The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is a very emotionally compelling and evocative novel. McCarthy’s distinctive writing is well-suited to the subject. After only a few pages, the reader feels dingy and dusty and, after a few more, despairing of hope. The novel does not take long to read partly due to the book’s not being very long and partly because it sucks you in. As unpleasant as the setting is, the reader wants to see the plot through. At least, I did.

TheRoadThe Road has been regularly lauded and the movie is coming out soon. If you have not heard the basic setup, it is this: A man and his son are traveling down a road in a post-apocalyptic world. It is never clear what disaster befell the earth, but it has left only a few human survivors and, apparently, almost no other animal or plant life. The human survivors are desperate, starving, and, in many cases, cannibals.

Our heroes, never named, have decided to travel south on the road. The reasons for their decision are unclear. The man does not seem to know what lies in the south, other than the ocean. He simply has faith that something is there. Something for, if not himself, at least for his boy. And that is what the book largely is about, faith and perserverance in the face of an uncaring, unforgiving, and desolate universe.

As they travel through the bleak landscape, the man and boy have harrowing encounters with other humans, both living and dead. After one such encounter, the man reassures the boy:

You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?

Yes.

He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We’re still the good guys.

And we always will be.

Yes. We always will be.

Okay.

The boy, of course, is constantly afraid, as is the man. Most of their dialogue involves the man reassuring the boy against his fear. The man is just as fearful, but, for the boy’s peace of mind, he hides it as best he can.

We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa?

Yes. We are.

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That’s right.

Because we’re carrying the fire.

Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

The boy is too young to remember life before the disaster. The father, however, remembers some things too well and, to his horror, others less well every day.

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parasible 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.

While there is much religious symbolism and allegory, the road could also stand in for life. The man often things about the brevity of life and “the crushing black vacuum of the universe.”

Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

In the face of desolation, though, man and boy keep going.

This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They dont give up.

For me, this seemed to be the message of the novel. And, yes, I think there is something of the message novel here. McCarthy is meditating on the human willingness to keep going despite evidence that there is nothing at the end of the road but more emptiness. The fire is passed from parent to child. The parent nurtures the flame in the child long after the parent has given up his own passion for life. It is what we do.

These characters are placed in a particularly bleak world. This is part of my problem with the novel. I thought the world was too bleak. The only non-human animal we see is one dog. By all appearances every other mammal, bird, fish, insect, or other animal has perished in the disaster. Plants of every type also seem to have been destroyed. Granted, with books like this, you simply have to enter the world and ignore some questions of plausibility. Still, the world felt a little too artificially constructed to serve McCarthy’s ends.

The book is overrated, but still well worth the read. It can be interpreted in many ways, both religious and non-religious, which probably explains its broad appeal and popularity. The novel is dark. The glimmers of hope are slim, often fleeting. This is not a happy, pleasant book. McCarthy will take you to forbidding, unsettling places. Be prepared.

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15 Responses to The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. As a piece of worldbuilding it sounds like it makes no sense whatsoever, but then that’s not really the goal.

    I have this on my shelf at home, but haven’t read it yet. I did enjoy his No Country for Old Men, this tempts me less, I understand that it has particular resonance for parents which I’m not which suggests that some of its power may be lost on me.

    Nice analysis on the metaphor for life generally, and I admire your frankness in your final paragraph. Given the praise The Road has received, it’s refreshing to see a less positive review, I’ll definitely be reading this myself but my concern has been that the improbability of the setting would frustrate for me (to a degree) my appreciation of the themes of the book and reading your review that remains for me a very real concern.

  2. Sarah says:

    The Road is the first Cormac McCarthy I read. It was a book group choice and at the time I knew nothing of the author or his work. I still rated it very highly, in ignorance of hype. (You make an excellent case for rating the book less highly, which I can respect if not agree with!)

    I am slowly working my way through McCarthy’s body of work, but The Road, remains the only one which I have read more than once. (Not because it’s the best – it isn’t – but because I want to write a review that does it justice.) I have several pages of notes, but still no review. You have my admiration for cutting through the details to the central themes of the book.

    I agree with Max regarding your analysis of the road as life. I read it as the journey from past into future. As you point out, possible interpretations are diverse.

    Also, I have to concede that the ruined earth scenario is engineered with the mechanics of the story in mind, and not the credulity of the reader. But I was able to accept this, as a vital ingredient in investigating the presence of hope beyond all possibility of hope.

    I find the ending enigmatic (as in most works by McCarthy) which is to say I didn’t understand it. Any thoughts? (In so far as you can without spoiling the story for others.)

