Nothing is more hopeless than an apocalypse. Or so it might seem. In its original sense, apocalypse means revelation.” The word later came to be associated with an end-of-the-world cataclysmic event because of the link John’s Revelation in the Bible makes between revelation and the end of this world.1 In revealing our present condition, traditional, religious apocalyptic literature directs our future hope. But what about a secular apocalypse such as Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which depicts a world devoid of religion and nearly all reference to God? Modern apocalyptic literature, which is largely secular apocalyptic literature, demonstrates the truth about the modern condition: we have replaced God with ourselves as the source of meaning and the center of the universe and it is not enough.
The Road is the simple, but harrowing, story of a father and son who are wayfarers in a postapocalyptic world bereft of nearly all life. Such a place seems unlikely to cultivate hope. But sometimes in circumstances that seem most hopeless, hope is by necessity strengthened.
Hope is characterized by “quiet confidence,” a quality the man embodies throughout the story. When the novel opens, the two have already set out toward a warmer clime and the sea, not knowing what might lie before them there or anywhere else. They travel for months along burned-out highways, sleeping in woods or abandoned homes. They seem to be alone in the world. Yet, the man promises the boy, “There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see.”
As in most postapocalyptic worlds, there are only “good guys” and “bad guys.” The man and the boy are among the good. The father reassures the boy of this as often as he warns him of the other.
“And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.”
The man never tells the boy (nor does the narrator tell the reader) what “carrying the fire” means. The fire they are carrying is what makes them good guys. It entails hope. “This is what the good guys do,” the father tells the boy. “They keep trying. They don’t give up.”
HOPE REQUIRES RECKONING
Hope is not the same as oblivion or naiveté. Hope requires reckoning with the world as it is, with reality. The man does this. When the boy asks the man if crows still exist, the man tells him it’s unlikely. And when the boy realizes that they have narrowly escaped being cannibalized, his father does not deny this horrific truth Being reasonable is one of the man’s most prominent characteristics. He remains watchful all the time on the road.
Pursuing the great good allows—or perhaps requires—appreciation of the other goods along the way. Both magnanimity and humility assist this. For even in a postapocalyptic world, goodness can be found. These moments of goodness are what turn an otherwise horrifying story into a work of beauty and power. The story is filled with moments of goodness.
Paradoxically, the bleak world of The Road is an affirmation, even a celebration, of what is good, all the more marvelous in a world with so little good seemingly left in it.
Once, while the boy is sleeping, the man watches over him, reflecting, “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”
Because transcendence requires what the story refers to as “revelation and faith,” the desire for transcendence is, whether recognized as such or not, ultimately the desire for God. Despite the absence in The Road of religious faith—and, seemingly, God—something of transcendence is omnipresent nevertheless.
Indeed, transcendence is the fuel, the fire itself, for the whole story and its entire journey.
THE FUEL FOR HOPE
The hope the man has had all along—his hope in the boy and in the “fire” they carry—points to something more than natural hope. The man’s hope allows him to succeed in the quest to reach the sea. By the time he and the boy arrive there, the world as it is has taken its toll on the man. Knowing his life will soon end, the man passes on his natural hope to the boy. “You need to go on, he said. I can’t go with you.” The man poignantly places his hopes for transcendence entirely in his son.
If we accept the central metaphor of the story—carrying the fire—then we see that, after the man’s death (but even before), the boy does carry it forward and, in so doing, extends in some way the man’s natural life. The boy’s sensitivity toward the transcendent is even stronger than the man’s. It is the boy who, in his innocence, seeks to help others that the man, in his greater experience, rejects out of fear. It is the boy who, when they stumble upon a great store of food in a safe bunker underground, insists upon giving thanks—somehow, to someone—before they eat.
Later, when they have reached their destination of the sea and they find a flare gun and the man explains its purpose to the boy—to show others where you are—the boy wonders if somebody “like God” might see it.
“Yeah,” his father answers. “Maybe somebody like that.”
Somebody like that does see the boy. After the father’s death, a family who has been watching them comes to the boy’s aid. They are a father, a mother, and two children. When the boy asks if they are “the good guys,” they assure him they are. And they are. They take him in. And sometimes the woman—the mother—talks to the boy about God.
Excerpt used by permission, Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, Brazos (a division of Baker Publishing Group), copyright: September 4, 2018.
Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is an award-winning professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More--Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Prior has written for Christianity Today, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Think Christian, and The Gospel Coalition. She is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a senior fellow with Liberty University's Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, a senior fellow with the Trinity Forum, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.