The Road

About a month ago I picked up The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  I had come across a book review of it while writing a paper on another post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker, a little over a year ago and noticed that the movie was coming out, the second adaptation of a McCarthy book in a very short period of time, the previous being No Country for Old Men.  This movie ad, featuring Viggo Mortensen, brought this altogether and I figured that it was high time I explored what ol’ Cormac had to offer.  It has been an awful long time since I experienced a darker novel that presented a bleaker interpretation of the nature of mankind.

The book follows a nameless man and his son as they push a cart filled with their belongings down the namesake of the novel.  The vision of the end of the world that McCarthy offers is that survival is found in one of two ways, luck or cannibalism.  Our protagonists depend on luck, making them the “good guys” (more on that later).

Critics have viewed this novel as a quest toward redemption.  The nameless quality of the father suggest that he takes on the role of an Everyman, embodying the qualities that we all hope reflect our own benevolence and protective survival instincts to shelter our loved ones.  Redemption is shown through the efforts of the man and boy to survive.  Whatever failings of our kind lead us to the destruction of our world, the human spirit prevails in a select few representatives that show we really should continue existing.

The catastrophe that has befallen the world also remains nameless.  The only mention of the cause of the world’s current conditions is “[a] long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (52), leaving open the wide range of possible interpretations from nuclear fallout, natural disaster, or McCarthy’s interpretation of the scene from Revelations.

What is left after this event is, essentially, nothingness.  The man and his son walk on in a landscape covered in ash, freezing cold and devoid of all signs of life.  One of the things that left the most impact on me was the absence in the novel.  Light struggled to get through the haze, the wilderness showed no evidence of wildlife, even the scavenging rat or cockroach, legendary for being the sole survivor of such an extinction, were noticeably missing.  The only living things were other humans, which the man went out of his way to avoid, as they usually brought with them the worst.  It is through these encounters that McCarthy’s disturbing visions of what mankind is capable of shines through.

Beginning with the threat of murder and insinuations of the desperate measures undertaken to survive, to the most depraved displays of cannibalism.  The man and his boy come across all varieties of such, including those that ‘farm’ their food (though with what raises further questions) by sectioning and eating pieces of them, and, the most disturbing image, the remains of a roasted newborn.  Pardon for the graphic nature here, but at my hand the scenes are far less articulate.  McCarthy’s writing is of the most attractive kind, that which sows enough detail to create understanding but leaves enough ambiguity for the reader’s imagination to take over and fill in the sordid details.

Those that do not resort to cannibalism, which seem to include only the man and his boy, must search for canned food.  The novel seems set far enough into this post-apocalyptic world that the typical sources, such as supermarkets and 7-11s, have already been overrun.  Absence is found here to.  Anything that may have helped the characters is not there to be used; guns and ammunition, cars, gasoline, all gone.  They must depend on luck to track down any stashes of canned food and items that will aid their progress.  Is the commentary then that for humans to survive without the trappings of civilization or society we are willing to devolve to the same creatures that we otherwise loath?  Rats and cockroaches are both well documented cannibals in desparate situations.  Put into this desperate environment, humans then do not bond together to form a societal unioning to help, but eat each other in a selfish fight for survival.

Selfish to survive, or selfish to avoid the hardships that come with survival.  The man’s wife and boy’s mother decides to leave them both for a new found “lover.”  She does not see the three of them as survivors, to her they are :the walking dead in a horror film” (55).  During her long explanation for leaving, she mentions the man’s inability to protect them forever: “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us… [t]hey are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont [sic] face it” (56).  Throughout this dialogue and throughout the novel, the “they” she refers to is ambiguous.  If it is the cannibals that she refers to, they hardly constitute a cohesive unit that the three of them must face, but rather from the survivors point of view, anyone that is not them is against them, creating an us versus they mentality.  Her presentation of a “they” that must be face in order to survive, does create an image of a cohesive wall of resistance, not of a series of pocketed, independent groups who are after the same thing as her, survival.  She leaves them, without word to her son, and literally walks into her new lover, death by venturing into the cold.

The suicide of his mother is the first in a line of events that cause the boy to question hope and the concept of God.  For the boy, his father is the figure that dominates all and allows life to happen with the successful foraging of food.  Without his father, there is no hope for the boy.  As such, the only way that he has been taught to point the gun that they carry with them seems to be at himself.  It would be a fairly direct argument to equate the man with god, as he provides the boy with everything needed to survive.  These necessities are not pulled out of thin air, but, as far as the boy is concerned, they may as well have been.  This causes an odd paternalistic relationship, in which the boy is necessarily dependent on his father.  Readers are given no background as to what the man did before the apocalypse, but he displays a range of skills and knowledge that aid the two in their journey.

