The Sublime Genius of Cormac Mccarthy’s “The Road”

by Derrick G. Jeter

Sublime genius.
This is what I think of Cormac Mccarthy’s novel, The Road. On the surface Mcarthy’s novel appears as just another in a long string of post-apocalyptic stories. But the simplicity of the story and the starkness of the language belie a textured softness under the hard curst of Mccarthy’s narrative.
The Road is a story of a man and his young son traveling down a broken and pothole-filled stretch of blacktop. Passing through burned out mountains and charred forests, through empty towns and deserted houses, the world is dead and gray and cold. Set in a who-knows-what-year of a nuclear winter, the father suffers from nuclear fallout—coughing blood. In an attempt to reach warmer weather, and perhaps discover a world of life, father and son trudge down the road, avoiding any contact with other survivors who use the same road—some to survive off the flesh of others.
In the barren and bleak world of The Road, only warmth and life is found in the relationship between the man and his son. They are the “good guys”—the carriers of “the fire.” With a subtle touch of his pen, Mccarthy invites the reader to examine goodness in a world filled with badness. But in a profound way the invitation is more than an examination of goodness because more than goodness is found in the man and the boy. What is found is humanity. Mccarthy explores the meaning of humanity—of carrying the image of God, the imago Dei, in biblical terms. The man and the boy are the last two humans on the face of the earth. They encounter others with human-like qualities—those who walk and talk and eat—but have lost their humanity. They’ve abandoned their image bearing torch. They’re “bad guys,” creatures, beasts.
The man and the boy propel themselves down the road to survive the ravages of man-eaters, but also to survive the soul-eaters. To stay too long in one place is to consume all available food stores . . . save that which walks on two legs. But to succumb to that is to lose their goodness, their humanity, their soul. To keep the fire of humanity burning the man and the boy must keep journeying down the road.
Not everything in The Road, however, is dead and gray and cold. With a delicate touch, Mccarthy adds color and warmth with flashbacks of the man’s life with a loving wife. His descriptions of the woman are light and airy, especially his references to her breasts. Nothing erotic or tawdry is found in his description. In fact, the descriptions almost so brief as to miss. But to miss them is to miss pleasure and life—hope. The man’s wife and her breasts are the contrast to the dead and joyless world the man and the boy must pass through. It is in the woman, more than in the barren landscape or in the ever present hunger of the man and the boy, that the reader comes to realize how much is lost in a world without real human women. This becomes the gnawing emotional pull of the story: can one keep their humanity in a world without real women—in a world of men and inhuman women? Can one keep their humanity in a world void of pleasure and life sustaining love? And as the last page comes into sight, just when you’ve resigned yourself to the depressing reality of the answer, Mccarthy echoes the soft and loving voice of a woman within the boy’s ear. Hope for the future. Pleasures. Love. Life.