21st century

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. He researches the life and works of several Victorian popular fiction authors and occasionally reads twenty-first century literature.


At first glance, Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006) might appear to be a story about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, in which a father and his son make their way across an America which has turned into an ash-covered wasteland. When the film adaptation of the book was released in 2009 there was much speculative commentary in the press and on internet forums that the extinction event was indeed a nuclear war. Readers pointed to passages such as the

‘long shear of light’

which made all the clocks stop at 1:17 which might have been the result of an electromagnetic pulse.[1]

The bleak landscape in The Road

The nuclear war interpretation is not limited to fans on the internet but was also mooted by some literary critics.[2] Yet more critics have such as Carl James Grindley have interpreted the novel as a retelling of the Book of Revelation and conclude that the extinction event must have had a supernatural cause.[3] An elusive figure who rarely gives interviews, McCarthy once stated that he deliberately left the cause of the disaster ambiguous:

A lot of people ask me. I don’t have an opinion. […] [S]ome [geologists] said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important.[4]

McCarthy then later stated that the disaster which caused the end of human society in The Road was not a nuclear holocaust but an environmental disaster: A meteor strike.[5]

The Meaning of Apocalypse

Of course, if a literary critic adheres to Roland Barthes’s thesis of the ‘death of the author’—which argued that an author’s biographical details and intention in writing a text are unimportant and that a reader’s interpretation is paramount—then McCarthy’s words on the subject can be brushed aside.[6] Indeed, perhaps these critics have a point; readers of The Road, and the viewers of the faithful film adaptation—which lifts much of the dialogue directly from the novel—do not see the catastrophe but only its aftermath.

The event, whatever McCarthy intended, is immaterial. In this manner, then, McCarthy’s apocalypse narrative is not an apocalypse in its original sense of being an ‘unfolding’ or ‘revealing’ of end times events because it reveals very little about the cataclysm; even the very names of the two principal protagonists caught up in the apocalypse are hidden from us and we know only that they are father and son.[7] Perhaps the apocalypse is unnamed because, as Kevin Kearney points out, it gestures towards the unnameable: a bleak world devoid, not necessarily of humans—for some quite fearsome groups of humans do survive in small enclaves—but of humanity.[8]

Movie poster for the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009)

A ‘Cauterized’ Landscape

 We shall, however, take McCarthy’s explanation of events in The Road at face value. With a plot resembling Elie Wiesel’s post-Nazi Holocaust novel La Nuit (1958),[9] in The Road the world is dying and many parts of it have died already. The father and the son are travelling from the middle of America towards the coast in the hope that there may be something still living there. McCarthy illustrates the extent to which the world has died through the use of similes which usually have connotations of death or illness. The terrain is said to be ‘cauterized’.[10] The trees that the pair pass on the journey seaward are ‘broken limbs and a few standing trunks’.[11] The father and his son endure

‘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’.[12]

Modern edition of Elie Weisel’s La Nuit, an influence upon McCarthy

The Death of God

In previous apocalypse narratives such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the protagonists believed in God, so He was present, but He played no part at all in the unfolding of events. In McCarthy’s novel God is finally dead in the sense that, on the one occasion that the father and son have reason to be thankful to someone for something, they do not thank God. McCarthy illustrates this when, having had the good luck to come across a nuclear bunker that was well-filled with tinned food, the boys asks whether they should thank ‘the people’ for what they are about to receive. The man agrees and says a prayer which beginning with

‘Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff’.

Only as an afterthought does the man wish that the people are now

‘safe in heaven with God’,

but there is little sense that the man believes in Him.[13]

Father and son in the bunker

The Death of Time

The other great regulating force of the universe, Time, has also died.

‘There is no past’ as the father reminds himself.[14]

Even when the father remembers the days before the cataclysm, these events are related in a dreamlike state which unmoors it from the ‘time’ of the novel.[15] There is only monotony. Yet coupled with the monotony of constant travelling is anxiety. Modern capitalist consumer society, with all the anxieties it causes, is gone. In its place is a constant anxiousness over their safety and food or the durability of other essentials such as the state of their walking boots.[16]

