Ashes to ashes
Before Cormac McCarthy’s nameless father and son have ventured more than a few yards down The Road, we realize that something is terribly wrong with their world. The only sound, other than the shuffling gait of these two creatures and the father’s wracking cough, is the sound of labored breathing – an act made more difficult by the layers of cloth that obscure their faces.
Occasionally, the frail child, who struggles to keep pace with his father, begins to complain about hunger and cold. The bleakness of the landscape suggests that some global apocalypse has scorched the world, leaving nothing but great clouds of ashes that drift aimlessly across a lifeless land, obscuring the sun and coating every available surface with filth. Dying plants, trees and the corpses of people have become “ashen effigies” waiting to be blown away by the wind.
Finally, The Road comes down to a grim equation: a dying man and a child/son whose painful innocence renders him helpless — these two beings pitted against an alien and hostile world.
Acting on some residual instinct, the father is charting a course to the south and the ocean. Although the land’s distinguishing features have been virtually erased, McCarthy’s survivors may be traveling from the Southern Appalachians towards the coast, “passing long lines of charred and rusting cars,” each containing an incinerated corpse. (In this surreal world, they pass a barn emblazoned with a “See Rock City” sign.) There are other survivors, too – bestial, nomadic bands that slaughter and consume each other.
Frequently, there is the distant sound of deranged chanting, as the father and son travel through silent towns and villages, the boy asks questions about the past and the world he never knew, about his mother and the other survivors. This fragmented dialogue reveals both the child’s ignorance and the daunting odds against the survival of this tragic pair.
We learn that the child’s mother, in an act reminiscent of Job’s wife in the Old Testament, has committed suicide rather than face the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world.
However, despite the spread of mindless violence, the father has managed to instill certain moral precepts in his son. Quite simply, there are the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” The “bad guys” slaughter and eat people. The “good guys” search for food, help one another, and “carry the fire.” In spite of the bloody carnage that the child has witnessed, he is drawn to the idea of nurturing and protecting a sacred flame.
When the father is forced to kill a man who threatens the boy, he wipes the murdered man’s blood from his son’s face, telling him, “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” When the son asks if they would ever eat anyone, his father assures him that they wouldn’t because “Remember, we must carry the fire.”
As the father and son learn how to find non-threatening shelters (including hidden caches of food in abandoned bomb shelters), they also develop a talent for perceiving traps. They evade marauders who stake out attractive homes and stalkers armed with bows and arrows.
At length, it becomes evident that the journey to the sea is actually a kind of bequest – a father’s final gift to his son – an attempt to kindle in his son’s heart what was ashes in his own. In essence, it is a survival strategy that embodies all that is spiritually ennobling ... qualities worthy of the ones “who carry the fire.”
Although stated with considerable variations, a number of critics have concluded that all of Cormac McCarthy’s previous novels have been a preparation for The Road. In other words, from Child of God and The Outer Dark, through Blood Meridian, the Border trilogy, and No Country for Old Men, McCarthy has been moving through increasingly opaque gradations of darkness and pessimism. Now the sum of all his writing – the decanted essence of McCarthy’s final judgment on the spiritual and moral state of this country – resides in The Road.
Oddly enough, although The Road represents McCarthy’s darkest and most existential work, it may prove to be his most uplifting. Throughout the novel’s grim unfolding, there are occasional echoes of another remarkable literary work: William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech. In fact, Faulkner’s words sound like an eerie presentiment of McCarthy’s novel:
...I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock, hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not only endure: he will prevail. He is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Obviously, McCarthy shares Faulkner’s conviction that even in a world plunged into a “nuclear winter,” man will survive because “he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” Quite possibly, The Road may be interpreted as a dire prophecy from America’s Jeremiah, a worthy successor of a prophet who found man’s salvation “not in the church, but in his own heart.”