Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - Analysis

The Road - An Analysis


From the back cover: A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is grey. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food and each other. "The Road" is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation. Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer and 2006 James Tate Black Memorial prizes


Faith, Hope & Charity

The world is dead, nothing grows, the very air is poisoned with dust and ash, yet the Man and Boy press on in faith. They hope that they will find food, warmth, the sea, the good guys, life. Contradictions abound: they find bounty in the cold and barren sea; the Boy finds faith and shelter after the man’s death; the Boy offers succour to those he meets but the Man refuses; their only sustenance is the charity of blind chance and treasure troves. Hope where all is hopeless; faith that the flame that they carry will find a destination; and charity at the end.



Nothing grows and the whole food web has collapsed. The Man and the Boy only survive through luck in finding food before anyone else. Ironically, they are reduced to primitive hunter-gatherers: the only hunting is other humans and the only gathering is tinned food. Neither are sustainable.


Much in hidden in The Road. The Man and Boy hide their night time fires from hostile eyes and search for food hidden where none have found it before. Their destination is hidden and only hoped for. The destruction of the world is hidden in the past and the Man’s lack of understanding and the Boy’s indifference to the world he was born too late to see. Some things in hiding are treasures, like the real coffee in the survivalist’s bunker. Some things, such as the cause of the apocalypse, are hidden because they are irrelevant to survival in the present.



Fire destroyed the world. Fire keeps them warm at night and cooks their food, but it must be hidden from others on the road who might steal their meagre rations and lives. The Man and Boy are carriers of the metaphorical fire, but for what? Is it goodness, civilisation, faith, the spirit of man, of God?

The Shopping Cart

Apart from their emergency supplies held in backpacks, they carry all their worldly goods in a supermarket trolley. Where they are reduced to savaging rusty tins, when money has no meaning, they use a symbol of rampant consumerism and commercial choice. It is no wonder that the wheels are falling off.


All is dust and ashes. The dust of civilisation lies heavy on the ground and on those still clinging to life. It chokes the waters and poisons the survivors.The Man and Boy cannot shake the dust from their feet but can only mask their nostrils.


Life has (apart from birth) no beginnings and (apart from death) no endings. It only have events in the middle. There are no chapters but there is punctuation. As they say, “Life goes on”. The Road is lifelike, which is one of its many ironies, as nearly everything is dead. There is no beginning, though we see fragmentary and unexplained flashbacks to the events that caused the world to die and thus put the Man and the Boy on this journey. There is an end for the man, though this has been signposted throughout. And there is an end of the journey for the boy, which possibly gives hope in this hopeless world. “The road goes ever on”, as does life in this dead world. But the road reaches the sea and finds that it is as dead as the land. And the survivors are reaching the end of the world too, as the supplies of tinned food are running out. Let’s face it, cannibalism is not a long term survival plan. The Road is rich in irony. The Man and Boy carry “the flame” in a world destroyed by fire. They find food and shelter in a hideout left by a survivalist who did not survive. They meet a prophet on the road who says that there is no God. The prose is beautiful poetry describing a world of grey ash. The Man is one of the good guys who kills the first person he talks to and almost certainly kills the last in his mission to save the Boy. The road goes on, as must life


The Road is beautifully written; it is often more poetry than prose. Sometimes this means that clarity is sacrificed for the language, or perhaps the meanings have to be thought about and teased out – your choice. Critics and reviewers have argued over whether it is science fiction, horror, parable or speculative fiction. They have dissented over whether the end of the world was nuclear, meteor or the second coming. They all agree that The Road is a magnificent piece of literature, worth of the Pulitzer Prize and more.

Further Reading

The Guardian - The Road To Hell
The New York Review of Books - After the Apocalypse
The New Your Times - The Road Through Hell, paved With Desperation
SF Gospel - Cormac McCarthy's The Road
Washington Post - Apocalypse Now
SFBK original posting


  1. best use it as reaction mass
  2. pot boiler suitable for the space port
  3. ok
  4. a good book
  5. genre defining classic that other books will orbit around
***** It won the Pulitzer!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your review. For the bleak subject I found this boom compelling. The direct and eloquent simplicity of language made this book real for me. Gripping; I would read it again and again.