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In the novel The Road, there are plenty of depressing themes that jump out at a reader right away; despair, struggle, and adversity to name a few. The novel follows a man and son struggling to survive in a seemingly post-nuclear apocalypse. This does not save much room for sunshine and happiness. However, Cormac McCarthy does somehow manage to highlight a rather pleasant theme throughout his novel: hope. McCarthy illustrates the idea of hope throughout The Road by using the relationship between the man and the boy and character traits.
Throughout the novel, the man and boy talk to each other about “carrying the fire.” In a world full of darkness and cannibalism, that is a phrase that sticks out. To “carry the fire” in such a dark time would imply that the pair has a cause, or a reason to continue on. On page 83, the slogan is first mentioned by the boy when he is talking to the man about being safe. This conversation is started by the boy.
“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we, Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.”
Both the man and the boy use the phrase as a kind of protection against the evils of the world. The fact that the man and boy are carrying this fire, this light of hope, ultimately makes them feel safer. It is an ironic conversation considering that copious amounts of bad things have already happened to them, but the hope that the fire brings gives them both a feeling of security in the fact that good things must happen to good people. Again, the fire is mentioned at the very end of the book. On page 283, when the boy runs into other people, he asks them if they are carrying the fire. When they answer yes, the reader can feel the same hope that the boy is feeling after he had gone so long running from bad guys to finally end up with a group who is harboring the same hope and goodness as himself.
Also at the end of the novel, the boy has one of his last conversations with his father where you can see, even in the end, his father’s hope.
“Do you remember that little boy, Papa?
Yes. I remember him.
Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?
Oh yes. I think he’s all right.
Do you think he was lost?
No. I don’t think he was lost.
I’m scared that he was lost.
I think he’s all right.
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.”
In all honesty, the man has no reason to believe that the little boy was not lost, that he was okay, or even that goodness would find him. McCarthy effectively showcases blind hope in this passage. The man has hope in goodness and the little boy despite being on his deathbed with no evidence to show him how the little boy may be doing. This is a rather significant showcase of hope due to the fact that the man and boy are surrounded by darkness, the father’s impending death, and the fact that the boy will soon have to face the world alone. Throughout all the adversity, there lies a very real example of hope.
On the topic of blind hope, the boy throughout the novel frequently talks about the “good guys.” In the beginning of the novel, the pair coin this term to describe themselves, though on page 103 the boy begins to ask about other so called, “good guys.”
“We need to get out of the road.
Is it bad guys?
Yes. I’m afraid so.
They could be good guys, couldn’t they?”
Up until this point, everyone that the two have met on the road (with the exception of the dying man struck by lightning) has tried to hurt them. Logic would dictate that anyone coming down the road would be bad news for the couple. However, regardless of this fact, the boy shows a hope that the people coming could be good. In fact, throughout the novel, the boy holds onto the thought that there are other good guys waiting for them somewhere. Although there is little to no evidence of anyone left who isn’t a cannibal, or even at least someone who would accept other people, the boy keeps this hope in his mind, and eventually it pays off.
Finally, the main objective of the man and the boy throughout the entire novel is to reach the coast. This one goal is what keeps the both of them on their feet nearly every waking hour. Why? There is not much evidence to dictate that life on the coast would be much better for them. Of course, they are moving south for the winter because it is harder to survive in the cold. However, the hope that the two put into the coast without any information about what to expect once they arrive is almost astounding. For example, on page 182, the boy speculates with his father about what the ocean would look like once they arrived. Although the boy has never seen the ocean, and every body of water he has ever seen had been covered in ash, he still hopes that the sea will be blue. He also speculates about the “good guys” being at the coast, while the man hopes for an easier life although the only thing good that is guaranteed to them is decent weather. So throughout the novel, these two people are nearly basing their whole existence on getting to this place that they hope will be better for them. Hope is what keeps them going.
Overall, it is acknowledgeable that McCarthy chose a rather hopeless time and place if he was going to write about hope. It does not really need to be said that there is not much hope to be found in a post-apocalyptic setting. So what would be the point of using one to attempt a theme of hope? By creating a place so desolate and hopeless, McCarthy was able to create a need to establish a reason to live. It would not be likely for a reader to happily follow the struggles of a man and his young son through a plethora of fallbacks with no rhyme or reason to the suffering. This makes the reader inevitably begin to look for that reason to live. Since the reader is already on the lookout, McCarthy is able to be much more subtle with his theme while still making it very apparent. Not only is the setting a tool instead of a setback for the theme, but it makes the notion of hope all the more glorious when it is surrounded by doubt.
In conclusion, hope is a major theme in The Road even despite its bleak overtones. McCarthy uses several strategies to employ this theme throughout the dark and depressing novel, from using imagery of “carrying the fire” to contrast the bleak world physically and symbolically to framing the entire journey on the hopes of a man and his boy. He also makes the reoccurring “good guys” a beacon of hope for the boy throughout the novel. Finally, McCarthy takes advantage of the seemingly opposing setting by forcing not only the characters, but also the reader, to search for light in the darkness.
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