The Father-Son Relationship in The Road

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

For my ISU novel, I have selected The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve completed reading the entire novel, which was an intriguing 287 pages. I’d say that my comfort level with the novel is fairly high and that my reading level is high as well, even though some of the language may be viewed as difficult by others my age. The main reason I flew through this novel so quick was that I enjoy reading and looking into science-fiction, despite how horrific and grim the novel would get at times. Most of Cormac McCarthy’s novels including The Road examine and display human nature and how dark that can be. The events of The Road take place in the future where a nuclear war has destroyed the earth and the people who remain struggle to survive in the post-apocalyptic world, more specifically Post-apocalyptic southeastern United States (“See Rock City” sign). The road is surrounded by nothing but gray ash, snow, bare forest, and limited existence of life.

The protagonists are a man and a boy, the reader is not given any names we simply know they are father and son, and they are literally referred to as the boy and the man throughout the entire novel. The man is continually referred to as “Papa” by his son and will do everything and anything he can to protect his son. His unconditional love for the boy is displayed in many ways, including the fact that he kills another human being to protect him. The reader knows the man is ill from many instances like when he coughs up blood, which is safe to assume from the radiation after the nuclear war. The man is essentially a bridge between the past world and the post-nuclear world. He shares his stories and experiences with his son and symbolizes perseverance and survival, even though the boy is his only source of light in his life and the one thing that drives him to continue survival. The boy, also often referred to as the son and the child, is basically the one thing keeping the man alive. He is representative of hope and humanity above survival. While the man is just concerned with keeping them alive, the boy is compassionate and shows sympathy in many cases when they approach other people. He is strong and resilient but he is always wanting to help other people like “the burnt man”, who is a man that had been struck by lightning and is heavily injured. The boy is extremely distraught at the sight of him on the road and begs his dad to help him but the man refuses and says there’s nothing they can do for him. Despite the love the boy has for his father, he does not speak with him for a period of time because his father didn’t help the burnt man and they saw him collapse and die in the distance. All the boy wants is to be a “good guy”. He may be the reason for his father’s strength but the man doesn’t realize he is the reason for the boy’s will to live and that his son is always worrying about him.

Humanity seems to have a taste for violence in a way. While the father and the son travel the apocalyptic world, they encounter many different people. One of the most frightening and impactful scenes in the book is when the pair finds a house full of cannibals. Human beings have turned each other into cattle no better than sheep. People have begun to cut other humans limbs off and keep them alive long enough to eat them. The scene is highly disturbing and makes the reader think about what they would do in that situation. Then again while traveling the Father and Son see a group of people that hosts pregnant women with them, the two lose track of them but end up finding their camp that has been deserted. The son finds a headless fetus that is being roasted no better than a pig. It is easy to put together that the pregnant women decided to eat her newborn baby. Humanity’s fatal flaw seems to be ironically; the lack of humanity. The novel asks you the question what lengths would you go to just so you could survive? And it seems that people will virtually do anything just to keep themselves going. But in killing others could they really consider themselves to be humans? While humanity tries its hardest to keep itself alive, in actuality has humanity already ended if people are willing to murder and eat each other to stay alive. The question of whether or not humanity already doomed itself remains.

The mood throughout the novel fluctuates. For most of it, it is slow paced, uneventful, and just blue/dark. Although, there are many situations which the mood shifts to hopelessness, horror, sadness, and outright disappointment. The point of view is the third person although we often get the father’s perspective and thoughts.

One very apparent theme in the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy is love, particularly familial love between a father and a son. They survive through their love for each other and despite going through hell and back yet they’ve managed to make it by so far on their journey south. Both of them are extremely compassionate and the father is definitely self-sacrificing. For example, despite horrifically starving and being sick from the radiation, often he gives up his portions of food for his son. The man is very clearly a good person and would never kill without reason but as soon as someone threatened his son, he killed without even flinching. Being the great father he is, the boy doesn’t even feel the absence of his mother because the man fulfills both parties and is enough.

McCarthy makes use of several literary devices throughout the novel such as symbolism. A big symbol is “the fire” which represents hope. The road symbolizes human drive and how they kept going, not to mention the fact that it’s one of the few things that survived. Also, the environment itself is a symbol in the sense that it’s always raining or snowing, it’s full of ash, and no life, which is a representation of the darkness in the world.

“A haze of fire that stretched for miles…Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like the pitch of some last venture at the end of the world…”

“We’re going to be okay aren’t we Papa?

Yes. We are.

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That’s right.

Because we’re carrying the fire.

Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire” (Cormac McCarthy, The Road).

The fire is mentioned several times throughout the novel. It represents the last bit of hope for humanity, the same way the son does. In the case of the fire, it can represent life itself because it produces heat and light which is associated with life. It also represents the good in them. To the two, as long as the fire is “burning in them” everything will be okay, which the man states once again right before his death.

Moving along, the boy is a metaphor for good, innocence and an angel-like being. You can see this when they meet the old man, Ely, and he has poor eyesight and asks “is that a boy or am I seeing an angel?” to his father. He goes on to explain how he hasn’t seen children in a very long time. Another literary device used throughout the novel is irony. As soon as they find the underground bunker, which is a safe haven to them, their conversation shifted to the topic of crows which is ironic because considering the circumstances they’re in, they should be thinking of a more peaceful thing that can be represented by a bird like a dove instead. Also, Ely described the boy as an angel but later continues to talk about how he doesn’t believe in religion/god.

The man and his son are struggling to maintain what may be the last of traditional humanity and morals in the post-apocalyptic and corrupt world. For starters, they are preserving the traditional and loving parent-child relationship. It’s a universal code and duty to love and care for your child, even though often people do not. However, a time where a mother is eating her newborn child to keep herself going and survive is a complete destruction of that universal code and humanity. McCarthy uses the father-son relationship to represent love and support in a world filled with hate, selfishness, and lack of life. One thing that can never be lost within human existence is the question of that itself, what makes up our humanity? Analyzing the question is damn near impossible and one can turn to many things for a response, whether its philosophy, physical makeup, religion, etcetera. None of those things can be used to evaluate their humanity in the new post-nuclear world. I would say a majority of our morals today come from religion and natural human evolution, which has been wiped out in the new world. The father and boy assessed the situation and continuously question their own morality, constantly aspiring to be the “good guys”. The man is the boy’s idol, his everything. The man ensures that before his death, his son would never lose his inner sense of what is right and wrong. He reassures his son that as long as he is “carrying the fire”, the boy could fight through all of the coldness and terror the new world throws at him. All in all, the father-son duo fight to keep alive the last remains of human identity.


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