Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: Survival and The Apocalypse
Minor spoilers ahead for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road left many readers conflicted. One thing that compelled me from the start was its capacity for poignant and poetic language. Whilst many passages in the book draw attention to the dismal and colourless aspects of the world, be it in dialogue or description, there were other passages which I found strangely beautiful and poetic. The tone of these passages seemed to me to be almost elegiac and evocative of something ancient and primal. This might be connected to the fact that the protagonists’ existence seems more similar to ancient hunter-gatherers than to modern day Westerners. The emergence of new yet primitive religions, communities and cults at which the novel hints could be seen as a possible echo of that, as could mankind’s resorting to more primitive means such as cannibalism, scavenging and cattle slavery.
However, as remarked upon by George Monbiot, a critical difference between the first humans and the last humans is that the former were living of plentiful supplies provided by nature, while the latter must scavenge the rapidly diminishing remnants of human productivity (mostly canned food, and of course humans themselves). For many critics the near-destruction of the planet’s biosphere is The Road’s world most striking feature. Monbiot remarks:
“But his thought experiment exposes the one terrible fact to which our technological hubris blinds us: our dependence on biological production remains absolute. Civilisation is just a russeting on the skin of the biosphere, never immune from being rubbed against the sleeve of environmental change.”
In this way, the novel exposes mankind’s frailty and dependence on nature’s resources to survive. The Road’s vision of a world of total scarcity and desolation lapsing in butchery and chaos reminds us what the future might hold if we remain passive and inactive. Monbiot points out that the human population is already growing too rapidly for the planet’s limited resources to able to sustain. As things are looking now, no nuclear winter or major calamity that covers the world in ash will be needed for vital resources to become scarce and civilisation to disintegrate.
Another interesting aspect of the novel can be summarised by what Claire Colebrooke terms the axiom of the twenty-first century: “I am threatened with non- being, therefore I must survive.” The Road illustrates that a strict adherence to the dogma of survival easily results in a degraded form of existence. As remarked upon by the protagonist’s late wife: “We’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film.” The Road confronts us with the acts of degradation and barbarism committed by those clinging to life in a dying world and urges to wonder what life is really worth and if one would be willing to dehumanise oneself and others in order to survive. It shows us that not only are humanity's systems and civilisations fragile, mankind's own humanity might even vanish before itself vanishes.