The Road Essay
As seen in the writings of Plato regarding Socrates, which some will argue is a blending of the two philosophers’ ideas, one of the requirements for a moral and ethical man is that he must first know “his spiritual self as it really is, including all its shortcomings, strengths and potentialities”. This is, ultimately, the journey being taken by the unnamed man and boy in Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘The Road’ (2006) as they travel from somewhere in the northern United States to the south in order to find a climate they can survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland the country has become. According to Socrates, it is the man who does not know himself who cannot accurately judge his own capabilities and his own unique path to the greatest good based on accurate use of his strengths and knowledge of his weaknesses. Socrates takes this another step by suggesting that knowledge of oneself will instruct from within regarding those things which are good (moral and ethical) and those things which are not. As the man and boy travel through the barren landscape, they compare themselves against the people that they meet as a means of judging themselves in terms of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. This comparison is not easy for them because there are many similarities between each and, in the end, the father and son must acknowledge that they have taken different paths where the concept of good and bad cannot be measured in black and white, but only more shades of gray.
Throughout the story, it can be seen that all of the characters are involved in the simple process of mere survival. Whether a bad guy or a good guy, everyone is just doing their best to adjust and stay alive in a harsh environment. The father and the boy think of themselves as good guys because they are not cannibals, not brutal murderers and not breeders of babies merely to survive. “We would not ever eat anybody, would we? Even if we were starving? No matter what. Because we are good guys” (128). They manage to keep hold on the basic ideals of civilized humanity, morality and respect for human lives. They care for each other and see to each other’s needs. However, much of this can also be said of the others with the exception of an aberrant behavior or two likely only reached when the individual in question ran out of other options. At the same time, there are some actions committed by the man, particularly, and agreed to by the boy, that could easily lump them in with the bad guys. Although the man and the boy consider themselves the good guys, there are also several ways in which they are similar to the other humans they meet whom they consider the bad guys.
While the man continues to hope for a better future for his son, he slowly begins to realize that the type of fire that once burned in him is useless in this new world. The discovery of an old coin forces the man to face reality. “The lettering was in Spanish. He started to call to the boy where he trudged ahead and then he looked about at the gray country and the gray sky and he dropped the coin and hurried on to catch up” (204). As he realizes his survival skills and knowledge are based upon a world that no longer exists, the man’s fire can be seen to burn into ash and he dies, instructing his son to continue going south and to keep his fire burning. The father’s submission to despair reduces him to the level of the bad guys as does the extreme survival mode he enters in which he is unable to treat anyone they meet with kindness. He is unable to learn how to distinguish between good and bad in the new world and so he reacts as if everyone is bad. This, in turn, makes it possible to apply the ‘bad guy’ name to him as well. The father lets his survival instincts come above and beyond human kindness more than the boy.
On the other hand, the boy sill has compassion and retains innocence and pure love for those who suffer because he is still too young to be bitter over what has been lost. The fire of the son, though, is enlightenment brought about by already having his eyes adjusted to the new light of the world. He is aware that he has lost much in losing the world of his father, but he is also aware that he must find a means of surviving in this world. Intuitively, he perceives that this salvation will only come from finding a way of joining up with other ‘good people’ and beginning the process of rebuilding society. While his father’s goal is simply to keep the two of them alive, the boy realizes that the final destruction of humanity is the loss of kindness. He finds it increasingly difficult to obey the instructions of his father as they continue south, finally breaking down in tears to force his father to do the right thing for a man who had thought to steal everything they owned. Later that evening, the man tells the boy, “I wasn’t going to kill him” and the boy answers back “But we did kill him” (260), because he realizes without the things the man was trying to take, the man was doomed. The boy is the leader of the future because his eyes are already adjusted to the light of a world completely alien and incomprehensible to those of his father’s generation. Although he will require the help of the elder members of a group to interpret the forms of the previous generations, it will be his clear sight in identifying the unique value of the human being that will eventually push him to become the carrier of the light his father envisions.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is an interesting investigation of man’s internal nature told from the perspective of an enlightened society represented by the thoughts of the man as it is being forced to re-enter the darkness of a completely alien and hostile world that is the only world the son will ever know. The story relies on a darkened, two-dimensional world in which options are few, the environment is hostile and colorless and light is diffuse and mysterious. Within this world, there are items or forms that are mysterious and unidentifiable to the boy but that bring on nearly overwhelming moments of nostalgia for the man. Examples of these include the can of Coke and the flare gun that shoots fire to alert someone of a presence. While these are amazing things, they are things that just don’t exist anymore and thus remain outside of the world of the child. However, there are things in this new world that the boy is able to recognize that the man doesn’t understand, such as how to recognize another human just trying to preserve as much of his humanity as he can while still surviving. As a result of these differences, the man moves in a reverse direction from that of a ‘good guy’ as he becomes suspicious and self-involved while the boy moves in the direction of the ‘good guy’ in his recognition that a new place where humane treatment of one’s fellow man is necessary as a part of survival. The boy understands the world as it is revealed under his new light and shows promise of finding humanity’s salvation in his mercy and kindness.