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How do the themes of parental love and morality, as well as the use of imagery, create a sense of

desolation within Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'


Cormac McCarthys Pulitzer Prize winning The Road depicts a desolate tale of a post-apocalyptic
world governed by unremitting hope, morality and human natures resilience to survive. The story
follows the two protagonists, a father and son. They both have a destination with means to get
there. This father has no wife and this boy, no mother, she committed suicide long ago. This road
they take is infested with cannibals, thieves and murderers. The father and son scout for food which
is subsequently stored in a shopping cart with little to their names. The earth upon which they walk
is enshrouded by an eternal eclipse. The sun dare not show its face to this precious planet that was
once many shades of gracious green and beautiful blue. Leaving the onset of an objective cold
glaucoma dimming away the world (1).
McCarthy employs a multitude of literary features to submerge the reader in the bleak foreboding
atmosphere of the novels setting with three in the foremost, firstly graphic negative adjectives are
used continuously in the novel as a form of imagery to illuminate the readers perception of the
overwhelmingly despairing environment. Such descriptions when applied to things like burned
bodies as they release their final primal roar in agony coupled with the depressing colourless
atmosphere of the sky, remnants of civilisation and the general scenery is more than enough to
paint a picture in ones head and helps add to the overall tone and mood of the novel. This synergy
between prevalent descriptions of the settings and grizzly portrayals of situational depressing and
potentially fatal aspects of human life make The Road an interesting and compelling read. Secondly,
the theme of parental love resonates constantly while reading. The sheer dependence on one
another each the other worlds entire (1) and the knowledge of the mothers suicide gained prior
makes for much tension and a sense of foreshadowed tragedy. The reader continually supports the
couple on their journey and wishes the success of their objective. If at any point, the father or son
seems in peril the reader becomes involuntarily immersed and anxious. Whenever something
inescapable does happen to either of the pair it strongly affects the reader emotionally. Finally, the
subject of morality juxtaposed between the father and son and humanitys remains forms the basis
of a constant conflict between hope and hopelessness. The father reminds the son that he is carrying
the fire of all the goodness in the world and if he were to die, there would be no goodness left. All
the cannibals, thieves and murderers are the soul embodiment of all evil and antagonistic behaviour.
These two literary themes, parental love and morality, as well as the use of imagery are the themes
and devices I will be focusing on in this presentation to explain how the author uses literary themes
and features to create a desolate atmosphere.
With Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before.
Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. (1) as the description on the first
page, the reader immediately knows a priori that the story will be tragic and depressing. This very
bold description, like a first impression, immediately delves the reader into the sinister atmosphere
the protagonists live in. The growing symbolism of the encapsulating darkness conjoined with an
objective association of the sickness creates thick layers of feeling for the reader to endeavour and
experience, letting them know that this book is not for the psychologically fragile from the start. The
couples will to survive forces them to walk the barren, silent, godless (2) land, literally drained of
life and burned dry to the crust, leaving only the dulled landscape of a sullen haze hung over earth
and sky alike (92). God has forsaken them leaving them with doubt and only oneself to trust as they
live on the road in solitary isolation. They sat in the ashes by the side of the road and looked out to
the east where the shape of the city was darkening into the coming night. They saw no lights. (159)
Ashes of a burned human, tree or building denatured in form as whats left are forgotten memories
long lost and nothing more. The ever-imminent night as the enemy, and each day darker than the
prior, no lights seem obvious at the point. However, the use of contrasting the darkening night with
a lack of light, when duelled together empower the scene, rather than just darkness, light doesnt
exist. This repetition is used by the author in such a way that the author portrays two sides of the
same coin juxtaposing the imagery creating an overwhelming effect in so few words. Here we can
see that the author pays extreme attention to detail and has mastered the craft of subtlety through
implications. He has managed to completely engage the reader in an unfathomable world darker
than black by his careful choice of words and imagery.
The father has only one warrant, his son who he thoroughly believes carries the internal fire of
human hope and resilience. They are at constant silent odds with each other with each one worrying
about the other more than themselves, symbolised by small gestures like the Coca-Cola and Cocoa.
