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I have chosen to start this analysis of the themes in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a mild quote from Matthew 24:44 for two reasons. The first is obvious: the characters of this novel are intended as universal and go by only the names of “Man” and “Boy” (for the most part).

The second is something I’ve touched on before and something I find myself revisiting in light of recent global events: we are obsessed with the end of days. We always have been, and probably always will. From the rapture in the Bible to The Day After Tomorrow and beyond, the thin line of humanity that separates our lives as we know it, and to what they could become, is never far from our minds.

Perhaps, this is even more true now. With the undeniability that the world will change now because of Global Warming, to the new threats of Nuclear Apocalypse, viral cataclysm, and a myriad of other harbingers of doom that we try and relegate to the big screen, our mortality is as real to us now as it ever was for those that endured the “Who’s Got the Bigger Cahonies” competition that was the Cold War. And I use these grander narratives of death because of their world ending capabilities. Their ability to completely alter the structure of our societies so irrevocably, and so thoroughly, that our culture could never come back as it had before.

The Road Cormac McCarthy Themes

So why do we still look to these tales of the What Could Happen? Is there a Call of the Void-esque feeling? That same one that makes you prod your sore tooth with your tongue, that whispers to you at the cliff’s edge, “What would it feel like to jump?”

The Road and its Horrific Themes

Usually I put a wee synopsis-esque-blurb-style section in the middle of my articles, but for this, it would feel slightly redundant, if not an outright waste of time (for a full spoiler summary, read here). Not because I expect everyone to have read the book or seen the film, but because so little happens within each that it would feel like a transgression to try and simplify the themes of the book into a synopsis-esque-blurb-style section.

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In The Road, Cormac McCarthy uses themes that aren’t centered around what happens, really. It’s about what each of the characters feel for one another.

Now, as I’ve said before, when the apocalypse comes, you’ll not find me tramping South for the coast, or heading to Colorado, or escaping the zombie hordes. If whatever ends the world doesn’t get me in the first wave, it better get me by the second or I’ll be doing it myself. Making mud huts out of my own waste and hunting down every Boots I can find for my meds…I don’t think so. There’s not an ounce of warrior in me to try and outlive the end of civilisation. I’m not that arrogant.

But in The Road, Cormac McCarthy uses themes based exactly on this: survival. Now, I know, I know, “But Conner, isn’t every post-apocalyptic story about survival?” I hear you type furiously into your keyboard. Well, no (see above) is the short answer. And even The Road, which does hinge its plot on survival, doesn’t do it in a typical way (hence why Cormac McCarthy is often considered a leader in his field).

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Fatherhood sans Civilisation

We constantly talk about the emotional detachment of the patriarchy. Men are conditioned to show no emotion, and suffer as a result (very true, as it goes).

But in The Road, we find ourselves with a microcosm of the patriarchy: the father and son (the mom, presumably, making like Conner at some point before the book’s beginning). One of the key themes of The Road is the love between the father and his son. The father views the boy as something sacred, holy. Despite ailing health and horrendous conditions, the father finds himself drawing strength and resolve for his love for the boy.

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This completely subverts the traditional (especially when the novel was published) standard for how we view father/son relationships…except for one key way.

The Road as Allegory for Christianity

While the father finds strength in his love for his son, the resolve I mentioned above is far more sinister. In The Road, Cormac McCarthy main themes deal with the father’s inner turmoil as to whether he can kill his son if the time comes. The father carries a hand gun with only two bullets.

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The father is reticent to use these bullets in acts of self-defence, as his intention with these bullets is to end his and his son’s life in case of capture by Roadagents or the Bad Guys who eat human meat. While this choice is unthinkable to most, it is a reality for the father who would rather see his son dead than raped, tortured and eaten.

The Road Cormac McCarthy Themes

Now, while the allegory is not exact, there is a consistent theme of Christianity that pervades the book and penetrates its pages. You can’t help but read The Road and feel you are reading a modern metaphor for God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Once we begin to dig ourselves into the subtext of the novel, we can see a horrific theme from The Road emerge. While ‘waiting for the son of man’ in a biblical sense is one of watching for the apocalypse, McCarthy is able to invert this back into its simplest meaning: we’re waiting for the son in the novel to die. Because the novel is so claustrophobic in its dimensions towards this post-apocalyptic world, this loss is of paramount importance. It would be the loss of the future, of the hope that punctuates the third act of so many Hollywood horror films. While the world is lost, for the father and for the reader, hope is still alive as long as the son lives on. And if that isn’t a Jesus metaphor, then I don’t know what is.

Last Updated on June 22, 2022.

Conner McAleese
Conner McAleese is a current PhD student at the University of Dundee studying 'spaces' in contemporary horror. His debut novel, The Goose Mistress, was published in 2018 by Dark Ink Press and details Eva Braun's experience of World War Two. McAleese now considers himself a horror writer and has had his short stories published in Blood Rites Magazine and Haunting Voices among others. He looks to the 'disturbing' for inspiration, hoping to academically push back the last taboos in literature to analyse what they represent for today's cultural fears and anxieties. However, he hopes to balance this with a satisfying and long career in horror writing. He currently lives in Dundee and is working on his first horror novel.

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