"The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. 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? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality."
The first sentence here indicates that the post-apocalyptic world has been reduced to basic elements, "a raw core of parsible entities," where complexity is a luxury. More sophisticated aspects of human civilization have been obliterated, and the names of such things are slowly being forgotten by the remaining humans, following the things themselves into oblivion. Such things include colors, types of birds, and certain foods. More importantly, fundamental truths and customs regarding human life have been lost. These perhaps include the capacity to hope, or to feel empathy, love, and altruism. These concepts, once "believed to be true," are in fact "[m]ore fragile than he would have thought," too easily lost in the new reality. Significant principles and the words that signify them ("sacred idiom") are forgotten and lost; the objects and concepts themselves cease to be. One can infer from this vision that the process of naming and storytelling lends reality to the object or concept being named and described, while in the absence of naming, memory, or narration, the object or concept no longer exists in a way that has human meaning.
"... there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no other tale to tell.
On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?"
The first sentence of this quotation alludes to the theme of narrative power. Only one tale can be told, and this tale legitimizes or brings to reality only one waking world ("no other dream nor other waking world"). The second section of the quotation offers a hint as to what kind of catastrophe might have struck the world. On the road that the boy and the man travel together, no "godspoke men" exist. The term "godspoke men" may allude to prophets, which arguably align with Ely's statement (see the seventh quotation below) later in the book. The prophets are gone, having "taken with them the world," which suggests that some kind of religious war has destroyed human civilization, or that whatever happened has completely destroyed the moral world, the moral principles that commonly are seen as religious values.
The final statement in this short quotation first places an emphasis on the importance of the present. The man also adheres to the importance of the present; he does not wish to be attracted to his dreams of false happiness, nor does he enjoy being affected by memories of his dead wife and past life. Those who seek the "never to be" entertain deluded hopes, the falseness of utopia, while those who yearn for "what never was" similarly maintain meaningless illusions; both harm one's capacity to focus upon the present, and in this aspect, they do not differ. If the resurrection or Messiah or nirvana has never really come in this world, if these are the only end times, there is not really any role for "godspoke men" anymore; this is the one, awful world.
"The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body."
These lines are spoken by the man's wife as they discuss her intended suicide and what she projects to be his future with their son. The wife rightly points out that man's drive to survive will be fueled by his love for the boy. In other words, in order to survive in the post-apocalyptic chaos and destruction, love for another human being is required. Someone who does not love another individual would be "well advised to cobble together some passable ghost" of a loved one. The way in which the man's wife describes how this ghost should be treated is exactly how the man treats his son. He shields the boy from harm and offers him "phantom crumb[s]" of whatever hope and sustenance he can find, whether it is an outdated Coca Cola or half a tin of canned fruit, and he constantly encourages the boy to survive "with words of love." His moral and literal survival depend on being concerned for the boy.
"You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. 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?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We're still the good guys."
This brief conversation demonstrates the depth of the man's love for his son, while simultaneously revealing the son's growing concerns about their actions as the "good guys." The lines occur after the man has shot and killed the attacker who threatened the boy with a knife at his throat. The passage also underscores the underlying difference in morality between the man and the boy. To the man, his killing is justified because it was committed in the act of saving his son, a responsibility he says (and may well believe) was assigned to him by God. The boy, however, is concerned about the nature of the act, regardless of the circumstances. He wonders whether, having murdered someone, they can still be considered the good guys. This seed of doubt is evident in the boy's mind, since he must ask the question at all, but the father unequivocally still considers them good, or at least wants to reassure his son that he feels that way, protecting his son at all costs.
"He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it."
This vividly desolate passage reveals the utter indifference of the universe to the plight of man, a cosmic condition that he takes to be the "absolute truth of the world." The earth continues to revolve, "cold" and "relentless," indifferent to the sufferings of its inhabitants. Furthermore, the earth is "intestate," a word used to describe a person who has died without leaving behind a legitimate will. In other words, in its own death from whatever calamity has struck, the earth has left no future, no means of survival or compensation for its survivors. Even the sun is blindly indifferent in the midst of the "crushing black vacuum of the universe," which extends far beyond the human world of just the earth and the sun. Yet the survivors really exist for the moment, somehow. The hunted animals probably represent the man and the boy, living in spite of the universe's disinterest, witnessing this wasteland with their fleeting lives.
"Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he."
