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World Stripped of Fanfare Reveals Its True Nature: ‘The Road’ Thematic Analysis

[Written for Claremont McKenna College Literature department]

In his most recent novel The Road, author Cormac McCarthy explores the relationship between a father and son as they struggle to survive in an unforgiving, post-apocalyptic setting.  Depicting them on their essentially pointless journey to the coast, McCarthy illustrates a world unwilling to provide any sense of meaning for the man and the boy.  Robbed of the natural wonders and any other joy-inspiring object of his former life, the man grapples with his recent recognition of the indifference of the world, unable to fully reconcile himself with the conclusion that life is meaningless, despite overwhelming evidence that this indeed is the case.  Although McCarthy concludes that the universe at its core is unfeeling and meaningless, he uses this conclusion to illuminate the persistence of the human need for meaning.  As a result, The Road functions not as a commentary on meaning in the universe at large, but rather as an indication of the personal and subjective quality of significance, ultimately suggesting that meaning is not found but individually created.

Throughout the novel, McCarthy employs relentlessly desolate imagery, periodically contrasted with allusions to the former world, to convey the sense of betrayal and abandonment that the present evokes in remaining humans.  From the beginning of the novel to the very end, the present is uniform in its “gray[ness]” (1), with nights that are “blinding cold” and “casket black” (129).  McCarthy is adamant in emphasizing that nothing of the former world has been preserved, and all things remaining are “bleak” and “dead” (132).  In the first scene, he depicts a dream of the man’s, where he and the boy are confronted by a “pale and naked” creature, with “eyes dead white” and its “bowels [and] beating heart” visible through its “translucent” skin (3-4).  In this case, the creature in the dream is indicative of the state of the world.  In many ways the beast is not depicted as inhuman, as it is described to have bowels, heart, and brain, yet there is something both shocking and almost disillusioning in its lack of adornment.  When stripped of the embellishments that make someone beautiful, like hair, skin, and coloring, it becomes far easier to see true nature of that person.  The creature in the dream, like the earth in the man’s reality, is stripped of all things that once could have made it beautiful, and McCarthy implies that there is something disturbing in the truth this reveals.  If the creature is interpreted as representative of the post-apocalyptic world, then the “coldly secular” quality of the Earth and the universe should not be taken as a new development, but rather a ubiquitous reality that is simply easier to see without the layer of natural embellishment (274).  When deprived of natural beauty, as well as the illusion of order manufactured by human civilization, the universe reveals its utter indifference to the plight of mankind.  Though people strived to find meaning in the pre-apocalyptic universe, McCarthy reveals that the world is “sightless as the eggs of spiders” in its inability to acknowledge the human race or provide meaning (4).  In the dream, the creature ultimately “turn[s]” its back on the man and the boy, and “lope[s] soundlessly into the dark,” alluding to the man’s feeling that the universe has abandoned him (4).  The universe’s refusal to acknowledge the death and violence, the loss of beauty, and the suffering of the man and the boy invalidates whatever former beliefs the man may have had.  In its nakedness the man sees the world for the secular entity it truly is, forcing him to conclude that all previous notions of meaning were falsehoods conceived by a human desire to make sense of things.      

Though McCarthy for the most part is consistent in his bleak and hopeless portrayal of the present, in the final scene of the novel he briefly strays from the otherwise unyielding desolation, leaving his audience with a seemingly contradictory message.  In an abrupt departure from the stark tone of the rest of the novel, he speaks of the past in vivid terms of color and life, describing how “once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains,” whose “fins wimpled softly,” and “smelled of moss in your hand” (286).  McCarthy appears to illustrate the trout as both beautiful and significant, as their backs carry “vermiculate patterns” of “the world in its becoming” (287).  Still, though this outwardly positive final scene could be interpreted as an indication of hope for the future, deeper interpretation of the passage suggests otherwise.  Though the fish carry maps, McCarthy indicates that they are both “maps and mazes” – directly implying confusion where there should be order (287).  If the world as it was –teeming with trout and life – is similar to a maze, then McCarthy implies that the glorified past of the man, though familiar, does not accurately represent or explain the true nature of the world.  And, while they haunt the man in memory and provide a constant contrast to his tortured present, the beautiful things of the former world do not necessarily contain the meaning that the man and boy are searching for.  McCarthy suggests that the former world, where things lived that “were older than man” and “hummed of mystery,” was so complex and beautiful that it almost begged humanity to search for some form of greater meaning (287).  McCarthy explores the idea that perhaps it was these wonderful, fanciful elements that implored humanity to assume that some deeper meaning, or even God, existed in the world in a larger context.  In this sense, the message McCarthy leaves his reader with is not actually contradictory.  Though the imagery of the final passage seems bright and hopeful, his phrasing suggests that the splendor of the former world was good only for creating and perpetuating the façade of meaning in things like trout and nature, which humanity should have realized were meaningless.  

