No Nature, No Culture, Only Love: The Road

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Literature
The Road Fallen over poles McCarthy

Over the past few entries, I’ve touched on the importance of staying optimistic in difficult times. This week, I want to look at a story that puts that to the ultimate test, a story in which hope arises from utter despair: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

There are some who read this post-apocalyptic tale only as an ecological parable, a potential scenario if humanity continues to damage the earth’s life support systems. I don’t. McCarthy doesn’t dwell on the cause of his world’s demise, and neither will I. Instead, I’m more interested in exploring the impact of a ruined earth on the human psyche. How do these characters make sense of the world where nature and culture is beyond recovery? How do they cope with constant and unrelenting despair? What compels them to go on when the past is lost, never to return?

The Road touches on these difficult questions. Yet despite seeming like the type of story that revels in violence and nihilism, it is really a tale about the very essence of what it means to be human. Its gripping portrayal of the tender and fierce bond between father and son highlights that it is our capacity for love and compassion that provides us with meaning and purpose for living. In darkest times, this flame endures, imperishable. This revelation, buried amidst the novel’s depiction of utter devastation and horror, is a profoundly hopeful one.

Synopsis

The Road Shopping Cart

A man, his son, and their shopping cart.

An unnamed man and his son travel south towards the ocean some years after an unspecified apocalypse. The landscapes they traverse are grey and dead; everything is covered with a fine falling ash. The two scavenge what they can from the ruins of towns and cities, carrying their meager possessions in knapsacks and a grocery cart. They take care to avoid contact with other survivors, many of whom have resorted to cannibalism. The man carries a revolver with two rounds to ensure a quick death for when they are captured.

During a harrowing confrontation, the man shoots a stray cannibal who tried to take the boy hostage. Losing their supplies in the ensuing escape and nearing death from starvation, the pair finds temporary reprieve in a sealed bunker. They stock up on supplies and fill up on food from a vanished age. Unfortunately, the site is too exposed, and they are forced to move on after a few days.

The Road Abandoned Truck

Abandoned ruins from another age.

Flashbacks show that the boy’s mother had committed suicide some time before the story began, unable to endure a life of perpetual fear and hopelessness. The man, afflicted with a respiratory disease, now continues on for the sake of his son, a kind and gentle boy born into a forsaken world. Despite the desperate horrors they meet along the way – killing fields where corpses were field-dressed, a hideous basement where humans are kept alive for food, an infant being roasted on a spit – the man reassures the boy that they will always be the “good guys”, that they will never eat people, that they “carry the fire” and must never give up. In turn, the boy acts as the man’s moral compass, pushing him to practice what he preaches in a hostile world.

They eventually reach the sea, but it is more of the same: grey, desolate, lifeless. They stay near the beach after finding supplies on a beached boat, but the man’s condition worsens and he begins coughing up blood. They move on to try to find respite from the encroaching winter, but the man is shot through the leg with an arrow during an incident. Wounded and weakened by his respiratory ailment, he can eventually go no further and urges the boy to continue on before dying. The boy grieves over him, but has no idea where to go or what to do without his father.

Another man appears after a few days. He tells the boy that he had been tracking the pair and since his father is dead, the boy should come with him. The boy asks if he’s one of the “good guys” to which the man says yes. The boy wraps up his dead father, promises to talk to him every day and goes off with the man, a woman, and their two children.

 Words Borrowed from Times Past

“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”

- The Road, p. 1

McCarthy’s prose in The Road is devastating. Haunting and lyrical, it reinforces the utter bleakness that permeates his world. Literary luxuries like proper punctuation and sentence structure have withered way into ash; all that is left are fragments used to convey what must be conveyed: An ever-dimming world in which no new things grow and can only be described with words and imagery ransacked from a lost age, never to return. The Road forces me to face the full brunt of death and desolation without shelter or respite, with the only hint of warmth coming from the bond between father and son.

“The world shrinking down about a raw core of possible 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.” 

-The Road, p.89

I love how here McCarthy uses language to emphasize the fragility of words, thoughts, and culture. As I wrote before in The Inner Light, this occurs today through the loss of languages, oral histories, and traditional knowledge. Things are indeed more fragile that one would have thought. Histories and empires vanished with a single death. Thousand of years of learnings and ways of being wiped from memory in a generation. Entire realities cease to exist when there is no one left to care of remember. Gone without people to think or enact. The last three lines in the quote above are so perfect and so powerful that they send chills down my spine every time.

