Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’

The Road is a 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed all civilization and, apparently, almost all life on earth. The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The Road follows an unnamed father and son journeying together toward the sea across a post-apocalyptic landscape, some years after a great, unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and almost all life on Earth. The setting is extremely bleak; the sun is obscured by a layer of ash so thick that the pair must breathe through masks, and the land seems devoid of any living flora. The surviving remnants of civilization have been largely reduced to cannibalistic tribalism, or nomadic scavenging of metropolitan detritus that is almost entirely depleted. Realizing that they will not survive another winter in their present location, the father leads them through this desolate landscape towards the sea, sustained by a vague hope of finding other “good people” like them.

Overwhelmed by this desperate and apparently hopeless situation, the boy’s mother, pregnant with him at the time of the cataclysm, has committed suicide some time before the story begins. The father coughs blood every morning and knows he is dying. He struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy’s innocently well-meaning, but dangerous desire to help the other wanderers they meet. They carry a pistol with two bullets, meant for protection or suicide if necessary. In the face of these obstacles, the man and the boy have only each other (they are “each the other’s world entire”). The man maintains the pretense, and the boy holds on to the real faith, that there is a core of ethics left somewhere in humanity. They repeatedly assure one another that they are “the good guys,” who are “carrying the fire.”

On their journey the duo scrounge for food, encounter roving bands of cannibals, and contend with casual horrors such as a new born infant being roasted on a spit, and people being kept captive as they are slowly harvested for food. Although the father and son travel south and eventually reach the sea, neither the climate nor availability of food has improved. Despite having succeeded in defending the boy through extreme hardship, ‘the man’ has failed to find the salvation he had hoped for for his son, and succumbs to his illness and dies; leaving the boy entirely alone. Three days later, however, the grieving boy encounters a man who has been tracking the father and son. This man, who has a wife and two children of his own, brings the boy to join his family. One of the children is a girl, implying the possibility of a future for the human race, despite the grim conditions. A brief epilogue meditates on nature and infinity in this altered environment.

A film adaptation of the novel, directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall, opened in theatres on November 25, 2009. The film stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Man and the Boy. Production took place in Louisiana, Oregon, and several locations in Pennsylvania.

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