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Cormac McCarthy, The Road

When reading Cormac McCarthy's excellent The Road, I couldn't help being struck by the contrasts between the two characters. The young boy is innocent, hopeful, accepting, trusting, and always looks for the goodness in other people and strives to help the less fortunate despite his own desperate circumstances. His father, on the other hand, is world-wise and world-weary, suspicious, guarded and fearful even as he tries to project a face of optimism to his son on their journey along the endless road and toward an indeterminate future.

The son has never known any world other than the bleak wasteland through which they traverse, and accepts things as they are. His father, endlessly remembering what things were like before, and being painfully aware of what mankind is capable of in bringing about this dire situation, sees instead the grim reality of their situation. Yet he repeatedly tells his son that they must reach the ocean (despite having no idea what awaits them there) and that somewhere there are "good people" to be found and to make a new life with. He is loving, patient and extremely protective of his son, qualities which, in keeping his boy from harm, he is unable to extend to other people they encounter. He turns others away, denying food and fire, taking away one man's clothes and shoes, and wounding another with a shot from a flare gun. He will do anything to keep his son safe; helping others means putting themselves at risk.

But not all of the father's acts are of wary self-preservation. He educates the boy with daily lessons and tries to enliven their journey with stories about the old days. But the lessons fall away as they move down the road, the abstractions of learning perhaps becoming irrelelvant when one is struggling to simply survive, and the boy discounts the old stories, saying they aren't true, couldn't possibly be true (sunsets and animals and lush forests? impossible!) since the ravaged landscape offers no evidence that these things ever existed. Yet he trusts his father and follows along, believing that his father will somehow make everything right.

Recognizing their grim reality, the father surely has to believe that a highly unpleasant fate awaits them at the end of the road. But he soldiers on, keeping a brave face for his son, perhaps believing that even if death awaits him there is the slightest chance of delivering his son to safety. It's an overwhelmingly improbable chance, but it's one he has to take. Keeping his son alive and away from harm has become the sole purpose in his life, a mission he gladly undertakes out of love and devotion for his only child.

The Road says a lot about what it means to be a parent, about how you will instinctively do absolutely anything to protect your children, even at the expense of your own well-being, but also that you have to make your children aware of the realities and dangers of the world so they can one day fend for themselves. Protecting your children won't do them any good at all if they never learn to live on their own. Since you won't always be there to watch over them, they have to learn to take care of themselves, and you have to have the strength to let go, as painful as that might be.

The father in The Road did everything he could for his son, selflessly and valiantly in the face of horrible circumstances, and by the end of the story has prepared his son, as well as he could, for whatever future awaits him. And that is what every father, even those of us in a dramatically more hospitable world than that of the book, should forever strive for.

June 16, 2007 in Books | Permalink

Comments

Great essay!

Posted by: rob snell at Jul 27, 2010 3:23:17 PM