This passage more explicitly describes the power of storytelling to create realities. The father tells his son "tales" about life before the catastrophe which has rendered the earth a wasteland to its survivors. However, to the son, these tales are hard to believe because they are so unlike the current reality. The father, having experienced the pre-apocalyptic world, is thus alien to the son, who knows only life after the disaster. The earth enjoyed by the man during his own childhood is a "planet that no longer existed" to the boy. When the man considers attempting to make this old world real to his son by telling stories about what used to be, he realizes that the story is too difficult and sad to tell; the whole story is a story that ends in loss. His son, perhaps, knows that the story of the old world ends with the present world, that his father's nostalgia cannot reproduce that older world unless the story leads them right back to where they are.
"There is no God and we are his prophets."
In an atheist reversal of the usual religious theme of prophets, Ely suggests that he and others are here to preach the central message of the reality of this world: that it is the only world, and a sad one at that. Prophets are necessary in order to correct the usual ways of the world. If the atheists are prophets, it is because they are correcting an error such as human hope. In this view, humans shape civilization of their own accord and do not possess any divine comprehension of life or of the universe. To Ely, it seems that the universe is so indifferent to humans that humans need to learn this basic lesson in order to honestly confront reality.
"Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground."
These lines also call into question the existence of a higher power and of an afterlife. The speaker indicates that the actions of humans on earth are not witnessed or weighed by a higher power--or even by those who have already lived and died. If there is a moral center, it is not defined by the principles once held by the dead, but by the individual, perhaps. A person is the final judge of his own actions.
Going further, the narrator rejects any notion of a ledgerbook, the traditional metaphor for a moral record of one's actions for use by divine judges. This utter rejection of religious belief thrusts the novel further into a world in which man's capacity for evil and violence is not wholly unguided and unchecked by outside forces and in which individuals, in their natural state, do not even keep their own score in terms of morals. Ledgerbooks and ideas about being watched and judged by outsiders are the complex human constructs that artificially guide morality in an impotent effort to explain or to regulate behavior. A man must be a law unto himself if there is to be any law at all.
In addition, by calling upon "fathers" instead of "mothers" or "ancestors" in general, McCarthy further emphasizes the paternal theme in The Road.
"You're not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one."
The man occasionally thinks of his son (or explicitly refers to him) as a godly product. Even his mission to protect the boy and to ensure his survival is carried out with religious fervor and described in religious terms. Yet, this response is the boy's only acknowledgment in the novel that he may in fact be a kind of "chosen one." Perhaps the boy does realize that the world's humanity does depend on his own survival, since he metaphorically carries the fire (in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire and brings it to mankind, for which he is punished). He is the representative of the remnant, the new generation that might lead to a new, peaceful civilization. If he is to have this role, he does have the weight of the world, of everything, on his shoulders. The man's intimation of his son as a godlike, redemptive figure seems to be more than zealous paternal love, and the son has the hope and resilience to perhaps make this world worthwhile again.
"You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I dont know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it."
As he lays dying, the man has this conversation with his son, who wishes to be able to die with him, but he tells the boy to persist, to survive and carry the fire. This fire, the kind found within the self, is a symbol of everlasting hope and human resilience. Instead of succumbing to the circumstances and resorting to evil acts to survive, the boy carries the fire and does not compromise his higher human morality. The boy demonstrates that he carries the fire throughout the book, since no matter what horror they narrowly escape, the boy always seeks to help other individuals and never believes they should be hurt or punished, even if hurting others might ensure his own survival.
This allusion to "carrying the fire" may be more than a reference to the dangers of Promethean fire. It also might refer to McCarthy's previous novel, No Country for Old Men, in which one character dreams of his father carrying fire. "I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there" (No Country, 309). Human fire brings hope to confront the bleak future of the post-apocalyptic world.
To the extent that the novel resonates with the real world as readers find it, the message is the same: people like the boy always carry the fire. The sad truth, however, is that the world is all too much like the one in The Road, with far too many people seeming to choose self-preservation at the cost of genuine human concern for others. Our more complex world is not so simple as the tradeoff involved in killing others in order to survive, but McCarthy points out to us our human nature--the fire of human compassion is all too easily extinguished when we encounter adversity.
The Road Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Road is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The man has the memories of a functioning world. He has context on which to juxtapose his dystopia with. The boy, however, has no context for a living world. He is stuck with tragedy and habituated to ruin. The boy cannot fathom what has been lost...