CORMAC MCCARTHY’S THE ROAD: AN ASHEN JOURNEY
The Road is a story about a father and son’s journey as they travel across a devastated America. It is a journey fraught with dangers, one of the biggest being other survivors. Indeed, the ordeals people will endure or put others through in order to survive is very much at the heart of McCarthy’s novel.
The post-apocalyptic world of The Road is a barren place, with “ash” and “gray” competing for the most repeated word throughout the novel. When the father uses his binoculars he’s looking for “anything of color”, promising his son the sea they’re heading to will be blue. It isn’t, of course. Ash falls like snow, and there are hints enough to suggest a nuclear war, with “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions”, yet there doesn’t appear to be any radiation sickness. In the film version the light and its concussions are the first lines narrated in voiceover, so it’s clearly very significant, but the film does little else to offer explanation either.
Whatever war may have created the dystopian world they live in, it is the war that follows that McCarthy is interested in showing us, the war for survival. For the protagonists, this survival is a matter of day-to-day urgency and they spend much of the novel searching for food on a journey that takes them through a multitude of dystopian settings and scenarios: abandoned trucks; empty towns; forests where trees fall apparently spontaneously to illustrate how the natural world is falling apart around them. Buildings are askew because “iron armatures had softened in the heat and then reset again” whilst “melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake”. It’s an effective and telling simile, emphasising a desperate fixation with food. Occasionally they find a rotten apple or a few hard seeds, and in one touching scene the two share a can of Coke. It’s a scene that draws attention to the boy as being born of this new world, with no knowledge of what came before; “What is it, Papa?” he asks of the distinctive can. Yet his realisation “I wont ever get to drink another one” does not stop him insisting his father shares it. He is a good boy, and concern for his welfare is what keeps the father, and the reader, persisting with what would otherwise be a miserable journey indeed.
The consistently bleak imagery and monotonous drudge of day-to-day survival goes a long way towards providing a somewhat euphoric section in the book when the two come across a bunker stocked with food. “Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates. Plastic trashbags stuffed with blankets.” It’s a list unlike any other McCarthy has used in the novel so far, a paragraph of plenty with provisions enough to feed them for months, and the reader is as shocked as the characters to come across it. This oasis in the barren desert of their world comes at a time when hope is particularly low and it is all the more effective for it, an extended scene of such relief that the reader will be forgiven for wanting the journey to end there.
It doesn’t, though. Less a happily ever after and more a happy for just a moment, the bunker provides only a short rest, for The Road is a story of travel. Whilst others may be “half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling”, literally stuck within the road, the man and boy press on, continuing a journey that is both literal and metaphorical as they learn more about each other, and themselves.
Much of what the boy learns comes from the stories his father tells him, at least at the beginning. The boy claims, “I dont have any stories to tell” adding rather tellingly “stories are supposed to be happy”. So it falls to the father to tell them, “old stories of courage and justice”. The adjective “old” is rather ominous, though, suggesting such qualities do not exist in this new world, or rather they no longer exist in what is left of the old one, which may explain why the father is so reluctant to test their luck at the bunker. That events should take a turn for the worse is a natural assumption for a man who has seen a good world gone bad. For the boy, though, things can only ever get better for the bleakness of this world is all he has ever known. It is the boy who provides the story’s hope, personifies it, which is why we so desperately want him to survive.
The entire novel is a sequence of steps in search of sustenance, and not always of the physical kind. The Road is a very spiritual text, something McCarthy highlights with his use of figurative language. Generally his writing is rather sparse and fragmented, a style that suits the setting for the world of The Road is one of lack, an empty place, a devastated space bereft of beauty. Sentences are often simple or, if extensive, made up of clauses linked by repeated conjunctions, a technique called polysyndeton (which has resulted in frequent comparisons to Hemingway). And yet the novel is not without its similes and metaphors, the vast majority of them spiritual. The father, coughing, is “kneeling in the ashes like a penitent” and his preparation for the boy’s sleep are “like some ancient anointing”, the boy a “golden chalice, good to house a god”. The two are compared to “mendicant friars”, the boy “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle”.
Yet “Where men cant live gods fare no better” says the man claiming to be Ely. It suggests a Godless world. However, most of the story is told from the father’s perspective, albeit in the third person, and examples of religious imagery mark his attempt to reassert a holy presence in a world that would otherwise be religiously vacant. His desire to control things is also seen in one brief moment of intrusive first-person narrative; “That dog that he remembers followed us for two days. I tried to coax it to come but it would not”. He is perhaps trying to persuade himself here, but it also imposes his own perspective on us and we find ourselves in a position similar to that of his son, powerless to voice our own opinion or sway the father in his course of action. It is unsurprising that when the boy cannot speak to God at the end of the novel, he speaks instead to his father.
The father and son relationship itself has religious significance, albeit implicitly, just as the desolate world around them seems like Hell on Earth with its “dull sulphur light from the fires”. Here the boy is quite explicitly a saviour figure, at least in the father’s eyes; “If he is not the word of God God never spoke”. In this respect, the story of The Road is one of pilgrimage in which the man’s efforts to feed and protect the boy are his efforts to serve his God. The boy returns this love in giving him a reason to live. The father’s role is physical whereas the son’s is spiritual, roles that define them more than any name could, all of which contributes to the novel’s role as a parable, a cautionary tale with a moral message about human nature.
It is, after all, not just the physical threat of starvation and murder that the man and boy face; they experience various moral tests, too. It is perhaps in these moral conflicts that the novel is most bleak, despite the abundance of dystopian landscapes. “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything” the man says, to which the boys replies “Yes I am.” And the worry carries a cost. When the man later offers to tell him a story, the boy declines, explaining “in the stories we’re always helping people and we dont help people”. Theirs is a journey from one testing situation to another so that when McCarthy writes of “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void” he could easily be describing his protagonists. The father’s failings in these tests are as symptomatic as his cough in representing his eventual death. Only then can the boy begin a journey that is truly his own, rising phoenix like from a world of ash to create a new one for himself in which hope is allowed to exist. One where he’ll have his own story to tell.
The Road is a moving novel rendered all the more powerful by a believability bordering on inevitability. It’s a dystopian journey during which the cry ‘Are we there yet?’ can perhaps be answered rather pessimistically with ‘Nearly’. We need to take heed so as not to follow its path.