Cormac McCarthy's The Road presents "the prospect of a post-apocalyptic wasteland" (Beck). It tells the grim tale of a father and his son struggling to survive in an America wrecked by nuclear war. The landscape has been utterly destroyed, and very few living things, including people, have survived the apocalypse. Moreover, the nuclear winters have proven themselves to be particularly cold and unbearable and so, the nameless father and son trek southwards to the coast, hoping to escape a more severe winter. But this literal trek is not the only journey that the characters undertake. A spiritual journey toward God also occurs within the novel, as the characters, notably the father, struggle to make meaning from the mess. The spiritual journey is considerably difficult, however, because the destruction of the earth has disrupted Natural Revelation. In the end, some measure of redemption is found as the father finishes his spiritual journey and his life by expressing a positive religious sentiment; even so, that the destruction of nature has severely impeded the characters from understanding God is most manifest, and the small measure of redemption is overcast by the stronger warning against the folly of using weapons of mass destruction.
Natural Revelation is the theological idea that God and his attributes can be discerned through the beauty and splendor of nature. Just as a book gives witness to the existence of an author, so does the handiwork of creation give witness to a designer, Natural Revelation maintains. As expressed in Old Testament scripture, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm.19.1), and in the New Testament, "since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans.1.20). But how might the ability to see God and understand his eternal attributes, such as love and goodness, be impeded if nature were utterly devastated by nuclear destruction? The Road depicts just this, within a destroyed nature, "barren, silent, godless" (McCarthy 4) where the "secular winds" blow (177) and humanity's faith has been all but extinguished.
That The Road is apocalyptic fiction, an "end of the world" tale with spiritual import, can be discerned from the very first page with a subtle allusion to the fabled Beast of the Bible's Book of Revelation, the anti-Christ of Christian eschatology. The story begins with the father's troubling dream of a child leading him into a cave. They become:
Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast...And of the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
As the anti-Christ differs from the Christ, so does this pitiable beast, likened to nature, differ from its former glory. This passage also begins what will become the recurring image of sightlessness, a "cold glaucoma," representative of the characters' inability to "see" God (McCarthy 3-4).
In dreams and in waking, the setting of the novel is bleak. ] The terrain was "cauterized...all was burnt to ash...and the nights were long and dark and cold beyond anything" (McCarthy 14). The atmosphere is full of clouds of ash, obstructing light, and the nights are blackness, "sightless and impenetrable" (15). Nothing in the destroyed world hints at any divine redemption. The man:
...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 ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (130)
The demoralized landscape is an assault to every sense. To listen to it was an agony: "A blackness to hurt your ears with listening...No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees" (McCarthy 15), or maybe the shrieks of agony from people being butchered for their flesh. To see it was a horror: "charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind" (8). Everything is gray emptiness: "A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned" (8). To feel it was misery: "It was very cold. They huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats" (9). To smell black filth and excrement—
The terrain is sickness and death, an "ashen scabland" (McCarthy 16). The father, "Coughing. Coughing...bend over, holding his knees. Taste of blood" (237). At one point, contagion infects the boy as well. The father feels the boy's forehead with his hand: "he was burning" (247). Death surrounds them everywhere they go, "dead to the root along the barren bottomlands" (21). Doorways are strewn with corpses. They find bodies hanging from rafters in barns. Signs of life simply do not appear, and "the mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth" (24). Interestingly, use of the term "latterday" alludes to the Church of Mormon, "latterday saints," however destroyed.
Nature no longer points to the creator. In fact, more than once in the novel, the word "secular" is used to describe the landscape. The man "stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular" (McCarthy 274). God seems absent, "the noon sky black as the cellars of hell" (177). This is the land where the pilgrims have died in "several and collective deaths" (200).
Within this new hellacious world, faith is all but entirely lost, and men are described as "creedless shells" (McCarthy 28). In the early days, right after the initial destruction, still "smoking in their clothes," survivors appeared as "failed sectarian suicides," another religious allusion. Soon, spiritual sentiments completely digress as bands of survivors organize into blood cults: "Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered" (32). Sanctity and truth have expired along with life and natural beauty: "the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom of its referents and so of its reality" (89). The language of faith has been lost. The splendor of nature was a referent to the divine that when destroyed makes the divine seemingly invalid.
