In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, unmarked wasteland, a man and his son determinedly troop along an abandoned highway, resisting death. Miraculously, they endure hopelessness together. The man comforts his son, guiding him down the uncertain path of survival towards beacons of hope. He lives for the boy, whose life drives him to preserve his own life. It is their relationship that sustains them.
In a torrent of doubt, the boy clings to his father for dear life. On one particular night, the boy dreams a toy penguin is walking around his old house, though “nobody had wound it up” (The Road 36). The toy’s unmotivated, unexplainable motion terrifies him. When he startles awake, the man holds and comforts him. His father’s familiar embrace and steady voice provide consistency on which the boy can depend. By sharing his fears with his dad, his burden becomes manageable.
Trusting his dad is not always easy, but it is necessary for survival. After witnessing victims of cannibalism behind a basement door, the boy’s fear of closed cellars nearly prevents him from exploring a hidden food pantry. On the brink of starvation, he stands at the entrance, “bobbing up and down with fear” and refusing to enter (135). The man convinces his son to follow him down with the candle because it is “what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up” (137). The man helps the boy overcome his crippling fear, on to a promised land of canned goods in lifesaving abundance. The boy’s trusting relationship with his father is his physical salvation.
Because the boy trusts his dad, the man’s words can reinforce the strong pillar of his comforting embrace. The boy leans on his words as on truth and, being fully supported, he can muster the resolve to face the morning’s bravest action: “getting up” (272). As their journey’s futility silently deposits hopelessness upon the boy, he hears his dad say out loud, “there are other good guys,” and believes him because he “has to” (185). He has the choice either to cling to encouragement or succumb to erosion. He chooses his father’s hope; it is the spine of his resilience throughout McCarthy’s novel.
Likewise, the man’s own hope is a direct product of his son’s existence. Though he insists, “there are people” out in the wilderness and longs to “find them,” he knows there is only one person left in his world (244). The boy is the last remaining spark of life and therefore “all that [stands] between him and death” (29). Before the man’s wife killed herself, she promised the man he wouldn’t “survive for himself,” and she was right (57). He faithfully justifies his own struggle as the recompense for his son’s every breath.
Protecting his son is more primal than a distraction against melancholy, more fundamental than an excuse for self-preservation. The man firmly believes it is his duty as a father to care for the boy. He was “appointed…by God” to consecrate his son’s life, and he is prepared to “kill anyone who touches [him]” (77). By establishing a hierarchy of values according to this calling, the man structures a more stable framework for surviving on the road. While his physical-self crumbles into the emptiness of death, his fatherly duty grounds him and resurrects him. Both his calling to and object of duty are beyond his own defeat, making it possible to overcome insistent death.
Fatherhood’s physical duty is God himself communicating to the man in an otherwise nameless, wordless hell. The man realizes that if God’s word is absent in his son, then “God never spoke” (5). The man’s spirit is drifting along with his body into the void as he speaks this, but duty’s final thread holds fast and tethers him to everlasting purpose.
On the beach, the man’s son shoots a flare over the sea, but he can’t “see it very far,” and it quickly dies (246). The “good guys” and even God seem too distant to notice such a meager flame. Still, the boy fixes himself to the moment. With an “upturned face” he gapes at the “hot tendrils” as they slowly fade in the night. Soon after, the man weeps as he sees his son “looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle” (273). In his son’s innocent, eager existence, the man acknowledges God’s indwelling. He knows God had looked with the boy’s eyes on that signal from the beach, as well as on every fire built in quiet resistance to physical and spiritual atrophy. It has always been God’s presence in the man’s son that kept the man’s spirit alive.
Despite his son’s support, the man remains subject to death’s slow corrosion. His tired body eventually wears down, and on page 281, the boy wakes next to a cold and lifeless shell of a man. It is as if the boy could not sustain him. He may be entitled to give up in defeat and die alongside his father, but the nature of their relationship endures beyond physical death. In passing, the man leaves “a fire behind him,” and instructs his son to “carry” this fight for life (30, 278). The duty handed down from God is always extended to the son through the man, beyond time and death. The father lives through his son, while the son lives in his father, and they continually sustain one another.
McCarthy’s father-son relationship is one of duty. In life, it builds a consistent framework for survival, in which both physical and spiritual needs are met. Their bond spurs bold self-denial and trust, pushing the pair towards fulfilling their basic necessities. Mutual dependence tethers the pair in a will to live. By the grace of God seen in one another, the man and boy carry on through dense uncertainty. Their hope in one another extends beyond life, however, in tirelessly relayed determination to leave a trace of life in the ashes.