Survival and Morality in Cormac McCarthy's The Road: Exploring Aquinian Grace and the Boy as Messiah
In the first scene of The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy encapsulates the bleak psychology of his post-apocalyptic novel with a metaphor of blindness that symbolically translates the confusion and hopelessness of his desolate world. In a normal setting, the father’s moment of awakening would mean a return to consciousness and the certainty of reality, a relief from the hauntingly cryptic realm of dreams. But in this landscape, where gloom corrupts the days like “the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world,” the clarity of waking is negated by a fear that only the refuge of eternal sleep can cure (p. 1).
In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand (3)... He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke (5).
Both the unconscious and the real provide nightmarish scenarios, which cruelly trap the Father in a state of hopelessness. The description that follows that dream scene allows for a sense of guidance to emerge, one that is intrinsically connected to the Boy. This is the first of many instances in which the son adopts a leadership role. Although, as expected, the Father makes all pragmatic decisions concerning survival, the Boy is the clear authority on morality, persuading the father to preserve a charitable spirit in McCarthy’s amoral wasteland. He is the bringer of light in the darkness, the embodiment of “carrying the fire” (p. 234).
In his analysis of Grace from the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas discusses the human dependence on the divine gift of benevolence to accomplish acts of great virtue. This concept of Aquinian grace is soothingly echoed in the actions of the Boy, who—despite suffering brief moments of desperation—embodies the benevolent resilience of a guiding figure. The Boy also inspires his father to hope for the possibility of a communal rebirth. He acts almost like a messiah, launching a new human era that carries the potential to live beyond the aridness of the present.
By examining the consistent characterization of the child as a Christlike figure, I argue that McCarthy establishes this divine aura as an Aquinian presence of grace to ensure the moral preservation of the father. The rhetoric of grace that accompanies the pair through the perilous moral terrain of the novel makes The Road a tale about the survival of integrity and hope—of the soul—rather than of life itself.
The rhetoric of grace that accompanies the pair through the perilous moral terrain of the novel makes The Road a tale about the survival of integrity and hope—of the soul—rather than of life itself.
A manifestation of this dystopian immorality is first introduced in the translucent monster that haunts the father’s dream. In the frightening yet fearful nature of this eldritch creature, the writer embodies the complex psychological demons that constantly torture his protagonists: uncertainty, fear, and sometimes even bitter resignation.
In this scene, McCarthy commences a novel-long metaphorical language that synonymizes spiritual depravity with darkness. The beast has eyes “dead white and sightless” which might suggest it was originally created to remain trapped in the shadows, away from the light of knowledge and safety (p. 1).
Although readers might interpret its ugliness as a reflection of its feral state, scholar Lynda R. Cooper believes that this first presence of evil is indeed a sentient one, because McCarthy stresses its possession of a heart and a mind. When sensing the pair, the monster seeks the darkness as if intimidated by their presence. Considering that in the father’s mind they are “the good guys,” the honorable vestiges of a time when ethical living mattered, the creature’s refusal to accept their light, despite his intellectual capability to do so, denotes a “wilful dullness of emotion and intellect” that symbolizes those survivors who act mindlessly, privileging survival over morality (Cooper, 2011, p. 221).
Although the cause behind the apocalypse is never revealed, Cooper imagines that with this first horrifying character, McCarthy intended to place the source of the destruction within the realm of morality. Like the monster that almost instinctually finds shelter in this metaphorical obscurity and therefore fails to rise above it, humans continue to create the corruption that has already once caused the annihilation of their society. The many moments of cruelty and selfishness that flourish throughout the novel prove this cycle of darkness true.
Yet the Boy acts in opposition to this ethical indolence by always being sympathetic and encouraging his father to remain faithful to the goodness he once developed in the old world. Although he possesses no reference point other than his tired father, the Boy sees life as something more precious than an endless struggle to survive. When he asks his father about their long-term goals, he is symbolically motioning to the potential return of a world where such aims would be feasible, where people can exist beyond the immediacy of finding shelter and sustenance (p. 26). The possibility that resides in this simple question introduces a tenuous sense of hope that opposes his mother’s vehement clamors for an “eternal nothingness” and his father’s constant battle against the allure of suicide (p. 74).
