Where Does Suffering Lead Along ‘The Road’?

Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, was released ten years ago last week. To celebrate its anniversary, I’ve decided to post my culminating project for a B.A. in English—an analysis of McCarthy’s approach to the question of God and suffering in the novel. I’ve tried to edit out some of the academic-ness for general audiences, but I understand it’s still fairly long. If you do happen to read the whole thing, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments!

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No matter how people respond to the question of human suffering, their conclusions never quite seem adequate. Many find it easy enough to intellectualize the cause of pain, but knowledge often fails those faced with its full weight. There comes a point where suffering exceeds rational explanation, and people must decide for themselves what they really believe.

Perhaps the answer transcends man’s comprehension; perhaps there is no answer. Those who subscribe to the latter opinion hold that the material world is all that exists and that pain has no higher meaning. Qualities such as mercy and peacemaking are therefore only good insofar as they provide some immediate value to a person or group.

Others assert that, for better or worse, some higher power has a plan for the world’s suffering. That plan might not always make sense to human intellect, but man can nonetheless rest assured that his pain exists for a greater purpose. As such, the highest good one can achieve is to conform oneself to this purpose, eschewing the desires of the flesh for virtues that surpass Creation itself.

At first glance, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road sits firmly within the materialist camp. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where pragmatism is the ruling law of the land. At the center of the novel are father and son, “each the other’s world entire,” traveling south to escape the encroaching winter. Their survival sentences them to scavenge every waking moment just to stay alive. Scripture says that man shall not live on bread alone, but there is little else they can do in the barren wasteland. Neither can they allow virtue to cloud their judgment. The road pits every man against one another, and showing mercy could easily be a fatal mistake.

Yet there are numerous instances in the novel that eclipse this rugged, utilitarian existence. The father and son share intimate moments with each other, pulling them out of their bleak reality for however short a time. The son, though obviously affected by the horrors around him, feels compassion for those they encounter on their journeys. Their world may not have an empirical need for virtue and affection, but those higher ideals have not yet died out.

So which of these two sides wins out by the novel’s end? And does their pain mean anything outside of some random natural phenomenon?

Critics such as John Clute and Kenneth Lincoln adopt a more nihilistic reading of the novel, asserting that there’s nothing at the end of the road. I believe the opposite—that the thrust of The Road is ultimately toward something higher, beyond the material world. Most will agree that the question of God is central to the novel, but it is not a question that meets the reader with a vacant echo.

Rather, the text is alive with a redemptive energy that does not ignore suffering but transforms it. And though this supernatural power may not conform to a strictly Judeo-Christian conception of God, McCarthy nevertheless relies heavily on such imagery to inform his novel. At its heart, The Road acknowledges the eternal and redemptive qualities of suffering, such as sacrifice and intimacy and a constant search for meaning.

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Is God on the Road to Begin With?

Before arguing for the presence of these qualities, however, evidence for a higher power in the text must be made certain. Unless something larger is at work in the novel, you would have serious difficulty arguing that the experiences of the father and son mean anything at all. Even a humanist reading might uphold the value of altruism, but it cannot contend that suffering means anything beyond the physical realm. The presence of the supernatural is hence integral to this argument.

That said, the question of God in the novel is not easily answered. McCarthy takes an agnostic approach to spiritual matters that often complicates any religious reading of his work. As he said once in a rare interview, “I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is to pray. You could even be quite doubtful about the whole business.” The Road is likewise fairly hands-off when it comes to the exact nature of God’s existence.

One of the most profound examples of this comes early in the novel, when the father cries out to God alone in the woods: “Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.” His questions linger in the cold air. Allen Josephs writes that this aspect of the novel was even more pronounced in its earlier drafts. McCarthy clearly does not intend to spell anything out for the reader, but does that make God absent?

There are certainly moments in the text that create room for doubt. The entire novel is laced with questions about the existential meaning of reality, often echoing the Ecclesiastical cry of “vanity, vanity!” In fact, McCarthy’s writing bears some remarkable similarities to the Teacher’s philosophical pondering in Scripture. He writes, “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again.” Compared to Ecclesiastes, the two are almost exactly identical: “The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course” (Eccl. 1:6, NIV).

Yet the Teacher eventually concludes that one ought to “fear God and keep his commands,” as only God holds the answer to life’s questions. McCarthy’s writing is not quite as explicit in its conclusions, and he often gives voice to sincere doubt and cynicism in his work.

