In ‘The Road’, Cormac McCarthy depicts a bleak ruined world in which only the most inhumane seem to have the ability, or even the will, to survive. Into this terrifying environment a man makes his slow progress, armed with a busted shopping trolley, a few meagre possessions, and in sole charge of his only child, a boy. Both are the only survivors of their family (and the knowledge of what has been lost is never too far away, the mother is an absent-presence throughout). The daily life of the two is a scavenge for the most basic props of living: food, water, warmth, a place to hide. They are never fed enough, warm enough, safe enough, and at times the terrible beauty of their landscape feels like the cruellest joke played on the pair.
Throughout the novel, the boy is not a simple appendage to his father, in fact there is plenty of quietly dramatic push and pull between the adult and child, even and especially in moments of great danger. At times the compassion and the conscience of the boy appear to his father to be undermining his ability to survive. The father is torn. For instance, the boy wants to share food (the most basic and essential building block of human society) and his father is enraged by this: They are on the edge of starvation. And whilst the boy has a sense of justice (he takes back only what was stolen from him and won’t share his own goods with the thief) nonetheless the child has no interest in revenge. In fact he is agonised by his father’s act of revenge, it causes the child more anguish than the selfish act which inspired it, and which almost cost the father and son their lives.
Ultimately, the father bows to the child’s conscience and it begins to become clear that the child’s compassion is more essential to his father than food, warmth, even than his ability to spare his son from suffering: the gun, with just the one bullet, the father lays down at the end. Much has been made, I think, of the obvious religious corollary here, but I wouldn’t be put off by that, if that doesn’t happen to inspire you, as this is no religious tract: if this father is The Father, then he is a profoundly real one, and radically filled with flawed humanity and doubt. (I suspect McCarthy, although morally motivated, is simply pulling these subliminal references in to the story to give his tale bite.)
It’s with a clear purpose that McCarthy sets the relationship between the father and child against a destroyed landscape filled with terrifying predatory human beings. The warmth between the two is all the more intense, all the more comforting, for the contrast between them and their world. Against the seeming endless grey of their bleak environment, McCarthy shows that love is not only a religious or even a literary cliche. He shows us there’s nothing else.