I would not recommend most people read this book. It is utterly dark and hopeless. But if you're like me and derive deep satisfaction from engaging with uncomfortable ideas, then by all means, stop reading this post and pick up The Road from any local library or bookseller. I feel stretched after reading it, and I'm sure you will, too.
The theme I most grappled with was hopelessness. Every detail in the story confronts the reader with the total absence of possibility of survival or recovery of the earth or its few remaining organisms. As the man and his son travel on foot over the post-apocalyptic landscape of eastern America, the reader is forced to confront the fact that they will never come across a living plant or animal. The remnants are gradually being reduced to ash by the fires that continue to ravage the landscape. The sun never breaks through the clouds of ash. The world is increasingly cold. And every city lies barren and quiet, littered with unlikely and impromptu tombs.
There are moments when a fleeting hope is aroused. The man and the boy spy a woman heavy with child walking down the road with two men. Perhaps this child could somehow survive to "keep the fire" of humanity alive, the reader thinks. Yet the next day, they discover the headless fetus roasted and gutted on a spit. Or maybe the ocean the man and his son journey toward will harbor life, such as great octopuses that survive for years in the depths of the sea. Yet they discover the ocean to be grey and dead, the sand littered with bones. Any great sea creatures that still persist will not do so for long without the rest of their food chain.
The ever-recurring search for food illustrates how the earth has become almost depleted of sources of life. Most of the humans who remain have turned to the basest form of cannibalism, as illustrated by the most horrific scene of the book. Searching for food, the man and his son enter an old plantation house, only to find it to be the momentarily vacated home-base of a cannibalistic tribe. Despite their terror, their hunger drives them to complete their search. Yet when they break into the storage shelter, they find the tribe's chattel naked and huddled in the corner, terrified and asking for help. To their horror, they discover that one of the slaves has had his legs cut off and cauterized at the hips-- half-eaten and deprived of his humanity but still alive. And at that moment, the cannibals return.
Moments of terror like this punctuate an otherwise bleak odyssey. As our protagonists journey across the dead landscape, their bodies become more emaciated and ill, their ultimate demise inevitable. Bonanzas of stored food are quickly depleted, and little remains to be discussed. Dialogue is spare. Even the details of their passing landscape become repetitive. At one point, they discover a train in the woods, with luggage in the passenger cars open, long since rifled through. "After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the tracked curved away in the waste of weeds. If they saw different words what they knew was the same. That the train would sit here slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again." (192) As scenes like this accumulate, the reader must confront that there is truly no hope, for the protagonists or humanity or the earth. And even though the boy is found in the final pages by another good man after his father dies, the reader knows by that point that there is no hope.
Grappling with this darkness caused me to realize how important hope is to the human psyche, and how disturbing it is to confront a story in which all hope is truly extinguished. Yet the narrative also illustrates how people can persist despite total hopelessness, out of an indomitable will and love for others. This idea is brought to the fore during the accounting of the man's memory of the conversation he had with his wife before she committed suicide. In oddly rational terms, she told him why she was going to do it, and he ultimately had no rational answer for why she should not proceed. Even his love for her made her suicide favorable. Yet he remained opposed to it because of the loneliness that would result, and from a deep urge to survive despite all the costs. Her response, that he should commit suicide as well, is not something he ever seriously considers. Why he doesn't is the great question which the reader must ultimately answer for herself.
These existential themes can be seen as logical extensions of the existential nihilism of our age. Indeed, some philosophers assert that the primary question of philosophy is simply whether or not to commit suicide. The more hopeful of our modern-day nihilist brethren assert that each person is wonderfully free to create their own meaning, but the essential question remains. Yet this is not the only way to look at things. There are rich, durable sources of everyday meaning, laid out by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning, ones that even the skeptical among us can discover and base a rich life upon. Ultimately, they are rooted in love, such as that of a father for his son. And it is this love which I believe motivated the man in The Road to carry on to the bitter end, accomplishing a life of purpose and meaning despite the utter hopelessness of his time.