For example, the novel contains several brief codas; one of them reads, “Do you think your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.” McCarthy gives no context to the passage, but the final sentence infects the text with its ominous pronouncement. Another time, the father looks on a melting snowflake and compares it to “the last host of christendom.”

One might attempt to frame these statements as a symptom of doubt and despair, without being definitive portrayals of the novel’s overall worldview. Yet the fact remains that a single character unquestionably declares God dead. As the only named character in the novel, Ely explicitly voices the interpretation of nihilist critics: “There is no God and we are his prophets.” Ely equates the father and son with disciples of nothingness, acting in service of nothing. Depending on how one reads the novel, his verdict could act as a key to McCarthy’s meaning.

Yet one would be remiss to trust the words of Ely. For one, Ely confesses outright that he is not who he says he is, operating instead under an alias. He tells the father, “I couldn’t trust you with [my name]. To do something with it. I dont want anybody talking about me. To say where I was or what I said when I was there.” Ely quite literally refuses to stand by his words; why then should the reader?

Furthermore, the father resists Ely’s words for much of their conversation. Right before they split ways, the father tells Ely he ought to thank the boy for offering him food. Ely refuses, as the boy’s kindness doesn’t make sense to him. The father tells him, “You wouldnt understand . . . I’m not sure I do.” Ely counters, “Maybe he believes in God . . . he’ll get over it.” But the father defends his boy: “No he wont.” So while Ely’s beliefs create a menacing case for nihilism in the novel, the father clearly stands by his son’s beliefs and sense of morality. Ely’s words are not accepted by the characters and should not be accepted by the reader either.

no6-the-roadDeus Ex Turbatio

Besides, to focus on these examples of doubt and despair—elements that are understandable in a novel of this sort—is to ignore the often literal presence of God on the road. He may not be seen through signs or wonders, but McCarthy’s repeated parallels between the boy and God become rather difficult to ignore at a certain point. In fact, these parallels become so prevalent that one must ask if the boy actually is God.

The father certainly seems to consider this possibility. In his conversation with Ely, the father asks of his boy, “What if I said he’s a god?” Ely scoffs at this, of course, but it is not the first time the father has considered the possibility. As he watches his son sleep one night, McCarthy narrates, “He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god.”

Later in the novel, the father sees his son “standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.” Twice more, the boy is described as emanating light in almost angelic terms: “There was light all about him” and “when he moved, the light moved with him.” Most interestingly, these parallels come from the view of the boy’s survival-focused father.

The parallels do not stop there, either. At one point, the father tells his boy, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.” The boy replies, “Yes I am . . . I am the one.” As Josephs points out, “I am” is a self-descriptor used by both God and Jesus in Scripture. On top of this, the father thinks of his boy as the word of God, saying, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

McCarthy’s earlier drafts even contain a passage where the boy explicitly shines light onto his surroundings. According to Josephs, “The boy again has light all about him. But the light does not fall on him—for there is no source of light—but issues from him in a ‘constant and slow emanation’ that spreads from him and from his hand, and ‘even from’ what he touches.”

The most readily evident aspect of The Road may be its bleakness, but there sure is a lot of light at its center. Such allusions to the boy’s divinity creates a serious challenge for nihilist critics, making it nearly impossible to deny the presence of the supernatural in the novel.

So what is the reader to make of this? Is the boy a symbol of God? Is he a manifestation or reflection of God’s love? Or is the boy actually God?

Critics like Josephs and Frye seem cautious to say that God is physically present in the story. After all, if God exists in the text, then he definitely doesn’t interact with humanity in any direct manner. At the very least, however, readers can see the divine reflected through the boy’s character. As previously mentioned, the boy has a huge heart for helping others they meet while traveling. And by the novel’s end, it is clear that the boy has become a symbolic Christ figure (if not a literal deity).

A prime example of his Christ-like benevolence is seen in how he treats those who come across as ungrateful or undeserving of such compassion. Ely, for instance, refuses to thank him and is fairly coarse with the boy’s father. Yet the boy nonetheless asks to give him food, feeling sorry for this man who looks “like a pile of rags fallen off a cart.” In this way, the boy’s attitude is remarkably similar to Christ’s love for the sinners, outcasts, and impoverished.

These similarities to Christ continue throughout the novel. Towards the end of the story, a man steals a shopping cart containing all their food and belongings. The father and son eventually catch up to the thief, and the father threatens to kill him. The punishment would be fair, after all—had they not caught him, the two of them likely would have died of starvation. Yet the son halts this “eye for an eye” mentality in its tracks.