The Strength to Go On

“You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.” 

-The Road, p.278

Rereading The Road, I am reminded of the other post-apocalyptic saga I’ve written about on Ekostories: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The two works of fiction share many common parallels. Both worlds are irrevocably damaged, with humanity on the verge of extinction and facing a bleak and uncertain future. Yet in each, the protagonists remain steadfast in their core philosophy, that “no matter how difficult it is, we must live.” They believe that with life always brings possibility for change.

Sometimes we find meaning and purpose for living within ourselves. For Nausicaä and the man in The Road, their resilience stem from the unconditional love they have for the other. Nausicaä’s love is broad and universal, for world and life. In The Road, the man’s love has a singular focus. No matter how worn down he is by the horrors of existence or how haunted he is by dreams of his past, he lives on, in the present and for the moment, to be with his son.

Each the Other’s World Entire

I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the life and work of Austrian psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. Best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning, a firsthand account of his experience as a Holocaust survivor, he came to realize that meaning in life can be found in even the most dehumanizing circumstances.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search of Meaning

The Road Boy and Man

“…each the other’s world entire.” (p.6)

For the man in The Road, that “why” is the boy. Throughout the story, the man is portrayed as the capable survivalist. In a flashback, we see him fill the bathtub with water even before the full extent of the cataclysm is known. Traveling with the boy, he constantly devises solutions that keep the pair moving and alive. He knows his way around weapons and sutures his own wounds. But none of those skills would matter if not for the boy, for there is nothing else left for him in the world. The past is gone; his wife is dead, and the world soon to follow. The boy’s well-being is literally all that sustains him, and what’s fascinating is that out of this intense devotion the man becomes the ultimate embodiment of unconditional love, as one willing to sacrifice anything and everything for another. The boy is his “why” and that’s all he needs to cope with any “how” that comes along.

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

- Man’s Search for Meaning

And the boy is worthy of this love. As one born in a time of despair and hopelessness, McCarthy nevertheless depicts him as an uncommonly kind child, perhaps commentary on the intrinsic goodness of children. We are less privy to the thoughts of the boy, but over the course of the journey, it is clear that he sees the toll that survival takes on his father. The boy’s presence reminds the man that there is more to life than physical survival, and his questions guide the man when he is tested by the world.

The Road the Man and the Boy

Nearing the end.

Even in the direst of situations, the man retains his humanity because of his love for the boy. Without the man the boy would have never survived, but without the boy the man would no longer be a man.

 “You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were.”

- The Road, p.279

In a book full of tender moments, these four short sentences form, for me, the emotional climax of the story. Perhaps it’s the bare honesty of it. The man does give his whole heart to the boy. The boy is the best guy. That’s it. That’s all. Love protects and sustains them both beyond their final parting, after which the boy goes off to a new life, and the man journeys into the dark.

Question:

  • Do you have a “why” in your life? Does it come from within, or is it through another?

Conclusion

As with most works of literary fiction, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in this exploration, but I’ll stop for now and invite your thoughts. For me, the Road is an emotionally exhausting read, but that’s exactly its intent, and I love the work for it.

Speaking of exhaustion, I’m feeling a little drained lately. Things are a little hectic and I realize that I’ve been writing Ekostories constantly without a break for a long time. In light of that, I’m forcing myself to take a few weeks off to recharge. In the meantime, I’ll be stickying a few Ekostories from last year. Hopefully regulars can discover new connections in old pieces, and new visitors have the chance to check them out for the first time. Happy reading!

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Frankl, Viktor. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, Boston: 2006.

McCarthy, Cormac. (2006) The Road. First vintage international open-market edition. Vintage Books, New York: 2007.

Miyazaki, Hayao. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – Deluxe Edition 1 & 2. Translation by David Lewis and Toren Smith. Viz Media, LLC: San Fransisco, 2012.

Images of The Road © 2009 by 2929 Studios. All rights reserved.

The Author

Environmental essayist. Interested in stories on nature, culture, and self.

12 Comments

  1. A tough story to be sure, and one that we all can learn from. Overall, the track of humanity appears to be one we’re losing sight of the world we’re leaving our children. Is there anything more important on a personal level?

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    • With regards to legacy, I think The Road conveys a pretty positive message. Obviously the man’s not responsible for the collapse of civilization and does the best he could to raise his son. We see his efforts results in this wonderful beautiful child who is able to weather through the most horrific of circumstances and still retain some goodness. That humanity will be sorely needed if there is to be hope for a better future.

