The Road

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Death and Violence Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Death and Violence Theme Icon
Familial Love Theme Icon
Survival and Perseverance Theme Icon
Faith, Trust, and Doubt Theme Icon
Dreams and Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Road, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death and Violence Theme Icon

In the post-apocalyptic setting of The Road, almost all animals, plants, and humans have died off because of some unnamed disaster. Because of this, death is a constantly looming figure – the land and sea are covered in darkness and ashes, nothing grows, and dead bodies litter the landscape. Death is so universally present that it is often personified as a character, like the woman describing her decision to commit suicide as taking death as her “new lover.” The man, too, is slowly dying, as he coughs up progressively more blood. The entire setting and plot of The Road illustrate the apparent entropy of the earth and all life, and death must be taken into account in every action the characters take.

The violence of this post-apocalyptic world adds to the horror of death, as in the face of disaster many humans have reverted to terrible behaviors of murder and cannibalism. Therefore the choice inherent in living in this world is having to deal with violence. The woman chooses to kill herself rather than be eventually raped and eaten. The man is a rare case, however, in that despite the ubiquity of death he still chooses to live, and to live without violence (unless it is necessary to protect the boy). The death and violence of The Road create an oppressive mood, but also cause the characters and readers to confront the most basic aspects of humanity.

Death and Violence ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death and Violence appears in each chapter of The Road. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Death and Violence Quotes in The Road

Below you will find the important quotes in The Road related to the theme of Death and Violence.
Pages 1-29 Quotes

Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Gradually, McCarthy begins to show us how the Man and the Boy get along from day to day. The Man and Boy don't talk much to each other--here for instance, their dialogue is extremely minimal. And yet McCarthy suggests that their dialogue--or lack of dialogue--is evidence of their love and trust for each other; in other words, they don't need to talk, because they're secure in their affection.

The passage is full of nightmarish descriptions of futuristic America--even the light is grim and suggesting of violence (gunmetal). Notice also the self-consciously old-fashioned phrasing that McCarthy uses--"each other's world entire"--has the ring of the King James Bible to it. McCarthy's literary style reflects the themes of his book: in post-apocalyptic America, civilization has reverted to its somber, stripped-down, worshipful past.


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He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death. He slept little and he slept poorly. He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complicated passage, McCarthy describes the Man's vivid dreams. The Man dreams of his wife--who killed herself--and the old world--which is now in ruins.

What function do the Man's dreams have? On one hand, the Man seems to enjoy returning to an idyllic past for a night's sleep. And yet the Man also mistrusts his own memories--he recognizes that focusing too much on the dream-land of memory distracts him from the day-to-day of life in a post-apocalyptic America. The Man, in short, refuses to surrender to the easy nostalgia of memory--which he sees as intimately associated with "giving in" to death. Instead the Man constantly chooses to work hard and be vigilant, so that his child can have a better life for himself.

Pages 29-60 Quotes

He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

The Man and Boy face a problem throughout the novel: what to do? They have to constantly search for food and shelter--but even more basically, they have to find a direction for their lives; something more fulfilling than eating and sleeping. The Man tells the Boy that they need to journey to the ocean. But deep down, he knows that the journey is just a folly: the ocean probably isn't any better, safer, or more spiritually satisfying than the rest of the country.

Why, then, does the Man continue journeying to the ocean? In part, it's suggested, he accepts that he needs something to do, somewhere to go, whether or not that goal is itself worthwhile. This is why the novel is named after the road--the Man and Boy's lives are defined by a dogged perseverance, the perceived necessity of continuing down the road, hoping (if not really believing) that something better might lie ahead.

They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant… We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that?
I dont know.
It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Woman (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, the Man confronts his wife, who is about to kill herself. Darkness has fallen on the United States--all sense of order and humanity has broken down, so that criminals, murderers, and cannibals control everything. Rather than wait to face the inevitable--being raped, murdered, and eaten--the Man's wife decides to kill herself quickly and painlessly.

