Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road, like many other novels in the broad speculative tradition from ancient utopias to modern science fiction, designs a whole fictional world around the expression of a single thesis. Cormac McCarthy hints at this thesis when his nameless protagonist, sick with fever during his journey with his young son across a post-apocalyptic United States, remembers browsing in a ruined library:

Years later he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.

Which is to say that, deny it as we like, all of our effort and creativity in this world implies an orientation toward some transcendent place or mind outside this world; that human consciousness suggests a superhuman correlate; that, adapting Nietzsche, to believe in grammar is to believe in God. Following from this premise of a link between human and divine creativity, McCarthy inquires what will become of humanity if all of its efforts come to grief, if the divine security is thereby invalidated? On this question, The Road runs both ways: how can the last survivors of the doomed human race retain faith either in itself or in God?

The world shrinking down about a raw core of plausible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

The “raw core of plausible entities” is McCarthy’s ash-strewn setting, denuded of human social reality with human achievement standing only as scavenged ruins dotting the “scabland.” The “sacred idiom,” however, is preserved in the Biblical or Shakespearean or Melvillean poeticism with which the novel’s otherwise bare and functionally descriptive prose, with its repetitive and staccato dialogue between father and son, is bejeweled. It is preserved too in the father’s desperate faith, inculcated in the son, that they are “carrying the fire.” No theology is elaborated from this phrase, but the implication is that there is some minimal worth in the mere preservation or prolongation of human life, in any human striving whatever. The father tells the son, “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.”

The novel is not especially didactic when it comes to humanity’s doom since the cause of its apocalypse is unspecified. We are treated only to the father’s flashback of waking to a “sudden shear of light” announcing the end of his family’s seemingly comfortable bourgeois existence. As our viewpoint is largely restricted to father and son, this is effective, since it is possible they may not even know—if the calamity took out mass communication along with everything else, then most people may well not have any means of knowing whether nuclear war or astroid strike or what has befallen them. The relative powerlessness of ordinary people is emphasized here, the better to display what heroism they, or we, may actually display.

Moreover, humanity’s hubris is not mocked and derided by the novel, as it might be were McCarthy trying to warn us about nuclear war or environmental catastrophe; through the father’s Crusoe-like know-how, human ingenuity is praised, as it is when the man and boy encountered well-made artifacts, like a brass sextant or ships still standing in the water. The point of The Road is not quite to chastise us for one or another failure—greed, ambition, ignorance, etc.—that brings about the end of the world; rather it is to inquire about what purpose our activities have at all, however mixed and marred by violence or oppression they are.

This is why, thematically, father and son struggle not only to survive but, morally speaking, to thrive. There are other survivors in their world too, but these have fallen to thievery and cannibalism. In a vast house—which the narrative significantly hints was once a Southern plantation (“Chattel slaves had once trod those boards bearing food and drink on silver trays”)—father and son discover an underground chamber full of desperate men and women being raised for food, while in a campground they encounter a baby roasting on a spit. (The horrorist excess here, the verging on juvenile dead-baby-joke bad taste, seems part of McCarthy’s idiom as well as of his Southern Gothic tradition, and it is what saves his otherwise somber and nihilistic vision from a killing humorlessness.)

The man assures the boy that they would never eat anyone or steal from anyone; they are “the good guys.” Father and son often debate the moral parameters of this goodness—don’t even good guys sometimes have to do bad things, like shoot people or take unclaimed property or leave the helpless to fend for themselves, to preserve their good lives? The father claims that they do, while the boy often insists, sometimes only through the silent protest of tears, on a deontological ethic: goodness must be absolute or it is not goodness. Hence the novel’s frequent intimations, sometimes a bit silly, it must be said, that the boy is a messianic or Christ figure:

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

Thankfully, the novel does not literalize this suggestion, which leaves the possibility that it is the father’s necessary illusion, the faith that keeps him going, or that it is McCarthy’s way of saying that all good people who worry over morality are “the one,” or perhaps that all children are.

Dedicated to the author’s then-young son, The Road tests not only faith in God but also in the Romantic view of sacred childhood; it strands a pure Wordsworthian boy, trailing clouds of glory, in a haunted Coleridgean universe of death. Romanticism venerated poetry as well as childhood. McCarthy’s profusion of rich imagery in describing this universe meets the aesthetic challenge of generating beauty and plenty out of ugliness and nothingness; his language is the authorial correlative of the heroes’ struggle to endure nothingness with honor:

In the evening the murky shape of another coastal city, the cluster of tall buildings vaguely askew. He thought the iron armatures had softened in the heat and then reset again to leave the buildings standing out of true. The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake.

