Tuesday, May 15, 2018
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Imagine a world going extinct. No sun. No blue oceans. No animals. No plants. No crops. No culture. Imagine an apocalyptic journey by two people through ashes of collapsed cities, civilization, and forests looking for warmer weather in the south. Two people, a man and his son, choosing not to eat other humans or dogs, but who are starving. Two scavengers hunting through towns and homes long stripped of food or petrol, yet looking for scraps to live on. A man whose sole mission is to protect his son in a world where other humans are the only source of food after what appears to be a nuclear war. The man carries a gun with three bullets. He has had it for ten years. One for himself, his wife, and his son. His son was born in the world as it is and it is the only reality he knows. The wife lost hope and rather than choose survival she killed herself with obsidian. The man found hope in the son and could not kill him and they've been surviving in fear and isolation.
The man's character arc shows someone who lives only for his son but learns to hope for a better future - one embodied in the compassion of his son. He kills others to protect his son and seeks revenge on those who rob them or hurt them. In the beginning, he just walks away from those in need but as the story progresses the boy's protests have him sharing food or clothing with others. We see the boy's compassion wearing down the man's despair to glimmers of caring for others rather than pouring all of it into his son. The man is a Prometheus figure and the line "carrying the fire" is repeated throughout showing his impossible task of surviving in a destroyed world.
Prometheus was a Titan who created humans with Athena and gave them the gift of fire and metalwork. The stories vary with Zeus punishing Prometheus by sending Pandora to him and she released suffering on humanity through Pandora's box or in Hesiod's version, Zeus punishing Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and having an eagle eat his regenerating liver each day. Prometheus is a trickster who rebels against the restrictions put on him by Zeus. He is a blessing and a curse just like the man is a blessing to the boy in that he keeps him alive and a curse because he has no hope for a future and in others. He wants the boy to shoot himself if he dies or is captured by other humans. The end shows the man's turn around on believing the boy can find good in life or a community of moral people. The boy is literally the fire as the story suggests he will bring social and moral progress in an impossible situation just like Prometheus did when he gave humans fire.
The man indulges the boy's compassion for others and later embraces it as the boy embodies hope for him. The other repeated line throughout is "Papa are they good guys?" or "Bad guys?" The moral progression of what defines good and bad shows two people choosing to not murder those who hurt them or eat other people even when they are starving. The man refers to the boy with god-like, religious references and tells a man they meet, "What if I tell you he's a god?" This man goes by the false name, Ely, like the prophet Eli in the Bible. His prophecy is that humanity will die out along with the gods. Like the man, he has no hope for a future. In flashbacks, the man dreams of his wife and how the two planned on committing suicide after their world blew up after the unnamed cataclysmic event. He struggles with suicidal thoughts throughout the story but finds he can face each day and its harshness because of his son. For him the world is "shrinking ...into oblivion" but the moral goodness of the boy always touches him. The symbol of fire progresses from offering the two security and protection to a moral identity to the possibility of a community of "good guys".
The style has no quotations, fragmented sentences, and no names. The structure suggests that the present has no definition but can be defined in a new way. The man can't redefine the world because he has memories of the past, but the child only knows the current reality and is a symbol of a new birth in a destroyed world. Perhaps the boy, and those born into it like him, can redefine and a new world. The lack of quotations suggests the author redefining writing conventions and breaking with past traditions just as this new society no longer follows old traditions. In the end, the boy says the man is not telling him stories or doing homework anymore also suggesting that a new order might emerge from the boy who represents fire and new possibilities. The fragmented sentences reflect the trauma the two characters go through on a daily basis. The existing world is so chaotic and violent that they can only have a dialogue in short sentences. The shock and fear on a daily basis are traumatic. Without any names being assigned to people, except Papa and Ely and the boy, the world can be redefined into a new community. For such a bleak setting and novel, hope is suggested. This hellish road trip is a quick read and worth the effort.