You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it. (McCarthy 278)
This is a conversation between an unnamed boy and his father, the two protagonists of Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed novel The Road,published in 2006. More than a decade later, it has become a popular choice among many English teachers in high schools across North America. A film adaptation released in 2009, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen, which captures the atmosphere of the original novel quite vividly, but this review will focus on the novel and teaching it to senior language arts classes within a Christian school context.
The above conversation takes place at the end of the novel (spoiler alert) where the unnamed man (aka, the father) with his dying words encourages his son to continue living and promises the boy that there is a metaphorical fire living within him. Throughout the novel, the father repeats this mantra, “carry the fire,” as encouragement of sorts. It can represent a lot of different things, ranging from having hope to being a decent, civilized person in a dog-eat-dog world to maintaining the will to survive and persevere. I mean “dog-eat-dog world” in the most literal sense, as the two encounter various groups of blood-thirsty marauders who have resorted to cannibalism, as well as various characters with intentions to steal and kill. However in this conversation in particular, “carry the fire” is meant to be the final word of wisdom from the man to this son to keep on living, despite the perilous circumstances.
The world in which they live is a desolate post-apocalyptic America where it’s every person for themselves.
The world in which they live is a desolate post-apocalyptic America where it’s every person for themselves. References to the world that once was are scattered here and there, but they are for the most part a lingering memory. Something as simple as an outdated can of peaches or an expired bottle of Coke is considered a treat and a luxury. The soot-filled atmosphere is constantly grey, filled with seas of dead grass and charred items that were once useful. There’s also a greyness in the choice of the author’s vocabulary and grammatical style. Stylistically, McCarthy’s known for writing with minimal punctuation, such as omitting quotation marks and using pithy yet descriptive sentence structures. For example, McCarthy describes a city that the two pass through as “mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash. Everything covered with ash and dust” (McCarthy 12). Finally, there’s a greyness about the moral dilemmas that characters have to face when it comes to questions of survival. Do they stay in the same spot to rest and recover, or should they continue trudging along toward their goal of reaching the ocean? Do they show empathy to less fortunate souls they encounter along the way and help them out, or do they let them wither away, all in the name of survival and resource management? Do they kill, lest they be killed?
The novel is unclear about the cause of the post-apocalyptic situation they live in; perhaps it was war, perhaps it was some sort of environmental catastrophe, or perhaps (dare, I say it) a pandemic has swept the world and turned people into the worst versions of themselves. To relate to the students, I like to use the Fallout video-game series by Bethesda Softworks, which is set in the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe and includes many tropes that one would expect to find in the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s a terrifying and gruesome world to live in, reminiscent of Yeat’s lines in “The Second Coming,” where he writes that “things [have fallen] apart / the centre cannot hold, / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats 158). There is a particularly infamous scene that I dub “the cannibal house.” A book review published in The Atlantic claims this scene may be “the scariest passage in all of literature” (Fassler). Here, the boy and man, to their horror, discover a basement pantry of humans who were herded for a cannibalistic group but who manage to escape before the homeowners return. This is one of the many situations that the boy and man have to deal with in the world in which they live.
The themes that the novel explores—survival at all costs and the importance of companionship—become all the more relatable living in the pandemic era.
I was first introduced to The Road as an impressionable student in a first-year university course, and every year I have found myself re-reading it, captivated by the other-worldly setting and moved by the emotional highs and lows that the father and son of the novel find themselves in. There’s something about the way McCarthy’s distinct writing style evokes the tense atmosphere of classic Western films, like Sergio Leone’s films Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And rightfully so, as McCarthy’s other famous novels like All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian,and No Country for Old Men are known for employing and subverting tropes found in the Western genre. Even more so, teaching The Road takes on a whole new meaning in the current cultural climate dictated by a global pandemic. The themes that the novel explores—survival at all costs and the importance of companionship—become all the more relatable living in the pandemic era. Thankfully, we have not devolved into a literal dog-eat-dog world like McCarthy describes in the novel, but when I turn on the news and watch political tribalism unfold, I can’t help but wonder whether we are headed in that direction.
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching The Road as part of a rotating selection of novels that I have in my arsenal. I would go as far as to say it’s one of my signature units. Summative assessments take the form of an oral commentary that compares The Road to a text of the student’s choice. In the classroom, I have made references and connections to the media mentioned in the previous paragraphs, as well as the 1952 Duck and Cover civil-defense film, the 1986 music videos for “Land of Confusion” by Genesis, and Disturbed in 2005 to provide a inspiration and launch point for students to make their own connections to their choice of bodies of work. The post-apocalyptic genre and related themes are so pervasive in today’s pop culture that it’s not difficult for teachers and students to make interesting and insightful connections among different text types.
The post-apocalyptic genre and related themes are so pervasive in today’s pop culture that it’s not difficult for teachers and students to make interesting and insightful connections among different text types.
However, for some, The Road can be a slow read, as the author takes time to detail the drudgery of the world and the internal emotions of the characters. But when we give it the time it deserves, it is rewarding to read carefully with the students and highlight the nuances of the world that McCarthy creates. Furthermore, when it comes to scenes where the main action takes place, it’s intense, equally captivating and terrifying. The way McCarthy unfolds the plot feels like the buildup to a scene in a horror film, where the camera is angled in a way that makes the ordinary seem horrifying. As I have described up to this point, it may not sound like a novel that you would expect to read in a Christian school of all places. Nevertheless, for Christian educators there is a lot of great content to unpack with students, especially related to difficult questions of a biblical worldview and of morality.
As one reads the book, the question of where God is in all of this remains persistent.
Fassler, Joe. “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road May Have the Scariest Passage in All of Literature.” The Atlantic. May, 14, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/cormac-mccarthys-i-the-road-i-may-have-the-scariest-passage-in-all-of-literature/275834/.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage International, 2006.
Yeats, W B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1956. Print.
Anthony Bigornia is a teacher and student life coordinator at White Rock Christian Academy in Surrey, BC, Canada. He currently teaches IB DP Language & Literature and Biblical Studies 11.