This little family seems to be guided by a force more powerful than the desperation that inspires other “creedless” men to succumb to cannibalism and murder (p. 24). Though understandably not cheerful, the Boy is rarely shaken in his stubborn faith to seek out whatever goodness is left in post-apocalyptic America and its inhabitants. He once expresses a wish to end it all and go back with his mother. Yet this moment of weakness is overshadowed by his stubbornness to help Ely; his desire to thank dead people for food; his compassion for the man who stole everything they owned, and his strange expectation to find birds or fishes when he has only known natural sterility.
The Boy clearly lives for and in expectation of something better. Considering the toxically pervasive creed of hopelessness that has governed the world throughout his life, it is difficult to imagine that his surroundings or his nearly defeated father have influenced such expectations. Therefore, there must be some internal force nourishing these dreams, separating the child from other faithless humans. The authorial voice, with its simple but powerful metaphors, seems to argue that the child is encouraged by a source of divinity.
The Boy’s positive view of nature also speaks of his formidable determination to recognize the good. The horrific environment of ash and continual darkness, which contributes nothing to survival, would be easy to vilify, but the child refuses to do so. The child experiences the environment differently from his father, not only because he belongs to it, but also because its lifelessness is temporarily cured by his presence. While the Father experiences a “cold autistic dark,” the Boy is compelled to extend his hand to receive a snowflake, as if it were a natural gift, and he watches it dissolve “like the last host of Christendom” (p. 13). McCarthy’s distinction of the flake as the last remnant of the Eucharist might seem to indicate an end of a benevolent Christian presence; however, this scene actually presents hope for a new covenant.
The Boy—whose body could be seen as an extension of this barren environment since he is almost feral and knows nothing of the former world—absorbs the properties of the flake and thus is blessed by its sanctity. The melted host serves as a soothing balm that moistens the Boy’s barren skin with its holy water and symbolically returns the hope for a new, post-apocalyptic kind of fertility. It is important to note that McCarthy uses expires instead of melts or dissolves because this word has a connotation of death, just like the sacrificial atonement that is celebrated during the ritual of transubstantiation. Through the expiration of that natural Eucharist, the Boy establishes the possibility of spiritual redemption, a renewed agreement after the great, self-inflicted, calamities that humanity has endured.
Despite its Christian connotation, the flake’s natural purity has been contaminated, leaving the Boy with a grey host representative of the corrupted world that produced it. This black tainting of the white host can be cured through the Boy who has “light all about him” and has been chosen to lead people away from the dark (p. 223). This connection between the child and the light is consistent throughout the narrative: after every scene of intense darkness McCarthy focuses on this character to metaphorically break and contrast that blackness with the Christ-like boy. Cooper also identifies something inherently divine in the Boy, who serves as an antidote to the omnipresent ash, a bleak visual metaphor for the “coalesced suffering” of the world (p. 226). For the scholar, the Boy is an “incarnation of fertility” with a luminous innocence that shelters the family from the malice of the outside (p. 226).
The child also protects his father from succumbing to the good dreams, which in their richness of color provide a dangerous contrast to the grey monotony of reality. Those dreams are an invitation to rest in the land of non-existence where his wife resides, a response to the Father’s latent voice that “[wishes] it was all over” (p. 113). The urge to abandon hope assaults the Father every day with cruel persistence, making the Boy’s influence essential for his survival. McCarthy’s consistent characterization of the Boy as a messianic figure reveals an interest in the role of divine guidance within the human sphere. The father’s dependence on the Boy exceeds the boundaries of normal parental love. He believes there is a divinely ordained purpose for their relationship, which inspires him to continue living despite his growing depression. In Aquinian terms, the Boy provides a much-needed grace that allows the Man to rise above his “state of corrupted nature,” be healed by God and most importantly perform “meritorious” acts of “supernatural virtue” (Aquinas, 1990, p. 655).
The Man’s virtuous actions are especially important when contextually analyzed. He provides food for an old man who has no way of reciprocating this kindness and who will contribute nothing to rebuilding society. Despite the scarcity of resources, the father—guided by his son—decides to invest something into a life that might seem wasted. With this gesture, the author makes a subtle statement about the sanctity of human life, which must be respected regardless of circumstance. Despite his understandable initial resistance, the Father always tries to engage in costly but charitable acts.
