Fiction often manifests the deepest desires and fears of a generation. It can also act as a conduit for the Christian imagination, working to form and shape the mind of the Christian for good or ill. Due to the nature of imagination as the visualization of that which is unseen, fiction provides space especially for Christian eschatology to be explored. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road provides an apocalyptic vision of cynicism toward human historical processes, manifested in the present despair of capitalistic Western civilization, and the eschatological realities of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Road follows a man and his young son who are travelling south in the wake of a cataclysm that has ended American civilization. The two trudge along a desaturated landscape filled with treacherous conditions, severe cold, and ashen air. The wasteland that McCarthy describes no longer grows vegetation, and animals have all but disappeared. With the fallout (which is likely nuclear, humankind’s own doing), institutions and ideas seem to have become a luxury as the scene is “barren, silent, godless.”1 The book follows the man and his son’s mundane attempts at survival, interspersed with visions of the past or explanations of the present. On the surface, the novel’s eschatological imagination is perhaps best summarized by one voice in the text, the blind beggar Ely, who states that “there is no God and we are His prophets.”2 This bleak, hopeless painting of the world to come is only part of the story; beyond the surface, The Road seems to offer something much more nuanced and robust than a simple nihilistic picture of the future. Through it, McCarthy unveils the false faith in human progress, consumeristic structures, all while positing a sense of hope in the incarnation.
One of the strengths of McCarthy’s novel is how it shapes the Christian imagination through cynicism. Christians living in western civilization are prone to relaxation, and as technology and politics seem to advance at unpredictable speeds, the comforts provided to those who benefit from them seem to be eternal. That is what The Road simply does not allow. It forces the reader to imagine the “end” (or rather, telos) of human systems that advance based on consumption, and thus confronts the imagination with the realization that faith in human progress is doomed. Jordan J. Dominy explores the theme of cannibalism throughout the novel and finds therein McCarthy’s critique of Western capitalism. He writes: “The Road envisions a United States resulting from an utter drive to consume and can be read as a grim, extreme parable warning of an entire globe commodified and converted to waste (a literal dust heap of history), advising that this end could be difficult to avoid, and that even such an end does not spell the termination of consumerism.”3
Dominy’s interpretation is compelling. In the novel, the land’s resources are depleted to the extent that people now begin to commodify the literal body and enslave each other in order to feast. In one instance, the father and boy discover a cellar in a house filled with people who are being eaten limb by limb, their bodies stored for future use:
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous. Jesus, he whispered. Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.4
As horrifying as the image is, McCarthy paints not a future image but a present one. As Dominy further argues, “[t]he remnant society of The Road has reached the totalizing end of capitalism, one in which everything and everyone is subject to ownership, exchange, and acquisition for consumption.”5 If one is to look from the Christian eschatological perspective, what McCarthy conveys is that a blind faith in the systems of this world is doomed to an oblivion of self-consumption. In fact, the cannibalism in the novel can be read as a metaphor for the current systems of consumption. With resources taken at whim and in massive quantities, often at the expense of the lives of the “other,” the West cannibalizes the rest of the globe. The religious tone of McCarthy’s image of doom here is expressed clearly when he writes “[h]e looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of Christendom.”6
McCarthy’s context of the United States in the twenty-first century situates his critiques of the modern world and its consumption-based social structures. Yet, does he offer any hope to the Christian reader? Christian eschatological claims indeed contain a healthy cynicism for the world’s processes (or at least, should), but they also contain hope for the flourishing of the earth and the people of God. At first glance, no such hope is suggested by McCarthy, but a clue as to how The Road might guide the reader to hope is in the beginning of the novel: “Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”7
The father in the story ultimately views the boy as an (implicitly Christological) incarnation of the good, the innocent, and hope. Throughout the novel he is bent on protecting his son at all costs, though he knows that his time is borrowed. Even the birth of the boy represents to the father the gift of life over and against the creeping death of the age, as he argues with his wife that the boy should live despite his doomed fate.8 His wife, McCarthy implies, committed suicide. Matthew L. Potts notes that faith is still present for the man, and is even found in the boy himself: “For the man, the passable ghost of love is no less real or precious for its passing. Caring for his child is not just a temporary stand-in for some ultimate value which his wife’s argument has exposed as finally empty.”9 For the Christian, despite the reality of death and the entropic destruction of human civilizations, the proclamation of Jesus Christ as God incarnate within the chaotic evils (of the world?) is central. Just like the man’s hope in the boy, Christians hold fast to the reality that God entered into the human situation and embraced death. Through His death, there is new life. For the man to cling to his son, whom he calls the Word of God, is to cling to a light of the “good” in the midst of darkness.
Despite McCarthy’s bleak picture of the consumerist West and his unveiling (literally, apocalypse) of its eventual (if not present) destruction, he posits the son as the hope of the future and the present. It is in the present that the boy centers the man around life in the midst of death, but it is also in the future that the man hopes the boy will be an agent of life. In the end of the novel, the man is shot with an arrow and begins to succumb to his wounds. As he dies, McCarthy writes:
“But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?
Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”10
Perhaps as global Christianity faces tumultuous times ahead in the face of geo-political upheaval, the impending climate crisis, and rampant global consumption, The Road can offer Christians under capitalistic structures the necessary eschatological cynicism to imagine the telos of such consumption. Beyond this, too, McCarthy might offer hope to those oppressed under said structures in the form of a boy–or rather, the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage International, 2006), 4.
- Ibid., 170.
- Jordan J. Dominy, “Cannibalism, Consumerism, and Profanation: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the End of Capitalism.,” Cormac McCarthy Journal (Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park) 13 (2015): 144.
- McCarthy, The Road, 110.
- Dominy, “Cannibalism, Consumerism, and Profanation,” 149.
- McCarthy, The Road, 16.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 56-58.
- Matthew L Potts, “‘There Is No God and We Are His Prophets’: Cormac McCarthy and His Christian Faith,” Christianity and Literature 63, no. 4 (2014): 498.
- McCarthy, The Road, 281.