By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Apocalyptic events in fiction all ask a central question: after a cataclysmic event, can the survivors do more than just survive? Can they build a society that does more than simply meet their basic survival needs of food, water, shelter, and procreation? The answers in some literature are stark; they cannot. Survival may be possible, but it won’t be worthwhile. Or, in the extreme, survival is not even remotely possible.
No Survivors in an Apocalyptic Event
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is definitely worthy of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, which it won in 2006. The Man and The Boy are the main characters in the novel. There’s really not much point in naming characters who have zero possibility of survival. And you don’t really need that many main characters either.
No one can survive this apocalypse. Basically, the Earth is dead, the only living things are a few fungi, some mangy dogs, and some humans, most of which have now turned to cannibalism for survival. The Man and The Boy are father and son. They are hardened, of course, since they are among the Earth’s last survivors. But they have somehow maintained a sense of what we might think of as their humanity. We are pretty sure that no matter how hungry they get, they will not turn to cannibalism.
Then again, they probably won’t have to, or at least the father won’t have to. The Man has a serious cough, and he does not expect to survive the winter. They are traveling to the sea, where they hope to find more resources despite the well-known fact that there are no more resources. They have two bullets left for their gun, one for protection and one for the Boy if they are captured by cannibals, as is very likely.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Normal Conversations in Harsh Realities
They walk along the empty road with meager knapsacks, the father pushing a shopping cart rigged with a rearview mirror so they won’t be surprised from behind. As they walk, they talk, and it’s those conversations—and the strict contrast between those conversations and the setting—that provides so much of the power of this text.
The author has said that some of the conversations between The Man and The Boy are based on those of the author and his young son. By becoming a parent, all one’s anxieties about the future become amplified by the thought that their children will see so much more of it than they will.
The fear that they won’t—that something enormously devastating will happen before they grow up—well, that’s an even worse fear. And maybe that’s why McCarthy’s novel is so beautiful even as it’s so devastating to read.
Learn more about Margaret Atwood and environmental dystopia.
Looking through the Rearview Mirror into the Past
The road is a central trope in American literature, and it has long symbolized a narrative of progress—the road as a metaphor for a journey through a human life or, more broadly, through notions of human expansion, whether it’s historical, with various geographical expansions, or futuristic, with journeys and expansions through space and perhaps time.
In McCarthy’s hands, the road is seen in the rearview mirror of a shopping cart pushed by a man who knows that he and his son cannot survive. The dream of progress—the individual American dream that is so inflected by utopian thought, but also the bigger dreams of humanity—all dream of progress is dead.
Some scholars have noted that with the death of nature in The Road, we see the slower—but just as complete—death of language, culture, and ethics. But at the same time, as you can trace a major loss of ethics in the roving bands of cannibals, for example, along with a sort of devolution of language as the few survivors speak less and less, there’s also an odd sort of hopefulness in this dark novel which brings us to the idyll.
Learn more about the cautionary tales of dystopia.
To Leave or Not to Leave?
The Man and the Boy stumble upon a hidden bunker that was obviously set up as a bomb shelter. It contains more food than they’ve seen in ages, as well as medical supplies and, perhaps even more importantly, safety from marauders. The horrifyingly dead world outside seemed to recede. They might be OK.
Of course, the Man and the Boy will not be OK if they stay in the shelter. It’s just a more comfortable version of the completely unsustainable world outside.
A Tiny Ray of Hope
They leave. How could the Man subject the Boy to those dangers when there’s still food left in the shelter? One suggestion is that it’s the result of utopian thinking. It’s not cautious, obviously, to endanger yourself unless you absolutely have to, but the Man knows he’s going to die, and he wants to get the Boy somewhere safe before that actually happens. He still believes, despite all the evidence, that there still is somewhere safe.
And maybe there is. Certainly, we don’t see the safe place—the new green world with walls against marauders and old-style flora and fauna that indicates the path for humans to not only survive but to flourish.
But we meet another family. An adult who has been able to protect children from what has become their usual fate in this appalling world. Technically, there’s no reason to hope. And yet, at the end of this dark novel, the reader is left with a tiny ray of hope. A tiny bit of utopian thinking.
Common Questions about The Road and Finding Hope in an Apocalyptic Event
The Road is used as a metaphor for a journey through life, the human capacity for survival, and many other metaphors. The Road uses its metaphor as a reminder of the journey ahead after the apocalyptic event.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the father realizes that although the shelter was built in the case of an apocalyptic event, it still won’t provide safety and food forever—only the illusion of it.
Although the aftermath of the apocalyptic event in The Road is bleak, and there seems no hope for the future, the characters in The Road meet another family that has also managed to survive with children. This suggests there might be some hope in an otherwise hopeless world.