However, he does paint a vivid picture of just how bleak the post-apocalyptic world is that the man and boy inhabit. One can’t help but be transported there and question how they themselves would react in the same situation. The rules we live by in today’s world don’t exactly apply to the character’s situation – which is that things will definitely take a turn for the better.

  19. Great article! McCarthy’s book really demonstrates how beauty, tenderness, love and hope are still possible amidst total destruction and complete desolation. Powerful bond between father and son, and their will to survive and look after each other.

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