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Exploring Tragedy through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

November 12, 2010

Among the most powerful aspects of human art is its ability to reveal our emotional appropriation of crucial theological issues.  For instance, the literary genre of tragedy probes with searing honesty how human projects and relationships are thwarted by the inevitability of death.  In this regard, I would offer Cormac McCarthy’s powerful novel The Road as a type of modern day tragedy exploring these same issues.  The plot of The Road is fairly simple: a nameless father and son wander through post-apocalyptic America, struggling to survive in a wasteland produced by an unexplained cataclysmic event.  The Road strikes a chord with contemporary Western culture because it presents death in a way that few other modern works of literature do.  The Road forces the modern reader to face the totality of death as the novel intertwines the tragedy of the individual’s death with the tragedy of the death of the earth.  The novel starkly reveals the finitude of creation as the sun gives out and the earth’s vegetation becomes incapable of regeneration and time and space are rendered meaningless.   In this way, The Road presents a terrible dissonance for the reader as the hopes presented by the book – for finding food and establishing shelter, and most of all, for the son to live on – are all thwarted by the fact that the dying earth inevitably dooms the human race; human history will end as the earth descends into nothingness.

The dissonance we feel allows us to understand how we are actually incorporating the notion of the tragic into human life.   Ben Quash writes that western literature actually offers two different tragic forms:

i) “a cyclical one that represents the perpetual vicissitudes of the world and the human’s place in it;

ii) A more linear one representing ultimate and inescapable possibilities of disintegration in individual human lives, and by extension, in the human of the world itself. [1]

In the first mode, life is comprised of recurrent reversals and returns fortune.  Tragedy, then, can be accepted because of the marginal consolations that the vicissitudes afford.  These consolations are inherent in human existence itself, such as upturns in circumstances or fortune, family, love.

In the second model, however, life represents a linear path culminating in death.  Tragedy is the human encounter with forces beyond our control, which inevitably bear us to an inexorable and definite end.  There is nothing from within the structures of creation that provide marginal consolation.

I would argue (in line with Quash) that the second model of tragedy is more appropriate to the actual experience of human life – and in line with the witness of the Bible and the life of Christ.  Human existence is appropriately defined by the revelation of Christ, and the finality of Christ’s death at Calvary is completely inexorable; we cannot look at Calvary as a “vicissitude” which will be consoled by something else from within creation.   The Road, therefore, engages us theologically because it prompts us to ask whether we can accommodate a linear view of tragedy in human life or whether we desire a more consoling model.   Are we looking for things within the current structures of existence to provide us consolation in the face of death?  Or can we face life as an inexorable progression of events to a final disintegrating end?  Acknowledging a linear view of tragedy, however, is not cause for despair; it merely makes us as Christians proffer a more robust hope.  We are forced to take seriously right now the new resurrection life set into motion by Christ’s own Resurrection – as the only means to prevail against death and the structures of the limited creation portrayed by The Road.

Somer Salomon is a PhD student at St. Andrews University, researching the relationship between beauty and eschatology.  She loves being near the sea in Scotland, but as she’s from Virginia, sometimes misses the warm sunshine.


[1]Ben Quash, “Real Enactment: The Role of Drama in the Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar,” in Faithful Performances : Enacting Christian Tradition ed. Trevor Hart and Steven R. Guthrie, Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 16.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Cole Matson permalink
    November 12, 2010 3:42 pm

    Thank you for this helpful distinction. I agree – you have to face the utter hopelessness before you can understand the fullness of the hope.

  2. November 23, 2010 10:45 pm

    Interesting take on “The Road” from Nic Marks who is an expert in the field of well-being research and undertakes innovative research in the use of well-being indicators in public policy environments. He was an advisor to the UK Government Office for Science’s Foresight project on ‘mental capital and well-being’ which was published in October 2008. Nic has a degree in Management Studies from Cambridge University, and a Master’s degree in Operational Research from Lancaster University. He is a qualified psychotherapist and a member of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies. The following is an excerpt of an address he gave this year on Human Happiness and Well-being.

    “I have a dream that we can stop thinking that the future will be a nightmare, and this is going to be a challenge, because, if you think of every major blockbuster film of recent times, like The Road, nearly all of its visions for humanity are apocalyptic. For too long, we have peddled a nightmarish vision of what’s going to happen. We have focused on the problem, and we have not thought enough about the solutions. We’ve used fear to grab people’s attention.

    We did a project for the Government Office of Science a couple of years ago called the Foresight Program – everything evidence based, to discover: what five positive actions can you do to improve well-being in your life? And the first of these is to connect. Your social relationships are the most important cornerstones of your life. Do you invest time with your loved ones? The second – be active. The fastest way out of a bad mood: step outside, go for a walk, exercise. Third – take notice. How aware are you of things going on around the world, the seasons changing, people around you? Based on a lot of evidence for mindfulness, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, awareness contributes strongly to our well being. Fourth – keep learning throughout your whole life. Older people who keep learning and are curious, they have much better health outcomes than those who start to close down. But it doesn’t have to be formal learning; it’s not knowledge based. It’s more curiosity. It can be learning to cook a new dish, picking up an instrument you forgot as a child. And the final one is that most anti-economic of activities, but give. Our generosity, our altruism, our compassion, are all hardwired to the reward mechanism in our brain. We feel good if we give. Those who give time and resources to other people are much happier than those who spend these only on themselves.”

    For full talk go to: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html

  3. Travis permalink
    December 12, 2010 8:32 pm

    Great discussion Somer, thanks for sharing it with us! I wonder what you would make of the little arcs of redemption or hope within the novel itself, the main one I’m thinking of is the father’s relationship with his son, whose survival seems to be his sole purpose going on himself. Is it that cut off from any larger hopes of redemption, or anything to intervene for us or to look to beyond this short life, we seek some sense of wholeness from all that is left to us, i.e., those closest to us? And what do you make of his repeated aim to carry the ‘fire’ with them and keep it alive in the world? What do you think that signifies for him? Thanks again!

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