Ethical Dimensions: ‘Road’ By Cormac Mccarthy
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Published: Fri, 12 May 2017
Living in a post apocalyptic time period can be devastating especially when one is stripped of the most basic necessities. Such a scenario greatly affects the way an individual behaves, as well as the ability of an individual to distinguish right from wrong. However, with goodness, companionship, faith, and a moral sense of surviving, one can, to a better extent, overcome hardship. Goodness preserves the morals in a society that seem lost; ultimately bettering what is left of humanity. Companionship is also important – not only to survive, but to grow as a person. Faith is powerful. It is the driving force that keeps one going in a world that lacks purpose. With faith and hope, the will to survive heightens. While there may be a few factors that influence how one decides to survive, it is ultimately the individual’s choice as to whether the desire to survive will be put above morality and an ethical way of living. Post apocalyptic stories such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy contain reoccurring themes of good versus evil, companionship, faith, and survival, to show how each influences one’s ethical standards in a world where civilization has nearly reached the point of extinction.
Survivors of a dying world, such as those within The Road, have the option of choosing the life path of good, like the boy and his father, or the life path of evil, as many of the others have. The path chosen tends to indicate one’s sense and strength of morality. The father and especially the son, choose to resemble the good guys. While they are not sinless, they will never resort to cannibalism – even if it means starvation. After escaping from the house where humans are kept alive to be eaten, the boy asks his father, “We would never eat anybody, would we? … Even if we’re starving?” (108). The father replies with, “No. No matter what.” (109). The boy then states, “Because we’re the good guys.” (109). The father agrees. The boy then says, “And we’re carrying the fire.” (109). The father again agrees. The people are pressured, due to the world’s current conditions, to choose whether they want to purely survive or to live ethically while doing so. Unfortunately, one tends to conflict with the other. The boy, more than anyone else in the novel, has strong ethical values and clearly displays his disinterest to become one of the bad guys. When the boy sees a man that has been struck by lightning, he says, “Can’t we help him Papa?” (42). The boy is crushed when the father replies saying, “No. We can’t help him.” (43). The child is also reluctant to take the pistol from his father in several scenes of the book, knowing it has the potential to kill others. He would say, “I don’t want the gun,” (60), although the father demands that he take it. This goodness and morality is represented by Cormac through an important and reoccurring symbol – fire.
There are several references to “carrying the fire” throughout the story. As the father is about to die, he says to the boy, “It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.” (234). One can clearly recognize the fire as being the goodness within the boy, which is displayed as he offers food to an ungrateful old man and begs his father to help another man who had stolen all of their belongings, leaving the two to possibly die. It represents the light in a dying world, and perhaps even new life. The fire has also been a well known symbol in Christian faith. The burning bush is where God appears before Moses to give him the Ten Commandments. These Commandments represent what one is obligated to do. They are rules of codes of conducts that symbolize morals. With regards to The Road, the fire takes on a very similar meaning. It is the ethical way of living that they try to spread in order to keep goodness alive. The boy and the father know that the world’s only chance of returning to normal depends on whether or not the goodness of humanity is kept.
Although it seems as though evil has outnumbered the good, the boy and his father attempt to stay true to their morals, failing to give into majority. Still, how good is good in this world? In the world of the boy and his father, the line between being good and evil is blurred. The boy acts as the father’s moral compass throughout the novel, consistently reminding the father that they will continue to live as the ‘good guys’; and yet, one cannot simply label the two paths as just being one or the other. There is a very thin line that separates the two from the majority of the others who have been labelled evil; and that is whether or not they will resort to cannibalism and kill others. Perhaps not the boy, but the father does in fact kill when threatened, steal, scavenge, offer no help to others, and distrust people. In a world where everything has been reduced to nothingness, ethical standards have also been reduced to the mere question of whether or not one practices cannibalism and kills. Therefore, it would appear that there is significance in the setting of this novel and what it attempts to teach us. The writer places them in a setting where they are bounded by immoral people to demonstrate what can occur when all that surrounds you has lost its goodness. Cormac is thereby forcing his readers to think of what would happen to ethics and morals in a world where our luxuries and even the most basic conditions for survival are taken away. People are reduced to nothing but themselves and those around them. How then does this concept of ethics change when there is no moral code that is laid down in rules, or societal pressures and law enforcement to make sure we live by these standards? How does civility change? Cormac uses an extreme case to show that people often justify something that is not just, because circumstances change, along with the desperateness of the situation. While a popular notion in today’s society is that people are generally good or that everyone has some good in them, Cormac uses cannibalistic beings to remove empathy and suggest that the heat of life brings the true nature of people to the surface.
