"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic." - Oscar Wilde
Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a harrowing tale of a father and son walking down the literal and figurative path of life. The saga is a dark story of survival, but also a narrative of redemption, aspiration, and moral willpower. Encountering mysterious strangers and haunting scenes, their morals are challenged and lives threatened.
Man and Boy represent two very different ways of living in the world. Man is symbolic of the tried, weary, cynical, and cautious approach to life. Undoubtedly, his pessimism and distrust of others and the unknown allowed him to survive and endure as long as he has. However, these traits also make him unable to sympathize with others who endure hardships even more unbearable than his. The world of Man is dog eat dog; humans have been brought down to their most animalistic form. He has no compunction to take other lives to protect his own and his son's. Even though he is haunted by the inability to save his wife, Man is largely blind to the pain that surrounds him on a daily basis. In short, the Man is tortured by the memories of the past, and is numb to the emotional suffering of the present.
Boy, on the other hand, is far more innocent and tends to except and embrace people at their face value. When he sees another child, Boy has the very natural instinct to go play and talk with the mysterious kid. Man has overcome those luxuries of the past. In many ways, Boy represents the hope of humanity. Time and time again, he reveals sympathy and compassion to those he does not even know. His father does not embrace life that way.
For instance, Boy demonstrates kindness to the character of Eli, an aged, blind elder who still possesses a degree of chivalry and wisdom. In short, Eli represents the old world order and symbolizes the dying society that is still collapsing around them. As he delivers his sermon to Man, the sound of trees falling off in the distance speaks to the withering state of humans and nature. On that note, the Thief is representative of the new world order. After he unsuccessfully tries to steal food, Man forces the Thief to strip down as a form of punishment. Although Man sees himself as the victim in this episode, the truth of the matter is that there is no difference between Man and the Thief. Man, too, would have probably taken the food in the name of survival. But, Man was never caught, and therein lies the difference. Man recognizes what is moral, but he cannot always abide by it.
Cormac McCarthy never mentions the reasons for the apocalypse and, in many ways, the source of the devastation is immaterial to the story-line of survival and family. Even so, Eli alludes to a catastrophic event that brought upon this widespread misery and death. He said, "I knew this was coming….There were warnings. Some people thought it was a con, but I always believed in it." This quote certainly sounds connected to ongoing conversations in contemporary society regarding climate change. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, many see the inevitable as a sham or hoax, failing to acknowledge its warnings.
In a variety of ways, The Road is like the story of the "Good Samaritan." Man is willing to ignore the pleas of help by others, but Boy appeals to a higher moral compass. Meanwhile, Eli (perhaps inspired by the Bible's blind prophet) seeks God's voice and wonders if He is still listening. Similarly, in another post-apocalyptic film, The Book of Eli, a blind man wanders through a wasteland seeking purpose. Even if one does not believe in God, one has to believe in something. In the case of the Man, the Boy is his "God" and he will do anything to protect him.
The Road is a careful balancing act between human depravity and hope. For much of the film, darkness prevails as people die and Man ultimately perishes. However, hope eventually prevails because of the Boy's "fire" and his fortitude. Indeed, the torch is passed on as the Boy embarks on a new life with his new family.