The End of Guidance

Lord Byron’s Poem, Darkness, opens with the lines

“The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air”


The absence of such heavenly bodies in the poem not only indicates a catastrophic change in our environment, but also a lack of understanding and purpose in the post-apocalyptic days to come. The stars, sun, and moon are basic pillars of navigation for humans in their environment, and the robbing of such guidance removes humans of their connection to the planet. In essence, they are aliens that are no longer a part of “nature”, no longer practitioners of the “ecological coexistence”. The Road parallels these themes.
The lack of purpose and guidance is exemplified outwardly by The Man’s struggle to navigate to the coast, as well as his lost sense of seasonal and monthly time. In the novel, the “track of the dull sun mov[es] unseen beyond the murk” (McCarthy 4),  and the only time stars are visualized is before the earth-changing event, when The Man realizes that if he were God that “he would have made the world just so and no different” (McCarthy 71). Inwardly, The Man struggles  with his sense of purpose, unsure if he should kill himself and his child rather then try to find new meaning in his new existence. In fact, the only other time stars are mentioned is when The Man realizes that he and the stars coexist as a “common satellite” to the “nothingness” of the new universe they find themselves in (McCarthy 4). His only reason to continue comes in the form of the only thing he still feels a constant “coexistence” with, his Boy, which he claims he “was appointed to [protect] by God” (McCarthy 23). In this “barren, silent, godless” (McCarthy 1) universe, The Man finds renewed guidance in The Boy: a fitting vessel to “house a god” (McCarthy 23).

The Alien in the Apocalypse

While The Road is clear in its depiction of physical and societal destruction, it also shows a much more subtle ideological apocalypse. This disaster is a complex part of the narrative and demonstrates how much of human thought is rooted in the expectation of a more or less stable, habitable world. It is best expressed by “the man” on page 153.

“He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect.”

Here is a personal revelation evocative of what Timothy Morton would call “the end of the world.” The ideological construction of the Earth unravels as the man confronts the conditions of his new environment. The homeworld of the man is gone, ecologically if not physically. He exists on this new planet as both a refugee and an invader. His child, by virtue of being born after what could be lightly referred to as climate change, is a native of the new world. It is telling that the man’s greatest fear throughout the text is confrontation with other “aliens.” If we carry forward the man’s thought process, other “aliens” like him are an invasive species, threatening the well being of his native son. The cannibals that seem to lurk behind every corner represent a foreign organism that adapts to its new environment with lethal effect.

The boy occupies a position distinct from the any of the other beings encountered in The Road. He is biologically likened to his father and the marauders, but he is from a fundamentally different environment. He exists exclusively in this new ecosystem. His world was never lost and as such his relation to Earth is far more intimate. The boy is treated as part of his bleak ecology and the man, without the brutal adaptations of others of his species, cannot survive on this alien world. By the end of The Road it is unclear whether the boy’s homeworld will prove habitable or even if it should be, but through ecological thought, we see that he is more a part of it than his elders. Speciation in The Road is not biological, but ideological.

The Road and Darkness

The Road is a novel that exemplifies the reality of a world that has ended in fire. The word “ash” alone is used 149 times throughout the book to characterize the desolate landscape. No place or man is untouched by this eternal ash. There is no escape from it. It is a constant reminder of what ended the world and is ultimately what ended the life of the man as the succumbed to the cough that plagued him from the beginning. This depiction of a post-apocalyptic world is that of a God who has forsaken his people. There is no millennium, only the continuance of suffering.

Much like Byron’s Darkness, this world is characterized by an eternal, blinding darkness, save for a bleak, brief daytime. The man describes the night as a “starless dark”, comparable to Byron’s world whose “stars did wander darkling in the eternal space”, and the forest fire and falling trees that shake him from his slumber on multiple occasions mirror that of the lines of Byron as well: “Forests were set on fire–but hour by hour they fell and faded–and the crackling trunks extinguished with a crash–and all was black.” Even towards the end, when they finally reach the coast and find one lone boat sitting on the sea, can be compared to Darkness’ depiction of sailorless ships lying rotting on the sea. The ocean itself was a false symbol of hope. It was a last effort to provide some half-decent experience to his son before he died. He knew not to expect much, but after describing to his son the blue of an ocean long gone, the now ashen, murky waters were a disappointing sight. Their whole journey was based on one last hope that life would be better on the southern coast. But nothing had changed at all. It was perhaps the final step of acceptance that there was no good left in this world; all truly had been lost. 

The man and the boy embody the dark ecological thought that “the struggle for existence is the simple dependence of one being on another”. The father refuses to live without his son and promises to join him in the dark if he ever were to die. The son has been taught to know how to effectively kill himself should his father be captured or killed by the “bad guys”. The two rely solely and completely on each other to continue living. The boy speaks several times of not caring about death or wanting to join his mother, but his father immediately shuts down this ideation. He cares intensely for his son. The boy is the only reminder for the man that goodness does exist in the world and that even though everything else is in chaos, not all Godly things are lost. His son is the personification of God in a Godless world. There is love where there is loss, and there is hope where there is despair.

Extra tidbit: The inclusion of morels as a food source was particularly interesting. Several species of morels thrive in areas that have been scorned by fire. They are often found bountiful after a forest fire. It is a strange symbol that even when there is death all around, life can still be found.