Cormac McCarthy’s The Road follows a father and son on their journey to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. McCarthy’s story of death and destruction emerges from the context of the events of September 11, 2001 and the reactions to that day. The father and son represent the past generation and the “9/11 Generation,” respectively. Much like the boy in The Road enters the post-apocalyptic world without any knowledge of a world prior, our generation, most commonly referred to as the Millennials or Generation Y, is too young to know a world without the premise of 9/11. The events of that day inevitably affect our worldview, enabling our generation to address the problems that face America today with a different perspective from previous generations. The boy in The Road serves as a symbol of our generation’s optimism and understanding, enabling our generation to “carry the fire.”
The events of 9/11 drastically changed everyone’s perception of the world. Initially, people turned to leadership for comfort as George W. Bush’s approval soared as high as 92 percent in the aftermath of the attacks. However, the events quickly resulted in mass paranoia. The sudden and anonymous nature of the attacks made the country feel threatened. Muslims and southeast Asians received harassment and abuse in the wake of the attacks. The country’s paranoia led to some irrational decisions on the part of the government. The attacks served as justification for curbing civil liberties through the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay, and warrantless wiretapping. They allowed for a greater expansion of presidential power in general. Most infamously, the terror caused by 9/11 was used to justify a pre-emptive war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence. The Bush administration’s abuses after 9/11 created more distrust in government. Paranoia led a considerable number of citizens to believe conspiracy theories that the Bush administration was behind the attacks or had allowed them to happen. The events tarnished the American people’s sense of safety and trust.
The Road reflects the paranoia of post-9/11 America. Along the road, no one trusts anyone else. The boy and father cannot stay anywhere without fearing that “bad guys” will find and kill them. Their fear is justifiable, given that they find gangs of people killing and eating other people. However, people’s fear for themselves hinders them from working together in the post-apocalyptic world and leaves them no time to help others. The boy struggles with this fearful mentality throughout the book. He pleads to his father to help others in trouble on the road including a “little boy” who he hears crying. The man tells the boy that they cannot do anything to help the “little boy” and assures the boy that “he will be all right.” The boy is not convinced and cries “What about the little boy?” (McCarthy 86). The boy in The Road displays a greater sense of altruism than his father does. He only knows a world in the state it is in now unlike his father who remembers a safer time.
Just as the boy cannot remember a time before the apocalypse, our generation has no true recollection of the world before 9/11. However, the events have definitively influenced our perspective of the world. Studies have shown that 9/11 has caused greater civic engagement and has instilled a different sense of social justice than those of previous generations. Researcher Patricia Somers asserts that the millennial generation "may not have been old enough to understand what happened on 9/11, but they are going to see the after-effects — the long-term war on terror.” Despite the difficulties facing our generation, millennials seem much more optimistic about the future. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, combined with its rhetoric of “hope” and “change,” reaffirms young people’s belief in moving the country in a better direction.
Barack Obama's presidential campaign relied heavily on newly eligible "9/11 Generation" voters for support.
Previous generations have not left young people completely to their own devices. McCarthy’s story reflects this reality with the interdependent relationship of the father and son. The boy’s only source of knowledge is his father; he asks his father questions about almost everything they encounter on their journey. The boy’s understanding of the world therefore remains a product of his father’s teachings just as we learn from the history of previous generations to give a fuller view of the world. The attacks changed our parents’ philosophies towards teaching us for the future. While our parents’ education focused more on Western ideals, our generation’s education reacted to 9/11, learning more of other parts of the world, particularly concerning the Middle East. As a result of this change in education, our generation gains a greater understanding and sense of tolerance in this “clash of cultures.”
The interdependent nature of the father-son relationship in The Road makes it a more democratic relationship than traditional father-son relationships. Typically, a father takes on the role of an alpha male but the father and son share responsibilities and the boy is permitted to make decisions. The boys input supplements the knowledge of his father, enabling the father to make better decisions. The United States has begun to build this form of relationship among the generations as parents turn to their children to cultivate their own perspective. Instead of the traditional clash between generations, it seems that the younger generation has altered the point of view of the older generation. This flow of information between generations can only further enrich the ideas of their members. It remains to be seen whether these understandings will translate to a change in the relationship between the people and government leadership in the post-Bush era.