Rather than perpetuate the cycle of violence that dominates their world, the boy cuts right through it. He pleads with his father to let the man go free, interceding on the thief’s behalf. Just like Christ intercedes for humanity, the boy acts as a mediator between his father’s thirst for justice and the sins of a desperate man. When the boy begins crying, McCarthy writes, “The thief looked at the child and what he saw was very sobering to him.” His compassion ultimately saves the thief’s life and keeps his father from acting in vengeance. Acts of mercy like the boy’s therefore provide a strong case for a divine force in the novel, if only through mere reflections.

apocalypse-1When You Meet Your Son on the Road, Call Him Buddha

Yet there remains the possibility that the boy is a literal embodiment of God. The father repeatedly tells his boy throughout The Road that they are “carrying the fire.” But is this “fire” more than just a way to keep his son motivated? Is there an “entrapped divine spark” within the boy, as Josephs writes? Some readings would answer yes.

Frye notes that McCarthy’s work has Gnostic influences in places, which may serve as a key to this reading. The Gnostics believed that man had such “divine sparks” within him, created by the embodiment of wisdom Sophia. In Gnostic mythology, this spark falls into a “world of shadows, where it forgets its true home, while unconsciously longing to return there.” Furthermore, this mythology relates “the eventual arrival of a Savior who will reveal its true origin and thus enable it to regain consciousness of its essential alienation from the world of shadows.” Reading the novel through this lens, the boy could easily be interpreted as the Gnostic savior who has divine knowledge of those things beyond the physical realm and who seeks to remove himself from the fallen world.

More than any other character, the boy rises above a basic need to stay alive and obtains this higher knowledge. The father appears to sense this uniqueness about him. Sitting around the campfire one night, the father watches his boy stoke the fire and refers to him as “God’s own firedrake.” Perhaps the boy has a unique ability to channel this divine spark to produce something good in his environment, spewing light into the world like fire from the mouth of a dragon.

This is complicated, however, by the continuation of the passage: “The sparks rushed upward and died in the starless dark. Not all dying words are true and this blessing is no less real for being shorn of its ground.” Upon first reading, these sentiments seem rather hopeless. The light is ultimately swallowed up by the dark, and people still spread falsehoods on their deathbeds. But what to make of the last statement?

It seems to imply that, even though the world has been turned upside down, good somehow still exists. Blessings are still blessings, and God still bestows his gifts on mankind. This might seem like a stretch, but not when viewed in the context of James 1:17; the verse reads, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows” (NIV). In the father’s view, the boy seems to be a literal manifestation of this light. He may not eliminate the dark completely, but shines into it nonetheless.

In the end, one cannot positively say whether the boy is a physical incarnation of God or simply mirrors his character. Either interpretation could be true; perhaps both are. As Josephs writes, “Such a reading favors the imbedded tapestry of Judeo-Christian iconography, yet does not exclude the philosophical latitude of Gnosticism and agnosticism, or the tangled contradictions of faith and reason and doubt.” Regardless of which position one takes, one should remain skeptical of those who argue that God is completely absent from The Road.

Yet they should also be mindful not to gloss over the very real elements of doubt in the novel. As Jacobs points out, the characters’ doubt often exists side by side with their faith. Their doubt is a natural reaction, not a statement by McCarthy on God’s nonexistence. The father and son are merely afraid that God does not exist or that, if there is a God, he has wound the clock and stepped back, remaining totally uninvolved in his creation.

This fear—conscious or subconscious—is evidently displayed when the boy tells his father about a dream he has. In the dream, the two are in a house together when a wind-up penguin toy comes waddling around the corner. The boy wakes up terrified. “The winder wasn’t turning,” he says. Though the boy is not able to articulate exactly what his dream means, he is afraid that a Deistic God’s impersonal experiment of Creation has run its course, and they are even more abandoned than before.

The father voices the same fear when he describes earth as “a creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end.” Their fear is natural: who wouldn’t question God’s involvement in a world like theirs? But this fear is not the same as God actually being absent. Whether God is directly present through the characters or seen indirectly through their altruism, there can be little doubt from a literary perspective that he is indeed present in the novel.

33a536fd292ba0db28706805bd1427087d724a29Only as Good as My God

So if God is present in The Road, one would naturally question whether or not he is benevolent. Is he subjecting the characters to random, meaningless pain for his own sadistic pleasure? Or is he using their pain for the genuine good of all? If one intends to argue that the suffering in the novel means anything, then the character of God should come under close scrutiny.

