on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: the journey metaphor

later comics began, like many works of art or literature, as a reaction to existing work. I completed my undergraduate thesis paper at UBC on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. After studying the novel and the post-apocalyptic genre, I realized I had my own vision to share.

The story of the paper begins with my first reading of the novel. I read the whole book in one day, with only a short break to ride my bike to my afternoon class. After full immersion in the bleak and dismal world of The Road, I was stunned by the sunlight and the fresh air. A squirrel hopped beside me, and I suddenly felt alive and in love with the world. The novel is undoubtedly dark, and potentially depressing – but only fiction. It feeds our imagination and makes us feel (as all good fiction should) but ultimately, it is still up to us to decide what to do with our lives to shape the world as we can.


Surviving The Road

Among contemporary literary visions of the near-future, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road numbers among the bleakest. McCarthy’s novel earns this position through its nearly absolute destruction of the world, after which only a few straggling people remain where there are no animals, no vegetation, and no sun to see. The story follows a father and his son as they journey through the ashen wasteland towards the dim hope of a better existence. The journey model, which is possibly as old as narrative itself, is particularly suited to the representation of survival in a world that produces nothing new and requires that sustenance be found only in what has been preserved. If food sources consist primarily of canned goods leftover from the old world, the narrative appropriately consists of recognizable forms that evoke the past while becoming vulnerable to the destruction of the post-apocalyptic setting. Furthermore, embedded in the journey is an expectation of transition. Whether or not the journey lives up to its promise of progression beyond the wasteland, the movement itself perpetuates a feeble but defiant hope. Fiction writer Michael Chabon writes in a review:

The only true account of the world after a disaster as nearly complete and as searing as the one McCarthy proposes [...] would be a book of blank pages, white as ash. But to annihilate the world in prose one must simultaneously write it into being. ref

The paradox that Chabon notices in the dialectical relationship of destruction and creation parallels the novel’s refusal to be resolutely pessimistic. Even as McCarthy’s world looks towards an impossibly dark future, it offers the truest test for optimism: can we believe that out of darkness, the approaching unknown future still has the potential to be better? As readers, we are given the choice of what to bring back to our world: the pessimism of certain doom or the optimism of our capacity to determine the path we take.

Download the full paper in PDF format: Surviving The Road