The greater understanding gained through our unique perspective of the world enables us to learn from the mistakes of our parents. While there is no justification for al-Qaeda’s actions, America’s arrogant foreign policy laid the foundation for eventual retaliation. Bin Laden argued that America had been “occupying the lands of Islam” and “plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, [and] terrorizing its neighbors.” From Bin Laden’s perspective, the United States appears closer to the being the “bad guys.” The Road reflects this confused concept of morality in a post-9/11 America. The father and boy assure each other that they are still the “good guys” who are “carrying the fire” of moral civilization. However, after a man steals from the boy and his father, the father leaves the thief in the road without any clothes to die (McCarthy 257). The event calls the boy’s perception that he and his father are the “good guys” into question. The boy begs his father to leave the thief alone, noting that “he was just hungry” and now “He’s going to die.” (McCarthy 259). Through this situation, McCarthy challenges the United States assertion that the war on terror is truly a struggle between “good and evil.”
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The father shows a greater sympathy for others along the road after his son’s reaction to his treatment of the thief. Someone shoots the father with a bow and arrow but the father does not pursue vengeance as he did with the thief. The boy later asks “Did you kill him?” and when his father responds “No” he asks if his father is telling the truth (McCarthy 270). The exchange exemplifies a shift in a relationship much like the change in generational relationships after the older generations’ reactions to the events of September 11. With 9/11, the younger generation’s sense of social justice changed. The unthinking reactions of fear and war now show clear consequences in seeking vengeance. The 9/11 Generation became skeptical of the prevailing judgment of their parents’ government and attitude after the failures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the overall War on Terror. The youth of America inherit an enhanced perception in the wake of the parents’ mistakes.
McCarthy’s writing in The Road reflects some of the worst possibilities from humanity but Phil Christman argues, in “A Tabernacle in the Dark,” that McCarthy consistently “comes down firmly on the side of humanity.” Traits such as “generosity and emotional courage” characterize the loyalty between the father and son. Their relationship truly represents better nature of humans with their distinct demonstration of “human goodness, sympathy, generosity, and imagination.” Christman notes that although “The Road has been called a depressing book…it's the truest compliment to the human spirit.” McCarthy’s “compliment” represents an optimistic attitude that people’s better nature can emerge even in the most difficult of times.
New generations learn lessons from the more noble nature of their parents. In this way, they continue to the “carry the fire” of the American way of life. Despite the United States’ muddled history of hypocrisy, the fundamentals that strengthen our democracy will pass on to the next generation. Devotion to upholding the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” will continue with the next generation. America is no longer an unchecked superpower, as that day in September made us realize. However, America, under the direction of a new generation, can still find an important role in the global sphere. The country is already beginning the journey to restore its integrity. High young voter turnout and overall turnout in both the 2004 and 2008 elections indicates a diminishing of complacency among Americans. The new generation seems less restricted by the problems of previous generations, lacking the calamity of culture wars that our parents had. The new America ought to understand that everyone, regardless of religious, ethnic, cultural or national identity, can bring about a better world. With this awareness, the traditional perception of right and wrong falls apart as arbitrary borders and cultural differences no longer make any moral distinction.
Eventually, one generation has to pass responsibility on to the next. The father’s death symbolizes the end of our parents’ America, an seemingly more innocent era. However, the father’s death is not entirely disheartening. Before he dies, the boy asks him whether he remembers the little boy they left behind and says that he is “scared that he was lost” (McCarthy 280). The little boy becomes an even larger symbol in the context of America’s lost innocence in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The father reassures his son though that “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again” (McCarthy 281). Three days later, the boy encounters a family with a little boy and a little girl and continues “carrying the fire” with them. Hopefully, our generation can “carry the fire” to allow America to find its “goodness” again.