The Road Themes and Analysis

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy follows two characters, The Man and The Boy, as they attempt to make it to the coast, traveling through a post-apocalyptic world. 

The novel takes place during an unknown year and features nameless characters, unusual grammatical choices, and prose that’s rich in imagery. Readers are sure to encounter some of the primary themes of the novel, desired below, as well as many important symbols, like the road itself, the boy, and the flarepistol.

The Road Themes and Analysis


The Road Themes 

Violence 

Violence is one of the primary themes in The Road. It’s everywhere that The Man and The Boy travel. It’s something they avoid and, unfortunately, something they’re forced to use to defend themselves. For example, when The Man kills the Roadrat who attempts to kidnap, and likely kill and eat, The Boy. He shoots him in the head, using one of his two bullets. (Both of which had been saved in order to take their own lives in the event that their situation got irreparably bad.) 

Death 

Death is as unavoidable as violence is. It’s something that The Man tries to stave off, for himself and even more so, for his son. It’s also something they’re intimately familiar with. The Man’s wife killed herself outside the timeline of the novel, and everywhere the two go, they see death. That might be dead bodies, or it might be their dead world. This includes a lack of animals, living plants, and more. 

Family

Family is another incredibly important theme in The Road. The bond the two main characters have and the love they share is what keeps them going. The Boy is The Man’s “warrant,” he says. He’s the reason The Man keeps going when life looks hopeless and nothing but painful. He shows his love for The Boy numerous times, giving him the small treats they find (like a soda) and protecting him from dangers. When The Man dies at the end of the novel, The Boy’s love for him compels him to stick by the body for days. 

Analysis of Key Moments in The Road 

  1. The Man and The Boy travel through towns, explore houses, and see empty cities as they walk towards the coast. 
  2. The two find a single can of coke in a vending machine. The man gives it to the boy in an effort to show him a little of what the world used to be.
  3. The boy and man come to the house the man grew up in and the boy is scared to go inside.
  4. The two swim in a waterfall together and the reader is treated to a moment that almost feels normal. 
  5. The Roadagents find the man and the boy as they attempt to hide in the woods. The boy is grabbed but the man shoots the would-be-kidnapper in the head, using one of his two bullets. 
  6. The two find a cellar filled with nake men and women, clearly being kept as hostages and as a living food supply. 
  7. The Man finds an old apple orchard and some dried out fruit. They eat and drink and have a happier moment together. 
  8. The Man finds a bunker filled with good, cots to sleep on, and water. There is also a chemical toilet. The two spend a few days in the bunker, eating and sleeping. 
  9. They briefly encounter another traveler, Ely, who they give supplies to and spend several hours with.
  10. The two arrive at the coast but it’s anti-climatic. It’s dark, grey, and very much like the rest of the world.
  11. All of their belongings are stolen by a thief. 
  12. The Man catches the thief, tells him to strip naked, but The Boy feels too guilty about it. 
  13. The Man gets shot in the leg by an arrow. 
  14. The Man dies after telling the boy to travel south and to keep “carrying the fire.”
  15. The boy spends time with his father’s body before encountering a group of “good guys” who take him into their family. 
  16. The novel ends with the memory of a mountain stream.


Style, Tone, and Figurative Language

The style in The Road is unique. It is solemn, sometimes withdrawn, and always direct. He doesn’t spend time on overly emotional language, although some passages are more lyrical than others. This is the case whenever the man is reminiscing on the past. There are missing grammatical elements, no names, and more. All of these unusual choices emphasize the situation the two main characters are in. The world is changed in a way that there’s no coming back from. 

The mood in the novel is despairing and sad. It is meant to evoke compassion for the characters and relief that one does not find themselves in a similar situation. This allows readers to focus on the main themes and what’s truly important in life (family, love, and a moral compass (something The Boy is obsessed with).) 

There are numerous examples of figurative language in The Road. Often, he uses metaphors and similes, comparing unlike things to one another. Death is also personified throughout the novel. 

Analysis of Symbols 

The Road 

The road is itself an important symbol in The Road. The two characters travel large and small roads throughout the novel, spending the vast majority of its pages moving. McCarthy often describes it, depicting it as transient and alive in a way. Being “on the road” is a mental state that the two main characters inhabit. 

Carrying The Fire 

The phrase “carrying the fire” is used several times throughout the book. The Boy holds it close to his heart as the reason the two are continuing despite the terrible conditions they’re living in. They have to “carry the fire” of goodness and kindness through the world because other people are not. It’s what makes them the “good guys” and not the “bad guys” like the Roadagents who have given in to the worst impulses. 

The Flarepistol 

The pistol is a symbol of hopelessness when the man shoots it into the ocean. He does so in a futile attempt to attract someone’s attention—someone who can help him and his son as their situation has gotten quite bad. Later in the novel, the gun is used as a weapon, defending the two from men on the road. 

FAQs 

What does the road symbolize in ‘The Road?’

The road symbolizes the drive to continue living and find a place of safety in the novel. It’s a universal drive that all human beings experience in some form.

What does The Boy symbolize in ‘The Road?’

The Boy symbolizes hope and innocence. He’s young and The Man is doing whatever he can to make sure that he grows up in a better place, but it seems to be a hopeless task. 

What does Coca-Cola represent in ‘The Road?’

The can of coke in ‘The Road’ represents what’s been lost, like consumer society. Name brands have lost their meaning entirely. This should inspire readers to focus on what is important in life. 

About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.
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