One more piece of the novel’s thematic puzzle must be addressed, however, even if it will be less acceptable to many contemporary readers. The Road is a man’s book, a father/son duet, a boy’s coming of age, but it runs between two visions of the feminine. The first is the boy’s mother, self-slain before the novel’s opening but present in flashback arguing for suicide in a hopeless world. “I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot,” she tells the man, alluding to death. The man recalls her disposition:

Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most outlandish events. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end.

It is not that she is wrong when this reasonable woman argues so reasonably for death. She is actually right, as she tells the man: “You have no argument because there is none.” But readers of the Gospels or of Dostoevsky will see the problem here, as would the woman’s child: whatever humanity is worth comes from its divine superiority to argument and to mere reason, from its accession to the divinity of love. Undeveloped, her impressive ferocity owing much to Faulkner’s Addie Bundren but without the latter’s sublimity of willful evil, this bad mother is the old image of woman as the enemy of transcendence. Her infidelity, her sexually appetitive dalliance with death, hints in this Bible-haunted novel at Eve’s transgression.

The Road ends, though, or nearly ends, with a vision of a good mother, with maternal plentitude in union with the divine. After the boy’s father finally succumbs to death, the boy is rescued by a mysterious man who apparently, in the space between paragraphs, brings him to a mysterious woman:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. 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 he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The father had likewise told the boy that the fire was in him all the time: God or the world-spirit or the oversoul is not up high or out there or beyond; it is within the human being, which means that the end of the world invalidates nothing if even one of us survives to bear the flame of moral consciousness, of love. Perhaps fearful that this ending was too saccharine, McCarthy supplements it with another:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

If the first ending promises salvation for humanity, the second shows the durability of inhuman forces and the fundamental and irreparable wrongness of the creation. At first I thought these dueling conclusions were irreconcilable, an open ending, a concluding mystery, a standoff between Emerson and Lovecraft, if I may metonymize. But then I remembered the critical commonplace of McCarthy’s gnosticism: this world, from its primordial seas to its post-apocalyptic wastelands, belongs to the mystery of iniquity, is the worm-ridden (“vermiculate”) work of some blundering “anarch hand,” per Melville. The only thing in this world that is divine is us, or, more specifically, whatever in us rises above the merely reasonable. Reason can do nothing but perceive and manipulate the already-given, by definition evil in this evil world, but the divine spark preserves the irrational goodness and beauty of the true Lord. Even, we might say, the beauty of the artistic language lavished on the scabland and the gray seas that break over it, on the alien flesh in the depths, feminine or piscine, through which all good boys carry the fire of God.



  1. Don’t you think this is a tad reductive? “The Road, like many other novels in the broad speculative tradition from ancient utopias to modern science fiction, designs a whole fictional world around the expression of a single thesis.”

    I mean, I could say the same about virtually any work of literature — i.e. “this novel is based around the ancient tradition of a coming of age story, or revenge narrative….” McCarthy’s novel is far more complicated.

    Perhaps I’m splitting hairs.

    • Yes, you’re right: it’s too reductive—the old Susan Sontag gambit of opening an essay with an impressive sounding but overly broad assertion! Even so, I do believe there’s a difference between basically realistic fiction, which takes the present or past social/natural world as given (though modified by authorial selection and style of course) and stages a thematic argument within it, and speculative or conceptual fiction where the author is actually constructing a much more independently imagined world that itself in its design manifests certain themes or meaning. New York in 2017 is a neutral setting for a novel; the plot and characters and style would have to carry the meaning since New York in 2017 can harbor all sorts of meanings. But New York in 2117, which is a tech utopia run by corporate executives, is not a neutral setting—the imaginative positing of a possible world that is much more the invention of the author than is observable present reality mandates that the setting is already an argument or a hint toward one before plot and character and style even enter the picture. I don’t think this distinction is one of quality, as if the realist mode were inherently better, and I agree with you that realistic fiction is usually no less thesis-oriented in its own way, but to my mind it is a distinction.

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