Keeping the Fire: A Symbolic Analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

A father and son watch
“the fire” burn in the
2009 movie The Road.

It is time for a deeper look. Not long ago, I finally watched the 2009 movie The Road. A friend of mine had told me about the movie, and I thought it would be interesting to see it and read the book since the author lives near me. The post-apocalyptic drama was based on the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy lives here in Santa Fe, but I missed his last lecture. The main characters in the movie are Viggo Mortensen (the father) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (his son). Charlize Theron convincingly plays Mortensen’s hopeless wife. In 2007, the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story is inspiring in a world filled with nightmarish problems and complexity.

In 2006, Janet Maslin with the New York Times wrote The Road Through Hell, Paved With Desperation. There have been several reviews which focus on the darkness of the story. The darkness didn’t bother me at all because it was really a story about the struggle for hope and retention of light. Maslin calls the journey of this father and his son a “cold, wretched, wet, corpse-strewn, ashen landscape of a post-apocalyptic world.” She calls the story “brutal” and in the same sentence, she uses the word “despair.” Maslin felt that it was a “terrifying” story. The one thing I did like about her critique is that she uses two good words. She uses the words “symbolic” and “metaphorical,” though she doesn’t offer any more than that and so I will give you my interpretation of McCarthy’s tale.

First off I will say that the title itself is a metaphor for life. The road each of us will travel is filled with curves, stops, hazards, and the unexpected. The Road represents the journey we make and how we must fight to fulfill our destiny or let go of those things which we can not control. Our individual road can be long, but McCarthy’s tale does promise light at the end of a dark trail. There can still be comfort in difficult times. The story embraces tenacity and embodies strength. It teaches us to give thanks for what we do have which can be as simple as life itself.

The movie opens with a beautiful, calm setting. There are trees and flowers. The scene is full of light. I felt that this set the stage for the endurance and strength of light. For the symbolic sake of my analysis, dark represents evil, despair, the faithless, hate, fear, cold and hopelessness. Light represents goodness, faith, love, fearlessness, warmth and hope.

The son remains a strong symbol of that which is positive. At one point, the father says “when I have nothing else, I try to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings.” The child represents the untainted innocence within each of us. It is this innocence and child-like quality which can ward off the heaviness of the problems in life. The son also exemplifies the beauty of humanness. He shows us how exposing ourselves to others can sooth and heal.

The best example of this is captured by the charity and compassion of the son. He insists on giving to a stranger. He shares food, which is scarce, with an old man on the road. It is this friendship and bonding which exposes us. The boy holds the old man’s hand. They are both comforted by this. The old man calls him “a good little boy.” He says “when I saw that boy, I thought I had died and seen an angel.”

Fire is the greatest, most powerful symbol in this story. It represents warmth in the coldest times. It represents life. It represents the magical light we carry within which keeps us human. It represents drive, resilience, commitment, selflessness, goodness and love. At one point in the movie, the father explains this. He tells his son that they have to “just keeping carrying the fire” and the son says “what fire?” The dad says “the fire inside you.”

Water and food were both obvious symbols of life and hope. When the father and son discover an underground bunker with food and water, we see the duo in happier times. In this scene, a great symbol of hope is clear when the father and son are on their knees. At this time, they give thanks for their blessings.

In contrast to her positive son and somewhat positive husband, we have the hopeless wife. Memories of her haunt the father and he always hears the sad music of their piano which is symbolic of love that has gone cold. The cold is a firm symbol of disconnection. In the father’s memories, the breath of the couple is icy symbolizing the distance between them. The wife shunned all hope. She invited the darkness and sadly headed off alone into the frozen night. Her husband said “she was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She died somewhere in the dark.” We never see her body, so it is likely a metaphorical death. Her death represents the psychology of giving up and succumbing to the darkness.

I think McCarthy paired this husband and wife to show us the power of positivity. The wife is a negative woman who never helps the situation. While her husband says he will do anything to insure their survival, she insists on giving up. I think her character was the saddest, darkest part of this tale. Her husband tells her “we will survive this. We aren’t going to quit,” and she says she doesn’t want to “just survive.” When he finally realized she had indeed lost all hope by leaving them for the darkness, he throws her photo and his wedding ring off the bridge which is symbolic of letting go of that which he could not control.

From this point on, the story line centers on the unbreakable bond between a father and son. In times of adversity he reads to his child, teaching him about the “old” values. Even though the boy is older, he remains child-like, clinging to a plush toy for comfort. The father says “all I know is the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God then God never spoke.”

In the end, the boy ends up without his father and mother. The story is a testament of strength as the boy doesn’t choose to take his own life as his father instructed him to do. He makes the choice to go on. He chooses life. The boy ends up being followed by a concerned family and regains a father and mother figure, a brother and sister and the dog he had always hoped for.

McCarthy’s story is about light in the darkest times. The journey of this father and son symbolically ended near the ocean. As I said before, water is a symbol of life. This is a story about never giving up. It is a story about selfless love. McCarthy’s dark story is really encrusted with light, goodness, faith, fearlessness, warmth and hope. His story reminds us to keep our fire burning while traveling the road.

Explore posts in the same categories: Analysis, Authors, Books, Connection, Darkness, Disconnection, Fire Symbol, Inspirational, Light, Metaphors, Movie Review, Movies, New Mexico, Positive Energies, Santa Fe, Strength, Weakness, Worthy Reads, Writers, Writing

One Comment on “Keeping the Fire: A Symbolic Analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road””

  1. I love your analysis, Felicia, especially how you focus on inner light and hope. I warm up to your take, since so much stuff is written about his novels that focus on darkness and despair.

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