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Fire and Goodness along The Road

“My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. [ . . . ] We’re still the good guys. And we always will be” (77). Gray ash covers everything in the post-apocalyptic world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the story of a father and son traveling to the U. S. southern coast. The son has only known the current desolate world, but the father lived before the apocalyptic event took place, and he lost his wife. While the boy searches for goodness, the man has seen too much evil and cannot trust anyone and risk his family’s survival.

Throughout the story the family depends on fire to survive and encourages each other in “carrying the fire” (129). McCarthy contrasts the images and symbols of fire with a deathly world to accentuate the physical and moral struggle of a jaded father and his idealistic son to survive and be good. “The man watched him that he not topple into the flames” (74). As McCarthy’s fire is synonymous with goodness, so can the boy’s heart fall into a dangerous obsession with being good. The father does not want his son to be too innocent or immersed with helping others.

Kindness quickly can become vulnerability in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world. The father “tousled his hair before the fire to dry it,” serving as a realistic intermediary between the boy and ideal goodness. McCarthy then equates rituals around a fire with a religious ceremony: “All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. When you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them” (74). Building another fire in the morning, “the sand where [the father] sat was warm to the touch but the night beyond the fire was sharp with the cold.

” Fire and goodness surround the secluded family secluded, but re-entering the post-apocalyptic society, the family will only find coldness, danger, and evil. When they come upon various people in trouble, the boy idealistically always wants to help, but the man does not want to for the sake of their survival. The first person they meet in the story has been struck by lightning: “burntlooking as the country, his clothing scorched black. One of his eyes was burnt shut and his hair was but a natty wig of ash upon his blackened skull” (49-50).

The boy is upset to see this person in such a helpless condition; the man knows his son wants to help but says, “He’s going to die. We cant share what we have or we’ll die too” (52). The next person they meet tries to kill the son with a knife. This man has “reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes” (75). McCarthy’s serpent-like description of the man with the knife suggests a demonic or Satanic presence threatening the family. After washing the dead man’s brains out of his son’s hair, the father “dried [his son] with the blanket, kneeling there in the glow of the light” (74).

McCarthy sanctifies the bond between father and son and the father’s willingness to do anything to protect his son. After the attack, they see a little boy who appears helpless. The son cries, “What about the little boy,” but the father does not want to help because he feels to do so would threaten their own safety (86). Later the family hides from a gang of men carrying various weapons and marching past on the highway (91). In a particularly grisly scene the father and son discover a group of imprisoned humans with missing limbs that their captors have eaten (110).

The father responds, “Jesus,” which could be interpreted simply as swearing or also as a request for religion or morality to enter the world (110). This scene is so horrifying to the father that he loses his lighter, their source of fire. This intensely evil scene causes the father to make a mistake, threatening the family’s ability to build a fire. They hear another group of people; the boy wonders if they could be good guys, but the father does not answer (102). He cannot believe anyone else is good, based on what he has experienced and for the sake of their survival, but he does not want to tell the boy so.

When imagining a better place in the south, the son “had his own fantasies. How things would be in the south. Other children. [The father] tried to keep a rein on this but his heart was not in it” (54). Throughout the story the father finds himself in internal conflict with his necessary distrust for survival and hope for his son’s salvation and that his son will continue to be a good person. He cannot tell the worst of his thoughts and feelings to his son but acts upon them to protect him. In contrast to the life-giving qualities of fire, the surrounding world is full of death.

Most humans the family encounters are corpses, often mutilated. At one stone wall they find “a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes” (90). In a religious sense the concept of death means a person or society unable to be saved, destined for hell. Nearly all plants and animals have already died during or after the apocalyptic event. Dead trees remain and sometimes fall over dangerously. These trees become firewood, a source of life, similar to the carbon cycle in nature, where organic waste helps to regenerate new living organisms.

By having fire, the family can exist a little further away from complete desperation as shown in some of the evil men they face. Without fire and little hope for survival the family may have become forced to choose cannibalism and immorality to live. Another possible interpretation of life from death involves the concept of religious rebirth, especially in Christianity. The process of becoming Christian is often described as being born again after having died because of one’s sins. With either interpretation the family uses death in the world to fuel their own survival and moral correctness.

Obviously with no source of goodness in the world, it is extremely difficult for anyone to find motivation to continue living. The wife of the father committed suicide, saying, “I’ve taken a new lover [death . . . ] there is no stand to take [ . . . ] my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart” (57). The father is grief-stricken that his wife has given up, but he insists on continuing, saying to the boy, “Good guys [ . . . ] dont give up” (137). The son cries upon seeing another little boy, and the father scolds him: “Do you want to die?

” The boy responds, “I dont care,” to which the father can only say, “You musnt say that” (85). Having lost his wife to her lover, death, the father cannot bear the possibility that he will lose his son’s will to the deathly world as well. “Nothing bad is going to happen to us. [ . . . ] Because we’re carrying the fire” (83). More tangibly, the family depends on fire for their survival. As in prehistoric times, the family uses fire for food, warmth, and light. After losing the lighter, the father and son nearly starve and freeze to death. Eventually the father finds gasoline and builds a life-saving lamp fire (136).

Immediately after becoming reacquainted with fire and able to navigate in the dark, the family discovers a large food supply, essentially a treasure. As well, the family uses fire for cooking whenever possible. McCarthy describes numerous scenes where the family cooks pears, cornmeal, and whatever food they happen to have for the energy they need to survive and continue south. In the cold early winter months whenever the father and son get their clothes wet, they build a fire and dry the clothes. Otherwise, they would likely catch pneumonia and freeze to death with wet clothes in winter.

The father and son often sleep together in front of the fire, keeping each other warm as much as possible. Although the family is removed from the comforts of modern society, they can still provide for their survival needs by using fire. As the father must hide the boy from predators, he also has to hide their fires from the world. Predatory humans could spot their fires and kill them. In this case fire symbolizes a type of naive, vulnerable goodness that always trusts others and lets its true nature be seen by any evil entity. In the Bible Satan is always depicted as tempting righteous people like Eve, Job, and Jesus.

Goodness can never be isolated or protected from evil in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world, and the father and son, though often alone, are never safe. McCarthy uses fire to illustrate the bond between a bitter but hopeful father and his idealistic son. The family constantly talks of “carrying the fire” as a way to describe themselves as being good and surviving. The father tells his son that the fire is inside him (279). Drawn in direct contrast with the family’s fire is the cold, dark, deathly post-apocalyptic world that the family must struggle to survive within.

The father instructs his son that if “trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it” (151). This philosophy guides the father’s actions that protect his son. Although such a view may not believe in the goodness of others, it helps one to survive in order to be good. On the other hand, the son convinces his father to give food charitably and to build a fire for an old man (165, 168). McCarthy’s heroes in The Road may see little goodness in a post-apocalyptic world, but they do their best to be good people.

Work Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

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