About the author:
My name is Ruby Gosa. I am in my third year of the Physiotherapy Technology program. Though I chose to pursue a career that is somewhat more manual and active, I have always loved reading and analyzing different works, particularly those which are more ambiguous to me. This is where my interest was piqued in my Cinema Styles course when we viewed Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, an admittedly weird film that nonetheless moved me. While soon working in the field I have studied in, I look forward to continuing to delve beneath the surface of both cinematic and literary creations.
A Story Told, But Not Sold:
The Failed Narrative of a Father in McCarthy’s The Road
By Ruby Gosa
For Literature and Ethics with Prof. Brent Devine
Whether in need of a soothing bedtime fairytale or an exciting fable to entertain them on a long journey, children usually enjoy stories. It is therefore no wonder that parents often use stories to distract their sons or daughters, but also to protect their minds from resting upon the occasionally disturbing reality. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the father goes the extra mile by inserting himself and his son into the quest narrative he has created for the boy amidst the dark world in which they live. The parent and child are, according to the father, ‘the good guys’ bound to survive as they head south to find warm days and hearts where they must carry the symbolic fire. While the father’s sincere efforts to motivate the boy do manage to bring his son purpose, the story he invents fails to effectively alleviate any of the boy’s anxiety, but in effect adds to it. The father’s error lies in his attempt to turn fiction into reality despite the lack of belief he himself has in the goodness of humanity, his failure to contribute to “carrying the fire” (McCarthy 129), and that the boy ultimately wishes to die.
The father’s story fails because he does not truly believe there to be any good people left to find. Even when initially noticing the unthreatening Ely, “a small figure […] bent and shuffling” (161), the father’s immediate response is: “It could be a decoy” (161). Instead of presuming the best until presented with evidence that suggests ill intent on the part of others, the father assumes that anyone they encounter is not a good person, but rather one who is involved in a scheme against him and his son. The father’s paranoia does not escape the boy’s notice which is demonstrated by his search for reassurance from his father: “There are other good guys. You said so” (184). As the boy indicates, the man’s narrative suggests there are more upright humans to find, and their existence is something the boy clings to. However, what the father has told the boy in no way coincides with the way he interacts with fellow humans. That the boy suspects that his father does not really believe what he claims is suggested in this same conversation; this leaves a burden on the child who says that “Yes I do. I have to” (185) when asked whether he believes his father. The father does not need to think there are any other ‘good guys’ out there, but the boy does. The motivation to find the remaining honest beings at the end of their quest therefore lies entirely with the boy who must consistently fight to prevent his father’s actions towards others from influencing his faith in the story the man has created.
The man’s tale weighs the boy down further by laying the task of “carrying the fire” (129) solely on his small shoulders. Just as literal fire is a source of warmth, light, and means to cook food essential for survival, this symbolic fire which the father says is “inside [the boy]” (279) represents the kindness and hope vital for the preservation of humaneness. Significantly, the father identifies this fire as only being within his son, whereas throughout the novel, he claims that “we’re carrying the fire” (129). The two characters’ attitudes and actions suggest that the boy had always been the sole person to harness these flames. For example, in the first encounter where McCarthy describes the pair with another human, the boy asks, “Cant we help him? Papa?” (50). The son is inclined to come to the scorched man’s aid, not the father. In fact, the father defends his stand in refusing to do anything for the traveler: “He’s going to die. We cant share what we have or we’ll die too” (52). Such a utilitarian perspective — saving the two who stand a chance instead of the one with little prospects — may be logical, but it reveals the father’s priority of their physical survival rather than conserving their status as good and moral beings. Later, after the father puts their lives ahead of the thief’s while the boy insists on trying to help the bandit, he tells his son, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” to which the boy replies: “Yes, I am, […] I am the one” (259). The man and child’s differing concerns become clear, and the boy is painfully aware that he alone bears the duty of looking out for their moral standing. Thus, as exciting as the ideal set out in his narrative of the father and son bringing the fire to their destination may be, its one-sided execution only amplifies the boy’s distress.
The father’s narrative adds to the boy’s anxiety because it directly opposes the boy’s desire to stop living. Early in the novel, the readers are made as aware as the father of this fact when he tells his son: “You mean you wish you were dead” (55). Though the father wants to ignore it badly, the altruistic boy’s attitude toward his life is aptly summed up in the words: “I dont care […] I dont care” (85). As in this case where the son sees an opportunity to help the little boy, his own life means little to him if saving it requires ignoring the plight of one in need. However, as the protagonists of the story, the father and son are not supposed to die: “All the trees in the world are going to fall sooner or later. But not on us” (35). In a moment of metafiction, the father alludes to the convention that main characters typically beat the odds and stay alive. As the father and son are bound by McCarthy’s will for them and thus cannot die so early in the novel, the boy is bound by the desires of the author of this narrative, his father. According to his standards, “the good guys […] don’t give up” (137), while the boy, although very preoccupied with the notion of being one of the good guys, says: “I always want to stop” (93). As a lead in his father’s story, the boy must conform to the man’s ideas, forcing him to fight back his own views and therefore making his life that much more difficult.
By leaving the boy the burden of making the story a reality all on his own, the father increases the distress his son must cope with. The father’s well-meaning but failed attempt to unload his child provides a warning for parents in that their child’s interpretation of the world might one day fall out of line with their own. Trying to reconcile their ideas with the stories their parents have created for them becomes an added weight through the tumultuous years of youth. Rather than imposing their narratives upon reality, parents may do well to leave stories to books, movies, and ultimately, imagination.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage, 2006.