Carrying the Fire in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Walking south towards a hopeless future, on a burned road laid to waste by an unknown cataclysmic event that has destroyed the world as he knows it, the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road encourages his son not to give in to despair by repeatedly telling him that “we’re carrying the fire.” Fire, both literal and metaphorical, is one of the key themes in McCarthy’s novel. Fire has laid the world to ash, killing off all but the most resilient, or depraved of survivors. However, fire is also the key to the protagonists’ survival, warming the boy and the father during the cold, ashen nights and illuminating their journey to their unknowable destiny.

Fire is also the central theme in the mythological story of Prometheus.  There are many version of the story, but the core remains unchanged. Prometheus creates men out of clay and, anxious to give them the tools they need to develop, asks Zeus, King of the Olympians, for fire from the hearth of Zeus’ son, Hephaestus. Zeus refuses out of fear of humans becoming too powerful. Prometheus rebels, steals the fire, and gives it to mankind, thereby giving them the ability to survive free of the capricious whims of the Olympians. Mankind emerges from the darkness of the caves, and uses the fire to develop civilization.

Prometheus gave men fire so they could survive in a primitive, undeveloped world. In this way the father in The Road serves as Prometheus to his son. In a world that has been sent back to an ashen Stone Age, a world that is “barren, silent, godless,” the father gives his son “the fire” to carry on in life. “Is it real? The fire?” the boy asks his dying father. “Yes it is… it’s inside you. It was always there.” he replies.

There can be several interpretations of what this fire is. Beyond the literal object, fire is the metaphor for the knowledge that Prometheus gave men. He gave them the knowledge of the gods, elevating them from their primitive state, making them smarter and more adaptable to the changing world around them. The father in The Road gives his son the same skills, educating him, giving him survival skills, and reinforcing to him that they are the “good guys” in a world where goodness has apparently been extinguished.  Both the father and Prometheus suffered greatly for their choices. The father dies, worn down by the deprivation he has faced. Prometheus, unable to die because he is a god, is chained to a rock and has his liver pecked every day by a vulture, only for the liver to regenerate so the ordeal can start all over again.

The choices Prometheus and the father make are as much out of obligation as love. Prometheus wanted the people he created to have a chance at survival in an undeveloped world. The father, who says he has been appointed by God to take care of his son, refuses the easy choice of death because he believes the boy represents something that the world needs if it has any hope of renewal.  The father sees the boy as carrying “the fire” that represents life. If darkness is death, then that “fire” is the hope that life will once again emerge from the darkness and develop anew.  

  --James Hagen, UWF Student


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