In their scrounging, the man and the boy come across a beached boat.  On the boat, among other supplies, they find a flare gun and shoot it off.  This seems the one bit of levity between the two.  Again, an event brought about by permission of the father.  For one who had been so vigilant at staying unseen and out of harms way, this display goes far and away beyond the safe displays that got them this far.  Is it that the two retained enough humanity to desire fun and take advantage of a source of amusement?  Do “good guys” still want to have fun?

The boy asks his father a number of time if they are the “good guys.”  The man reaffirms this position of morality, even though they must make decisions that are, at best, morally ambiguous.  They do share food with Ely, a wanderer who proves friendly.  During the time they are at the boat, the flare caught the attention of a man who robs them of their supplies.  The man and boy chase him down, take their belongings back and the man’s clothes.  While they did not kill him outright, by leaving him with nothing in an environment that is freezing and without food that is so hard to come by, it is essentially a death sentence.  Is the only thing that makes them the good guys the fact that they have managed to survive without eating people?  Is this enough to remain the good guys?

Aside from the introspections provided above, there is something that remains a complete mystery to me.  In the very first section of the novel, a creature is described but we do not encounter such description again.  I feel like I missed something huge, especially with such a detailed description of “a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders… pale and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow…[t]he brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell” (3-4).  I would love an explanation or, barring something definitive, ideas as to what this alludes to or represents so very early on.

*EDIT* Being the first entry in hopefully many, please accept as it is: part summation, part commentary, part critical, wholly filled with half-explored ideas.  I clearly did not start with a thesis as such, but will get more direction through comments and feedback.  As a book club, most of the fun should come from conversations and input by members.  I never intended this to be a didactic forum, only asynchonus.

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  1. I, too, picked this book up when I saw that it was coming to the silver screen. I had really enjoyed “No Country for Old Men”, bleak and depressing as it was.
    I have also been a fan, if one can be such, of post-apocalyptic fiction, from Frank’s “Alas Babylon” to Steven King’s “The Stand” to many others. This leads me to ask what it is in our ‘spirit’ that leads us to read and respond to these works of fiction that portray the end of times? I remember a few years ago, starting to read a book called “The Philosophy of the End of the World” in which the author proceeded to explore the possibilities and probabilities of the extinction of the human species and/or destruction of the earth–once he got into positing a shift in the value of gravity, I had to put the book down and I was only half way through. But what drew me to it in the first place? What inspired Revelations or the Hindu conception of ‘eater of worlds’? And why do I want to watch the movie 2012?
    Back to The Road.
    I enjoyed McCarthy’s prose–sparse and devoid of prettiness like the world he describes. The scene that really sticks in my mind is when they finally arrive at the sea, their goal for so long, to find it cold, leaden and lifeless. The womb from which all life emerged is dead. Now if that is not the time to give up hope, I don’t know what is. But they go on…
    I am curious about the notion of redemption and how it works. If the few survivors are representatives of why human beings should be permitted to continue, then the god who decides is sick, based on the evidence presented by most of the people in the story. If instead, we look to the innocence and goodness of the boy as a sign of redemption…I’m still left feeling hopeless. I am not sure how to articulate this–but I don’t find any redemption in the novel. Even the ending did not leave me feeling hopeful–the boy will continue to struggle for survival, facing new horrors and probably the pain of loss again and again. The outcome, to my mind, is still inevitable in the destroyed environment. The characters may find moments of peace, levity and love but they will never find that place of security and shelter that would be ‘redemption’. Life is nasty, brutish and short :). I think that this is a piece I need to explore or consider more–but I put my interpretation down to my atheistic roots and an inability to believe in a heavenly salvation.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity. Surely so
    revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    — WB Yeats’s “Second Coming”as first printed in 1920
    When I read about the creature, this is the connection that I made.

  2. Thanks Veritas, I got a bit side-tracked and did not say all I needed to regarding the idea of redemption. I went back to the articles and there is some debate over whether or not this is a redemptive tale. Should the redemption be found in the son carrying on and being “saved” at the end? Shelly L. Rambo suggests, “McCarthy catches the reader in a schizophrenic, and distinctively American, post-apocalyptic crisis of meaning: between the craving for a happy ending (for resolution, for redemption) and the recognition of its impossibility (there is, in Christian terms, no resurrection ahead)” (“Reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road after the End of the World” 101). She argues that reading The Road as simply a redemptive tale is minimalist and only reveals part of the message.

