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Themes in “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy


In his work, The Road, Cormac McCarthy creates a quintessentially post-apocalyptic scenario, revolving around the plight of a man and a boy, desperately holding on to a wavering yearning for survival and sustenance, in a world turned upside down by the reasons unknown to the reader (Ryan 152). The man and the boy set out on an arduous journey to south, instinctively trying to escape the chill and the drudgery of their immediate surroundings. The man and the boy are presented as nameless characters by the author, thereby assuming the plight of all the father and son pairings, trudging through the contemporary socio-economic circumstances loaded with emotional dryness and desperation for personal survival (Ryan 158). In the story under consideration, the father and the son journey through a landscape marked by waste, dearth, cruelty, compassion, concern and desolation. The ruggedness of their immediate environment gives way to a bizarrely interesting interplay of emotions and decisions, which appear to be grossly selfish at one time and benignly compassionate at other. There is no denying the fact that McCarthy’s narrative suggests a future that is bleak and cold. Yet, the hallmark of the story is its ever-looming sense of positivity that always manages to peep out in an otherwise desperate story of a father and a son trying to eke out an existence in a world gone insane. There are these interspersed elements of positivity in the story written by Cormac McCarthy, which endow it with a sense of universality and timelessness.

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Morbidity in the tale

In fact, it is the abominably morbid ambience, so elaborately interwoven in the story by Cormac McCarthy, which acts as a foil to the subdued but significant traces of positivity inherent in this work. Hence, any attempt to grasp the overall scope of the story, simply cannot sidestep the atmosphere of cruelty and eeriness enveloping this tale. The man is presented as being obsessed with a need for mistrust and callousness for one’s fellow human beings, believing that, “the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death (McCarthy 4).” His fears to a great extent seem to be justified in a universe where, “there is no other dream or other waking world and there is no other tale to tell (McCarthy 8).” In a situation that desperately called for living life from one moment to other, vehemently trying to stay warm and scavenging for food in the plundered grocery stores and abandoned houses, emotional callousness seems to be very natural and apt (Kellman 2). Even when the man and the boy mange to come across caches of hoarded food and warm clothing, their survival instinct perpetually goads them to keep on feverishly moving ahead to escape being cannibalized by famished blood cults, marauders and road-agents (McCarthy 4).The sense of homelessness faced by the man and the boy stands to be universal in its ambit, always pushing them to carry on with their journey, wearily trudging their meager possessions on a broken shopping cart. The man is always particular about holding on to the pistol with a single bullet in it, trying to chart one’s course with a tattered roadmap that always seems to lead to nowhere. In such a bleak outline, time and space seem to have lost their meaning and existence, once and for all. It’s plainly a situation where, “all things of grace and beauty such that one holds on to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain (McCarthy 14).”

Boy as the carrier of goodness

It is the character of the boy who is presented as being the inheritor of the essentially human kindness and morality passed on to him by, “old stories of courage and justice (McCarthy 11).”However, it does not mean that the man is bereft of all positivity and kindness. The boy in a way is simply the alter ego of the man that somehow manages to hold on to the higher grounds in these troubled times. In a scenario where the man single-mindedly labors to protect the boy from all peril, even at the cost of killing or starving one’s fellow human beings, it is the boy that never forgets to remind one of one’s basic humanity, amidst all snubbing and sidelining (Kellman 4). The boy never directly came across the ideals of kindness and empathy as he is presented as being born in a world that is devoid of all hope and life. So it is primarily the man who has passed on these fundamentally human ideals to the boy. Luckily, the boy never hesitates from re-teaching or reminding the father of these ideals, whenever the situation demands. The boy could afford to do so, as one is not cumbered by the direct responsibility of assuring the survival of a family, nor is cautious about saving one’s progeny from heartless hooligans prying on the road. In that sense, the boy is the sacred chalice, in which McCarthy manages to place the human qualities like kindness, compassion and empathy amidst an environment of betrayal, cruelty, cannibalism and evil. Doing so, McCarthy manages to forge a contract with the future, in which the immediate heartlessness is allowed to rule the roost, in return for allowing the spirit of kindness and positivity to survive and sustain in the guise of the boy (Taylor 1). Thus, The Road is primarily a tale of positive sentiments and themes, wrapped in a stage setting dominated by blood and gore.

Survival of humanity and positivity

The apocalypse may have destroyed the human race (barring a few), but the humanity continues to survive in the guise of the boy. In that context, the boy stands out as being the father of the man. Whenever they come across a surviving stranger, it is the boy who exhibits a sense of empathy with the suffering souls and insists his father to share their dwindling provisions with one. When the family comes across a dog, it is the boy who insists the father to sidestep one’s dire need for nutrition, and not to kill the dog. Again, when the duo finds an old man, standing famished and unattended on the road, it is again the boy who insists the father to feed him and be kind and caring towards him. Though the father is perpetually guided by one’s instinct to be cynical of strangers, which to a great extent is responsible for their survival, he seldom succeeds in presenting a bold opposition to the essentially human values of the boy. Actually this is not strange in the sense that it is the man who had passed on such values to the boy. Both the man and the boy consider themselves to be “the good guys (McCarthy 20)” who bear the onus of “carrying the fire (McCarthy 77)” of human values in a world otherwise left to evil, death and decay. Actually it is this positivity of the man and the boy that manages to make them move ahead, when they simply have nowhere to go. The man never forgets to reassure the boy about the power of goodness and positivity, whenever one is overtaken by fears. His dying words to the boy were, “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again (McCarthy 77)”.


Simply speaking, The Road is the story of every man, as one tries to get along with life, bearing the burden of personal responsibilities and battling with the instinct to help the suffering humanity by extending one’s concern beyond the sphere of one’s coveted goals. The scope and meaning of a concept seldom gets clarified when presented directly, as and when placed in contrast to its opposite. McCarthy successfully exploits this technique in The Road, by making the central characters act in a framework of chaos and confusion and thereby showing them making selfless choices. The cruelty and violence rampant in the vicinity of the central characters present an apt contrast to their concern expressed under situations of intense pressure and fear. The central characters in the story move on with their unfathomable destiny, doing their best with the limited provisions that come their way.

Works Cited

Kellman, Steven G. “Cormac McCarthy Imagines the End”. The Texas Observer. Texas

Democracy Foundation. 2006. HighBeam Research. Web.

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McCarthy, Cormac. “The Road”. The Burgomeister’s Books. 2010. Web.

Ryan, Matthew. “Hope is Critical: Cormac McCarthy’s- The Road”. Arena Journal 31 (2008): 151-162.

Taylor, Gary. “Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Breaking News and Opinion) (Book Review)”. Basil & Spice. 2009. HighBeam Research. 4.

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