‘The Road’ Goes Ever On
Note: If you’re one of the few people who are interested in seeing The Road but haven’t read the book, be warned that there may be spoilers below.
Even as a child, I loved the parts of The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo and Sam (and sometimes Gollum) trudge across wasteland and marshes to finally reach Mount Doom. I’m well aware, though, that most people find those sections, whether in book or movie, boring and/or depressing. If you’re one of those people, then you probably won’t want to see The Road, which bears a good deal of resemblance to the Frodo-and-Sam bits of The Lord of the Rings—with everything else removed.
Our weary, dirt-caked pair in The Road is a father (Viggo Mortensen, who, as it turns out, makes a much better Frodo than Elijah Wood) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling through a grayscale post-apocalyptic America. As in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, upon which the film is fairly closely based, a reason for the disaster is never given: it could be global warming, nuclear warfare, or some sort of natural disaster. Whatever the cause, it brings about the sharply delineated contrasts in human nature that we’ve come to expect of the post-apocalyptic genre: some people turn to mayhem and cannibalism, others turn to despair and suicide, and others merely try to survive without resorting to either of the above.
The father, as he does in the novel, tells the boy that they are the “good guys,” that they are “carrying the fire” in a dark world. Yet, in both book and film, it’s clear that that designation of “good” is a line that the father draws in the sand between those who rape women and children and then eat them—and those who do not. The real lines between good and evil are much more finely drawn, as the boy makes clear by questioning some of his father’s decisions. “Are we still the good guys?” the boy asks, after the father kills a man to save the boy’s life. It’s a fair question. The boy constantly challenges his father’s—and our—assumptions about whether “necessity” renders an action “good.” It is the boy who convinces the man to relinquish a can of fruit to an old man in need, and to turn the other cheek when a thief robs them of the few supplies they still possess.
The boy is not more innocent than his father merely because he is a child—if that were so, I would probably hate The Road for sentimentalizing childhood. Instead, I think the biggest reason for the child’s ethical questioning and compassion for others is that he’s never known a world except for the bleak one in which they now exist. He was born shortly after the initial disaster, so he has no memory of a sunnier time to weigh him down. The film is more insistent than the book in showing how much the father longs for the past, when his wife was still alive. I’m still of two minds about the effectiveness of the flashbacks in the film. On the one hand, it seems like they were added to give Charlize Theron a meatier role and possibly to make the wife into a more fully realized character. Cormac McCarthy has been challenged over the years for his either nonexistent or, sometimes, misogynist portrayal of women. In the book, it seems like the wife chooses to die rather than continue struggling for survival because she’s weak (presumably because she’s a woman) and can’t take it. In the movie, it seems like she’s suffering from untreated post-partum depression. Neither portrayal is very satisfying.
In both novel and film, though, we do at least see that some women are strong enough to press on for survival. There’s a tangible sense of relief when we meet a woman or another child, because of their rarity in this post-disaster world. Even more moving, because even more rare, are the few glimpses of animal life that the film allows us. The boy and the man discover a living beetle, and it’s a sign of hope, small though it be, almost as powerful as the white flowers that Frodo and Sam discover growing right on the borders of Mordor. And when the boy finally sees a dog, alive, the relief is so overpowering that it brings tears.
Ty Burr of The Boston Globe critiques the dog’s appearance in the film, occurring at a different point and in a different context from the dog in the book, as “a surrender to sentiment.” I can see his point, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s the subjective nature of the “sentimental” label. Films that strike some as stark and realistic will strike me as sentimental and overblown—and vice versa. I can’t argue categorically that the dog’s presence in the film isn’t sentimental, but I can at least explain why, for me, it was legitimately emotional—and why it also communicates the most Christian themes of the book in a more cinematic form.
At the end of the book, after the father’s death, the woman in the family that invites the boy to join them says “that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” It’s a beautiful line to read, but it would, unfortunately, be laughable if spoken on film. In the film, the woman simply says something along the lines of, “We’ve been following you. I was so worried about you.” It’s certainly not a line that stands out on its own, but it gains resonance when you recall earlier scenes from the film. In a brief moment of respite, the boy had been convinced that he heard a dog outside their shelter. The man, immediately on guard, had insisted that they leave. Whenever the man encountered another human on the road, he would ask, suspiciously, “How long have you been following us?” In the last scene, we finally learn that there was indeed a dog, and that someone was following the boy and the man, but ultimately to help rather than harm them. When we briefly glimpse the dog at the end, it allows us to put it all together, to see the pattern of providence and the remnants of human goodness in a bleak world. It tells us that God’s breath is still God’s, in all its mystery, even in us.