Yet others along the road are much worse than merely creedless and pose a distinct threat to the father and his son. "Roving bands of cannibals" (Gray), bereft of all moral sensibilities, scout the land for people to round up and eat or rape. Utterly godless, their caravan passed, "the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn up by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill-clothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each" (McCarthy 92).
Stripped of spiritual identity, survivors are likened to animals. The man and his son are described like "farm animals" (McCarthy 20). Later, they are found hunched above a tank "like apes fishing with sticks in an anthill" (214). On the road, they look back at a man, a "nude and slatlike creature" (258). The father dreams of a person that he feels closely akin to, with "reptilian calculations" in "cold and shifting eyes" (75). The boy sleeps in the woods "like some hibernating animal" (98). They embark upon their journey "treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel" (273).
In The Road, religion has lost along with nature. The reader is presented a pathetic fallacy. The man's heart is as gray as the day (McCarthy 27). He "looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom" (16). Christianity seems dead, and so does God: "Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond" (181). Nature is silent, giving no testimony to a creator. And so, spiritual sense cannot be made of it: "no gulls or shorebirds. Charred and senseless" (220). Now, the ocean is "the bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulcher. Senseless. Senseless" (222).
Understandably, the bleak surroundings have negatively impacted the father's spiritual sensibilities. As he watches the orange glow of a forest fire, he is stirred to remember a forgotten time when he could still believe: "Cold as it was he stood there a long time. The color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember," (McCarthy 31). Compared to his post-apocalyptic disposition, he was priestly before. But now the father is deeply confused about spiritual truth: "He would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn't about death. He wasn't sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or goodness" (129). He's lost something meaningful, something higher.
The Second Coming is alluded to, but the father remains skeptical, unseeing, distrustful:
At the crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment. He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt. (McCarthy 261)
Here, the ancient druidic practice of erecting stones at set intervals for religious purposes is referenced. Historically, this cultural practice extended from Britain and Europe into Central Asia and the Middle East, and is Biblically-significant (Capt 59-60 Genesis tells the story of Jacob setting up a pillar and anointing it with oil after God revealed to him in a dream that he would be blessed: "When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, 'Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.' He was afraid and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.' Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar" (28.18). Also referenced in this passage are the Ten Commandments and the reckoning, Judgment Day where all will stand before God and render an accounting. But it remains a bleak scenario. The oracles have died. It's hard to believe any holy men ever scripted veracities. Christ is coming to rob one of eyesight and bury one's mouth with dirt. It doesn't sound pleasant or redemptive. It remains a deeply-bitter rumination.
To some extent, the father is like the Biblical Job (Shy), but perhaps even more disillusioned. At the beginning of the story, as he knelt in the ash after a fit of coughing, he looked up at the gray sky and cursed God: "Are you there? He whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God" (McCarthy 12). The man begins his spiritual journey at this point, at the point of utter disillusionment and despair. He can't see God in nature: "He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of the city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see...nothing" (8).
The father has much difficulty discerning spiritual truth or a reason to be upright. His thinking is impeded: "He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular dark calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination." He does not sense a God for which one must be accountable to: "Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must" (McCarthy 15). Words such as chronicle, upright, fall, and scribe, all hold religious import and forward the idea that the man is undertaking a spiritual journey, as difficult as it is in his devastated world.
The father is clearly spiritually-sick. He knows he must discern something, but he cannot. His reckonings are as impotent and disrupted as nature. The journey is barren, and the man is incomprehensible. "No godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world" (McCarthy 32). Others they meet along the journey are similarly incognizant: "They came upon his shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to stand stooped and uncertain before setting out again" (49).
