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The Road Themes

by Cormac McCarthy

Major Themes

Death

Death and the specter of death pervade The Road from the onset through descriptions of the landscape, the protagonists' struggle to survive, and the constant threats of murder and starvation. The earth is already steeped in death and ashes. Most living creatures and plants have not survived the disaster that has destroyed civilization. For example, cows are extinct, and the boy has never before seen birds or fish. "On the hillsides old crops dead and flattened. The barren ridgeline trees raw and black in the rain" (18).

Death is also personified as a lover (48) and as an entity which will meet its own demise (146).

As the novel progresses, the reader becomes more acutely aware that the man is dying. "In the night he woke in the cold dark coughing and he coughed till his chest was raw.... He knelt there wheezing softly, his hands on his knees. I am going to die, he said. Tell me how I am to do that" (148). His encroaching death, evidenced by his worsening cough and the increasing amounts of blood he spits out, stalks the reader.

Even descriptions with rich colors and textures serve as reminders of death. When the man dreams of his wife, of his life before the universal destruction, he considers these dreams to be the call of death beckoning him from the bleak reality of his present life. These brief passages throughout The Road only highlight the world's inertial motion towards death, a force that also seems to drive the protagonists on their journey, especially for the father.

Paternal love

The theme of paternal love is ubiquitous given the relationship of the two protagonists. As the man's wife points out before her suicide, "the boy was all that stood between him and death" (25). In other words, the man's thirst for survival is fueled by the love for his son. While the man may expect his own death, he lives in order to seek life for the boy. Unlike his wife in her suicide, the man does not wish to "save" his son from civilization's destruction, rape, murder, and cannibalism by killing him preemptively. To the father, suicide is only an option for the son if he is to be imminently harmed. Perhaps for this purpose he leaves the pistol with the boy whenever he explores a new and potentially unsafe location alone.

The man's love for his son does drive him to ensure his son's survival. The man frequently demonstrates the strength of this love, most obviously in his unflinching decision to shoot and kill the man who threatens the boy's life. Throughout the entire journey, the man does not kill out of malice or for food. He only hurts others (the man who attacks the boy and the thief who takes their cart) when they have threatened the boy's survival. His wariness toward others, which is well justified, seems primarily for the protection of his son.

In less dramatic and violent situations, the man gives his son as many "treats" as he can in such a world--an old can of Coca Cola, a powdered drink mix. As the man lays dying, he tells his son to eat his share of food, instead of keeping it for himself in hopes of regaining his health. These small gifts and sacrifices are strong examples of his paternal love.

Good versus Evil

The theme of good versus evil is perhaps most appropriate for a post-apocalyptic novel. This theme may be more explicit in The Road than in any other McCarthy novel. More than once, the boy seeks confirmation from his father that they are the "good guys" and that the "bad guys" are those who seek to hurt them--thieves, murderers, and cannibals. According to the man, the good guys are those who "keep trying. They dont give up" (sic, 116). A symbol of the goodness in human perseverance and hope is the "fire" that the father assures his son they carry. As a "good guy," the man and the boy carry the fire internally, meaning that they strive to live under all circumstances.

In such a world, however, the conflict between the good guys and the bad guys is not at all clear. To the father, they are the "good guys," even though the father commits a murder for the sake of his son. The man does not consider acting violently in defense of his son's survival evil. Yet, what makes this choice more praiseworthy than the choices of the people who kill and even cannibalize others in order to survive?

Indeed, the boy does not understand the need to hurt others in any circumstances, even when they may pose a danger to his own survival or have already hurt him. For example, the boy pleads for his father to spare the thief and, even more, to help him. Because he is complicit in the father's punishment of the thief (stripping him of his clothes and shoes), the boy no longer feels like one of the "good guys." He feels that the stories his father tells of their heroic survival are not truthful. Perhaps worst of all, the boy cannot agree with his father that the right thing to do is to refuse to help others who are in dire need, especially when they have not shown any evidence of being dangerous. The reader (if not also the boy) perceives that in such a difficult world, the distinction between good and evil is rather nuanced; people's actions taken at face value are far from enough to determine whether someone is a "good guy" or a "bad guy."

Trust

Issues of trust figure prominently throughout The Road, particularly with regard to the man's relationship with his son. On the surface, this theme is expressed through the conflicts between the protagonists and other people they encounter on the road. For example, the man who draws a knife on the boy initially attempts to coax the father into joining his comrades at their truck. The father rightly does not trust this man--appropriately, since the man attempts to harm the boy only seconds later. In fact, the father does not trust any other individual they see or meet. Only his son extends his humbling trust in others, offering to help Ely and the thief without first determining whether their intentions are malicious.

More subtly, McCarthy also explores issues of trust between a father and his son, here between the man and the boy. The boy looks to his father not only for information but also for guidance and reassurance. Though he often seeks reassurance, the boy also realizes that his father may not always be truthful about their chances of survival. The boy admits that he thinks his father might lie to him about dying, to which the father responds, "Okay. I might. But we're not dying" (McCarthy 86). The man also questions the boy's trust regarding the issue of "good guys." Disillusioned by his father's treatment of others on the road, the son does not believe his father's pronouncements that he and his son are the good guys.

