Devotion and Faith as Necessity in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"

An Analysis

Seminar Paper 2015 10 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Mortality
2.1 The Man’s Devotion and Perception of his Son
2.2 Divine Figure of the Boy and the Antitheses of the Man 5

3. Setting

4. Conclusion

5. Work Cited

1. Introduction

“With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless“ (4). In this scene of Cormac McCarthy’s tenth and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, a post-apocalyptical wasteland of an unspecified catastrophe is being introduced.

The novel begins about ten years after a catastrophe has shocked the world’s core, leaving it thinly populated by the wandering remnants of humanity, who instinctively seek for food in a primal quest, thus testing their survival skills and instincts. The Road tells the story of a father and son who travel through a destroyed landscape and who are brought to their limits concerning their faith, morals, and their endurance of believing in the true good of humanity.

The two characters are followed by the reader on their journey through post-apocalyptic America, seeing that most survivors have turned into cannibalistic savages, who abandoned any kind of moral and therefore would do anything to survive. The contrasting image of these savages is the Man and his son, still following a moral code, although, the father does not follow it as strictly as the son does. But in an environment like this, where people do whatever it takes to survive, having morals and values leads both characters into dangerous situations, yet they pursue to their believes that they are the “good guys“ in a world full of “bad guys”, to bear up under the monumental burden of merely carrying on in a world.

In this paper I argue that aspects such as devotion and faith are needed to maintain a positive attitude towards morals and hope in a post- apocalyptic setting.

2. Mortality

In McCarthy’s novel the author discusses among other themes, the theme of mortality because he does not understand novelists who do not “deal with issues of life and death” (Woodward 4). In The Road death and horrors are constants, which almost gain the status of characters as they both appear over and over again. The fear of death not knowing whether they would be alive or dead the next day, whether they would have something to eat or go to bed hungry or whether they are save or in danger to be butchered for their flesh, is repeatedly mentioned through out the novel.

Illness is omnipresent as the Man is continually getting sicker the further the story goes and is starting to taste blood every time he coughs. At one point even infecting his son with it. The image of death confronts them around every corner, as door entrances are being scattered with cadavers. One almost gets the image that there is no sign of life. Steven Frye, a scholar of McCarthy’s work, argues that “Through out the story, images of touching physical intimacy blend with the horrors of a lost world” (Frye 172). The following quote is one of the most intimate and true statements in this novel, as the father, who is the catalyst in the relationship gives up by simply telling his son that they are eventually going to die.

[The Boy:]Can I ask you something? he said. [The Man:] Yes. Of course. [The Boy:] Are we going to die? [The Man:] Sometime. Not now.“ (10)

The Man is honest to his son as they are out in a merciless, dangerous world where even the slightest misstep could lead to death. As the father’s honesty is based on their code, which implies “honesty, fairness, constancy” (Gwinner 147), this observance of the code means telling his son the truth about their uncertain future.

2.1 The Man’s Devotion and Perception of his Son

McCarthy does not reveal the names of the two protagonists, as names simply do not matter in an apocalyptic world. Why does McCarthy prefer not to use names for his protagonists? Does he agree with the idea that names and labels have become irrelevant and trivial? But giving the circumstances that McCarthy picks up the theme of “persona” by simply naming the protagonists relating to their connection “the father”, “the man”, or “Papa” and “the boy” and “son”, signifies that anyone who is put in a similar situation, would have to make his or her own choices, which in return could be controversial in terms of morals. What we get to know is that McCarthy indeed follows the idea of, that in a post- apocalyptic world names become trivial as

“The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already?“ (88-89)

One of the first things we get to know about the Man is his devotion for the Boy, as he is doing everything he can to secure the chance to live for another day. Pushing a shopping cart in search for food and blankets, therefore enhancing their chance to survive one more day. He worships the child completely and so “every move, measurement, glassing, surveying, and act of scavenging” (Gwinner 139) is done as prove for his powerful devotion to his son. For that sacrificing his possibilities for a short ending of his agonies to maintain the guiding force and the protector for the safety of his child.

As the novel begins, the child is being pictured as “the word of God” (5), he is like a “Golden chalice, good to house a god” (31) as the father thinks of his son as a “blessing” (31). Ironically his affection towards his son is enriched by the conflicts they encounter throughout the novel, as the Man finds himself willing to violate moral principles to ensure their survival. He violates the promise to remain the “good guy” leaving behind, a man striped naked in the cold, therefore turning him into the same savage he promised not to become.