This idea is further emphasized when the deemed “maze” of the former world is contrasted with the clarity resulting from the world’s destruction, again suggesting that the beauty and intricacies of the former world contributed only to a façade of meaning, rather than anything truly meaningful.  At one point along the road, the man, nearing death, surveys the “remains” of the landscape, seeing a “dead swamp,” “dead trees,” and “silky spills of ash” in the “sweeping waste” before him (274).  In this more reflective moment, the man notes that “perhaps in the world’s destruction” it is possible “to see how it was made” (274).  As the world continues to deteriorate, it slowly strips itself of all aspects that begged meaning, leaving nothing but a cold, indifferent reality.  Although society and nature slowly disappear, the “intestate earth” continues its “relentless circling,” forcing the remaining humans to conclude that, had the aspects of the former world held any form of real significance, they would have somehow persisted.  The world is “intestate” in that it leaves mankind with no explanation or guidance, forcing remaining humans to attempt to reconcile their innate need to find meaning with the overwhelming indications that meaning never existed.  It is also important to note that the man comes to this moment of clarity surrounded only by “sweeping waste,” where nothing “hum[s] of mystery” (287) and the sky is not “aching blue” (18) but a consistently “ashen” gray (5).  Enveloped in a world now devoid of all things he formerly believed to be meaningful, the man can see clearer than ever the reality of the world’s functioning.  Now removed from the former world, it is far easier for the man to see the past as the façade of imposed meaning that it truly was.  Compassion, beauty, nature, family – the supposedly meaningful elements of the past – all relied on mankind’s misguided impression that these things retained some form of deeper or even divine value, and all collapsed alongside the world in its destruction.           

Still, despite the man’s disillusionment, his refusal to end his life and the life of his son suggests an unwillingness to fully reconcile himself with the idea that life is meaningless, thus enabling McCarthy to comment on humanity’s unique and persistent search for meaning.    While “coldly secular” seems to be the only conclusion to be drawn in regard to the true nature of the universe, hope, however feeble, ultimately persists in the man and the boy.  Though they live in a gray and violent world, where nothing grows, it is perpetually cold, and babies are born to be eaten, the man in particular cannot wholly accept a meaningless existence, and therefore goes to great lengths to instill a sense of purpose in the boy, as well as preserve his own.  He constantly reassures the boy that they are “the good guys,” and consequently must persevere because they are “carrying the fire” (129).  In order to preserve a sense of purpose in the boy, the man arbitrarily fabricates some vague sense of value in their perpetuated existence, thus somehow justifying their decision not to kill themselves.  In this regard, it is not uncommon throughout the novel for the man to speak to the boy about goodness and purpose.  When the boy inquires about the fate of another little boy he claims to have seen, the man asserts that “goodness will find [him]” (281).  Immediately prior to murdering a man that had threatened the boy, the man similarly asserts that they are “still the good guys” and that the murder was justified because he was “appointed…by God” to “take care of [the boy],” which allows him to “kill anyone who touches [the boy]” (77).  Though the man himself admits that he “no longer [knows] any way to think” about “beauty or goodness,” he continues to dedicate himself to a purpose that for the most part he believes to be arbitrary (129).  In this way, he demonstrates the very human quality of stubbornly holding on to at least some fragment of beliefs that are most likely irrational.  Despite the fact that the man appears to deeply question the validity of or even the existence of goodness, he refuses to completely lose sight of the idea of purpose.  

While McCarthy does not relent in his emphasis on the lack of meaning in the world, his portrayal of the man, especially in relation to his son, is in no way unfavorable, and even indicates some sense of honor or magnanimity in the man’s continued to efforts to force meaning where there is none.  The distinction continuing to seek meaning and resigning oneself to the meaninglessness of life initially presents itself in the conflicting views on suicide of the man and his wife.  The man immediately demonstrates a more hopeful view, referring to himself and his family as “survivors” (55).  The term “survivor” in itself denotes hope – despite the complete desecration of the world, the man implies that they themselves still retain something meaningful, purely in the fact that they are still alive.  His wife, on the other hand, reconciles herself to meaninglessness, claiming that they are “not survivors,” but instead “the walking dead in a horror film” (55).  Unlike the man, the woman is unable to live in light of the newfound secularity of the world.  The man derives some form of solace in “taking a stand,” but the woman insists that “there is no stand to take” (57), and consequently ends her life.  However, in no way does McCarthy glorify the woman’s decision, instead suggesting that there is something noble in perpetuating existence simply for the sake of existing.  When the boy says he wants to die, the man implores him not to say so, asserting that “it’s a bad thing to say” (55).  On other occasions the man similarly urges the boy to continue to value survival, saying that he “can’t give up,” that he “won’t let [him]” (98).  The man resigns himself to the idea that, since the world has given him “nothing else,” he must “construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them,” thus creating his own meaning (74).  Through these examples, McCarthy insinuates that, if value never existed outside of humanity, then it must be found individually.  Though the man will never be presented with meaning in the larger context of the universe, he finds his own personal meaning in simply being with his son.  

Though extensive in its desolate imagery relating to the post-apocalyptic setting, The Road is ultimately a book about a father and his son.  When asked about the inspiration for The Road, McCarthy said only that it was inspired by his relationship with his son, and that it was written for his son.  And, while the novel may seem to beg some form of deeper interpretation, maybe it, like the universe, should not be viewed in a larger context.  McCarthy says it himself – the book is simply about the love between a father and a son, and it is through this relationship that he is able to explore the idea of value, exposing the human misconceptions regarding meaning, and illustrating the far more personal aspect of finding something to live for.