However, it is worth noting that the man does see God in his son. His son, a living being, part of nature itself, and reflecting God's image, allows the man to undertake a journey toward God: "He knew that the child was his only warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke" (McCarthy 5). That he loves his son is clearly apparent throughout the novel: "He held the boy close to him. So thin. My heart, he said. My heart. But he knew that if he were a good father still it might well be said as she had said. That the boy was all that stood between him and death" (29). The man is a dedicated father: "This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man's brains out of his hair. That is my job" (74). In another instance, he communicates his love for his son openly in a way that even expresses awareness of the divine: He tells him, "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?" (77). His love for his son never seems dubious. And it is the man's ability to love his child that ends up redeeming him in the end. But finding this redemption is a long and difficult process, the figurative journey being as difficult as the literal trek southwards to the coastline.
As an archetype, the wise old man is a spiritual personage meant to offer some guidance or help or to impart some meaning to the scheme of things (Booker 78). At one point in their long journey along the road, the man and his son encounter the archetypal wise old man: "An old man, small and bent...and even by their new world standards he smelled terrible" (McCarthy 161). In one instance, "pile of rags" that he is (162), he is depicted in a very wizardly way. The father "looked down at the old man. Perhaps he'd turn into a god and they to trees" (163), as if the old man could cast a spell like a mage. In another instance, the old man is described like Buddha: "he drank his coffee...sitting like a starved and threadbare Buddha, staring into the coals" (168). He conveys some sense of wisdom by recognizing its antithesis. He says, "It's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these." Moreover, he offers an ominous gaze: "The man could see his small eyes watching him in the firelight. God knows what those eyes saw" (169).
However, this wise old man is a completely-malfunctioning archetype. Totally helpless, he can offer no help, no guidance, and no wisdom. He is a bewildered Gandalf with dementia, nearly blind and deaf, scared and wilted. As the man and the boy share some of their canned goods with him and they converse, it becomes apparent that the man is bereft of spiritual trust and understanding: "There is no God," the old man relays. "No?" the father asks. The old man returns, "There is no God and we are his prophets" (McCarthy 170). To other questions, the old man can only answer, "I don't know." He gives them his name, "Ely," a Biblical, Hebraic title, but then later admits that this is not his true name. Yet, this is not the only lie he tells. He is dishonest, disoriented, paranoid, and totally incapable of functioning in his appointed aspect. He expresses distrust for divine beings. The father asks the old man, regarding his son, "What if I said that he's a god?" The old man replies, "I'm all past that now. Have been for years. Where man can't live gods fare no better...I hope that's not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it's not true" (172). He's not interested in a higher power and, as an archetypal figure, this wise old man is as destroyed as nature.
Yet with or without further guidance, the man and the boy must reach the coast to escape the brutal winters. The future, the end of their journey, looms ahead of the father, "glowing in the [sic] waste like a tabernacle (McCarthy 273). The hope of something spiritual lies ahead. And so, the journey they embark upon is both literal and figurative: "they set out upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep" (126).
To get them to their literal destination, throughout the journey, the man and his son rely upon the tattered remnants of a map. The map will become deeply significant by the end of the story when it is supplanted by a figurative map that reveals the true meaning of the novel, a meaning rich with resonance. The man and the boy converse:
We have to keep heading south.
Doesn't the river go south?
No, it doesn't.
Can I see it on the map?
Yes. Let me get it.
The tattered oil company roadmap had once been taped together but now it was just sorted into leaves and numbered with crayon in the corners for their assembly. He sorted through the limp pages and spread out those that answered to their location. (McCarthy 42)
In fact, periodically throughout the story, the map will reappear, so that the reader never really forgets about it. About one third of the way through the journey, the map is again consulted:
At a crossroads they sat in the dusk and he spread out the pieces of the map in the road and studied them. He put his finger down. This is us, he said. Right here. The boy wouldn't look. He sat studying the twisted matrix of routes in red and black with his finger at the junction where he thought that they might be. As if he'd see their small selves crouching there. (McCarthy 87)
Further on in the journey, they again study the portions of the map, almost as if they are trying to solve a puzzle: "They studied the pieces of map but he'd little notion where they were" (McCarthy 126). Then, yet further into the tale, the boy "sat looking at the map. The man watched him. He thought he knew what that was about. He'd pore over maps as a child, keeping one finger on the town where he lived. Just as he would look up his family in the phone directory. Themselves among others, everything in its place. Justified in the world" (182).
