The Role of Morals in Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Charlotte Bahr (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Morality in The Road
2.1 The Man
2.2 The Child

3. Carrying the fire

4. God and Faith

5. Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When your dreams are of some world that never

was or of some world that never will be

and you are happy again then you will have given up.

Do you understand?

And you cant give up. I wont let you.

(McCarthy 189)

The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s tenth and Pulitzer Prize winning novel, tells the story of an unnamed man and his son, trying to survive in the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe that left Earth stuck in atomic winter, where nearly all animals and plants are extinct, ashes are falling from the sky and the ground is burned and barren. Following the road throughout the country their goal is to reach the coast in hope for a better future. On their way they constantly struggle with starvation, sickness and the threat of thieves and cannibals that roam the road. Except for some clothes and the food they find in abandoned houses and supermarkets, they have nothing but each other to hold on to.

The novel follows these two characters on their journey through a post-apocalyptic America, seeing how the catastrophe ripped apart civilization and turned most of the people that are still alive into cannibalistic savages that do anything to survive and have practically abandoned any kind of moral. In contrast to that, the man and his son still follow a moral code, albeit the father doesn’t follow it as strictly as the son does. But in an environment like this, where people do whatever it takes to ensure their survival, having morals and values gets the man and his son in several dangerous situations, yet they stick to their believes and insist that they are the “good guys“ in a world full of “bad guys”.

In this seminar paper I will discuss the role of morals in the novel, especially in the lives of the man, his son and the savages they encounter on their way. Where does the faith in these morals come from? In what situations does the father abandon this code and why? I will also consider the advantages and disadvantages that morals and values have for the two and why they still insist, even after witnessing some extremely brutal situations, to continue “carrying the fire” through a world where the human race is on the verge of extinction and even God seems to not care anymore. Is there any hope left for a world where morals could mean something again or do the man and his son ultimately fight for a lost cause?

2. Morality in The Road

2.1 The Man

The unnamed man was born before the big catastrophe before everything, so he knows the importance of morals and tries to hold on to them and to pass them on to his son. He worships the child completely and so “[…] every move, measurement, glassing, surveying, and act of scavenging” (Gwinner 139) is done for his safety and wellbeing. He shows what he is willing to do when he feels threatened, when he and his son are surprised by a group of savages on a truck. They were able to escape from the group but are confronted by one man when the man and the boy try to hide from them. The man initially has no desire to hurt the other man with his “grey and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh.” (McCarthy 75) He simply wants to make sure that he will not run back to the truck to get back-up so they could hunt them down. This shows that even though the man realized that the other one posed a threat to him and the child, the man acts according to his moral code and is willing to spare his life, because he seemed unarmed and without the help of the other people they outnumbered him. But the situation changes when the man refuses to go with them and instead attacks the helpless boy. Instead of surrendering to their destiny and “[…] turning the other cheek” (Gwinner 146) the father kills the man without hesitation. For him, the safety of the boy is more important than everything else as he explains to him: “My job is to take care of you […] I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” (McCarthy 77) Lincoln argues that “the man’s Sisyphean choice is to bear pain, to go on, to believe in the boy as humanity’s narrowing future” (Lincoln 167), because in the end ”[…]the boy was all that stood between him and death.” (McCarthy 29)

He still considers them as the “good guys” and by killing the other man, one of the “bad guys” they ensure that “goodness prevails over badness”. (Gwinner 146)

Yet, some of the acts the man commits raise the question whether at the end he really is one of the “good guys” or not that different to the people he proclaims as the “bad guys”. There are for example the people that are kept in a cellar, by a group of cannibals “[…] harvesting chunks of their living flesh as food” (Hage 141). When the two realize what they found they are both completely shocked, but in the end they are actually afraid of the people in the cellar and instead of trying to help them, the father panics, grabs the boy that tells him to “hurry” (McCarthy 110) and “run” (111).When the man and the boy have fled from the cellar, he even takes the time to

“slam down” (111) the door, taking any chance of escape away from the captives. The man justifies his decision to not help the hostages by saying “[…] they’d eat us too” (127), the “they” referring to either the cannibals or to the hostages, which is not further clarified. This action of the father “cast a slight ethical shadow” (Gwinner 150), since he could have helped them but somehow saw them as equally threatening “bad guys” as the people that hold them captive.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Role of Morals in Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road"
University of Würzburg
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role, morals, cormac, mccarthy’s, road
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Charlotte Bahr (Author), 2011, The Role of Morals in Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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