Posted by: Jeff | February 17, 2010

Cormac McCarthy and the End of ‘The Road’

I’ve been meaning to do a book review for awhile, and though I just finished something else and will likely be writing something about that soon, I stumbled upon an article drawing some interesting conclusions from McCarthy’s depiction of the end of the world that made me revisit his dark and somber The Road, which I read last spring.

Any book that features a world in which people have babies for the purpose of eating them is going to be a little startling. And the lack of context for the journey undertaken by the father and son protaganists of this novel is certainly a literary oddity. Virtually nothing is known or learned about either character – including their names or ages or origins. The world is largely unknown as well – the jacket cover informs the reader that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic America, though no such reference exists in the book.

McCarthy’s novel has no real plot, no real orientation. It simply features the relationship between two survivors navigating a grim and barren landscape, clinging on to one another as the only source of good in the world. Indeed, the son often inquires about whether other good exists, leaving the father to admit that he does not know.

McCarthy spends little time describing the event that precipitated the world’s demise, instead lingering over the devastated post-apocalyptic landscape, described as gray and bleak – as if the Earth’s very surface had been scorched and covered with ash.  Well, it seems that there may actually be some historical precedent for such an event – a precedent that some worry may soon come to pass once more.

From The Road:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and the turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?

    I dont know.
    Why are you taking a bath?
    I’m not.


They sat at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a midnight supper and watched distant cities burn.

BLDGBLOG stumbled upon an interview with McCarthy in which he hints at what sort of event may have created such a dark and blistered world:

“A lot of people ask me [what caused The Road‘s apocalypse]. I don’t have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I’m with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who’ve gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday. No one knows.”

The truly scary part, as BLDGBLOG points out, is that Yellowstone has experienced an extraordinary number of earthquakes in the past month – 1,799 since January, 17!  Is this a precursor to another bursting of the Yellowstone caldera?  Could this plunge the world back into a semi-apocalyptic state, ending modernity as we know it?

The Yellowstone Caldera. Image from

It would certainly be a devastating event for North America, which could help explain why the father seems convinced that making it to the coast may result in rescue via ships sent from foreign lands.  From Wikipedia:

The last full-scale eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, the Lava Creek eruption which happened nearly 640,000 years ago, ejected approximately 240 cubic miles (1000 cubic kilometres) of rock and dust into the sky.

Hopefully such an event will be avoided, but if there’s any solace to be found in its possibility, it is perhaps that even in McCarthy’s bleak wilderness where cannibalism and loneliness are rampant, hope still springs eternal.

The novel is shrouded in mystery, but one thing remains clear – the love the father holds for his son is ever-present.  By convincing the boy that something better exists just a few days’ walk ahead, the two manage, barely, to continue living.

The world McCarthy paints is bleak – there certainly exists little hope for the survival of human society, much less the race itself. Vegetation is suffocated under layers of ash, animal life is merely a memory. Those few people who do populate this world cannot be trusted, for fear that they will hunt the travelers down as food. What can possibly survive this setting? Well, as McCarthy shows, love can. And just maybe, so can hope.


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