Greyscale: Philosophical Allusions in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

The apocalypse, or some similar catastrophe, has occurred. Civilization as we know it no longer exists. Cannibals abound and a blanket of ever-falling ash renders the world in grayscale. This is the anarchic Hobbesian state of nature Cormac McCarthy’s The Road presents, a state in which self preservation is the only law. McCarthy’s characters are nihilistic, bleak as the world about them, yet they are driven by a Nietzschean will to survive. By placing these characters in this setting, McCarthy’s novel becomes a commentary on the driven nature of humanity to survive. 

The Road presents no explanation for how civilization fell to ruin and was covered by relentless ash.  Law no longer exists and people resort to any means necessary simply to survive. Without any governing authority, this setting embodies the state of nature as envisioned by 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In this state, all beings have right to all things. As there is no recognized code of morals, it becomes a state of perpetual war. “A war of all on all,” or, what we would call a free for all (Hobbes 4). Paranoia is the dominant state of mind; to survive one must be constantly on the lookout – much as the man and boy are in The Road. They are constantly afraid of “the bad guys” who will steal their survival gear, kill them, or worse, slowly eat them. These enemies look and act similarly to them, rendering other “good guys” nearly indistinguishable.

As conveyed in McCarthy’s novel, in a context in which no human or divine order prevails, moral values are up for grabsIt is no wonder that a sense of nihilism permeates his characters in this desperate future. The characters existence has no intrinsic meaning or purposeConsistently throughout the novel, the man wonders why he and the boy continue along the road. Why not commit suicide? The man and his wife “sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to the madhouse wall.” Eventually this hopeless sentiment is echoed by the boy himself. He says to his father, “I don’t know what we’re doing.”

They are carrying “the fire,” a concept never defined by the characters or narrator. Mysteriously, it drives them.  Friedrich Nietzsche would call this the “will to power,” or the essential means of avoiding nihilism. Those who grasp this will to power can overcome being man and become the Ubermensch, or superman. As pseudo supermen, the man and boy do not look to religion or transcendental authorities to direct their actions. They create their own sense of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.” In this, the boy is exemplary, constantly revising his notion of his father and himself as the “good guys.” He helps people, for example the old man they come across. What they take is what was left behind by others in storehouses such as the bunker. They do not kill except out of self defense. Most importantly, they do not give up.

Rife with allusions such as these, McCarthy’s The Road is a symphony of philosophical questions presented through an ashen lens. Placing his Nietzsche-inspired characters in his version of Hobbes’ state of nature, his novel seems to tell us that humanity can overcome all things. Given “the fire” or the “will to power,” we become more than the simple blind creatures traveling through darkness.

-- Keith Teague, UWF Student


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