The question of his goodness seems particularly relevant in light of the incomprehensible trauma the father and son experience. The father reminds his son how to use a pistol several times throughout the novel. Yet in one sickening twist, McCarthy reveals that the father is not teaching him to use it on others. He’s teaching him to use it on himself. “You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard.” This scene comes shortly after the two flee a house where cannibals are keeping live humans in their cellar.

At one point, the novel even describes the world as “soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell.” McCarthy’s writing is beyond bleak here, and raises some serious questions about his view of God’s nature. Can any of these circumstances really be for good?

While the horror the father and son experience is blatantly and inherently evil, the arc of the novel is ultimately toward goodness. In the words of Frye, “McCarthy is by no means devoid of hope. On the contrary, if genuine hope is to be found by honest and thoughtful people, it must be found by acknowledging the harshest realities and the darkest of human circumstances.”

McCarthy delves deep into these circumstances to find hope and in the end comes up successful. The hope found in The Road is seen primarily in the transition from the father’s worldview to the son’s. McCarthy clearly depicts a passing of the baton between them, carrying the story to its natural conclusion that redeems their experience and gives meaning to their suffering.

Throughout the novel, the boy acts as a sort of foil to his father, preferring compassion to pragmatism. As mentioned previously, the boy frequently begs to help those they encounter, often to his father’s dismay. His sympathy for people on the road may put himself in danger, but he continues to serve as the novel’s moral center regardless.

The father, on the other hand, is most adamant about staying alive. He warns his son against sweet dreams, holding that “the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death.” At one point, McCarthy describes the father as viewing beauty and goodness as “things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all.” For the man, they can either prioritize that which sustains the flesh or die. Anything aside from his mission to stay alive is a thing of the past for him.

Right from the start, this dichotomy between material gain and eternal value splits their relationship down the middle. The father wishes, “If only my heart were stone.” The boy, however, cannot help but feel for those who are suffering. Even those they do not meet, he still longs to help. Halfway through the novel, the father and son come across a vast supply of food. The boy decides to pray over it: “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”

As the novel moves on, the father becomes more understanding of the boy’s soft heart. Eventually, on the verge of death, the father shifts his perspective. “Look around you, he said. There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who’s not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right.” With those last three words—“you were right”—he concedes to his son’s worldview. He passes the mantel to him, and it is not long before he gives up his ghost. Such is the overall arc of The Road: from a heavy-handed focus on the temporal to qualities which transcend time and space.

19194992The Arc in the Road

Frye paints this arc in even more detail, arguing that the novel serves as a sort of allegory. Before the events of the novel take place, the boy’s mother commits suicide with a flake of obsidian. No matter how hard the father argues with her to reconsider, she decides she has made up her mind. She tells him, “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”

Fast forward to the start of the novel, and the father and son are described by McCarthy as “pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some gigantic beast.” They are on a journey, not only to escape the turbulent winter, but to see if there is any hope or meaning to be found along the way.

The arc begins its conclusion when the father is struck by an arrow while protecting his boy. As he rests himself for the very last time, he prophesies the novel’s ending: “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.” And goodness does exactly that. After the father dies, the boy waits with his body a symbolic three days before he is taken in by a group of people who watch out for him and take care of him. In that group is a new maternal figure who acts as a restoration to the loss of his biological mother, thus completing the arc.

Reading the story allegorically in this way opens up numerous avenues for meaning. First, there is the suicide of the mother as a metaphor for the fall of man. She walks out on her family, telling her husband, “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.” The lover she takes is death, and the decision has massive ramifications for the father and son. They now wander the earth as a fractured family, secretly hoping for something to restore them.

Similarly, mankind accepted death over God in the Garden of Eden. Yet that is not the end of the story. This restoration begins when the father sacrifices himself for his son, just as Christ sacrificed himself for humanity. And three days later, the restoration becomes realized in this new mother figure, just as Jesus defeated death after three days in the tomb. The entire arc comes to a full circle in this reading.

The arrival of this new maternal character is easily the most significant part of the novel. As Josephs writes, to say that her arrival after the death of the father is a deus ex machina is exactly what McCarthy intended. He writes, “Why drag out a deliberate and undisguised deus ex machina—no one could seriously argue that McCarthy was unaware of the fact—if you want to deny any sort of deus?”

Furthermore, he writes that the woman is the only positive maternal figure in all of McCarthy’s canon. She acts in stark contrast to the boy’s original mother, talking about the eternal instead of bemoaning the temporal. McCarthy writes, “She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” Josephs also points out that this is the last image McCarthy leaves the reader with, aside from a brief, unrelated coda—the relationship restored, with God at the center.

