The Road is a masterpiece. There is no doubt. It is a perfect post apocalyptic tale which heaps death and destruction and ruin on the human race without ever really telling what happened. The survivors wander the bleak landscape, scrounging for food and shelter and safety. The Road focuses on two characters, the Man and the Boy. McCarthy names all of the characters in the book like this (the Thief, the Veteran…), because in this ash covered wasteland a name is only something that can be used against you.
The Man and the Boy are walking along a damaged and desolate highway, heading south, towards the ocean, towards possible salvation. The Road is full of despair and depravity with cannibals a constant threat and everyone a possible enemy. The Man has a revolver but only two bullets and he constantly reminds the Boy that suicide is the only option if they are caught. There are several occasions where the pair seem to be done for and the man is ready and waiting to kill his son and then himself. These moments are tense and heartbreaking and yet somehow, McCarthy weaves just enough blind hope into the tale that the reader is drawn into the tale, further and further until it’s dramatic end.
The Man is desperately afraid of a huge cannibal army that is roaming the area and all of his efforts to save himself and the Boy are desperate. They find food and shelter, only to move on for fear that the army is nearby. They come across atrocious acts, including a baby cooking on a spit and that only fuels the fear that the Man has. Interestingly it is possible that the cannibal army is only a figment of the Man’s imagination, a fever dream brought on by a lack of food and a plenitude of fear. The Man ‘sees’ the cannibal army marching past and the description is vivid and frightening, but it is also the only time that any colour is really mentioned in the entire tale. The Boy starts to talk and the Man shushes him so the cannibals don’t hear but then the boy asks if the Man sees them. The lack of colour elsewhere in the book and the strange conversation is surreal leading to the idea that it is all a dream. There are certainly cannibals and murderers all about but the cannibal army might just be a figment of his sick and weary mind.
It is the hope in this book that makes it so gut wrenching. If it was all bleak despair and dead babies and cannibal armies then the book would still be disturbing but much less heartbreaking. The small amounts of hopeless hope that the Boy shows the Man make the tale all the more powerful. The Man knows that it is useless. The Man knows they are done for. And yet he fights on for the Boy’s sake. He fights on against impossible odds to reach the ocean and possible salvation.
In the movie adaptation there is a scene towards the end where the pair have reached the ocean and they sit down to admire the sea. There is a sign on the beach which, if you look closely, say that this is in fact not the ocean, but Conneaut Lake Park. This has been generally thought to be a goof but I like it. Maybe they didn’t reach the ocean. Maybe they came to a huge lake and were fooled. It only adds to the sense of utter despair.