      I think all of that applies to the real world, of teaching and preparing our children well, and doing the best we can to guide them into a new and uncertain future.

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  2. You wrote about The Road brilliantly. I tend to avoid dystopic books, and I started to read this, but gave up on it. You’re making me think I should go back and re-read it. I may be overoptimistic, but I believe we will avoid the worst case situation where the whole earth is destroyed. Yet, it is sometimes because of dystopic stories that people realize they must change.

    My biggest why in life are the people that matter to me the most – my children, my mother, my best friends. Yet, there has also always been a calling within me saying that I am here to serve something larger than myself or even my family. That calling is part of my why, and led me to work in the area of sustainability.

    Isaac, what would you say that your why is? You have such a gift with ekostories, I’m curious what motivates you too.

    Karen

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    • Hi Karen,

      I think it’s one of those book that is difficult to read (because of the subject matter) but I believe is worth it in the end.

      Unlike most stories I cover, I’m not sure I see The Road as a tale calling for change. I think for me, it’s more of an affirmation of goodness that endures even in the worst of circumstances. I can talk about resilience and inner strength all we want, but until I go through adversity, until I’m stripped of my comforts and supports, I won’t truly know how I will respond. Will I be one who can “carry the fire”? I hope so, but I don’t know. But The Road tells me yes, for some people it’s possible, and that’s very inspiring.

      Thank you for sharing your why. As for me, it’s a work in progress. I once thought I knew, but things and people and life change. The process of figuring it out is perhaps also a why.

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  3. Hi Isaac…I saw the film which struck me as very bleak. Perhaps the beauty to be found is conveyed better in the book and through the author’s wonderful use of language? To me, it is interesting to note how many of these post cataclysmic stories are circulating now. As for my why…family is indeed a powerful incentive and the desire to leave the world a better place than I found it motivates me. I hope your break is relaxing and recharges your batteries.

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    • I also saw the film. It is a very faithful adaptation in terms of the atmosphere and Mortensen’s one of my favourite actors, but yes, something key is lacking. I do think it is McCarthy’s prose that I touched on. Plenty of people do post-apocalyptic, but The Road has a very different flavour to it, and it’s because of McCarthy’s focus (the bond between father and son) and his prose.

      In this post, I tried to say that there is a place for stories who gaze into darkness and despair – to deny those elements in ourselves and in the world is naive. But the stories have to go beyond basic fearmongering and evoking apathy and resignation. I think the two apocalyptic stories I’ve looked at on Ekostories do that – they find hope where there rationally shouldn’t be any. They dig down to find reasons to go on even in the midst of overwhelming tragedy. This kind of endurance and resilience is really crucial and comes only through adversity. I wanted to tap into that a little bit.

      Thanks for the comment about the break. I think it’s going to be less relaxing and more focus on working on original things. Definitely exciting though!

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  4. A beautiful post. I can relate to the feeling of being drained, so I hope you can recharge.
    I haven’t had the courage to read this book. I heard that it was harrowing. In my current emotional state, I probably should wait to read it. But I can see the value of the message to persevere.

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    • Yes, you definitely have to be in the right mindset to tackle this. But i do recommend it when you feel you’re ready. There’s a tenderness in the work that is so pure and spare and dear that I am moved every time.

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  5. I think I must echo L Marie’s comment about not having the courage to read this book, but your review makes me want to try. I did read Marcel Theroux’s ‘Far North’, which is in the same genre, and took a lot away from it; I would read it again in fact. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on Far North, Isaac. For now, I hope your break from Ekostories is everything you’d like it to be, and I’ll look forward to when you do return.

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    • Please do check it out, when you are ready. I think the unconditional love that runs through The Road is expressed as good as anything I have ever read. As I said, McCarthy’s prose is a personal inspiration.

      Just checked out the synopsis for Far North, looks fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check it out.

      One of the reasons for a break is that I want to do some reading as well, so this is perfect!

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      • I think you’ve convinced me that I should give it a try Isaac; I’ve been deep in history recently, so will take a break for a novel, especially one that comes so highly recommended. Enjoy your own reading!

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  6. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Holocaust memoirs or Hiroshima for that matter. But I have and it shocks one to the core..the suffering, seeming futility of life.

    Keep in mind, such terrible thoughts cause those who commit suicide. It is not so far removed from “reality”. Longing for love and recognition.

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