The father views the son like a deity with incandescent innocence and purity, whereas the son views
the father as the only source of experience and knowledge of the lost world. With each the other
worlds entire (1) both depend on each others survival fully willing to die for one another. The
father exclaims to his son that if his son dies he himself will commit suicide. What would you do if I
died? | If you died I would want to die too. | So you could be with me? | Yes. So I could be with you.
| Okay. (11) This forces an overhead looming of death that is persistently instilled in the readers
mind. From a fatherly perspective, talking about serious matters such as death with ones son is
quite disturbing. More distressing still is openly admitting to ones son that if his son dies, hell
commit suicide. Upon reflection, this sort of ultimately tragic behaviour is reminiscent of plays like
Romeo and Juliet whereby the love is so strong that their life is reliant on the significant others
existence. In addition to this, when the pair encounter enemies, the father gives a series of
unsettling instructions as to what to do if the boy is found Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you
you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how
to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? (113)
The sheer thought of teaching the son how to kill himself is unnerving to the reader, in this
desperate situation it is well justified. The father is willing to give up his only bullet for the optimum
solution of alleviating his sons suffering from this harsh world. He knows that the looters will either
consume or slave-drive his son and is more than willing to give up his own happiness and value to
allow the son an escape from dismay. This scene in particular heavily falls into place with the graphic
imagery and prominent landscape descriptions conjuring weighted emotions from the reader. This
works perfectly as the family love they share makes the reader empathise with the pair and care
deeply for them. The more sentimentality the reader attributes towards the protagonist, the more
the reader takes note of the distressing surrounding atmosphere and sense of desolation.
The concept of morality dates back to works from the greatest philosophers such as Plato and
Aristotle, who dispute the ongoing argument of the distinction between good and bad. These two
yin-yang opposites are present in any story telling medium, such is the literary concept of
protagonists and antagonists. The road is no exception and rather manipulates the theme of
morality towards driving the plot forward and further engaging the reader in the dark and
depressing tone and mood in which the story is set. The born dead feeling of hopelessness is
certainly not inconspicuous and is used to justify why certain actions are considered good or evil.
The disputes between father and son as well as the rest of the human race creates a dissipating
conflict and much tension. Post-encountering the bad guys his father explains to his son his
purpose for living in the world You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know.
It may happen again. 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? | Yes. (39) The father makes it very clear to the son
that his sole purpose in life is to protect his son and due to this justifies his action of murder, in
short, his sons defence. The father believes his son is the source of goodness in the world, and if the
son does, so does the goodness of the world. Yet the reader has to ask, what makes his decision to
save his son a better justification for good than those who cannibalize and murder for their own
survival, whom he characterizes as evil. Whether it can be considered an act of altruism or not, the
son finds the consequent need to question if the pair can still be considered good guys He sat
there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said. | Yes.
We're still the good guys. (39) Furthermore, just before the death of the boys father, he tells the
son just how important his life is You have to carry the fire. | I dont know how to. | Yes you do. | Is
it real? The fire? | Yes it is. | Where is it? I dont know where it is. | Yes you do. It's inside you. It was
always there. I can see it. (278-279) This fire is referred to multiple times in the novel and
symbolises the hope of human instinct. Even in a world with no redemptive qualities, one that many
would argue is not worth surviving for, the father still provides a reason for the son to go on living
and surviving. Not matter how smothered the fire in ones heart is, there is always reason to kindle
the flames to relight the good in the world. With this quote, the reader is able to emphasise and
coalesce the importance of life as well as maintaining the depressing and desolate atmosphere in
tandem. It is breath-taking and enthralling to know why existence is such a gift as the pair separate
for the first time. It is astounding that this sensation is can be extrapolated by only a few carefully
placed and planned sentences. Clearly the sense of hopelessness juxtaposed with the yin-yang good
and evil morality coupled with the dampening of the internal burning fire establishes the foundation
of a dark depressing and desolate atmosphere for which the reader is to immerse.
Due to the immense detail and imagery used in describing the landscape setting, the parental and
filial love the father and son share, and the distinctions between good and evil, the road creates a
post-apocalyptic and unforgiving atmosphere. The images produced by the in-depth descriptions not
only create a visual stimulus for which the reader to build upon, but also leaves the author a lot of
potential chances for metaphors and inferences to be applied by the reader. One cares so much for
the protagonists that any emotions felt by the protagonists are subsequently felt by the reader. The
reader is engrossed into this world and feels as if they too are on the road trudging through the
ashes with the pair. Finally, the resounding conflictions between good and evil leave a perpetual
state of uneasiness in the reader, from this, the author is able to fabricate and manipulate a dreadful
godless atmosphere from which the reader is unable to escape, simply because the reader wont be
able to put the book down. By the end of the book, the reader is left at a crossroads. Does the story
that continues beyond the final page lead to demise, darkness and desolation at every corner, or
perhaps those dangers are scorched and eradicated by the ever-lasting internal fire of good and
hope the boy possesses. In any case, that is left up to the personal standpoint of the reader to
decide, as well as the powerful narrative devices used to guide the reader towards the truth.