The Woman's decision is both brave and cowardly. She's smart enough to realize that she'll inevitably be attacked, and won't be able to defend herself. Rather than risk letting her own child witness such a monstrous event, or experiencing it herself, she decides to kill herself quietly, to take her fate into her own hands and use the last bit of "freedom" she still has. And yet the Woman's decision is also the cowardly way out--she'd prefer to surrender to nothingness than take care of the Boy or try to keep "carrying the fire" of survival and hope, as the Man goes on to do. One gets the sense that the Man's knowledge of his wife's suicide is what motivates him to be strong, never giving into the nihilism that ended his wife's life.

The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together a passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope for it with all my heart.

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Man
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In the same flashback scene, the Woman makes a series of arguments that the Man is powerless to disagree with: she points out that they'll be attacked and killed soon enough. And yet the Woman also seems to respect the Man's desire to keep on living, even if she can't agree with it it: she points out that the Man will live to protect his Boy. Indeed, without the Boy, or someone to protect, there's no way the Man will survive--he'll surely give in to despair just like the Woman. In effect, McCarthy suggests that the Woman is basically interested in herself at this point, while the Man is basically interested in his child.

The passage sums up the two approaches to life: living for oneself and living for other people. In the nightmarish world of the novel, it's the former life philosophy that dominates--people eschew all morality and order in favor of pure appetitive destruction (or lonely despair, in the Woman's case). The Man, on the other hand, represents the last bastion of right and wrong, a life lived for the good of his family, not for himself.

Pages 60-91 Quotes

This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job. Then he wrapped him in the blankets and carried him to the fire.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The Man has just defended his child from a mysterious man, a member of a violent gang. After a tense showdown, the Man shoots his enemy right in the forehead, spattering brains all over his child's face. The Man is horrified by what he's just done--in the process of trying to defend his child from pain and danger, he's traumatized his child forever. And yet the Man remains convinced that he's doing the "right thing"--keeping his Boy safe.

The line between right and wrong grows thinner and thinner as the book goes on, and here the Man seems almost bemused by how "normal" horrifying things have become in his life. The Man continues to be intensely loyal to his child, and yet he's also willing to murder and steal in the name of feeding and sheltering his child--and to accept that this is just his "job" as a father in such harsh times.

You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy brings up an important point: what is it, exactly, that separates the Man and Boy from the other people on the road--people whom the man claims are "bad?" The Man insists that he is still a "good guy," but as the Boy has seen first-hand, the Man is willing to do some pretty wicked things (like shooting someone in the head).

Because the Boy has been taught to think in terms of binaries (good vs. bad, for example), he continues to believe that he and his father are "good" and the rest of the world is "bad." In fact, we can already tell, the line between good and bad is disappearing, and may have disappeared already. The Man and Boy don't eat human beings, like most of the people who've survived in America, but that doesn't necessarily make them moral, upright people. It's suggested that anyone with moral scruples probably died long ago. This is what makes the Boy's innocence so special, and why the Man seems willing to sacrifice his own morality for his son's sake--doing "bad things" in order to keep the Boy "good."

Pages 91-124 Quotes

Do you think I lie to you?
But you think I might lie to you about dying.
Okay. I might. But we’re not dying.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Man and Boy go on to the ocean, they face the facts: they don't have much food, and could easily starve to death. The Boy asks his father if they're going to die of starvation. The Man replies that they won't, but the Boy seems skeptical. The Man insists that he's telling the truth, and will always tell his son the truth.

The spare, minimalistic dialogue in this passage is characteristic of McCarthy's literary style. But beneath the spareness of the words, there's a lot of emotion and thought. The Boy seems not to trust his father entirely (hence his single word, "Okay"), but perhaps he's decided to trust his father for now, because he can see no other option. Even when they're on the point of starvation, the Boy and Man remain loyal to each other; their loyalty stands in stark contrast to the cruelty and disorderliness of the rest of the country.

They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesnt fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man faces the ultimate test of his love for his son. There is a group of dangerous men nearby--probably rapists, murderers, and cannibals. Knowing full-well that if the Boy is captured, he could endure a fate worse than death, the Man prepares to kill his own child, thereby saving him from more pain later on.