Toward the end of the novel, the son no longer wants to hear his father's stories because he deems them untrue. In a brief but telling exchange, the boy tells his father: "I always believe you.... Yes I do. I have to" (Mccarthy 156). In this respect the son's trust in his father is forged out of necessity. The man is the boy's only companion and authority figure, and he knows about the nature of human life before the unnamed catastrophe. The father's longer years and longer experience make it impossible to fully discount the father, so the son has reason to trust him in addition to the fact that he must count on his father for protection.

Faith and Doubt

Religious faith--and religious doubt--figure prominently in this novel. At times, the father's quest south to ensure his son's survival is carried out with religious fervor: "the child was his warrant. [The man] said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke" (4). When Ely expresses surprise at meeting a child, the man counters, "What if I said that he's a god?" (145). Indeed, the man treats his son as an individual above all others, with a devoutness that arguably surpasses the usual sentiments of paternal love, affection, and protection.

In other instances, however, the man expresses doubt about, or at least questions, the existence of a higher power. "Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the palling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last?" (10). Ely goes further and outright denies the possibility of God's existence in such a destructive place as earth ("There is no God and we are his prophets," 143), whether or not divinity is incarnated in the boy. "Where men cant live gods fare no better. You'll see" (sic, 145).

The boy's own religious faith remains ambiguous. When Ely asks whether his son believes in God, the man replies, "I don't know what [the boy] believes in" (146). Anyway, the boy's faith in God is practically irrelevant compared with his trust in humans, as evidenced when the woman whose family rescues him at the novel's conclusion attempts to teach him about religion. "He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father" (241). The boy carries "the fire" of which his father spoke, the fire of hope and human resilience.

Survival and Resilience

Strong attention to the practical aspects of human survival, what resilient people do in order to survive, are perhaps to be expected in a post-apocalypic novel like The Road. These commonly include man's inventive efforts to use the remaining natural resources or trashed items to survive. McCarthy tends to focus on the unusual behavior required in such circumstances, for example of the marauders or cannibals--behavior that might seem crazy in any context other than one in which people feel that they must abandon the most basic principles of morality just to stay alive.

Survival is not the only option, however. The man's wife, in an effort to escape rape and murder, chooses to take her own life before her life and integrity are taken from her against her choice. The man also attempts to steel himself for the possibility that he may have to shield his son from unspeakable evil by killing the boy himself. "Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time ... Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock?" (96).

Yet, most people in The Road have apparently chosen malicious means of survival, becoming murderers. Some of these individuals are less violent, such as the thief from whom the father strips his clothes and shoes. Others, however, are cannibals who appear to have reconciled themselves even to eating human infants.

Still others have banded together to form small but no less destructive militias. These individuals wage a merciless war for survival against everyone who is not part of their group. "Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ..." (78). Here we see the beginnings of a new society arising from a state of nature, one where the security of the group is the key binding motivation.

In the face of the atrocities they witness, the boy and the man retain a purity of hope and strength of vision that fuel them forward in their journey across the desolate land. In particular, the boy's capacity to believe in others' goodness is staggering. His spirit and hope remain resilient against the gruesome scenes he witnesses or experiences. Though the man is less trusting and more aware of the potential dangers of their journey, he too retains his humanity and does not stoop to the deplorable acts committed by the thieves and cannibals. He has a moral resilience that trumps his mere survival instinct.

Narration: Naming and the Authority of Memory

The Road incorporates significant themes regarding memory and narration. These themes are often difficult to grasp through McCarthy's obscure language or references and almost impenetrable prose, but it is important to remember that thought and memory are seldom so clear as the words of a treatise. One might argue that in The Road, memory and narration create realities, whether or not these memories or narrations are accurate. Storytelling and naming, accordingly, are forms of authenticity and power, lending reality to those objects or concepts which are described or named. "Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember" (27).

In one way, this theme is exemplified by the man's dreams and memories of his life before the destruction of civilization. Though the man attempts to reject his dreams as death's lure away from the sobering reality of his impending end, these dreams in some way validate the existence of his previous life, the existences of "things no longer known in the world.... He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins.... What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not" (111). This passage also demonstrates the significance of memory for a person; the mind remembers and thus validates phenomena which may no longer exist. Failing to remember and to name these phenomena render them forever lost.

Interestingly, however, the man and the boy remain unnamed throughout the entire novel. The only person who is named, Ely, reveals that this is not his true name and explains that "I couldn't trust you with [my name]. To do something with it. I dont want anybody talking about me. To say where I was or what I said when I was there" (sic, 144). He suggests here that naming expresses the namer’s power to create and determine a reality, one which the named may not agree with. Thus, by remaining unnamed, the protagonists and even Ely retain a measure of autonomy over themselves--their identities, actions, and stories. There is thus a limit to what the reader can draw from their words and actions; the unnamed man is a kind of “everyman.” McCarthy lets them, in the imperfect way an author can, speak for themselves, and the reader, in the imperfect way a reader does, must remember and retell their stories with incomplete information.

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