The book follows the journey of a man and his young son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The father has made the decision that they can no longer remain in place and that they must travel south toward the coast in search of better options.
It is possible the man might be seeking solidarity with fellow survivors, as well, but he remains highly suspicious and guarded when encountering others—and with good reason. Society has broken down into a vicious dog-eat-dog world where everyone is clinging to their own survival by a thread and nobody is trustworthy.
McCarthy tells a lean tale. He doesn’t clutter the story with extraneous details. He doesn’t even give names to the characters—just “the man” and “the boy” and the title “Papa” in conversation. We are not told of their setting, but the mention that there used to be “states” and “state roads” implies it is America. We know it is a cold and snowy season.
There are few facts given about the event itself. We know only that it happened several years prior to the first chapter. Huge clusters of civilization have been burned to the ground and survivors were few. What little is left is covered with ash so thick and pervasive that it has left almost no flora or fauna.
There was once a wife and mother, but she is gone before the book begins. The boy’s birth happened at the same time as the apocalyptic event, and readers are given to understand that the three of them somehow cobbled together a life of survival for a period of years.
We learn early on that the struggle became too much for her. She chose to end her life rather than go on in a world so hopeless. It is a heartrending scene as the couple engages in an argument, each attempting to sway the other in that awful life-and-death decision—he begs her to stay, and she begs him to go with her.
definition of analysis essayThe man is determined to go on living, despite the stark living conditions, ever-present danger, and vast challenges. He forges on southward, protecting himself and his son from looters, murderers, cannibals, starvation and freezing as best as he can.
The little boy is anxious and fearful—he has lived his entire life in apocalyptic conditions, has trouble imagining having friends, and tastes his first Coca-Cola while on the journey south. His mother is gone, and his father has taught him that if he ever finds himself in a situation where he knows he will be tortured—or worse—that he is to follow in her footsteps.
But in spite of being a child born into a stark world that seems to deny any existence of a higher power, there is a certain celestial sense about the boy. There are hints throughout the book of him possessing a wisdom beyond his years and a compassion too deep to have been developed in his upbringing.
I caught myself wondering whether the wife had been right. Could the trauma and suffering possibly ever pay off?
Alternately, I was angry at her. If she had stayed, I thought, their lives would be better. Less alone. Less pressure on either of them as the sole caretaker of the other. It struck me that she had chosen out of selfishness, to the detriment of those she loved. I wondered: What would I have done in her shoes?
But the man had declared that they were survivors. To him, it wasn’t just an empty word. It was the mantra upon which he based every decision, every action, every sacrifice of making sure the boy was warmer and healthier and better fed than he himself was.
In the end, the father sacrificed everything he had. He gave his all to make the best possible life for his son, never making time for his own body to recover from whatever malady had struck him, and the malady won the day.
But hopelessness does not win. In this story of tragedy where it seems that the only way out is to follow the path taken by his wife, the man chooses a different one. He chooses life for his son. Even knowing that the odds are stacked high against the boy, he chooses hope and life.
“Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again,” McCarthy tells us.
The boy sits with his father’s body for three days before a stranger comes along. And somehow, the stranger does bring goodness. He assures the boy that he is one of the good guys and that he doesn’t eat people, helps him tend to his father’s remains, and takes him home to join his family.
The mother talks to the boy about God, but she tells him it’s alright if he talks to his father instead.
Incredibly, despite a journey of cold horror, human tenderness and warmth carry the day.
I keep the book at the back of my mind as I go about my own life. Sometimes I think about the strength and tenacity of the father, or the beauty of the son’s compassion for others. I remind myself that I’m doing the right thing by tucking away extra food and supplies for a rainy day. I ponder the implications of the evening news. Mostly, though, I feel grateful—for food, and warmth, and shelter, and community. And above all, I am grateful for hope.
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