The passage poses a stunning ethical dilemma--is it "right" for the Man to kill his child, rather than let him be captured by murderers? The Man believes it is right, but he also wonders whether he's even capable of doing it--whether such a brutal, if ethical, being lives within himself. McCarthy reinforces the fine line between good and evil, gentleness and aggression, in the passage: he describes the way the Man thinks about killing and kissing his son in the same paragraph. Brutal as it might seem, killing the Boy is an act of love.

Pages 156-189 Quotes

It wouldnt make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.
I guess God would know it. Is that it?
There is no God.
There is no God and we are his prophets.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), Ely (speaker)
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man has given shelter to a mysterious old man named Ely. Ely sits with the Man, discussing the sorry state of the world. As they talk, it becomes clear that Ely is wise, and has his own unique view of the world. Ely's views are deeply paradoxical; he admits that life is painful and horrible, and yet claims that he will live "as long as I'm alive." Ely's paradoxical ideas are epitomized by the idea that "there is no God, and we are his prophets."

Ely's theory of God is both cynical (there is no God) and hopeful. The idea here seems to be that human beings foolishly continue to obey the rules of right and wrong, even after the original basis for such a morality has disappeared. And yet there's also an optimistic, even heroic side to Ely's statement, whether he means it or not. Even if the world has now become a horrible, meaningless place, people like the Man continue to abide by a set of laws and rules of behavior that they believe to be right. In an era when all people seem to be violating the laws of right and wrong, the Man still tries--with great difficulty--to obey them.

I never thought to see a child again. I didnt know that would happen.
What if I said that he’s a god?
The old man shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone… When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), Ely (speaker), The Boy
Related Symbols: The Road
Page Number: 170-171
Explanation and Analysis:

Ely's beliefs are difficult to understand--Ely himself seems not to understand them completely. In this scene, the Man tries to tell Ely that he believes his own Boy to be a god or an angel. The Man might not be speaking literally, and yet there's a serious point here: the Man thinks of the Boy as his reason for living; the cornerstone of his own, private religion. Without the Boy, the Man would give up on life altogether.

Ely, by contrast, doesn't believe in any such "religion." As he sees it, the world is in a state of decline, for better or worse. One day soon, all human beings will be gone--and then, the world will be a lifeless, strangely beautiful place. Ely could be called a cynic: he seems to embrace the power of death and destruction, rather than believing, like the Man, that it's possible to find a better life and rebuild the world. And yet Ely also seems to want to defy death, too: here, he talks about getting the "last laugh" against death, tricking death by disappearing first. Ely both accepts and sneers at death and destruction.

By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters… Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man and Boy come across a road on which pilgrims long ago scrawled signs and messages discussing the decline of the world. McCarthy stops to give some (rare) background info on the past decay of the country. The passage is interesting, because it's arguably the closest McCarthy comes to providing a coherent explanation for what, exactly, happened to the world leading up the events of the novel--was there a nuclear war? Even here, though, we're given no real information about what the disaster consisted of; McCarthy's focus is the resurgence of the ancient forces of destruction--forces locked inside every man's soul.

The passage has a dark, eerie beauty in the way it contrasts the chaos of post-apocalyptic America with the sublime indifference of the Earth itself--regardless of what happens to human beings, the Earth continues moving around the sun, just as it has for millions of years, and just as millions of other "unremarked" planets do throughout the universe. The suggestion would seem to be that good and evil aren't "real" in a cosmic sense--they're just ideas that humans invent for themselves to get through life.

The men poured gasoline on them and burned them alive, having no remedy for evil but only for the image of it as they conceived it to be. The burning snakes twisted horribly and some crawled burning across the floor of the grotto to illuminate its darker recesses.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 186-187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this eerie scene, the Man remembers an episode from his childhood in which he witnessed a group of men killing a swarm of snakes by burning the snakes with gasoline. McCarthy notes that the men were burning the "image" of evil, not evil itself. (Snakes are a traditional symbol of evil in Judeo-Christian morality.) We're left to wonder if the men who think they're fighting evil by killing the snakes are themselves evil--they're clearly capable of remorseless destruction of innocent creatures. True evil, sure enough, doesn't come from a snake--it comes from the depths of the human soul.