    I suppose readers need to see the son carry on, but the ending comes up and startles me. The boy’s saviour really does come out of nowhere to lead him to a better world. However I do see the redemption here: the natural order carries on with the son outliving the father. In Rambo’s version of Christian terms, well, yes, we are screwed. The message of depravity for survival fascinated me, as was apparent with a re-read of my initial post.

    Thomas H. Schaub sees less message from the outcome of The Road and more in the journey. He likens it to The Canterbury Tales or The Divine Comedy, as a pilgrimage in which the self-discovery is more important. Referring to what Bahktin and Frye have pointed out in their analysis of the image of the road, the symbolism of the road eliminates all other aspects and focuses on the journey. Redemption, then, comes in the form of self-discovery, becoming a human being, regardless what the actions are of those that surround you. Like Dante’s Inferno, the journey through hell serves to remind the pilgrim what he does not wish to become.

    I appreciate your comment on Keats’ “The Second Coming” and it does make sense. For a book that causes such convoluted doubt in the existence of God (when the boy inquires into the existence of god, the man answers “No?”), associating the creature at the beginning with the Biblical ending of the world would seem a little out of character for McCarthy. Alex Hunt and Martin M. Jacobsen refer to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in regards to the existence of the creature. This nightmarish vision is a perverse version of the allegory, instead of leaving the cave to find the light, the man and the boy move deeper into the darkness in order to survive and create meaning out of this destroyed world.

    I continue to ponder its meaning… and am moved to re-read some Lovecraft.

  3. I read The Road about a year ago, so not everything is fresh in my mind, but I recall being rather impressed with the writing of McCarthy. Admittedly I had been impressed previously with No Country as well, so perhaps I came in at a subjective angle. I too struggled with the significance of the creature depicted in the opening of the novel. I also raged quite a personal debate as to the true meaning of the “light” that they were carrying as the good guys. In the end I began to align it with hope. While redemption – particularly redemption done well – is the most poignant theme or moral a work can express, I did feel McCarthy does not deliver it to us. In this way he does awaken us to the idea that perhaps redemption is over-used . It comes in your romantic comedy movie, and on the front page of the Province, but is he pointing out that it can’t be found so easily all the time? Not wanting to leave us completely depression riddled I found his ending offered hope of redemption, but no guarantees. Do we cling too much to hope, just as the father was so accused by the boy’s mother?

    Anyways, those are some fragmented thoughts, and I appreciate you posting on it and bringing it back into my mind. Finally, I did have a conversation with someone shortly after I read this book and she pointed out that Cormac writes for boys . I mulled this over, offered it up to others in conversation, and there seems to be a general agreement that there may be a case to this statement. Thoughts?

    1. What is it that suggests that he writes for boys? Is it the survivalist theme of The Road? Or the gender of the protagonists? Or, finally, the grisly nature of the images with cannibalism and the like? I think that I initially agreed that he writes for boys, but, upon further review, would dulled images of the above make it more palatable for a female audience? Given the subject matter I do not think so. Male or female readers would have their stomachs gnarl and clench with the images brought forward in this post-apocalyptic tale. Should it be men who are more interested in the plight of the man and his boy? There isn’t a particularly positive overtone to survival here. The man isn’t particularly heroic, so doesn’t fall into the category of role-model. If I was to guess at authorial intention (which I’m adverse to doing), I would have to say that subject matter came before consideration of audience gender.

      The next wave of blockbuster films come to mind as a comparative issue. In seeing advertisements for Legion and The Book of Eli, I would be quicker to place those in the category of movies with more male appeal. The action and solitary heroic / protector figure has, traditionally, held more fascination to a male audience. In particular a young adult male audience. I can’t picture the same crowd being equally engrossed in The Road for the same reasons.