Thus in both the film and the novel, there are scenes showing the father and son rifling through the carcasses of dilapidated houses trying to find some morsel of food. Yet there is something absurd about McCarthy’s description of the father and boy’s meal of ham, mashed potato, and gravy as ‘sumptuous’ when such a meal before the catastrophe would have been considered rather plain. It is not as though circumstances will allow the pair to eat anything of a grander scale, however, for while the father and son go ‘shopping’ in supermarkets the shops are usually empty and nothing remains of American consumer society except for the supermarket trolley that the man and boy carry around. Their detours into crumbling supermarkets are quite pointless.[17]

‘They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us’

Another principal source of anxiety for the man and his son is the fact that most of the surviving members of the human race have resorted to cannibalism. One of the reasons that the man’s wife, in the immediate aftermath of the cataclysm, commits suicide is because

‘Sooner or later they will catch us and kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him [the boy]. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us.’[18]

In western societies, cannibalism is usually thought of as one of the worst acts imaginable, and instances of it are morbidly yet somewhat gleefully, reported in the popular press. For example, in 2014, eleven restaurant workers in Nigeria were arrested after the authorities discovered human heads in the refrigerator, which, it turns out, in the style of Sweeney Todd, were sold as luxury delicacies to highly-valued customers. In 2009, a chef in California, USA, slow-cooked his wife and ate her.[19] These are isolated ‘real world’ examples but in the dying world of The Road, cannibalism is ever present. At one point, the pair of travellers come upon a cellar in which a number of half-dead humans are incarcerated, serving as a source of meat for a family living in a lonely farmhouse.

The Hills Have Eyes

The trope of an isolated area harbouring dangerous cannibal killers is, of course, drawn straight from Hollywood gothic horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s such as The Hills Have Eyes franchise (which in turn was based upon the old Scottish folktale of Sawney Beane).[20] Of course, in twentieth-century horror films like the Hills Have Eyes, and the later Wrong Turn (2003–) franchise, cannibals are ashamed of their actions, evident by the fact that they hide themselves away from mainstream society. They are conscious of their abnormality.

In the case of The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn, the cannibals’ depravity is stamped on to their faces because they are deformed. The deformity of the creatures in those movies may be read as a continuation of Victorian-style theories of the relationship between morality and physical characteristics, with deformities held to be indicative of some kind of moral degeneracy.

Yet in the world conjured up by McCarthy, cannibalism is now part of mainstream culture. The cannibals look just like other survivors. People’s turn to cannibalism also happened quite quickly, as the man’s recollection of the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe reveals:

‘leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere …. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children.’[21]

Those who practice cannibalism do not feel shame in their actions, however; for example, when the father and son come face-to-face with one of them urinating in the woods, the cannibal says, in a nonchalant manner, that they eat whatever they can find (uttered while the stranger looks leeringly at the boy).

What McCarthy asks the reader to ponder, therefore, is a consideration of the type of ideology would survive in a barren world. Would it be a collectivist ideology, such as the one held to by the man and the boy, in which they look out for each other? Or would it be a hyper individualist ideology in which people, quite literally, prey upon one another?[22] Whichever survives, by presenting cannibalism as an ever-present threat, the novel makes a critique of the Enlightenment idea of progress because it makes the audience question just how quickly humans would become savage.[23]

Savagery and Civilization

The contrast between the brute and barbaric world, people by cannibals, and the smaller ‘society’ of the boy and the father make the novel one in which readers of the novel and its film’s viewers are forced to question just how far ‘civilised’ behaviour would survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The father continually promises his son that they will never eat anybody. Indeed, the pair of them are, the reader is continually reminded, ‘carrying the fire’. This fire has a semi-mystical status for the father and son and to some extent has replaced a belief in a living god. Fire keeps them warm at night and provides cooked meals and therefore sustenance. It exists in the father and son’s spirits. They may be the last ‘good’ people on the earth who are carrying the figurative fire and presumably it is the fire that cements the loving bond between the father and son.

The lines immediately preceding the glaucoma reference, cited above, illustrate that there is some tenderness, some goodness, which remains in the world, for the father wakes in the middle of the night and gently touches his son. The contrast between the tenderness of the father and son’s relationship and the ‘cauterized’ landscape is stark but makes the point that the father and son are the ‘good’ people and in a ‘bad’ land.[24] Yet this is the only part of humanity that remains. Names are meaningless. The respective viewers and readers of the film and the novel do not learn the father and son’s names, nor the names of any other person for that matter.­

