The Road by Cormac McCarthy is by far one of the most arresting novels I have ever read. On the surface, it is a dystopian novel about a very bleak future and the dark underbelly of survival in a true post-apocalyptic environment. But at its heart, it is the story of a man trying to be a “good” father under impossible circumstances.
How this father and his tender son got where they are, and what happened to bring about such a dire future, is almost irrelevant. In fact, we receive only disjointed and incomplete clues about what may have happened via the father’s feverish dreams and in rare moments when he allows himself to remember. And even then””the memories, the dreams””they are all personal, void of any social or political concerns.
What we do know quite clearly is that there was fire””fire so intense and so fierce and so engulfing that it literally scorched its way across the land, leaving everything in its wake stark, brittle, and hostile. Ash falls from the sky like snow, obscuring the sun. Night is so thick that it cannot be penetrated. Even the feeble fires they build for warmth seem to be struggling against the oppressive weight of the blackness. Nothing has gone untouched, and you realize rather quickly that nothing will ever grow here again. In short, this is a desperate world.
The entire thrust of the story is the attempt of this father and son to survive by migrating south to escape the cold. It is a grueling journey. And what are they surviving to? That is the unspoken question littered across each page. The road always creates more questions than it answers.
In an earlier post this summer where I discussed my current dystopian reading habits, Kaizerin left an amusing and thought-provoking comment in which she paraphrased a quote made by Stephen King. Essentially, he said, the reason people like stories about the end of the world is because they imagine they will be the ones to survive and they’ll get to keep all the stuff. I really think that there is something to that idea. Many (if not all) stories about the end of civilization have a strong scavenger component to them.
Hunting and gathering takes on a new twist in a post-consumer, post-apocalyptic landscape. Finding what is useful, sifting through the rubbish to identify food, shelter, clothing–these are the essential skills of a survivor. Frequently, even more than the necessities, we are fascinated by the luxuries that survive (even WALL-E had an iPod). But in the dystopian world of The Road we are years beyond what was “the end.” In the time following whatever conflict or war or tragedy took place, supplies are dangerously absent. In this place, survival means something different. It means finding other sources of food that may be more abundant. It means turning on your fellow man.
The Road as Metaphor
But this book is about so much more than the survival of a father and his son. With every page, I could see more and more clearly that The Road served as an analogy for what it means to live as a man of principle in this modern world””a place populated by metaphorical “cannibals” who would survive at any cost, even the cost of their own humanity. The road is more than just the path this pair struggled down in search of something better. It is the road each of us walks down. And what does our journey look like?
The father in this story is caught in a trap. As he tries to create a worthy example in a corrupt and desolate world, he is continually forced to face his own limitations and those that have been imposed on him. Yet, he keeps trying to push through beyond that. He keeps trying be worthy, to meet the expectations he has of himself and those he imagines other people (most notably his son) have of him as well.
And isn’t this a familiar path? In the end, the book speaks to each of us. It talks about expectations, it talks about moral absolutes, and it talks about how failure can sneak up on even the most uncompromising and noble. In the end, it talks about forgiveness and what it means to leave the world behind you just a little bit better. It is about survival even when you don’t want to survive. It isn’t about hope exactly, but it is about the hope for hope. And it is about love.
Tend Your Garden, Carry the Fire
At some point, fairly early on, you begin to ask, “Why? Why struggle so hard to survive? Is it even worth it?” The situation seems hopeless to the reader. It seems hopeless to the characters. Still, they continue to push forward as if they are driven by something. And they are. Something beyond survival””almost mystical, or at least mythic. They have a mission, this father and his son. They have a responsibility to, as they put it, “carry the fire.”
This almost cryptic statement conjures up such powerful images. They survive to carry the fire. The world has collapsed, and someone must carry the fire. This is what good men do, they carry the fire.
The charge to carry the fire reminded me so much of the famous closing advice from Voltaire’s Candide, which is equally potent, primitive, and open to tremendous speculation and varying interpretation. “Tend your garden,” he tells us. In the face of a seemingly incomprehensible world, in the absence of a benevolent higher power, in the shadow of existential absurdity, what do you do? You tend your garden. You carry the fire.
Within the story, where this idea of carrying the fire came from is unclear. Whether the father truly believes it or it was just something he made up to keep his son moving forward (or even to protect him from hopelessness?), it doesn’t matter. This has become their mission.
Fed on his father’s need to believe in something bigger than himself, the boy’s world is simple and clean. We are the good guys because we don’t eat people. And because we are good guys, we carry the fire. Even in a post-apocalyptic world, myth survives. Metaphor continues to have meaning. And these clean lines and neat definitions are both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. Nothing changes, and nothing stays the same.
And more than that, the contrast of this fire (the carrying of which is such an ancient and deeply symbolic duty) with the destructive force that has completely destroyed the land they are making their way through is so potent. The father doesn’t know how to explain it, but in this cold, desolate place left in the vacuum of a blazing inferno, fire is a very fitting symbol and it is at the center of their journey. This is what keeps us men; we survive to remain men.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about this book. The quality of the writing, the care with which each detail is added, the deliberateness of each character choice, the layers of meaning””all these things create a story that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And I feel, in a sense, that my carrying this story with me as I move forward is a lot like carrying the fire into the world myself.