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Lessons from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road follows an unnamed man and his son as they attempt to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. In this world, the earth is slowly dying due to causeless cold and loss of sunlight, and most of humanity has resorted to cannibalism. As the man and boy head south in the unfounded hopes of encountering warmer climes, a major theme is whether they, too, will forfeit their humanity.

The Road (2009) - Filmaffinity
Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the man and boy in the film version of The Road (2009)

Many themes have been read into The Road’s dire situation, from postmodernism’s erosion of meaning, to climate change, to contemporary artists’ tendency to “cannibalize” one another. Additionally, central to the book is the symbol of the “fire,” something both the man and the boy speak of almost mythically, outwardly constructing it as a symbol. As the man tells the boy when the latter asks whether the two of them still constitute the “good guys,” they are “carrying the fire,” which is taken to mean either hope, faith, morality, or some combination thereof.

I think part of The Road’s enduring quality is that we all of us feel this struggle at times, this difficulty of being “good”—or having faith—especially in trying circumstances. Now, in a time when it feels like so much of humanity has been swallowed by reactionary political ideologies, or is entering a survivalist mindset, it can feel difficult both to believe that better days will come, and to rebelliously act selflessly rather than in one’s own self-interest. In the central characters of The Road (I think purposely unnamed so as to remain more broadly identifiable), we find stand-ins for our own dilemma.

The Road Takes Desolate Journey From Page to Screen | WIRED
Michael K. Williams as the thief

Late in the book, the emotional climax occurs when the boy falls asleep while his father goes off in search of supplies, and the boy is robbed. Returning home to find what has happened, the father angrily grabs up the boy and takes off after the thief, whom they catch tugging their cart of supplies up the road. Seeking to do to the thief exactly what he intended to do to the man and boy, the father aims a pistol at the thief and forces him to strip naked, which in the bitter landscape of The Road means the thief will die. As the thief exhorts the man, he doesn’t need “to do this,” and he “would have done the same thing” had he been in the thief’s shoes. However, the man persists, leaving the thief shivering and crying while he and the boy resume their course with the thief’s clothes.

Shortly afterward, the boy confronts the man, telling him that he has lost sight of his morality and of what’s important. “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” the man hastily replies.

“Yes, I am,” the boy retorts. “I am the one!” What he means by this is that he is the one who needs to worry about carrying the fire, since evidently the man has lost touch with it.

Through this encounter, the book speaks to the difference between surviving, and thriving, subtly hinting that the latter is never worth sacrificing for the former. If being the “good guys,” if “carrying the fire,” means that the boy and man get robbed, then so be it. At least in that equation they still have their humanity, something they can only give up, but can never be stolen.

The Road's Tragic Ending Explained | Screen Rant

Another forceful theme which comes forth in the book is that life has a way of punishing nihilism, while faith is rewarded. Throughout the book, the father often fears that “bad people” are pursuing him and the boy, and confronts and questions strangers with this agenda. However, it turns out that none of the so-called bad people were ever in pursuit; instead, the man and boy stumbled upon these people themselves through moving around so much. On the other hand, at the end of the book, the boy is approached by a family with other children who want to help him, and these people have indeed been following the boy. This is after the boy’s father has died, so this family stands to provide surrogate caretakers. As the book seems to imply, if only the man and boy had waited around and trusted circumstances rather than constantly fleeing “evil,” this savior family would have found them earlier.

Despite being one of the darkest and most difficult books ever written, The Road is also profoundly hopeful, because it implies that the good seeks us out and is diligent in the act, and that morality and hope are more important than survival. In times that echo the uncertain origins of this book, I think it is more essential than ever to heed these lessons, asking ourselves in each and every moment how we can carry the fire, how we can be helpful to ourselves and others, how we can trust, how we can let go of our prejudices and suspicions. Like the boy at the end of the book, I still believe we might be found by our destined family.

1 thought on “Lessons from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”

  1. I read The Road based on your recommendation and still, many years later, think of the book often. You have interpreted the brilliance of the writing so well, it’s depth, accessible and relatable characters, even the humanization of the villains. Darkness, cold, bleak terrain and psyche’s… can ultimately lead to a brighter tomorrow if the seekers faith is pure and grounded. A worthy mantra.

    Liked by 1 person

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