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.
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.
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.” (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.” (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.” (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
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.
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.” (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.
- Do you have a “why” in your life? Does it come from within, or is it through another?
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!
- Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Part 5
- Star Trek’s Finest Hour: The Inner Light
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.