Moreover, he tells the Boy: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?” (77). This statement conveys the difference of thinking about morality between father and son. Since both characters perceive the act of killing in a different light. On the one hand, The Man supports his action, as if he was predestined by God to protect his son by any means necessary. For him the logical conclusion of their survivalist consequentialism was that: “the roadrat dies and they survive; goodness prevails over badness.”(Gwinner 146). Whereas, the Boy is more disturbed by the nature of the act, because it violates the fathers promise to remain the good guys. On some level, even the Boy, who is still recovering from the trauma of the fight with the roadrat, must acknowledge that something bad happening is a virtual certainty and that goodness cannot shield them from evilness.

Steven Frye comments on this issues as follows: “The perennial conflict of the “bad” and the “good” becomes evident in the ethical tension between father and son, which is always mediated by their devotion to each other.” (Frye 175). To reassure his son that he is there to protect him, not only from physical threats but also from nightmares. Early in the novel, the father warns the son:

“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that. You forget some things, dont you? Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.“ (12)

This emotional inside foreshadows the fathers more direct warning “since dreams of hope and possibility suggest resignation and acceptance of death, and nightmares and feel are evidence of the survival instinct” (Frye 178). This notion implies the density of the human consciousness, which is beyond understanding.

“In an upper window of the house he could see a man drawing a bow on them and he pushed the boy's head down and tried to cover him with his body. He heard the dull thwang of the bowstring and felt a sharp hot pain in his leg. Oh you bastard, he said. You bastard. He clawed the blankets to one side and lunged and grabbed the flare gun and raised it and cocked it and rested his arm on the side of the cart. The boy was clinging to him. When the man stepped back into the frame of the window to draw the bow again he fired. The flare went rocketing up toward the window in a long white arc and then they could hear the man screaming.“ (263)

In this scene the symbol of carrying the fire, and by that the purpose of the Boy as representing all divine virtues such as goodness, compassion and non-evil tendencies, is almost being used as permission to use the flare gun as a weapon instead for a signal of hope to the other “good guys”.

“As they travel the father is coughing blood, and readers are given to understand that eventually he will die, leaving the Boy alone in a land bereft of hope.” (Frye 170-71) In the End, before the Man dies, he is aware of the unavoidable fact that he is leaving the Boy alone. Therefore, he makes the effort to sustain their connection after he dies, telling his son that he will speak to him after he has died, and if the Boy listens the father will respond. By that giving his son the sign for what he has demanded throughout there journey, remaining the “good guys” as only they as good guys will find there way into heaven.

“He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. […] he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again.“ (281)

The Boy’s response after his father passed away is described in a touching way, as he simply repeats his father’s name, which has a special resonance as none of the characters are named. After the Man who finds the Boy after the father’s death asks him what the name of his father was and the Boy answers, “Yes. He was my papa” (237). The choice of such an affectionate term, opposed to a more formal word such as “Father,” highlights the intimate nature of the pair’s relationship.

2.2 Divine Figure of the Boy and the Antitheses of the Man

The perception of his son as a godly product is constantly described in terms of worship, such as “the word of God” (5), “Golden chalice, good to house a god” (31), “God’s own firedrake” (31), and since he metaphorically carries the fire (in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire and brings it to mankind, for which he is punished) he may in fact be the “chosen one”. He represents the beginning of a new generation that might lead to the resurrection of a new civilization. As there is only one acknowledgment of the Boy referring to his awareness of the burden that depends on his survival and his realization that humanity does depend on him. In the end of the novel he responds to his father after he confesses that he is scared of what is ahead and tells him:

"You're not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.

He [The Man] looked up, his wet and grimy face.

[The Boy:]Yes I am, he said. I am the one." (259)

The reader gets the image of a true saint, as the Boy is the one trying to help and reassure that no one is being hurt, hungry, and done wrong. Furthermore, the child was willing enough to forgive and have compassion with the one person who almost killed them after steeling all their possessions. Far from wanting to punish the perpetrator, the Boy wants to “help him” (259). This act of compassion and goodness is making him stand above all the cruelty around him and the “selfish” surviving technics in a rotten world, where everyone is looking after their own wellbeing. This can be seen as he begs his father to turn around and forgive the Man since: “He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die. [The Man:] He’s going to die anyway.“ (259)

Whereby the father’s killing of the ”roadrat” early in the novel is leaving the Boy splattered with blood and traumatized but safe, the father’s threats of violence and stripping of the thief leaves the Boy physically safe but psychologically and morally devastated.



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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
The Road Cormac McCarthy




Title: Devotion and Faith as Necessity in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"