Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a riveting story of an unknown father and his son trying to survive in a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland, of which the blissful times and the thriving nation it once was has become but a mere memory. Food is extremely scarce, the weather is cold, and besides the dangers they face succumbing to natural causes of demise, the world is also occupied with depraved men who search out to eat other men.
The unnamed man is the absolute main protagonist in the book and the father of the boy. The personality of the man is partially based on the writing style McCarthy uses in throughout the book, where the flowing and detailed descriptions in the book are sometimes narrated in a way that they may be proposed as the man’s thoughts. Because of the state that the world is in he feels the need to find a cause to continue their journey south, towards what he knows there is nothing. The boy, his son, gives him the reason to not give up this journey, while he is simultaneously fighting the stark realization that there is no reason to continue living in a world where there is nothing left. His wife, we are told in mildly vague flashbacks, committed suicide before the events of the book, therefore the boy is his sole reason and motivation to continue living.
“He knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke. ”
This quote is taken from early on in the book. Here the man also compares his son to the word of God, which many consider pure and filled with love that are qualities now missing from the post-apocalyptic world that has become dark and ominous. The man asserts that without the boy there would be absolutely nothing good left in the world.
Early on the man reminisces a lot about his own youth, colors now missing and the world before and periodically tells the boy stories about courage and justice as well as he can remember.
“Cold as it was he stood there a long time. The color of it the fire moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember.”
As the book progresses he tries to deny himself memories of his past, and deny the boy born into the bleak world filled with ash, knowledge of the world as it had been. This invokes in the reader a sense of despondency, as we, the readers of the book, together with the man realize such times have become obsolete.
“Sometimes the child would ask him questions about the world that for him was not even a memory. He thought hard how to answer. There is no past.”
A main characteristic of the man throughout the book shows that he is extremely protective of the boy and further into the book the man’s instinct to protect slowly transgresses into an obsession. This is somewhat understandable considering the dangers of cannibalistic men and women that they come across in time although the man is also mistrusting of getting involved with people who seem to pose no harm. His main concern is the survival of himself and the boy. The boy’s naïve nature contrasts this mentality as well as he time after time questions the man’s choices about the people that they come across.
“The boy kept looking back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He’s been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa?he said.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There’s nothing to be done for him.”
One can argue that their different personalities complement each other, as the boy’s innocence and kindness retains the fragment of humanity left in the world, but such an approach can also be dangerous in that setting and if overwhelming may cause their demise. The man ultimately recognizes this and although he at times can seem rather callous and ruthless, he knows that is what he has to become in order to protect his son and himself as they encounter more threats further down their path. Despite this his humanity is not all lost shown in a part near the end of the novel where they come along an old man on the road and the man reluctantly abides to the boy’s wishes and agrees to stay with the old man for a while, and with it the man’s mercy was brought out by the kindheartedness of the boy.
“We cant stay here. We have to go.
The old man’s scared, Papa.
I don’t think you should touch him.
Maybe we could give him something to eat.
He stood looking off down at the road. Damn, he whispered. He looked down at the old man. Perhaps he’d turn into a god and they to trees. All right, he said.”
Life and death, morality, hope, reason and reminiscence are recurring themes in the books narrative and are ambiguous to the man’s own thoughts and dreams.
Using an unusual prose that is vastly poetic and descriptive McCarthy excels in conveying the hopelessness, distress and melancholy of the main characters and the world in which they reside. The world is gray, bleak, cold and literally covered in ash, while they also barely interact with anyone else but each other, which makes the thin dialogue, sparse use of punctuation, and complete lack of quotation marks work well with the general feel of the book.