The boy finds a good family

The Death of Culture

The relationship between the father and son may be tender, but their conversation is stilted and erratic. Indeed, what would a father, whose son was born after the catastrophe, have to talk about in a bleak dying world devoid of culture? There is no art, for art is dead, evinced by the ‘waterstained and sagging’ William Morris wallpaper the father comes across in one house.[25] As for literature, The books that the pair find when they enter a dilapidated house with broken windows are largely useless, soaked through with damp having been exposed to the elements.[26] Sometimes the father, after the boy has fallen asleep, amuses himself by reading an old newspaper and inwardly mocks the ‘curious news’ and ‘the quaint concerns’.[27] Yet the man is unable to tell the boy happy stories about ‘the world he lost’.[28] When the man does tell the boy stories, there is a ‘useful’ purpose to them. For example, the man sometimes tells the boy ‘old stories of courage and justice’ not to uplift him but to serve as a moral lesson in how to be brave in an unforgiving world.[29]


The light of culture has disappeared from the world and the only place that it exists is in the father and son themselves. However, the father, having been hit with an arrow, does not survive until the end of the book. The distraught boy, who spends several days by the side of his dead father, is then adopted by another family who are ‘carrying the fire’. It is evident that these people are good for the woman puts her arms around the boy in a show of tenderness which has not been exhibited by any of the other strangers the boy has met. Yet this is not to say that things will ever get better. The world is still dying and will still die. As McCarthy reminds us in the final few lines, the world is ‘a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.’[30]


[1] ‘What Caused the Apocalypse in The Road?’ [online], Cormac McCarthy Society, accessed 31 January 2022, available at: https://www.cormacmccarthy.com/topic/what-caused-the-apocalypse-in-the-road/page/6/

[2] See Phil Christman, ‘A Tabernacle in the Dark: On the Road with Cormac McCarthy’, Books and Culture: A Christian Review, 13: 5 (2007): 40-42.

[3] Carl James Grindley, ‘The Setting of McCarthy’s The Road’, Explicator, 67: 1 (2008), 11-13 (p. 12).

[4] John Jurgenson [online], ‘Hollywood’s Favourite Cowboy’, Wall Street Journal, 20 November 2009, accessed 7 February 2022, available at: online.wsj.com

[5] David Kushner [online], ‘Cormac McCarthy’s Apocalypse’, Rolling Stone, 27 December 2007, accessed 31 January 2022, available at: http://www.davidkushner.com.

[6] For a full explanation of Barthes’s original thesis see Laura Seymour, An Analysis of Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author (London: Macat, 2018)

[7] Kevin Kearney, ‘Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the Frontier of the Human’, Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 23: 2 (2012), 160–78 (p. 160).

[8] Kearney, p. 169.

[9] Francesca Haig, ‘Billows of Ash: Cormac McCarthy’s Road Back to Auschwitz’, in Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World, ed. by Monica Germana and Aris Mousoutzanis (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 162–72 (p. 162).

[10] Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 3rd edn (London: Picador, 2009), p. 13.

[11] McCarthy, The Road, p. 103.

[12] McCarthy, The Road , p. 1.

[13] McCarthy, The Road, p. 155.

[14] McCarthy, p. 55.

[15] Bill Hardwig, ‘Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and “a world to come”’, Studies in American Naturalism, 8: 1 (2013), 38-51 (p. 38).

[16] McCarthy, p. 18.

[17] Inger-Anne Søfting, ‘Between Dystopia and Utopia: The Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, English Studies, 94: 6 (2013), 704–13 (p. 706).

[18] McCarthy, p. 58.

[19] Hannah Gale [online], ‘10 Real-Life Cannibal Stories from Past 25 years that will Absolutely Horrify You’, Metro, 9 May 2014, accessed 6 February 2021, available at: http://www.metro.co.uk

[20] Stephen Basdeo, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), ch. 6.

[21] McCarthy, p. 192.

[22] Paul D. Knox, ‘“Okay Means Okay”: Ideology and Survival in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, Explicator, 70: 2 (2012), 96–99.

[23] Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, ‘The Apocalyptic Sublime: Then and Now’, in Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World, ed. by Monica Germana and Aris Mousoutzanis (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 57­­­­–72 (p. 67).

[24] Inger-Anne Søfting, ‘Between Dystopia and Utopia: The Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, English Studies, 94: 6 (2013), 704–13 (p. 704).

[25] McCarthy, p. 113.

[26] McCarthy, p. 138.

[27] McCarthy, p. 28.

[28] McCarthy, p. 163.

[29] McCarthy, p. 42.

[30] McCarthy, p. 306.