The Existential Road of Cormac McCarthy
A man and a child walk down a road, no destination in mind, no place to return. They trod along relentlessly, drudging through the cold, ash, storms, and illness, scavenging for food and narrowly avoiding death each and every day. Everyone they know is dead, and everyone they don’t know is their potential murderer. All they have is the other, and even that is contingent upon their ability to remain alive.
So why go on? Why remain in this cold, grey life in which joy is nearly impossible and death is the only certainty?
Why do you wake up every morning?
If you aren’t already, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a novel that will keep you awake at night ruminating on mortality; yours, your family’s, your friends’, society’s, and Earth’s. It is a story which rips away the veil of romanticism, revealing an empty, cold world in which death and decay are the only victors. So why dive into this post-apocalyptic world of hopelessness and suffering? Being hedonists, people don’t often willingly beckon an existential crisis. However, taking the journey down The Road opens up an inner dialog that late night TV and social media feeds fail to spur. By entering into McCarthy’s hellish world, the reader is confronted with endless opportunities to question both him/herself and the world which the human species has created. By the book’s final pages, something new about oneself is realized, and that in itself is reason enough to begin the trek.
Here are some questions which may arise upon reading The Road, along with a brief discussion of their implications.
1. How will the world end?
Since this is a post-apocalypse setting, the end of the world has already happened. McCarthy leaves the cause of society and nature’s destruction up for interpretation, citing only that it happened at 1:17 with “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (54). There were also many fires, for the book is littered with descriptions of ash that floats constantly in the air and covers everything. Additionally, people are found melted into the road later on (190). Regardless, the question is not answered, most likely because the novel is less about the causes of the apocalypse and more about the repercussions.
This is not to say that such a question shouldn’t be taken under consideration, however; McCarthy invites speculation by leaving the cause so open-ended. One possibility is that a nuclear bomb could have destroyed civilization. Since the book was published in 2006, right in the midst of the War on Terror, talk of weapons of mass destruction and reflections on America’s own use of atomic bombs abounded. Such a time could have easily crept into McCarthy’s writings, and with the current state of the United State’s international affairs, the possibility endures.
2. How would I respond to the end of the world?
A slew of reactions to the world’s end are represented in The Road, from murderous cannibals to raving madmen to hardened, pragmatic survivors. Perhaps one of the most poignant responses can be found in the Woman, a character who is briefly mentioned yet holds a powerful position in the story. She was the mother of the Boy and the presumed wife of the Man. In one of the Man’s many recollections, we learn that she was unable to endure the conditions of the new world, where rape and murder are the fate of most, and killed herself. She is depicted as utterly lacking in any hope of a positive outcome and unwavering in her decision to end her life. She displays no warmth or caring for either her husband or her son, saying only that she would take the Boy with her into oblivion if she could (56).
While perhaps the Woman is not the most likeable character, it is easy to empathize with her nonetheless. When faced with a life filled with scavenging, starvation, rape, and murder, suicide becomes an increasingly attractive option. Only those of the strongest will could stand such conditions, and even then, the Man wavers in his resolution on multiple occasions. Thus, the Woman’s suicide gives rise to introspective questioning within the reader. Would I be able to continue on, or would the pervasive doom drive me to ending it all? Would I end the life of a child in my care, sparing him/her from a potentially horrific death?
On the other hand, the Man is quite the resilient character, continuing on down the road despite illness, a lack of food, the threat of danger, and the insufferable cold. His drive: to find or forge some kind of life for his son, even if it is only one of a nomad. Every day, he wakes up to fight for the life of the Boy, the one thing left in the world that he loves. The Man’s resourcefulness and practicality are immensely impressive, and they are consistently relied upon to maintain the relative well being of his minuscule family. Yet he is not purely a hero, for he suffers from doubt, hopelessness, pessimism, and irrationality like the human being that he is.
He is how many of us would hope to be under such circumstances, but given that the vast majority of people are dead in this story, it is likely that very, very few would be able to rise to the occasion as does the Man. Regardless, if the will to carry on is strong enough, as it is when the life of a child depends on it, then carry on you will.
However, sometimes the will to carry on is strong, but the results are not so tender. Such is the case with the novel’s “bad guys,” or the platoon of men who make concubines, slaves, or meals out of all they encounter (103). These are the murderers, rapists, and cannibals whom the Woman feared and from whom the Man and Boy run. Who would make up this group if the world were to end? Would I sink so low if conditions were awful enough?
3. Are good and evil just subjective labels?
Are the “bad guys” actually evil, or are they merely conforming to the requirements of their environment? In a land where food is scarce and survival depends on one’s ability to find or take resources, are those who cannibalize and murder to obtain nourishment inherently bad, or are they just living up to the conditions of the new world?
These questions are difficult to stomach, for it is hard to imagine a society in which such acts are deemed necessary, acts which violate every value we are taught as members of humankind. Yet even the protagonist, the steadfast Man, kills someone in the novel. He also leaves multiple people behind to die, despite the pleas of the Boy. Is the Man still “good?” Is he just doing what he must to survive, as the other, more lecherous characters are doing? The Boy may draw a line between the moral and immoral, but it seems that McCarthy does not.
Nevertheless, the Boy is consistently a moral compass for the Man as well as the reader, who may or may not forget conventional morality right along with the protagonist. The Boy is nearly elevated to a divine status, for he is constantly described with words suited for a deity. Within the very first pages of the book, the Man’s view of his son is illustrated perfectly: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (5). His hair is “golden” and something the Man takes great care to keep clean and kept, to the point where grooming it becomes ritualistic (75). Additionally, the Boy has near prophetic abilities to sense when a situation is dangerous or harmless. Perhaps McCarthy is suggesting that there is a difference between good and bad by creating a character like the Boy, one who is so pure and unwaveringly maintains his noble principles, even when they contradict those of his father. Or maybe the Boy will lose his innocence as he continues on in this world of destruction and pain, becoming morally grey as the Man once was. Maybe that is the greatest tragedy of all.
4. How similar is the life we live to that of the characters in "The Road?"
We wake up every day. We scavenge for food, even if it is just in the fridge. We take the necessary steps to protect our bodies from the day’s elements. We avoid danger when we see it coming. We work hard to reach our goals. We make mistakes. We use the love we have for and receive from others to keep our spirits up. We grow tired, sick, weak. We die.
For what? McCarthy doesn’t offer an answer. Ask the Boy. He seems to know more than us all.
These and many, many more questions bubble to the surface of the soul while reading The Road. For this reason, it is truly a masterpiece whose influence will endure throughout the years. While it does not offer much comfort to its readers, the resulting insight and personal examination make it well worth the time spent on it, including even the restless hours of the night during which morality and mortality are pondered.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.
© 2014 Megan Faust