I read a lot of books and have forgotten more about them than I thought was possible, but some scenes stay with me no matter how many books intervene. Maybe because I’m a dad, the scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father shoots and kills the man who has grabbed his son will not leave me. It’s not the only scene from the book seared into my brain (“the things you put into your head are there forever” (12) after all) but when I picked up the novel this year to re-read it, I was thinking about it before I’d even reached it.
It rose to the top of my thoughts with the first line of the novel, where the father reflexively reaches out to his son: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping before him.” It occurred to me that in my previous readings of the novel, the only other person to touch the boy was the man his father killed. The contrast between the two men’s touching of the son struck me–they both aim to possess, but one is for the sake of consumption and one is rooted in love.
What role, I began to wonder, does touch have in this bleak world McCarthy creates for us?
Touch, I realized with this first line, has maintained credibility in a world where so much language is useless, its “sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (89)¹. At no time in the book does the father say I love you to his son, yet we never doubt through all their Okays that he loves his boy. How do we know this? How are we so convinced about this father’s love for his son?
No novelist wins a Pulitzer Prize by being sloppy, and having read a few of McCarthy’s other novels, and having read The Road a couple times, I knew nothing extraneous had sneaked into the text. Every letter and comma serves a purpose, advances some kind of idea. What if, then, I spent this year’s reading monitoring McCarthy’s use of human touch? What might I discover about the role McCarthy assigns touch in The Road? What insight might that deliver to me about the nature of touch?
I therefore read with a pencil close at hand and marked each referral to one person touching another person and then jotted on a note card the pages where I found those moments (I can therefore assure you that 99 pages of the novel contain instances of touch). Obviously, most of these depict exchanges between the man and the boy, and in that basic sense most of the touch connotes something positive. My next task–which I have yet to finish–is to categorize each incident in a chart so I can determine which kinds of touch are most common (is a touch of guidance more common than one extending warmth?).
But while I have not completed my chart, I can already see how this touch stands in direct opposition to the meaninglessness of the world the man and the boy inhabit. While the bonds between humans have burned like the landscape–the boy and the man’s primary mission, after all, is to check for and avoid contact with other human beings–and while concepts of goodness and love make no sense anymore², the primacy of human touch has defied reason and meaninglessness. So opposed to the mother’s argument that there is no reasonable defense for living, the man continues to kiss his son (e.g. 82), to hold him when he needs comforting (e.g. 62, 85), to intervene when the boy cannot do something for himself (e.g. 39, 66), to guide him (e.g. 61, 85), to warm him (e.g. 29, 36, 67), and to keep him safe (e.g. 67, 77). Thus, when this dragon of meaningless evil breathes its fire, burning every word of reason propelled at it to destroy it, this simple and fundamental sensory expression withstands its conflagration.
In this preponderance of love expressed through human touch–and, admittedly, the punctuations of hatred, also expressed through touch³–exists the concrete reality of love (and hatred). The abstractions of language and morality have burned away, but goodness and love exist. People can say what they want–can name themselves Ely if they want–but the boy carries the fire, and we know he carries the fire not because of what he says, but because of what he does; we have seen him and we know he is the one who worries about everything, who has to worry about everything because no one else will (259).
In the end, this human touch shows us what the man and the boy do, and what they do is good. If we agree that McCarthy’s portrayal depicts a true aspect of our world, then no matter how bleak our world appears at times, no matter how much evil pushes against the ideas of what we think is right, goodness and love still reveal themselves through their actions, like touch.
In this way, I’m convinced McCarthy’s novel is a parable for a reality I confront frequently. Its insight is stunning. When darkness is overcoming the world and I can’t find words to confront it, I can hold my son, rocking him back and forth, and know in this is a spot of grace, a place where light shines in this world.
- Thus the man can say to his son, “I’ll be in the neighborhood” but to his son, born in the world after the incident that destroys it, the phrase means nothing (95). The same thing is true with his stories about heroism and even names–see the conversation with “Ely.”
- See the mother’s defense for suicide and her point that the man has no way to answer her because there is no reason to live (57). See also the depiction of “absolute truth” as “cold” and “relentless,” “darkness implacable,” and a “crushing black vacuum” (130).
- Hence the man the father kills and the father’s vow to kill anyone who touches the boy (77).