The Boy teaches the Man to recognize an aspect of humanness in all the wanderers who travel the dangerous road, including the thief who selfishly takes their possessions instead of asking for help. Even after they’ve been robbed of everything, the child remains sympathetic. When they are leaving their camp and the Boy can no longer see the thief, he still insists “he’s so scared, Papa,” as if his immense compassion allowed him to sense desperation in others, without the need for visual clues; his Christ-like characterization emphasized by this gift (p. 77).
Such unbending mercy is heightened by the strong amorality of their world. Even the well-meaning father acknowledges a difference between his child and himself; in the corruption of others, the Man recognizes his own limitations. Maintaining the parabolic symbolism of his narrative, McCarthy again equates physical ugliness with moral degradation. After shooting a man, the father reflects on the “reptilian calculations of [his] cold and shifting eyes” and calls the attacker his “brother at last” (p. 64).
Although the stranger’s depraved, cannibalistic lifestyle sets them apart, the father recognizes in this man a shared burden that torments all adult survivors who witnessed the destruction of their world and the emergence of a lawless, godless, hopeless society. Old Ely also betrays the weight of this burden in his inability to believe that a divine presence could still roam the Earth. He does not deny the existence of a deity but, in his cynicism, he thinks that a force of fecundity and purity would have not survive in such a wretched environment. His hopelessness is so severe that, although he doesn’t seem to be an atheist, he sees divine grace as a gift that has been completely eradicated from his reality.
Therefore, when Ely sees the Boy, with his hair like a “golden chalice. Good to house a God,” he thinks he has died but he is still incapable of seeing the child as a divine figure (p. 56). This incapability suggests the belief that redemption remains unachievable for humans, even in the afterlife. Here, McCarthy reintroduces the hopelessness of a broken spiritual covenant, an idea that is continually challenged by the Man’s trust in his son. This potentially reconstructive faith suffers threatening spasms of uncertainty, which progressively push the Father deeper into the exhausted path his wife chose.
As Dominic Doyle states in his analysis of Aquinian hope, although this virtue “belongs to us [humans], because it is the human intellect that believes and the human will that hopes and loves,” it still originates from God (p. 79). Similarly, the Man depends on the Boy with the same desperate fervor of a suffering theist. With his son by his side, the Man is distinguished from other aimless travelers: not only does this pair have a destiny (the South), they also walk like “mendicant friars,” deprived of everything but engaged in a holy pilgrimage (McCarthy, 2006, p. 110).
Doyle continues, “in hope, then, a Christian regards God in two ways: as a future goal and a present helped” (p. 85). The Man also has this simultaneous bond with the Boy: he needs the child’s guidance to fight off his recurring suicidal desires and he must also protect the child as the bringer of light for humanity’s future. This hope justifies McCarthy’s focus on the metaphorical fire and the concept of goodness, for such notions are valid if the preservation and development of humanity are achievable goals.
At the end of the novel, the Boy’s conspicuous, and possibly angelic, uniqueness saves him. This presumed sanctity inspires the Father to disregard his earlier promise and enter “the darkness alone,” without his son (p. 35). Instead of keeping his child safe through death, the Man decides to trust in his moral fortitude and divine potential. The father’s mission was, as Cooper describes, to preserve a “vessel of nobility capable of proving that there is some merit to the continuation of the human race” and in this mission, he finds the strength to endure all obstacles (p. 227).
Although in this case the tired father provides the atonement, the Boy’s ability to continue living despite the great pain he feels after losing his one beloved companion is also a great sacrifice in itself. The Boy’s obstinate faith in the existence of other “good guys” is proven true when the father dies, suggesting that in those few good souls resides a hope for humanity. The emotionally exhausted dad finds the solace he has long been rejecting and the Boy is able to safely continue his journey with other people who might also benefit from his spiritual guidance. His messianic journey and Aquinian duty can continue. And thus, emulating the biblical cycle of redemption after a period of intense turmoil, McCarthy places the expectation in this unlikely leader who, like the Christian messiah, carries within him the divine spirit—“the fire”—to set humanity ablaze in tongues of fiery hope.
Aquinas, Thomas. (1990). The Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Daniel J. Sullivan (Ed.) .Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
Cooper, Lydia. (2011). “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an Apocalyptic Grail Narrative.” Studies in the Novel, 43, 218-36. Http://www.jstor.org/stable/41228678
Dominic Doyle. (2011). The Promise of Christian Humanism: Thomas Aquinas on Hope. New York: Crossroad Publications.
McCarthy, Cormac. (2006). The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.