Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Beyond Redemption?: Reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" after the End of the World

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Beyond Redemption?: Reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" after the End of the World

Article excerpt

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son traveling in the aftermath of the world's collapse, we are thrust into a land of remains. The land is barren and covered in ashes. The sky is dark, and everything is dry. For those unfamiliar with the book, there is no intricate plot in The Road. The plot is sparse, as is the dialogue. The man and boy walk, hunt for scraps of food, speak in short sentences, and navigate around any signs of human life. Moving south in hopes of escaping the onset of winter, they make their way around a road, a place of passage but also a place of danger. Each encounter invokes dread and suspicion. All those who remain are potential competitors for the meager supplies--gas, blankets, and jars of preserves. McCarthy maps the landscape of survival, describing it in desolate terms such as "cauterized terrain," "dull sun," and "ashen scabland" (12, 13).

McCarthy tells us very little about what brought about the end of the world. "The clocks stopped at 1:17 pm. A long shear of light and a series of low concussions" (45). He offers us glimpses of the previous world through the father's memories. We know that the mother committed suicide, choosing not to go on in a world that no longer exists. The son, born before the collapse, knows no other world than this one. Throughout the novel, man and boy, both unnamed, move through the remains, of houses, of streets, of dried-out streams and barren farmlands. Two bullets remain in the father's gun over the course of their journey. Death is inevitable, if not welcomed. As they find their way to the warmer climate, it becomes increasingly clear that the father, whose health is declining throughout, will be unable to continue.

The last several pages narrate the farewell between father and son. The boy encounters a family who, the reader infers, takes in the boy now that his father has died. In the penultimate paragraph, the woman embraces the boy. McCarthy writes:

    She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God
   the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and
   didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that
   breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man
   all of time. (241) 

Without reading the book, the reader might sense the possibility of hope, of divine presence, even of redemption. Although the father has died, the son will live on and carry on the father's memory. We can, perhaps, heave a sigh of relief breathe again. But those who have made it through the 240 pages of The Road may have a more complicated reaction to these final paragraphs. In McCarthy's post-apocalyptic world, people have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The images of a child on a spit and burnt flesh cannot easily be erased as we think of the future of the boy without his father.

Reviews of the book diverge greatly in their reading of the final two paragraphs. Does McCarthy provide, in the end, a picture of redemption? Does the boy's survival--a survival beyond the death of the father--constitute a redemptive ending? Some find the notion of a redemptive ending sentimental, unrealistic, and inconsistent with the rest of the book and its unrelenting picture of doom. For them, McCarthy resorts to a picture of redemption, redeeming a world that can no longer be redeemed. Others interpret the boy's survival as a testimony to the persistence of hope and regeneration, a necessary ending to the tender father-son relationship that McCarthy presents. For them, McCarthy is depicting the substance of hope and the triumph of parental love in the face of terror.

The debate about redemption is not new in McCarthy interpretation. In assessing Blood Meridian, Dana Phillips points to two camps of interpretation: the "southern" and the "western." Reading McCarthy as a southern writer, the images and language of redemption are central; he is interpreted along the trajectory of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, who draw on Christian themes--in many cases, to launch strong critiques of them. …

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