The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Ethics in The Road
Everyone has a friend who says one thing but does another, a person whose actions are contradictory to his or her words. Imagine someone who is in favor of being green and keeping the earth clean. This person does extensive research before purchasing products so that when it comes time to throw them out most of his or her belongings can be recycled and reused by other people. The individual attends environmental protection meetings and is enthusiastic with spreading the word among friends. But at the same time that person smokes cigarettes and pollutes the air. The person believes that he or she is helping the earth by attending meetings and being present at rallies but does not realize that smoking is going against what he supposedly believes in. Similarly in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the father and son define themselves as the “good guys” but they do not help out the rest of the survivors. McCarthy suggests that law and ethics usually go hand in hand. For example, it is unethical to murder someone and it is also against the law to kill another human being. But in a world that has lost authority, ethics is also lost because each person has his or her own definition of what the morally correct thing to do when there is now law.
Cormac McCarthy was first inspired to write The Road when he visited Texas in 2003 with his son. He thought about what the area would look like in the future and saw “fire up on the hill”. The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is dedicated to his son. (Winfrey) The novel is about a father and his son wandering through the ashes of America after an apocalypse. The book does not explicitly show reader what the catastrophic event occurred, but allows the reader to imagine with meticulous descriptions of many disastrous scenes. They are traveling south towards warmer temperatures. They do not have much left except the road on which they travel on and each other. Since there is no animals or vegetation for consumption some humans resort to cannibalism. Throughout the book the father reassures his son that they are “the good guys” and they must find shelter from “the bad guys”, the cannibals. They have one firearm but only two bullets are loaded in it. The gun is their last resort in case they fall in the hands of the cannibals. The few survivors they meet they leave behind in order to save themselves and hopefully reach their destination. When it comes down to it they father will prioritize his son and himself over everyone else.
Throughout the novel the father constantly reminds his son that they are “the good guys”. He confirms “we’re ok…nothing bad is going to happen to us…because we’re carrying the fire.” (83) With this continual encouragement that they are upright and holding a supposed conflagration the father and son find the strength to keep traveling towards their destination. The father created a divide to separate him and his son from the supposed enemies. The label “the bad guys” consists of roadagents, cannibals, and anyone who could pose a threat to the man and his son. The man tells the boy stories about the old world and hope to try to keep fire alive in his son. They talk about the possibilities about a crow flying to Mars. The father says, “if you had a really good spaceship and you had people to help you I suppose you could go.” (157) The adult tries to instill hope in the child. Even in times of hardship the father teaches the son “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.” (137) When the man dies and the boy is found by a family who offer to take him in he asks, “How do I know you’re one of the good guys?…Are you carrying the fire? (283) When the boy runs into trouble in the future he still remembers his father’s words and keeps trying to protect himself and searching for the good guys.
The pair’s behavior is governed by what is right in their eyes. This is also reinforced by the fact that they are the good guys. Throughout the story the father and son’s priority is preservation, but the father’s attitude towards outsiders is not the same. The boy sees another small boy that looked about the same age as him in a house and worries about him. He ponders, “what if that little boy doesn’t have anybody to take care of him? What if he doesn’t have a papa?” (85) Even after his son’s tearful pleas, his father decides to leave the stranger behind. Another incident occurs while they are exploring the basement of formerly magnificent house. The people down there were “huddled against the back wall…naked…all trying to hide…a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt.” (110) The scene was horrific. These victims were being kept alive in the basement for the sole purpose of being eaten by the road agents. One of them was already half gone. After escaping the house of horror the boy wonders what fate awaits the victims and confirms his father’s reason for leaving them behind. He says, “They’re going to eat them, aren’t they? Yes. And we couldn’t help them because then they’d eat us too. Yes. And that’s why we couldn’t help them. Yes.” (127) Even after leaving them behind the boy worries about them and tries to justify their actions. Some time later all of our main characters’ belongings were stolen. After tracking down the culprit the man strips the thief, figuratively and literally, of everything he has including his shoes. He protests, “Don’t do this, man. You didn’t mind doing it to us…You took everything…I’m going to leave you the way you left us.” (257) In the end, due to the boy’s pleas, they leave clothes and shoes on the road where they found the man. The boy is compassionate towards the people who are not the “bad guys” and he wants to bring them along for companionship. The father will do what is necessary in his eyes to protect himself and his son even if it means that he is leaving other innocent people to meet their demise.
In each example, the pairs’ ethics are challenged and the father makes decisions that the boy does not agree with but cannot go against. When the son spotted a little boy the father made the decision to keep moving on the road. The boy cried, “What about the little boy?” (86) The son even tried to negotiate with his father that he would share half of his food with the little boy, but his requests were denied. In today’s world if one saw a little boy who seemed lost, the most common question to ask the boy is “Where is your mommy?” Trying to help out the child would be the natural thing to do. But in such a world where survival as become “natural” people are left behind. When the duo left the dozens of victims in the basement the boy felt remorse and attempted to justify their reasons for deserting the ones in need. He says, “We couldn’t help them because then they’d eat us too…And that’s why we couldn’t help them.” (127) The connection to the victim here is not as strong as it was to the little boy because the son could identify with the young child. When the father and son caught the thief with their possessions they took everything he had. The boy protested, “Just help him…He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.” (259) The boy finally convinces his father to leave clothes and shoes for the thief. The boy has a heart for helping others while the man’s heart has grown hard and cold in order to face reality and protect them. This shows that even the father and his son cannot agree on what the “right” thing to do is.
In The Road, Cormac McCarthy conveys that in a lawless society ethics is questioned because of priorities. The son has a strong sense of being a “good guy” and is taught to run away from the “bad guys”. His father’s teachings about what to look for in a good guy follows him even after the man has passed away. The choices the father makes are dependent on what he thinks is the right thing to do. These selections are based on what is advantageous to the father and the son even though it may not benefit the rest of what is left of society. Throughout the novel ethics is applied to each person differently and there is such a clash because the father and son have different opinions about what the “right” thing to do is. Seeing as this is what McCarthy envisions for our future, if some sort of apocalypse occurs there may be a very small bit of hope in mankind. The fact that we do not know if the boy survives after the family takes him in is representative of the mysterious and unknown future.