THE ROAD: Carrying the Fire

Writing is an act of hope. — Isabelle Allende

The Road (2006), by Cormac McCarthy. 

The Road (2006), by Cormac McCarthy. 

A gauntlet has been thrown down on Fiction Unbound. The challenge: to find hope in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road. Challenge accepted. 

If you’re familiar with the novel, or with McCarthy’s work in general, you might think this is an impossible task. From the first page to the last, The Road unfolds in a bitter landscape choked with grief and ashes. This is our world in a not-too-distant future, the earth cold and dying and fading into darkness after an unnamed cataclysm has destroyed the biosphere. A man and his young son follow the roads of our lost civilization across the American Southeast from Tennessee to the Atlantic Ocean. The man and the boy are in constant peril, at every turn contending with the dangers of a vast and indifferent universe, and with the violence that lurks in the hearts of men. They encounter unspeakable horrors, things no child or man or woman should ever see or even imagine. Things for which there should be no words.

And yet McCarthy finds the words, rendering his nightmare vision in prose as haunting and unsparing as the vision itself. To read this book is to peer into the all-consuming darkness that lies beyond the faint and flickering light of the stories we tell ourselves about life and death and good and evil and humanity and God.

Hopeless, right? 

Wrong. I believe The Road is a profoundly hopeful book. Yes, it is dark and violent and on its surface it is bleak almost beyond description. Yes, I understand that many people come away from it feeling traumatized. And yes, I understand how that feeling translates into an assumption that McCarthy’s message is, as fellow Unbound Writer Amanda Boldenow put it in a recent post, “hope is for chumps.” I understand all of this, but still I’m arguing the opposite. McCarthy isn’t saying hope is for chumps. He is saying hope is the most important part of being human. Hope is the fire we carry to light our way in the darkness. Hope is how we survive. 

I’m not talking about happy-sappy Disney hope, where the world is sanitized to the point of reassuring simplicity, or the kind of hope that presupposes a benevolent universe ordered for the benefit of humankind. In The Road these are false hopes, relics of a fragile and fleeting civilization, insubstantial as dust and ashes. If McCarthy intends to imply the futility of anything, it is the futility of false hope. False hope is a delusion, a siren song that distracts from the singular focus required to survive in a dangerous world. In the novel, false hope is dramatized in the man’s dreams of his dead wife, visions of her as an embodiment of natural beauty, ancient and primal and still alive. The dreams tempt him with their fantasy, but he is not fooled by these visions or by any others of the late world: 

He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death. He slept little and he slept poorly. He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds.

Against the cold gray days and sightless black nights of the dying world these dreams of false hope are beautiful, “dreams so rich in color” that we feel their allure as powerfully as the man does. The promise of simplicity, of safety. To wake from such dreams requires conscious effort, and it is something the man must learn—the discipline of seeing the world as it is, not as he wishes it to be. Perhaps as readers we can be forgiven for indulging in false hope from time to time, but on the road there is no such luxury. At best, clinging to false hope ends with the man and the child dying of starvation or exposure, or being enslaved by a bloodcult. At worst, they get eaten by cannibals. 

The world of The Road is a cold, dead place, but not without hope. Photo: Phil Sangwell. CC BY 2.0.

The world of The Road is a cold, dead place, but not without hope. Photo: Phil Sangwell. CC BY 2.0.

The novel was adapted into a 2009 motion picture starring Viggo Mortensen as the man and Kodi Smith-McPhee as the boy. Photo © 2009 Dimension Films.

The novel was adapted into a 2009 motion picture starring Viggo Mortensen as the man and Kodi Smith-McPhee as the boy. Photo © 2009 Dimension Films.

This is grim stuff—it can’t be otherwise in a McCarthy novel—and it stands in stark contrast to the pragmatic hope the man carries with him and tries to instill in his son even as they repeatedly come face to face with violence and death. Pragmatic hope looks upon the world with an unflinching eye and doesn’t give up even if the world it sees is dark and dying and full of suffering. It is the opposite of false hope, as the man explains to the boy: 

When your dreams are of some other world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.

Pragmatic hope is vigilant, always prepared, always on the lookout for both opportunity and danger. The man says: “If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is always expect it.” 

Always expecting trouble could easily be read as pessimism, and without the man’s dogged determination to ensure his son’s survival I probably would be willing to go along with that reading. But everything the man does is predicated on the promise of tomorrownot a wishful future of golden glory, but simply another day in which his son is alive in the world. This is the most fundamental human hope, and perhaps the most optimistic. The hope that our existence matters and is meaningful in itself, even if the circumstances seem to negate that meaning. The hope that merely being in the world is justification enough for being. 

“The nights were long and dark and cold beyond anything they'd yet encountered. Cold to crack the stones. To take your life. He held the boy shivering against him and counted each frail breath in the blackness.” Photo © 2009 Dimension Films.

“The nights were long and dark and cold beyond anything they'd yet encountered. Cold to crack the stones. To take your life. He held the boy shivering against him and counted each frail breath in the blackness.” Photo © 2009 Dimension Films.

“The sparks rushed upward and died in the starless dark. Not all dying words are true and this blessing is no less real for being shorn of its ground.” Photo: Gregory Bodnar. CC BY-SA 2.0.

“The sparks rushed upward and died in the starless dark. Not all dying words are true and this blessing is no less real for being shorn of its ground.” Photo: Gregory Bodnar. CC BY-SA 2.0.

One final thought: All throughout the novel McCarthy enkindles hope in the metaphor of fire, which again and again brings light to the darkness. The man tells the boy they are “carrying the fire,” and indeed they do carry it with them in many forms as they travel along the road—a lighter, a lamp, a flint and steel, a propane stove. Whenever possible they build fires where they camp. Their fires burn in the darkness and sparks from the fires rise up into the black sky and die. The darkness through which the sparks ascend and into which they disappear doesn’t negate their brief existence any more than their light negates the darkness itself. For a moment they are, and then they are gone. To dwell upon the past or future is to miss the embers in flight and so to miss the only moment that matters: 

There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance of pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.

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