In a bleak, monochromatic wasteland, a “banished sun circles the Earth like a grieving mother with a lamp” (32). For the inhabitants of this barren, post-apocalyptic world, man’s bravest feat is waking up in the morning—mornings that are met not with symphonic sparrows and songs of the world’s awakening, but with the all-encompassing reality of loss. Nights are “dark beyond darkness,” and the dawning of each new day promises a progressive descent into grey (1). Nature is an impoverished mother: unable to provide for her children or even for herself. Starvation is a constant state as vagabonds traverse the labyrinthine paths before them, knowing they are on the road to nowhere but trudging forward nonetheless. Some call Cormac McCarthy’s The Road “a lyric epic of horror.” I call it a lyric epic of hope.
In the opening of The Road, Papa awakens and immediately reaches for his son. “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him,” (1). This act is the ultimate affirmation of hope—asserting that, even in a state of complete disarray, the world has not lost the human connection that is woven into its very fabric. Were the novel truly hopeless, Papa would have reached for something else in this opening scene: food, a lantern, an extra layer perhaps. But instead, he reaches for his son. Where love is instinctual, hope persists.
Similarly, were the world entirely overrun by the cannibals that march through sections of The Road, hope certainly would join all of Earth’s animals on the extinction list. But for all these marauders—all these cannibals and rapists and pillagers—there is also Papa: tucking his son into bed each night, scavenging for him, bathing him, comforting him, teaching him, talking to him, protecting him—reaching out to him upon the dawning of first light. One man, the novel asserts, makes all the difference—proving that even in the darkest of times, to be human still means to be humane.
How can a world devoid of animals and basic necessities—a world that cannot even provide for itself—provide hope to its inhabitants? In order to answer this, we must question the notion of hope itself. Is hope’s aim an evasion of death? By that logic, all lives are hopeless—so surely this cannot be the case. Admittedly, hope in The Road does not lie in the future. Rather, it lies in the present reality, manifesting in one breath, then the next—in the setting of a table; the bathing of a son; the fizzing of a Coke; the flickering of a fire; the stroking of a hand; the exchange of an “okay;” the persistence of memory; one step forward onto the road ahead; two.
While dismal scenes—like the long-anticipated first glimpse of the grey ocean, or the sudden death of Papa—may be viewed as affirmations of a hopeless world, they, in fact, radiate the greatest hope of all. Silhouetted against the greyness of these moments is a pair that will not allow the decaying world to dismantle their relationship—things fall apart, yes, but the center can hold. Does not the fragility of life and certainty of death make our time on Earth all the more precious? The hopelessness of Papa and the boy’s world is in direct proportion to the hopefulness of the overall story: the darker the world, the brighter their fire.
Roads imply a destination, and McCarthy’s road is no exception. The road that Papa and the son are on may not deliver the pair to salvation, to the sustained survival of their species, or even to brighter days. Yet, as they trail forward into uncertainty, the road delivers them hope nonetheless—in the form of the love shared by a father and son. Even after Papa’s death, the road continues to deliver hope. “You have my whole heart,” says Papa from his deathbed. “You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see,” (279). In his final moments, Papa has found a way to remain with his son on the road to come. Few things in life are as certain as death—but here, we see that love after loss is one of them. Papa may be gone from the world, but his son is a testament to the fact that he lived—and moreover, he lived meaningfully. He taught his son to carry the fire, and his son learned better than his teacher. As Papa’s life flickers out, an eternal flame blazes on in the boy, keeping the world alight. He will always carry the fire—and so, he will carry the hope of humanity itself.
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery (287).
For those who view The Road as a lyric epic of horror, the novel’s ending is likely the Maraschino cherry on top of McCarthy’s doomsday sundae. But when we view The Road as an affirmation of hope, the novel’s ending adopts a different meaning entirely. There is no denying that the world as we know it has been lost to man—it is a “thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” Yet, hope remains; in the streams are trout: resonant symbols of renewal in barren wastelands. The world, insists the text, is in a perpetual state of “becoming.” There was a world before man (“in the deep glens where [the trout] lived all things were older than man…”) and there will be one long after we have departed from this Earth.
Thus, in The Road, hope may not lie in the future and a continuation of the human species, but it certainly lies in the present—in the relationships we hold while we wander this Earth and the meaning we find in our limited time traversing the labyrinthine roads before us: tiny specks on a planet that has given and will take life, over and over, until the end of time.