The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is, among other things, a statement on morality, an exploration of what is meaningful in a human life, and a way to investigate the relationship between these things and God. While the novel itself is rampant with religious imagery and concepts, it also works to suggest that morality and overall life meaning is based more in nature than in religion. While the existence of God throughout the novel remains equivocal, The Road contains a developed moral code and a distinct view about what makes life meaningful, both of which are attempted to be followed by the man and the child in the novel. The dynamic between the man and the child featured in The Road fosters a tension between “good” and “bad,” which is explored through morality, faith, and a thin but strong and persistent line of love.
The first words spoken by the man in The Road are: “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke” (McCarthy 5). This foundational statement introduces the overarching religious ambiguity of the novel. The man’s statement of God’s actions is hypothetical. He declares that his son must be the direct word of God. If his son is not the word of God, then that must mean that God never spoke. A God that does not speak and is mute is a God that does not create, based on the fact that the first book of Genesis is dedicated to God creating via speech. If a God does not create, then his omniscient presence is invalidated. Thus, the man’s declaration of the word of God is that either his son is the word of God, or, as far as he is concerned, the universe that they are stuck living in is a godless one.
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Many events in the novel can be interpreted in accordance with both possibilities. Consider, for example, the pattern of near demise followed by unlikely rescue that repeats itself throughout the story. The father and son are nearing the point of starvation when they discover an underground bunker filled with food (McCarthy 138). Later on, with starvation staring them in the face yet again, the boy happens to spots a house in the distance, and the house turns out to have food in it (202). After taking advantage of their newly found resources, the man finds a flare gun on an abandoned sailboat—a gun that grants them their lives in a later encounter (240). And, of course, there is the boy’s encounter with the self-deemed “good” man after the death of his father (281). Are these events to be viewed as small, sporadic miracles—the hand of God reaching down protect the child stranded in a post-apocalyptic hell —or are they strokes of good fortune? The answer to this question remains unclear; these are hints of divine activity, but they are not more than hints. For instance, the name of the abandoned sailboat is “Pajaro de Esperanza”—bird of hope, or in the Christian religion, the dove. In the Old Testament, a dove carrying an olive leaf is the reason that Noah understands that the waters of the flood are receding (Genesis 8:11). But in The Road, the sailboat named after the dove brings a message of despair; it brings the message that the underlying background catastrophe of The Road is worldwide.
Perhaps these strokes of “good fortune” are only apparent because the tension between “good” and “bad” is demonstrated in the characters of the man and the child themselves. In the world of The Road, there is a straightforward rule for differentiating the good guys from the bad guys. Bad guys eat people; good guys don’t. While not treating people as food is the most apparent principle to which good guys are dedicated, it is not the only one. It is possible to discern in The Road a set of principles to which good guys are committed, which includes the following rules: Do not eat people. Do not steal. Keep your promises.
The man attempts to implement these principles upon the child, and he tries to follow the strictly set guidelines himself. Throughout the novel we witness the man’s struggle to be a “good” guy in a world in which most people seem to have abandoned his customized definition of morality altogether.
At least one of these principles are rules-of-thumb that hold only for the most part. Early in the novel, the man and the child encounter a man who has recently been struck by lightning and is clearly at the point of death. The child wants to help him, but the man refuses because “We have no way to help him. I’m sorry for what happened to him but we can’t fix it” (McCarthy 50). The man goes on to tell the child: “He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too” (52). Under the circumstances, the man’s actions may be justified. But the danger is that engaging in justified violations of the code of the good guys can make unjustified violations more likely.
Therefore, the man sometimes breaks his promises to the child. For example, at one point he pretends he has split a half-packet of cocoa between the two of them when in reality he has given it all to the boy, something he has previously promised not to do. The boy scolds him: “If you break little promises, you’ll break big ones. That’s what you said” (McCarthy 34). The “big” promise that the child is likely referring to is that man will never leave the child, even in death. When the man is at the point of death, the child begs his father to kill him: “Just take me with you. Please” (279). When it comes right down to it, the father finds himself unable to fulfill the child’s request: “I can’t. I can’t hold my dead son in my arms. I thought I could but I can’t” (279).
The man struggles when it comes to helping others. He is suspicious of others, and is reluctant to share resources. The child, by contrast, typically reaches out to other people in need. The encounter with the lightning victim illustrates a motif; the child often seems to function as the man’s conscience in this regard. When the man offers aide to others, it is at the request of the child. The man believes in the ideal of helping others but has a hard time living up to it, given the circumstances. At one point the boy complains: “[I]n the stories [told by the man] we’re always helping people and we don’t help people” (268).
The man recognizes this difference between himself and the child; he is broken and knows it. He worries not just for the survival of the child, but about the survival of the goodness within the child: “But when he bent to see into the boy’s face under the hood of the blanket he very much feared that something was gone that could not be put right again” (136). When he tells the boy that he is the one carrying the fire, he is indicating that the child has a crucial ability that he has lost. Only a good guy who has the ability to make connections with other people, to enter or help form a community, can truly carry the fire. The child has this ability, and is why the child is the one who really is, and always has been, carrying the fire. The man carries the fire only in a removed sense: he carries the fire because he the child.
Just before he dies, the man tells the child that he has been the one carrying the fire the entire time: “It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it” (279). The man says this to try to convince the child not to give up, to keep going down the road. Perhaps the notion of carrying the fire is just a crude myth adopted by the two to keep themselves going, and the man tries to use the myth to inspire the child not to give up after he dies. But perhaps there is more to it than this. Carrying the fire and being a good guy are closely related: only good guys carry the fire. Before he dies, the man also tells the child: “You’re the best guy. You always were” (279). Prior to this point, the man has always maintained that they are the good guys and that they are carrying the fire. As he is dying, the man seems to be saying that the child is the true good guy.
The uncertainty about God’s presence exists not just in the universe of The Road but also in the mind of the man. At times he tries to convince the child, and possibly himself, that God is still at work in the world: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God” (77). Thee man later expresses doubt about God’s existence: “Are you there? … Will I see you at the last?” He relates to biblical characters in this way. Job asks God: “Do you have eyes of flesh?” (Job 10:4). The man wonders: “Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?” (McCarthy 11-2). The man’s last remark is reminiscent of the advice given to Job by his wife: “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Indeed, the man recalls this advice himself later (McCarthy 114).
The fundamental ambiguity of God’s existence remains unresolved in The Road. The answer to the question of whether God exists is not as important is it is often taken to be throughout the novel. In particular, the question is far less relevant to morality and meaning than many make out to believe. God or no God, the most valuable thing in this world is love, although that is unfortunately recognized and emphasized upon death. A good reason to struggle to be moral is that doing so is the only way to attain genuine love. The cost of immorality is, ultimately, loneliness.
According to Christianity, the most important commandment of all is to love God with all of your heart. Neither the man nor the child fulfills this commandment. The novel opens with the man wondering whether he will have an opportunity to throttle God by the neck and cursing Him (11-2). It ends with the child choosing to talk to the man rather than God (286). By the standards of Christian morality, neither the man nor the child does particularly well. The proper conclusion to draw from this is that Christian morality is flawed. By struggling to be a good guy and keeping his big promise, the man manages to keep the child’s faith in humanity alive. This faith in humanity enables the child to trust the veteran, which in turn allows him to attain salvation—earthly salvation, in the form of meaningful connections with other human beings. After all, all good things come to the end of The Road.