The passage helps us understand the Man's moral struggle in the novel. In trying to defend his child from evil, the Man is forced to confront his own capacity for evil--his innate capacity to murder, lie, and steal.

Pages 189-246 Quotes

The boy shook his head. Oh Papa, he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with him, holding him close. I’m sorry, he whispered. I’m sorry.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

In this gruesome scene, the Boy and the Man discover a group of travelers who have just fled their cooking fire. Left behind is what they were cooking--a human baby. The sight of the baby, as we would expect, has an immediate impact on the Boy--he's horrified that human beings could be so barbaric. (Although his horror is expressed in McCarthy's typical sparseness--only the words "Oh Papa.") Afterward, the Man carries the Boy away, apologizing to him again and again.

Why is the Man apologizing for other people's acts of evil? As we've already seen, the Man sees himself as being totally responsible for his child--taking care of the Boy is his only reason for living. Furthermore, keeping the Boy innocent and good is a kind of religion for him--he holds the Boy to be a sort of god, the last remnant of and hope for a better world. The contrast between the Man's love for his child and the travelers' consumption of their own kin reinforces how rare and powerful the Man's love really is. 

They trekked out along the crescent sweep of beach, keeping to the firmer sand below the tidewrack. They stood, their clothes flapping softly. Glass floats covered with gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless.

Related Characters: The Man, The Boy
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving passage, the narrator describes the spectacle of the beach, post-apocalypse. Unlike the tranquil, beautiful beaches that many people enjoy today, this beach is ugly and full of signs of death, particularly the endless trail of dead fish washed up to shore. While the narrator is usually dispassionate and neutral as he describes the horrors of the futuristic world, even the narrator seemingly breaks down here. The Man and the Boy have spent most of the novel aspiring to reach the ocean--now they're here, and it's just as miserable as the rest of the world. With nothing left to hope for, and surrounded by such mass death, the narrator can only repeat the word "senseless." In a way, the entire plot of the book has been "Senseless"--the Man has embarked on a quest with no discernible payoff and no greater meaning.

Pages 246-287 Quotes

He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.
He’s going to die anyway.
He’s so scared, Papa.
The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.
The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.
You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy (speaker), The Thief
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel the Man truly compromises his moral principles for the "greater good" of survival. He and the Boy have their possessions stolen by a Thief. They track him down, and he threatens them with a knife. The Man points his gun at the Thief and forces him to surrender his possessions, including his clothes and shoes. The Boy begins to cry as they walk away from the Thief, pointing out that the Man has surely killed the Thief, since the Thief won't be able to survive for long without food, clothing, shoes.

The conversation between the Boy and his father is interesting because it shows the Boy has become the true moral center of the novel. Even while the Man looks out for his child, he's sacrificed some of his moral principles for the sake of survival. The Boy, then, has the job of guarding the rules of right and wrong ("worrying about everything")--he is the very embodiment of morality. Notice that McCarthy continues to portray the Boy as a godlike figure ("the one").

You have to carry the fire.
I dont know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I dont know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
Just take me with you. Please.
I cant.
Please, Papa.
I cant. I cant hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Related Symbols: “Carrying the Fire”
Page Number: 277
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic scene, the Man finally succumbs to his injuries and dies. For a long time, the Man has contemplated what would happen in this situation--he's always believed that the "right" thing to do would be to murder his child, ensuring that the Boy won't die a more gruesome death on his own later on. But here, it becomes clear that the Man doesn't have the strength to kill his Boy--furthermore, he no longer thinks that killing the Boy is the right thing to do.

The Man tells the Boy that he must "carry the fire." While the Man (or narrator) doesn't explain what this "fire" is, it's possible to interpret this important symbol. The fire could symbolize the sheer power of morality, cooperation, and civilization. It could also be something as simple as hope and progress, the basic human instinct to keep going down the road and hoping for something better. In the final chapters of the novel, the Boy has become a leader--the embodiment of goodness and hope, on whose shoulders the future of human civilization depends.