Carrying the Fire

Arts Letters: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Modern life is fragile. Knock out the electricity, and life suddenly becomes much simpler and more complicated all at the same time. Take losing power during a snowstorm or other severe weather, for instance. With thickening beards and cold stoves, skills once considered quaint take on premium value. If you know how to cook over an open fire, you will be a hero to those poor souls who will be otherwise scraping peanut butter jars.

That fragility is described to the extreme in Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road. It travels through a world of ashen devastation, left prostrate after some unspecified apocalyptic disaster. Walking down this road, the reader encounters a hellish vision, strewn with mummified corpses and the artifacts of a lost civilization. Memory of the old world is now receding. Phrases like “as the crow flies” need explaining because crows are no longer to be seen.

Is this just a good read for environmentalists? The Road offers a far more compelling message. Ideas emerge that speak a language akin to Catholic anthropology and its capacity for profound reflection on the natural law. That law, the expression of human dignity, is “immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history” and “cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man.” Even in the post-apocalyptic world of The Road, “it rises again in the lives of individuals and societies” (Catechism, No. 1958).

Through the Ashes

The two travelers of this awful road are a man and his young son. They are unnamed. Winter is coming and their survival depends on getting south to the warmer coast. The man has one goal: the protection of his son. “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” (McCarthy prefers a minimalistic, Joyce-like punctuation, which will be maintained in the quotations).

Yet hearing God is a struggle in this world. Horrific scenes of the past are invoked: fires, destruction, starvation and finally cannibalism. His wife chose to commit suicide rather than continue face this insanity. “You cant protect us. You say that you would die for us but what good is that? I’d take him with me if it werent for you…Sooner or later they will catch us and kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant.” She is reminiscent of Job’s wife, unwilling to accompany him in this stern new life.

Angry at God

McCarthy in fact alludes to the book of Job, a point missed by the mainstream critics.  In the Bible, Job is the innocent man Satan tests, to prove his claim that a man is good only because God blesses him. Satan challenges God, “Touch anything that [Job] has, and surely he will blaspheme you to your face” (Job 1:11). Satan’s fury unleashed, Job’s life is destroyed, and now sitting in the ashes, he hears his wife ask, “Are you still holding to your innocence? Curse God and die.”

That taunt, “Curse God and die,” flits through the man’s mind in The Road. Like the biblical Job, he too shakes his fist at God. The blood that now comes up with his cough portends his death and the eventual separation from his son. He is angry. “He just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there, he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.”

But his son, the word of God for him, “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle,” keeps him true to the most basic elements of their human dignity. Morality in this world has become very simple. The “good guys” don’t eat people.

The Fire Not Extinguished

His son asks him:

“We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving.
We are starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent starving. I didnt say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

The fire, a metaphor for human goodness, has been largely stamped out in this world in which the few people who are left have barely any food to keep them alive. The grizzled stranger, Ely, whom they meet along the road, scoffs at this idealism and any notion of God, “There is no God and we are his prophets.” His message is the end of goodness and the final extinction of all things.

This attitude is an ongoing temptation, difficult to resist. Living on the edge of survival with its constant forcing of pragmatic choices has a hardening effect. At one point, their cart is stolen with all the food they had collected in one lucky find. The man immediately sets off, with his son in tow, pursuing the thief. To lose that cart means they will die. They find the thief, and the man, brandishing his pistol that contains only one bullet, forces him to return the cart. But the man is not satisfied. He compels the thief to strip naked and he takes his clothes and shoes, a virtual death sentence in that cold, barren place.

The Law Written on the Heart

The boy is like a living conscience. He cries out against this act of vengeance. But the man leaves the thief, deaf to his son’s pleas. Back on the road, the man erupts, “You’re not one who has to worry about everything.”  But his son, inconsolable, corrects him, “Yes I am he said. I am the one.”

In their continuing exchange, a truth is confirmed: being human necessarily requires community. Neither one can do it on his own. The boy obviously could not survive physically without his father or, just as importantly, receive the transmission of that moral sense signified by “carrying the fire.” Yet the very “fire” the man has lit in his son’s soul would be extinguished in his own were it not for the boy. He has become a sort of sentinel for the bright red lines that cannot be crossed without forfeiting their humanity. With a mind uncluttered by adult complication, he cuts to the chase and always advocates that basic injunction of the natural law — “do good, avoid evil” — entailed in being the “good guys.” He becomes a spokesman for conscience.

Pope John Paul wrote in The Splendor of Truth: “When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal” (Veritatis Splendor, 96).

It is a bleak, grimy world described by McCarthy. But the fire cannot be extinguished, not in the boy, or in the man. He tells his son, “Look around you, he said. There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who’s not honored here today.” Those prophets spoke of God, truth, love. The man no longer shakes his fist at God, but, as he nears his own end, entrusts his son to him. “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”

The Road isn’t pretty. But it sure is beautiful.

Legionary Father Steven Reilly writes from Washington, D.C.