  4. Apologies for it going into italics for the second half there, I mis-used some brackets and it took it for html.

  5. The Road
    I think this book will stay with me for a long time. And although it is damning depiction of humanity, I do see it as a redemptive tale. As long as there are some “good guys” left in the world, there is hope for the species. The family that adopts/saves the kid are truly “good guys” that are “carrying the fire.” I agree with irober in that the story offers hope but no guarantees. I’m not completely sure what the fire represents – maybe hope, but also maybe some basic human “goodness,” which is what allows individuals to live in groups in order to survive. Do we cling to hope too much? Well, yes, but if there was no hope, we would die out. It is the basis of our survival instinct.
    A couple of points I am still pondering…
    Is McCormack saying goodness is as goodness does? Can the father not see how his deeds do no match his words? It is rather inconsistent to seek out other good people while choosing not to help the less fortunate people they encounter along the way. Yet, I think most people would rationalize the various situations as the father does. You can’t trust people, there isn’t enough food, our morals are superior to other peoples’ morals, etc.
    Despite the father claiming they are the “good guys”, he struggles with the role. He is suspicious of everyone (with good reason) and it is the kid that is constantly pushing him to do good deeds such as save the other little boy, share their food with the old guy, and convince the father to give back the clothes to the robber (which they stole and basically condemned the man to death). The dad never fully articulates why they are they supposed “good guys” but the kid asks him if it is because they don’t eat people and they won’t kill people for food. But clearly their entire journey is based on some sort of faith that there are good people out there like them and they just have to find them.
    Throughout the novel, the boy is the moral compass and calls out his dad for their actions. Finally, when the father is about to die the son asks “Do you remember the little boy, Papa?…but who will find him if he is lost? Who will find the little boy?” The father replies “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”
    So although the man is going to rely on “goodness” to save his son, he wouldn’t save someone else’s son earlier in their journey. I think McCormack is saying something important about human nature. Why is it that we always expect so much of others but yet fail to see our own failings? Sure, the man had reasons for not helping the other kid. But really, the situation is not different from the family that eventually saves his son. When the kid hesitates to go with the family at the end, the saviour points out that “there was some discussion about whether to come back at all,” but despite the inconvenience, the saviours make a conscious decision to do good.
    The other issue I struggle with is the father’s apparent redemption. Earlier in the book, when the father thinks he might die, he taught the kid how to commit suicide with the gun. But when his death is actually imminent, the father decides his son must continue on. Is it the love for his son that he cannot bear the thought of him dying, or does he really think that goodness will save the boy? The boy asks the father to kill him, “just take me with you…please, Papa. I can’t. I can’t hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I can’t.” Why the change of heart?
    The discovery that their ocean destination offers no salvation seems to change the father. He allows the kid to fire the flare gun, which will draw attention to them, something they have spent the entire journey trying to avoid. Also, the son is able to convince him to give the robber back his clothes. While maybe not a total reversal, it is evidence of a change of heart. Is he redeemable? Is the good guy finally doing good deeds? By not killing his son (which would seem a reasonable option to save him from a horrific death he might encounter), he seems to have more faith in the world than he had previously demonstrated, when he taught the kid to commit suicide in the event he died.
    But clearly the kid will have to take a chance and trust someone if he is to survive. The kid seems to have recognized this earlier than his dad. And I think this is McCarthy’s central point. Self-interest cannot work in the long term. What is the end game? They will only survive if they find other good people. I think McCormack is saying the only way for humanity to survive is for people to trust each other and work together.
    And one other curiosity. What is McCormack saying about God? Clearly the state of their world makes one sympathize with the view that there is no God. What kind of God would allow such a mess?
    But I must assume that McCormack deliberately has the God-believing woman character actually performing the good deed of rescuing the boy versus the atheist father who decided to not help the lost boy earlier in the story. The saviour mother tried talking to the kid about God. “The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him…she would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him..and the woman said that was alright. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” Even after all of this, some people will keep their faith, which is remarkable, but in my experience, believable.
    I too am totally at a loss as to what the beast/animal was intended to signify…yes, i do think McCarthy is saying something about God and hell, and it appears to me that he is saying that it is a conscious (and frequently more difficult) decision to do good. That’s the central message of the bible, isn’t it? God gives you the choice, but he is testing you. Those that pass the test, get to go to heaven. (it’s been a while since I went to Sunday school, but that’s the basic message I was taught.)
    This is my first exposure to McCormack but I doubt that it is written for boys. Would/could woman express these messages very differently? Well, probably, but I just don’t see where this is going. It’s a brilliant piece of work. Is it less so if girls don’t like it?
    Funny how I read this after Last Night in Twisted River. See my review for Irving’s comments on redemption.

  6. an additional thought on what “carrying the fire” means…

    It kept reminding me of the passing of the torch in the poem “In Flanders Fields”. People die in wars to defend their beliefs, but they only do so on the expectation that the next generation carrry on with the same beliefs. It is an obligation or a debt owed to those that fought for you. We don’t know if it was a war that caused McCormack’s hellish conditions, but i think this notion that they need to defend, or pass on beliefs (whatever they are) might have something to do with it. thoughts?

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields

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