Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006)* tells the story of a father and son who travel south through a world of ash, fire, coldness, and darkness seeking warmer weather after an apocalyptic event. The world is orderless and lacks governments and nations. The only groups that exist are gangs of cannibals who travel the roads looking for victims. They imprison, kill, and eat people, including their own newborns.
This bare, stripped-down setting gives the reader the ability to clearly see a father-son relationship and through this relationship how we can teach our children about right and wrong, and how those who have learned the lesson well can teach us to remain true to our morals when we stray.
Surrounded by death, darkness, gangs, and gloominess, the father contends with the presence of evil as a primal force. The parent-child relationship is sacred to him, and he tells his son that God appointed him to take care of him, which means as well to raise him to be a moral person.
Not only is the boy taught what is right, he is also taught what is wrong — the cannibalism, the dishonesty, and the theft that plague the world. The father points out those who are “bad” and the son works to stay out of this group and among the “good.”
After his father shoots a cannibal in order to save his son, the boy wonders if the father and son have done something wrong; because the father has killed a person, the boy fears that they are no longer on the right side.
In this harsh world where other men see his son as a meal, the father explains that he had to kill the man:
“My job is to take care of you. I will kill anyone who touches you.”
Fearing that the killing has put them on the wrong side, the boy asks:
“Are we still the good guys?”
The father tells him they are, and the boy, looking for reassurance, says: “And we always will be.” His father replies, “Yes. We always will be.”
The father’s constant watchfulness and the normality he has established have been so successful that the boy in no way wants to be associated with the bad guys.
Although he is one of the “good guys,” his father does have shortcomings, and the boy points these out. This is particularly seen when the father and son must deal with a non-cannibal who has stolen their shopping cart, which holds all of their belongings.
The father and son track down the thief and, when they catch up to him on the road, the father holds the thief at gunpoint. Angry, the father curses the man, threatens to shoot him, and demands the clothing he is wearing.
The boy is openly upset and recognizes his father’s actions as vengeful, so he attempts to stop him, and directly afterwards he pleads with his father to return the clothing. The student has become the teacher.
Though the father claims he was acting to protect his son, the boy knows that the father took his actions into a new realm, which is wrong: a realm of revenge, anger, and murder.
The boy ultimately convinces his father to return the thief’s clothing. By this point, however, the man is already gone. The boy stops talking to his father because he is upset with his immoral behavior. His silence acts as a judgment of his father for failing to be one of the “good guys.”
All his life, the boy witnesses suffering and evil. Equating love and kindness with the “good guys,” the boy calls his father to be even better than he is by expanding charity and forgiveness to others outside of their small family.
When his father dies, the boy tells his dead father that he will not forget him or the things he taught him — he will not forget the love and care he has received from his father, and he will not forget to show similar love to others.
In their godless world, the father has taught his son to be moral, and his son has learned through innate goodness how to be Christ-like. No father could ask more of a son.
With Christ’s truth in the boy’s heart, there is hope – even in the wasteland.
Editor’s note: The Road won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and was made into a film in 2009 directed by John Hillcoat, starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son.