  3. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Max and Sarah. I was hoping for some discussion because, though I think the book is overrated, it is a very interesting work.

    Max, I would love you to read it and share your thoughts. You have read far more broadly in the sci-fi genre and, while this is not exactly sci-fi, you would undoubtedly have interesting things to say about it.

    Sarah, I have no quibble with The Road being rated “very highly”, only with how very highly it gets rated. It is a very good book. You are right that it presents something of a problem to review. The plot is pretty straightforward, so the ideas are the important things. Being foolhardy, I ploughed ahead regardless. I will be looking forward to a full review.

    I like your “past into future” take.

    SPOILER! Do not read the rest of this comment if you do not want to know the end. SPOILER!

    The ending was, as you say, enigmatic. Maybe if I understood it, I would rate the book much more highly. Or not.

    I could not, and cannot, decide where McCarthy intended to go. The family the boy meets is obviously religious, but I do not think that is the primary point. The mother says: “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” This lends some support, I think, to my interpretation that McCarthy was exploring this link from “man to man through all time” that spans an otherwise desolate universe. The father passes what he knows and cares about to the child, including a passion for life.

    On the other hand, the final paragraph seems more like an eco-warning. The backs of the trout have maps: “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.”

    This, to me, is a rather strange turn to nature in a book otherwise devoid of non-human nature. I suppose it could also be interpreted as an examination of human nature apart from the rest of nature. Man does not come out so well. Only those who respect others and try (as the boy) not to take (exploit?) what does not belong to them are “good people”.

    This fits, to some degree, with the admonition: “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They dont give up.” Good guys keep trying, both to move forward and to do right. They try, despite the seeming futility, to preserve and protect their respect and awe for fellow inhabitants. This is the fire, perhaps. Not only the fire to keep going, the will to live (which seems too animalistic to be revered), but their love for their fellow man, including maybe their self-respect.

    I think that I might consider the book overrated because I think the ending was intentionally ambiguous. It could mean many things to many different people. In some sense, I guess I felt it was a cop out. Yes, great literature asks questions, it does not answer them. Still, the return to nature (and God?) at the end seemed incongruous with most of the rest of the novel.

    I could ramble on in circles, but I am having a difficult time putting those final two paragraphs into a coherent analysis of the book as a whole. “This was life without nature. Respect nature.” Surely that cannot be it.

    SPOILERS above. SPOILERS in this comment above.

    Anyway, I would love to hear any more of your thoughts.

  4. Kerry,

    I’ll post mine once I’ve read it, and thus can read your (helpfully marked) spoiler section. I’ll try to bump it up the TBR pile.

  5. Sarah says:

    SPOILER – end of book discussion

    Thanks for answering my question, Kerry. Very coherently. I tend to think about the book minus the ending, because it seems to throw everything else out of kilter. I like your idea that it is an examination of man apart from nature. That then make sense of the disjointed nature of the final paragraph. I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book, but I haven’t come across that point of view before.

    I dismissed the obvious eco interpretation because it was, well, obvious. It would be rather ironic if everyone is puzzling over the ending because it is too simple. Maybe that is a commentary in itself on the environment. Green common-sense is not as they say, rocket science, but as a species we seem to have considerable trouble getting to grip with it.

    That rambling in circles thing? I do it too!

  6. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this book. And I am glad that I said something coherent and thrilled that I may have said something original in my rambling. What more could I hope for?

    It would be kind of funny if McCarthy had in mind a straightforward eco interpretation and we’re all looking for something deeper. If that was it, though, my rating goes down.

    I’ll be keeping a lookout for your full review. I always enjoy your unique perspective.

  7. […] His take is well worth a read. Edit: I forgot to link to Kerry’s review of The Road, here, which is excellent on the religious symbolism and the role of hope as a central element of the […]

  8. SPOILERS AHOY, SERIOUSLY, MASSIVE SPOILERS

    Regarding the ending, here’s my take.

    It’s basically a happy ending, though more on that shortly. The key thing is that the boy offers the new man his pistol, and the man tells him to keep it. I think that alone makes any interpretation that they’re cannibals very hard to sustain. Frankly, if they were, they wouldn’t leave the boy armed when he volunteered to give up his gun. Add to that the fact the woman hugs him, and I just don’t get to anything that ambiguous.

    So, I think it’s a happy ending at that level, they are the good guys (if not, again, they’d have taken the gun), but it’s an ending that the final paragraph implies may be irrelevant, the happiness is at the human level, no wider one. We’re probably all still going extinct, but the man lived long enough to see his boy safely into the world which is all any father ever can hope to do.