These allegorical elements make it all the more confounding when critics like Kenneth Lincoln argue that goodness does not win out in the novel. Lincoln ends his analysis of The Road by implying that, as the boy still has one bullet left in the pistol, he will ultimately choose the route of his original mother. But why would he do this when he’s finally found refuge? If he intended to commit suicide, why not do it after his father’s death instead of waiting around three days? Simple questions like these reveal that Lincoln’s reading is the exact opposite of what McCarthy intended.

And it is not as though The Road is the first time McCarthy points to redemption in spite of the harsh material world. Frye writes, “The Crossing also relates to the questions of ‘theodicy,’ which is the effort among philosophers and theologians to reconcile God’s benevolence with the omnipresence of evil in creation.” The two are present in the novel side by side, yet goodness undeniably comes out on top. If God is present in The Road, then one has to concede that he is in fact benevolent and does in fact redeem their suffering.

26Growing Pains

“But why suffering?” you might ask. Why couldn’t God have brought about this plan without such terrible pain? Couldn’t he have just as well used the enticement of joy and pleasure? As referenced at the start of this analysis, one cannot know why God chooses the plans he does.  To quote Corinthians, “No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11, NIV).

In many ways, the suffering in The Road is equally incomprehensible. There is a randomness to many of the events. For example, the father and son pass one man in their travels who has been struck by lightning. “He was as burntlooking as the country, his clothing scorched and black. One of his eyes was burnt shut and his hair was but a nitty wig of ash upon his blackened skull.” The two simply pass him, wondering at the strangeness of his fate.

Despite the apparently random nature of suffering, many Christian thinkers have written about it through the centuries in an attempt to fit it within the context of the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis was one of them. In his book The Problem of Pain, he theorizes as to why God allows people to suffer. He writes, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast . . . . Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

Likewise, metaphysical poet George Herbert writes about the same subject in “The Pulley.” The poem describes how God made man, pouring out every blessing possible on him. Yet when he reaches “rest” in the bottom of the glass, he pauses. Instead of bestowing this gift on man, he says,

“Let him be rich and weary, that at least

If goodness lead him not, yet weariness

May toss him to my breast.”

In many ways, the answer to pain seems far beyond man’s grasp, as if reaching for a standard that does not exist in earthly terms. This is easily one of the biggest themes of The Road, and one that the characters struggle with extensively.

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To Heaven, Through Hell

Yet the father and son continue to strive for this standard nonetheless. Both find shades of it in sacrifice and in intimacy with one another. Frye says, “The question of the divine in his conception is blended with and highly pertinent to any consideration of human intimacy.” The love of a father and son shines an indirect light on this divinity, and both recognize the eternal qualities therein.

This is especially true of the father. He makes numerous sacrifices for his son, even when he is unsure of why they are still going. And if there is anything one can know with certainty about The Road, it is that the father loves his son. He tells the boy, “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God.” Though he frequently questions the truth of that statement, he refuses to take the easy way out or leave his son for any reason. It is through this attachment, which has no material value, that he learns the importance of the eternal. Both characters are able to rise through their pain through intimacy and sacrifice and are able to touch something outside of this world alone.

And ultimately, their pain brings about God’s ultimate purpose in the world. The boy recognizes his pain in others, and this causes him to seek compassion instead of vengeance. He may still have a loaded gun in the novel’s conclusion, but the point is that it remains unfired. He has come one step closer to achieving the prophecy in Isaiah 2:4, that nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (NIV).

The loaded pistol is not a sign of despair; rather, it is a sign of violence laid down in service of something transcendent. The boy recognizes his ability to introduce peace into a violent world. Maybe that’s why the father twice describes him as an alien. He has reached a standard set not by this world, but by God in heaven who has a plan for one’s suffering, and who is working for “the renewal of all things” to him.

Man as a whole is on a journey. He travels the road seeking how to best make his way through the pain and heartache that hounds him with each turn. He seeks endlessly for something that will relieve his hunger for the eternal. Yet no matter how many temporary bandages he uses, the wound is still permanent and the material world will never satisfy his longing.

Yet that longing is bestowed in him by God, to draw man to him. In The Road, this journey is made abundantly clear. It is not always easy, but God is waiting on the other side. It is on us to look beyond material gain or satisfaction. Only then can we find that the end of the road contains the solution to every man’s longing, and the rest he seeks so fervently.

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