Father and son use the map repeatedly as a literal guide on their journey to the coast. "They ate the last of their provisions and he sat studying the map. He measured the road with a piece of string and looked at it and measured again" (McCarthy 199). It seems as if reading and interpreting the map is somewhat difficult.
Also difficult can be the figurative map, used along the journey toward understanding God, even when the map is fully intact and unaltered, which is tragically not the case in The Road. At the end of the story, the narrator informs the reader what this other map is:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (McCarthy 286-87)
And there the reader has it. The figurative map to understanding God is nature, his handiwork, his creation. Fish contained the map, the clues to understanding the divine being who crafted them. The narrator is telling the reader that before the destruction of the world through nuclear holocaust, Natural Revelation pointed humanity to God, providing a figurative map for their journey toward understanding him.
The fish is clearly symbolic, having been referenced at earlier intervals throughout the book. Perhaps very significantly, the fish, or ichthys, is also the traditional symbol of Christianity. A fish was part of the father's memory of "the perfect day of his childhood." As he recalled, "his uncle turned the boat and shipped the oars and they drifted over the sandy shallows until the transom greeted the sand. A dead perch lolling belly up in the clear water. Yellow leaves" (McCarthy 13), a scene in the league of On Golden Pond. The extinction of fish is part of what the father laments about the ravished nature: "Once he'd watched trout swaying in the current, tracking their perfect shadows on the stones beneath" (30). In another instance, he remembers having stood at a river in the pass as he "watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacolored water except as they turned on their sides to feed. Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness" (42).
But not only did fish and all of nature contain the map to understanding God, but also the boy and the man themselves, who are living creatures, natural beings, albeit with a spiritual component. For this reason, the man is able to find redemption by the end of the story. By truly loving another human being who is made in God's image, he is able to love God himself, to find God. And so, as he is dying, he tells his son, "Look around you...There is no prophet in the earth's long chronicle who's not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right" (McCarthy 277). The father says very little after this announcement, and then he dies. The comments are puzzling because their meaning is obscure, though, nevertheless, clearly positive. A prophet is an intrinsically religious figure and so, his or her being honored can only seem like a positive portent religiously. This is a very far cry from cursing God, which the man did at the start of his journey. He seems as if he has found some redemption from out of the wreckage of the world. In the words of Todd Shy, writing for The Christian Century, at this point in the novel, the "bleakness sits [sic] up to offer a deathbed declaration."
The boy too, like his father, finds some redemption. Equipped with a fierce conscience that manifests itself continually throughout the novel, from the start he has been somewhat less disillusioned than his father, having known no other world than the wasted one into which he was born. When they find a secret store of food, he asks his father if they could say a prayer of thanks to the people to whom it once belonged. Being granted permission, he prays, "Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff...we hope that you're safe in heaven with God" (McCarthy 146). Then, at the end of the story, the people who take him in are "the good guys." His adoptive mother is happy to see him and tells him about God. He is able to pray, albeit with some difficulty, and ends up praying more to his father: "He tried to talk to god but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time" (McCarthy 286). There is a redeeming sense of continuity here. Perhaps life won't be totally extinguished after all. Perhaps the "good guys" will win.
The Road is an "End Times" novel (Boudway), a biblical theme, while the plight of the characters "mirrors Job's trajectory" (Shy). The figurative spiritual journey is probably even more important than the literal one. Although the literal journey provides the plot structure, the figurative spiritual journey gives the novel resonance and a rich complexity of meaning. The story affirms the very things that seem absent from the lives and world of the characters. As one reviewer of the book noted, "It made me step back each day and marvel at the world we live in, at the cleanness of our air, the bounty awaiting me each day in the refrigerator" (Workman). The Road warns of the folly of nuclear destruction and extols the importance of natural beauty as an element that can point humankind toward God. Moreover, it affirms the redemptive quality of love.