Unlike Frodo and Sam, the boy and the man in The Road do not have a definite task they’re trying to accomplish, other than not getting eaten. They are trying to reach “the coast,” in the faint hope that, somehow, something will be better there. When they reach it, it doesn’t seem to be much different from the barren territory they’ve crossed before. And yet the man and the boy manage to retain hope. Hope when you don’t know where to go, when you don’t even know if there is anywhere to go, is the most faithful hope—and the least sentimental.
I never read the mother as being portrayed as weak in the book. Just weighed down by the monstrous sense of the whole reality of what was inevitably to come. I think such a disaster would be especially trying for those of us who find ourselves steeped in rationality, whereas those of us who revel in faith (and especially faith of the eyeless sort) would find survival a much more important responsibility.
The way I read the wife is that she was simply more sensibly- and rationally-minded than her husband. I read it as a challenge of faith vs. sight. And in the end, it seemed like McCarthy probably came out on the wife’s side of things.*
Taking it another way, under the face of such tragedy, even those that do have some measure of faith in humanity, the human spirit, the basic goodness of the soul, or even just faith in hope will be prone to lose that faith. Such a worldwide calamity (and the man-eat-man society that would immediately follow) would come as a profound betrayal of that kind of faith, for if such a world comes to be, that faith was clearly misplaced. And when faith betrays, many people give up on it. And it’s only reasonable to do so.
In The Road, I would postulate that it is the man who is weak, who clings to sentiment and hope and faith even after such things have been shown hollow and vain. The wife understands what has occurred and what it means and realizes that the world she’s inherited is a nihilistic morass in which things like hope and survival are meaningless social constructs. The man seems to recognize this too but is propelled nonetheless by his faith in something he sees no evidence for (save for in his son).
Now the question of whether such weakness is good or bad remains and is worthy of discussion, but in any case, that’s my take on the man and his dead wife.
*note: it’s been a while since I read it, but if I recall, the hopeful scene at the end seemed more like a hopeful vision born of the man’s final delirium. I didn’t read the ending as any kind of vindication of the man’s survivalist hope, leading one to muse that he could have saved himself much pain and suffering had he followed his wife’s vector. I could be wrong and I don’t remember the book super well, but that was my read.
I think I’d have to disagree with you here, Dane. It seems to me that the mother is portrayed as giving in to hopelessness… with reason, perhaps, but this isn’t shown to be smart and acceptable. And yes, the man is shown to be clinging to hope without great reasons… but hope is rewarded in the end.
To me there seems to be acknowledgement (even OVER-acknowledgement) of life’s grim realities, but also that there is hope even so.
Ah hahaha! I’m back from vacation and ready to fight!! Okay, not really.
I suppose that’s fair, Ben. Depending on how one reads the book’s finale. Honestly it’s been awhile since I read The Road and I didn’t like it enough to really merit a second read-through, but maybe I’ll read the ending again just to make sure. As I recall (and this is a very hazy recollection), McCarthy left indications that the hopefulness in the book’s last pages were really just fantasy. A dying man’s dying dream.*
If that’s the case, then I think my reading of McCarthy’s treatment of the woman is more accurate. If it’s not the case, then yours would probably be the better reading.
My reading is that hope exists entirely apart from reason and while the two may intersect at times, reason cannot and will not ultimately govern hope. And whether hope will disappoint or not is really, in the end, divorced from circumstances. So a man devoted to hope (or to faith, as they function almost synonymously here) will continue to see through the lens of hope even when reasonable expectation has entirely evaporated.
Ah well, even if it’s not an accurate reading, it’s still (I think) an interesting one and always made The Road seem a better story to me than the alternative reading that you represent here.
