Cannibal ante Portas

The Significance of Food and Cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy´s "The Road"

Essay, 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The role of food

3. The role of cannibalism

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliographical reference

1. Introduction

The Road is set in an apocalyptic scenario in which most of humankind and the environment seems to have been destroyed by an unspecified catastrophe. Still the few survivors, including the two main characters, have to eat something in order to stay alive. They nourish themselves from whatever edible they find on their way as they travel along a road in the hope of finding a warmer and more liveable place in the ruined country. But as the story develops they learn that not all survivors of the disaster are willing to live from the mostly insipid leftovers of the destroyed civilization but have instead developed an unholy desire for fresh human meat.

In this project work I would like to deal with the role of food in McCarthy’s novel and furthermore examine the parts that display cannibalism. Therefore I divide my project into two main parts of analysis.

Firstly I´m going to highlight how and for which reasons McCarthy uses the topic of normal food in his novel. Which stylistic devices does the author use to emphasize the role of food and how does McCarthy integrate the topic into the novel? And what role plays the absence of food?

Secondly I would like to focus on the cannibals. How are they described, what role do they play in the book and how is their appearance used by McCarthy to evoke fear and tension throughout the novel? In addition to that I´m trying to find out whether the author may have had any examples in mind when he conceived those bestialized creatures. Has he been influenced by other writers, real cannibalistic occurrences in extreme situations or within history? Where did his get his preference for violent topics from?

2. The Role of Food

In most post-apocalyptic novels food is not rare shortly after the catastrophe because there are so many leftovers of the former civilization and they are easily accessible from abandoned stores and supermarkets. In The Road it is quite different. The storytelling starts nearly a decade after the annihilation and it seems that there are no plants, no animals and no fresh food left on earth. Even the lakes have been emptied of fish. One might think that the story thus should be over pretty soon as the man and the boy are condemned to starve to death under conditions like that. But the opposite is the case: for sure they are starving most of the times, but they also stumble over supplies of food. Food has a significant importance in this book as it gets mentioned averagely at every eighth page. I am going to examine the role that food has to play in McCarthy’s novel and for which literary purposes he uses it.

It is definitely one of the major concerns of the man and the boy to find something edible as they know that their struggle to find warmer and more liveable places is senseless should they starve to death whilst trying. They carry with them some sort of mobile pantry, a small cart, in which they store their meagre supplies and which has to be defended by all means.

Food has a quite ambiguous meaning in the novel. On the one hand it keeps them alive but on the other hand the need to carry their cart along slows them down, attracts other hungry survivors and thus makes them vulnerable to people who try to obtain this precious object of desire and at the same time like to get rid of its previous owners. It serves as boon and bane in equal measure. And while we tend to link food to tasty and rich meals but the man and the boy have to eat cold and sometimes nearly fermented meals many times in order not to be discovered by the smoke of their fire. Food has become a sole necessity and even if they are very hungry they eat most of their meals except the really tasty ones without much pleasure.

The man dreams of food many times. When the "uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard (is) fading in his mouth" (17) it creates a strong contrast: on the one hand he lies in the nightly coldness of a destroyed world, on the other he dreams of walking through a "flowering wood" (17) and imagines the taste of long since gone fruits in his mouth. Again food gets a negative connotation here: for the man all dreams of delicacies and beauties of their previous life are signs that one has given up hope and flees himself into a better, but ill-fated reality. He sees those dreams as "the call of languor and death" (17)

A crucial thing is that years after the cataclysm most food is either rotten or of questionable quality. The lack of fresh food also means that they are inadequately provided with vitamins. Also the water that they drink from small rivers and puddles may make them sick. Again food has an ambiguous meaning. While they desperately need it to continue their journey it could also poison them. Only from time to time they find some fresh food on their way, for example morels (40) or apples. It may also be a sign that they are reaching warmer climate, that not all life on earth has gone or that the planet and nature are even slowly recovering. The apples are a sign of hope that not everything in the world has died as the blossoms of apple trees have to be fertilized by insects and also a good example for the rare, but funny humour McCarthy displays when he creates an image of the man who has in his arms nearly more apples than he is able to carry and also in the hood of his parka and in his pockets. The man later finds a cistern of clear and sweet water of which he drinks until his stomach is full. The place where they stopped is like an oasis in the desert for our involuntary nomads.

Once they enter a supermarket completely plundered except for one tin of Coke that the man offers to his boy. The Coke may be seen as a symbol and the fact that there is only one can left of a drink that was sold million times a day in the past makes it even more obvious that the United states, the American way of life and all the ideas, ideals and feelings which were linked to it are definitely gone. Asked why he uses the image of Coke McCarthy answers: “Well, it just struck me. It’s the iconic American product”[1]

McCarthy uses onomatopoeia when the man leans the nose of his son to the "slight fizz" (22) that comes from the can to include the reader. Nearly everybody will remember the bubbling sounds that are produced by a freshly opened can. For the son it is his first Coke and at the same time a link to the life of the man before the apocalypse. The latter so offers his son a small glimpse into the beautiful past when things had flavour and drinks bubbled in your mouth.

The deep love which the man shows to his son by offering him the most precious items of food they scavenge is a deep and powerful contrast to the atrocities that happen around them every day and runs through the whole story. It gives the quite depressing book some spare moments of brightness, hope and optimism. The boy foreshadows that this moment of pleasure is transient as he asks the father if he gave the Coke only to him because "he won´t ever get to drink another one". (23) Another example for the deep paternal love occurs when the man is dying and tells his son to eat the whole ration of food. Even if it is unsure that his son will live on he does not try to regain his health by eating something but instead passes all to his child.

Not only the cannibals but also the main actors have turned into some sort of hunter-gatherers, except that they only gather. And like them they have become nomads, which is the only lifestyle which enables one to survive in a desert-like nature. Even if they found a place where they could grow things they would not be able to defend it against others. Here again our wanderers appear to be thrown back into a past long gone. They are still part of the food cycle only this time they find themselves at the very bottom and have themselves become food in a society where only the survival of the fittest counts. Every time they look for food in houses they must feel and behave like deer eating out of garbage cans: too hungry to resist the temptation but also nervous, ready to flee the scene at the slightest sign of a threat.



Excerpt out of 15 pages


Cannibal ante Portas
The Significance of Food and Cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy´s "The Road"
University of Flensburg  (Englisches Institut)
Projektarbeit Anglistik
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
541 KB
Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Cannibalism;, Apocalypse, Food, End-of-World, Violence
Quote paper
Urs Endhardt (Author), 2010, Cannibal ante Portas, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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