    For me, that’s the point, the man protects his child while he lives, but (unless very unlucky) for every parent there’s the knowledge that one day they won’t be there anymore for their child and that for me is what the ending’s about.

    END OF MASSIVE SPOILERS

  9. Kerry says:

    KEEPING UP WITH THE SPOILERS, BEWARE

    Max,

    I think your evidence that the man and woman are “good people” who do not plan to eat the boy is compelling, in fact dispositive. I agree that, on that level, it is a happy ending.

    If that final paragraph implies the irrelevance of that happiness, in the long run, then it is a bleak novel. Not bleak in a bad way, but quite bleak. In the long run we’re all dead, but certainly we hope for more for our children than the man can reasonably hope for his boy. His boy likely has little more than bare existence, a life much harder, much less joyful, than the man’s own life (at least prior to the disaster).

    I have a slightly different view, perhaps. The man did, effectively, pass his boy to new “parents” in a sense. Of course, McCarthy was hampered somewhat by the fact that he chose the time frame he did and, therefore, the father could not shepherd the boy all the way to independence. The message that a parent cannot protect the child would have been stronger if the boy was simply left alone and the reader was not salved with the knowledge that the boy found a new, protective home.

    I suppose a good reply is that the father did not know the boy had found safety. Only the reader is let off the hook, not the father. I am still not entirely satisfied, but I do like your interpretation better than an eco-centric interpretation. After all, the strength of the book was the relationship between boy and man (and the evocative language…).

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comments. As I said over at your place, I enjoyed your review. I do encourage anyone reading these comments to go to your blog and read the review and comments there.

    END (for now) OF SPOILERS

  10. Ronak M Soni says:

    More Ending Discussion
    Having just finished it, I feel it would have been a much better book if it had ended when the man died. It would not only have conveyed all the futility Max talks about, it would have ended at an emotional strong point.
    Oh, and it wouldn’t have been a Rashomon ending, which only works in Rashomon (because the movie is basically the discussion between the two points of view and Kurosawa wants the right one to win out).
    All that said, I was touched and intrigued by that traveller. Do you think he was the same one the father set on fire?

  11. Kerry says:

    Ronak,

    I probably would have liked the book a little better if had ended with the man’s death. Perhaps it would have been too bleak for most then. Hard to go through the whole thing without any ray of light, but I do think that would have been an ending more consistent with the overall theme and tone. I think some compassion for the reader slipped in.

    I think he probably was not the same one, but then I can’t say with certainty. There are definitely points of ambiguity, but I would not have connected those two.

    Thanks so much for the comment.

  12. Lija says:

    I recently reviewed this too – I was more whole-heartedly positive about it, but I agree that the ending was a bit weak. However, I’m not sure if I trust that my feeling on this was because there was really a better way to finish the story or just because I just WANTED something neater and more definitive (the two are not necessarily one and the same).

  13. Kerry says:

    I definitely feel it is easier to wish for a better ending than to determine what that would be. I definitely agree that there is a difference between a better way to end a book and the way I want a book to end. But, I was still slightly dissatisfied with the ending.

    Endings, though, are difficult. There are more great starts, I think, than endings.

  14. tupbup says:

    SPOILER! More ending discussion…!

    To me the father’s death allowed for the son to carry on without fear. The father prevented him from interacting with other travellers in case of cannibalism or food-stealing, but in doing this his son was prevented also from social interaction which is a huge part of human existence.

    In their journey they are barely human in the sense that they are whittled down to their survival instincts: eating and staying alive. Any social interaction is usually hostile or fearful.

    It is only after the father dies that the son finds a family to travel with. His preconceptions about the remainder of human society is broken down and he is able to live as a young boy for a while.

    For all his father’s attempts to keep him safe and alive, it is only by his death that his son gets to start living. To me this is what makes it a pessimistic ending; if only the father could have learned to trust others and accept help he could have continued on the road with son a little longer.

  15. Kerry says:

    tupbup,

    Thanks for the comment. You bring out a good aspect not previously explored in these comments. The son being kept from other social interaction is an important point. He is protected from stranger-danger in the extreme. Still, I am not convinced there was any real opportunity for the father to “learn to trust others”, because I am not sure anyone they had met earlier were trustworthy.

    I think the significance of the father’s death and the son’s opportunity to start living as a boy is, perhaps, as an allegory of parenthood. The parent does experience a little death when a child’s sphere widens, perhaps even excluding the parent.

    You point is a very interesting one. I will have to think about it some more.

    Thanks for the great comment!

    Kerry

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