[*note: I’ve been trying not to be spoilery for those who are inexplicably reading this without having seen the movie or read the book, but for those who have, let me be clear: I’m saying that the boy wasn’t saved at the end and that whole thing is just the man’s death-rattle of a hallucination. Again, it’s been a while so I don’t recall if this was really the case or if my memory of the book has been tainted by time…]
Since the the boy is rescued after the father is dead, I don’t think we can reasonable say that it was a hallucination, but you could hope against reason that it was!
I tend to read the mother as a combination of Job’s wife (there is an allusion somewhere to “curse God and die”) and the embodiment of materialism (in the strictly non-transcendent sense). If you accept that there is no God or afterlife, then her logic is sound: why suffer horribly when you know there is no hope for the future? Even more compelling: why allow your child to suffer?
The father acknowledges the logic of this, but cannot bring himself to kill the child and commit suicide. What is interesting is that the moments of the novel where the father is most convinced that it is right to continue to carry the fire are strange, almost mystical moments where he sees his son as a tabernacle in the wasteland.
By consistently choosing to have hope in the future despite the impeccable logic of his wife’s pragmatic materialism, the father practices a faith in something transcendent. I don’t think this is faith against reason, but rather faith in a reason that is different than the reason presented by his wife.
I’ll have to read the ending again since its been so long. I realized that the man had died, but I was reading it as allusional to (or at least of a kind with) Citizen Kane—in which Charles Foster Kane dies in the opening scene and the rest of the film is his dying dream flashing his life and post-life before his eyes.*
I read the finale to The Road as the man going to his grave justified, even if only that justification was self-created by the conjuration of the surreal sequence by which his son would be rescued. In any case, I’ll leave that alone until I reread the ending.
I like your read on both the man and his wife, Alan. Especially good was the sacredness with which he views his son. Not only are he and his son the priests of the temple of the true fire, but his son functions as both priest and temple/tabernacle. I suspect if the man was asked the reason for the hope that lies within him (and felt inclined to answer), he would probably simply point at the boy.
And that is why the man’s hope is so mystical as opposed (I think) to reasonable. The man sees something non-empirical, something that cannot be seen with any eye other than the eye of faith. He sees the fire in the boy whereas the mother simply saw the boy himself.
I think now that regardless of the ending, both the mother and the father were both well-justified in their perspectives. I agree with the father, but I empathize with the mother. I don’t find her weak. Just absented of faith.
*note: We ascertain this from a host of reasons but primarily because Charles Foster Kane’s final, breathless whisper is reported in newspapers across the nation even though no one was present in the room with him (the nurse doesn’t enter until she hears the sharp crash of the snowglobe).
In regard to the ending, I get the sense from the verb tenses that the conversations described between the woman and the boy occur over a period of time–which doesn’t suggest “dying man’s fantasy” to me. Then again, I have yet to see Citizen Kane (though I did once know a lovely Basset hound named Rosebud).
I’m not convinced myself that the woman is necessarily portrayed as weak, though it is a complaint I’ve heard others make. She’s too much of a cipher for me to feel confident making an argument one way or another. As far as my extra-text interpretation, I suspect that one reason for her absence from the novel is that McCarthy doesn’t feel comfortable writing women (which is fine–discretion is still the better part of valor in published writing). I did read a recent interview, though, in which he mentioned that he was currently working on a book largely about a female character (though, again, one who has already committed suicide by the time the book’s narrative begins).
On a side note, I’m interested in how many movie critics have given The Road less than stellar reviews largely for “not living up to the book.” Literature folks, however, even ones who professionally study McCarthy, seem to like the film just fine. I haven’t thought of a compelling explanation for this–just an interesting observation.
I did reread the ending and it seems that you are all right that the most obvious interpretation is that the family at the end is real and these things actually do happen after the man dies.
I still prefer my reading but only because it seems more interesting to me and not because there is anything overt in the text to merit it (and of course, there is nothing in the text to disclude it either).
I think I like the book a little less with the probable ending in mind, but it does present some interesting food for thought along the lines of some of the ideas brought up in this thread. In any case, articles and the subsequent discussions like this one are my favourite thing about CAPC (even more than stuff like the Movieguide hubbub), so good job everybody.
@Carissa – Ever since you posted this article, the song from the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit has been hopping to mind every three or so hours. I’m not sure whether to thank you or curse you for that.
choice. Anyhow; should you are a young driver and new towards the road life, then you’ll be able to definitely horn
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