Much of The Road focuses on the companionship of the father and his son. Companionship plays an important role as this bond gives them the love they need in order to keep in touch with their humanity. The boy and the father have a co-dependent relationship. The boy depends on the father for survival, while the father lives to ensure the survival of his boy. Without companionship, neither of them would have made it as far as they did. When the boy asks, “What would you do if I died?” The father responds with, “If you died I would want to die too.” (9). It is clear that the father’s love for his child is what causes him to do everything he can to ensure the boy’s survival. While there are moments where the son appears distant to the father, the love that they have for each other remains unbreakable. Earlier within the novel, the father strips the blanket from a corpse to ensure that they will be warm. However, when the father dies, the boy does not want to just leave him. “Can we cover him with one of the blankets?” (240). He asks a man. The boy leaves him wrapped in a warm blanket, regardless of the desperate situation he is in. “I’ll talk to you every day,” he whispers. “And I won’t forget. No matter what.” (240). The last thing the father wants to see is his son killed, and eaten by cannibals. He asks himself if he can kill the boy, in order to prevent others from harming him in worse ways. “Can you do it? When the time comes? … What if it doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock?” (96). As one can tell, the father’s worst fear is leaving the son alone in a world where he cannot fend for himself.
There is no one to keep order in the world Cormac has described; and the peoples’ belief in previous moral standards is fading. Still, the boy and the father are able to keep their faith and their hope, allowing them to heighten their will to survive. The Road contains religious elements that attempt to give readers a deeper meaning of the work. This novel contains characters that seem to believe in God as well as others that seriously doubt His existence. Because of the situation he is currently in, the father has lost his hope in God. Instead, he places the hope that he lost in his own son. The father says, “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” (4). Nothing left, other than the boy, can convince him that a God exists. He represents the last bit of goodness in a world filled with savage, cannibalistic beings. The boy, with his innocence and compassion, seems to represent a saviour type of figure. In a conversation with Ely, the father says, “What if I told you he was God?” referring to the boy. (145). The father believes that his son is, in some aspect, holy. He has the ability to place others before himself, such as when he offers Ely food, knowing that they did not have much left. While the mother has no faith in the man’s ability to survive or save the boy, thereby committing suicide, the father believes that he could somehow raise this boy. The father is, however, angry with God because at times it feels as though he is going to die, and he worries how his son will survive afterwards. “Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?” (34). He curses at God because of the situation he is placed in. Nonetheless, the hope that he puts in the boy, as well as the boy’s own belief in goodness helps the father to carry the fire throughout the course of the novel.
In a world of hopelessness and despair, as Cormac illustrates, the will to survive grows when one has a purpose in life. This will to survive, however, can also impact your sense of moral judgement. The father makes it clear that he lives to ensure the survival of the boy. “My job is to take care of you,” he says, “I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?” (120). The boy soon looks up and says, “Are we still the good guys?” The boy is what stands between him and death. If he didn’t have his son to protect, it is likely that he would have decided to take the easy way out and kill himself than to live in a world that contains the horrors of cannibalism and death. Again, Cormac shows that people often justify what is unjust when circumstances change. While the boy believes that killing itself is wrong, the father thinks it is justified if he is saving his son. When an individual is put into a situation where protecting someone is the purpose of his or her life, the same individual’s sense of judgement is impacted.
The father and the boy switch roles throughout the course of the novel. As the boy begins to pick up the survival skills he needs, the father realizes that his son is capable of taking care of himself. The boy shows that he is able to seek shelter, as he spots the house that leads them to the trap door containing food. At a later point in time when the father says, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” the boy responds with “Yes I am. I am the one.” (218). The boy’s words show that he is affected by the man’s actions, who had forced a desperate man to strip naked. The boy is not so much a boy anymore. He assumes the responsibility of worrying about the things that his father worries about. While the boy and the father are determined to survive, they make sure that they do it in a generally moral and just way, meaning they do not resort to cannibalism, like the bad guys. When the boy and the father hear a dog bark, the boy asks, “We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?” (120). Although they had been starving after going days without food, the father assures him that they will not eat the dog. While the ethical judgement of many individuals have been impacted because of their desire to survive, the father’s sense of ethical judgement is contained because of the boy.
Despite the devastation of living in a post apocalyptic time period, an individual always has, to an extent, a choice as to whether or not he or she will choose to live by an ethical standard. While the concept of what it means to be good may change with differing circumstances, the option is still there, and upon choosing that path, one makes sure that goodness is kept alive, ultimately bettering humanity. Companionship is important to the main characters of The Road because it helps them keep in touch with their humanity and to learn from each other. Faith brings hope, giving an individual the desire to survive in a rightful manner. Finally, one must evaluate their purpose of surviving from an ethical sense. Reoccurring themes of good versus evil, companionship, faith, and survival, within The Road, show how these themes influence one’s morals and ethical standards in an apocalypse. Cormac is able to show his readers that it is in times of hardship that one should consider moral growth.
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