The Road

Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006
Genre: Novel

Some years following an unnamed cataclysmic event, a father and son wander through the desolate wasteland that was once America. They hide from bandits and cannibals, living on hidden caches of canned goods and other forgotten products of the earlier world. It's pretty bleak.

I read the story as a thought-experiment in morality. The boy and his father constantly reassure themselves that they are "good guys," still "carrying the fire." If the earth can no longer support life, though, then everyone is doomed. What does it mean to be a "good guy" in such a world? When faced with a choice between hoarding a week's worth of food, or sharing with a stranger and running out in six days, what is the right thing to do?

Although he's grown up almost entirely in the post-cataclysmic world, the son has somehow acquired a very highly developed moral sense. Not only are murder and robbery out of the question, but even taking advantage of a windfall — for instance, the untouched survivalist bunker that they find by chance — must be explained and rationalized, its original owners supposed to be dead or otherwise past caring.

The father's morality, on the other hand, has shrunk around the figure of his son, who now takes up the entire universe. What helps the son to survive is good. While the son cares about "other people" in general, the father's concern is with this one specific other person (which may be McCarthy's comment on parenthood).

There's an arresting passage near the end where an old man steals the father and son's few belongings. The father tracks him down and takes everything from him: not just the food and blankets that were not his to begin with, but down to the clothes on his back. The father later says of it, "At least we didn't kill him," to which the son replies, "But we did kill him." This highlights the two characters' different worldviews: the son's feeling of responsibility to all humanity, the father's protectiveness of his remaining flesh and blood.

I initially considered the book's extreme setting to be a place where morality must be reconsidered. The world has basically ended; what consequences can our actions have? The more I read, though, the more I found McCarthy's post-cataclysmic morality to be just as applicable to the real world. After all, nuclear winter or not, all of us are going to die one day, and our every act of selflessness is simply a postponement of someone else's inevitable end.

So what does McCarthy leave us with? He considers different aspects of moral obligation, and vividly describes the horrors of a world where those obligations have not been fulfilled, but provides few clear answers in the end. The book's final image, of a stream with fish swimming in it, does remind us of the fragile beauties of our world, but The Road is not environmentalist polemic. Rather, this image signals the end of our journey into hell; we return, like Dante, "to see the stars again," but changed by the persistent memories of what we have witnessed.

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