The Road

McCarthy, Genre, and Violence

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Despite McCarthy's unique prose style, diction, and other choices, many readers and critics strive to pigeonhole his works into particular genres. They often disagree on the subject of the reclusive author’s intent and style, with much discussion over whether he is a Southern or a Western writer, whether his works are modern or postmodern, or whether any of his Westerns are truly part of the genre at all. For example, the Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian are sometimes called Westerns, but these works obliterate many of the traditional tropes of the genre. Likewise, The Road has been classified rather narrowly as a science fiction novel or horror novel, but neither category fits well. It does not help to say that The Road is a drama, though it certainly is more of a tragedy than a comedy.

McCarthy's unrelentingly honest and unglorified depictions of violence and human cruelty in his novels, such as in Blood Meridian and The Road, strike readers deeply. Their violence defies categorization. Unlike traditional Westerns, for instance, the violence of the “bad guys” comes out of severe desperation. Morality has all but broken down, and we are not really sure how good the “good guys” are, while the “bad guys” might easily argue that they have no choice if they want to survive.

If [The Road] fits any genre, it is in the class of post-apocalyptic novels like Left Behind, which is the title of one of the New York Times book reviews. This is no Christian novel, however, except in its Calvinistic austerity and suggestions of the root evil of human nature apart from divinity. To be sure, the man's (debatable) belief in God may propel him forward to ensure his son's survival, even in times of despair and isolation. Ultimately, however, his faith cannot explain what has happened to civilization and does not save his son. Only the man's heroic actions, which are by no means divine or divinely influenced, save his son. His internal “fire” is indeed redemptive, but it is no Holy Spirit at work. After the man's death, his son finds it easier to talk to his dead father than to God. The boy is told, "the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time" (241). Man through all of time, however, has led to the post-apocalyptic present. Even the godspoke men, having destroyed the earth and themselves, are gone. Those who remain in this wasteland of primitive life return to marauding, murder, and cannibalism.

Perhaps the terror experienced by the man and the boy on the road has less to do with the horrifying atrocities they witness, and more to do with the realization that such acts committed by humans are timeless, universal, inevitable. In the universal sweep, humans are a strange blip of life and loss. The unsettling serenity and indifference of the universe, in which humans existentially find themselves, makes the tale a terrifying mix of theological angst and humanistic hope. These are characters who truly are working out their salvation with Kierkegaard’s infinite resignation, and with fear and trembling.