Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Steven Frye

Covid-19 has emptied our streets and blighted the places where we come together in community, revealing that the cities we have built have made us willfully blind to a fundamental truth: all things living exist at the whim and will of an indifferent nature. As we strive to sustain our family lives and work to advance our public presence there are beasts that lie in wait. They may be resident in our hearts in the form of avarice, greed, and the will to power, or they may lie in a state of temporary rest hidden in microscopic worlds we cannot see. This global pandemic has reminded us of our vulnerability and our dependence upon a natural world that is unconcerned with suffering and painfully unyielding when human consciousness asserts a desire for acceptance and perpetuity. This is the essence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel that reveals the fragility of the physical boundaries we have created to shield us from oblivion.

The Road tells the story of a man and his son as they travel a wasted landscape after an unnamed cataclysm. The apocalypse may have been the result of a meteor or perhaps a nuclear event, and McCarthy is careful to leave the truth in shadow. From his perspective a destructive potential is equally latent both in the human species and in the universe writ large. The source of our decimation when it inevitably comes will be nature itself whether internal or external to our willful intentions and avaricious striving. The man sees the boy as a thing divine: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The question of transcendence is an ever-present echo in a novel that is never divorced from the here and now, but what drives the story forward is the love and commitment that binds father and son in a relationship that stands against the brute contingencies of a lost world. The man kills one of the “bad guys” who travels with a band of roving cannibals, and the boy is disturbed by his father’s act of violence. But the man responds with an ethical claim that speaks from the heart of anyone who loves unconditionally: “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?”

This new virus emerged from a nature that in all our modern hubris we do not understand. It rose out of a hidden space from a silent creature that flies at night and in a fated trajectory found its way to our tables. It is now in the air we breathe. We didn’t will it into existence and now released we are helpless as it takes our loved ones away. Some of us talk to our grown children across the silent bridges of cyberspace. We remember things we have done together and hope for the future. We take thin comfort in the protections afforded us as we huddle away in dismal repose. But there are days when we venture out. We go to the grocery store or to pick up a take-out meal. We see the firefighters and cashiers and we tell them thank you. We wear a mask not for our own protection but so we don’t breathe pestilence on the people who faithfully serve us. In these strange forays outside the home, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road instructs us, since in the face of an indifferent nature we can be thankful—for each other, for self-sacrifice and commitment, and for the indefinable humanity that abides and sustains.

The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West Edited by Steven Frye
The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West Edited by Steven Frye

About The Author

Steven Frye

Steven Frye is Professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield. He is President of the Cormac McCarthy Society, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarth...

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