The Road

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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.
Familial Love Theme Icon

As there are only two main characters, a father and a son, The Road’s principal relationship is one of paternal love. The man and boy are “each the other’s world entire,” and it is only the man’s love for the boy that gives him the will to persevere. Their love is generally of the stark, silent kind, as the pair’s whole existence consists of surviving from one day to the next. Never in the book does either one say “I love you,” but when he has the chance the man shows his love in other ways, as by giving the boy a Coca-Cola. For his part, the boy constantly looks to his father for reassurance, safety, and some kind of order in his chaotic world.

Briefly contrasted with this paternal love is the maternal love of the boy’s mother. The woman elected to kill herself rather than be raped and eaten, and she suggested that the man kill the boy too, as death would be better than the hellish world they now occupy. The woman is also offering a kind of familial love, but she tries to “save” the boy by protecting him from pain instead of helping him survive at whatever cost. The man and the woman both love the boy, but in such a bleak world they can only show their love out of the depths of their own hope or despair.

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Familial Love ThemeTracker

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

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

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Related Characters: The Man, The Boy
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening scene of the novel, McCarthy establishes the close relationship between the Man and the Boy. The chapter, and almost all of the book, is narrated from the Man's point of view--not the boy's. There's something sweet and gentle about the Man's love for his child, but there's also something unshakably sad. As we soon learn, the Man is living in a hellish, post-apocalyptic America, and the Boy is all he has--his wife has killed herself.

There's also a more desperate side to the Man's love for his Boy, as we'll see later on. It's often suggested that the Boy is the Man's only reason for living and maintaining hope and sanity, so part of the Man's fierce love for his son is almost selfish--trying to maintain his own survival, his own sense of meaning in a brutal, chaotic world.


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He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Related Characters: The Man, The Boy
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Why continue living in a post-apocalyptic world, where even breathing the air is painful? In this passage, McCarthy gives a possible answer to the question. The Man chooses to keep on living, in spite of his pain and sadness, because of his love for his child. The Man thinks of taking care of his child as a "religion"--to take care of the Boy is to protect the "word of God."

Everyone needs something to believe in. Furthermore, belief and worship become particularly important in times of crisis, like those portrayed in the novel. The Man's sole reason for living is his Boy--his wants to make a better life for his child. Notice also that McCarthy, in his typically spare way, alludes to Christ here--the Man says that his Boy is the word of God, the traditional description for Jesus. (At the end of the novel, McCarthy will double down on the Christian symbolism, we'll see.)

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.

Pages 29-60 Quotes

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 124-156 Quotes

Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.

Related Characters: The Man, The Boy
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, the Man continues to dream about the past. Every time he dreams, the memory changes a little bit. For example, here he remembers his beautiful wife when she was still alive--the Man fears that he is idealizing or changing things in his memory, like a game of "telephone" at a party. He seems to believe in a kind of Platonic "form" of memory--that there is a reality of truth (and true recollection) that exists somewhere, whether "known or not." Thus he wants to retain the truest, most precious memories possible, and that paradoxically means trying not to think of them often (because thinking of them means altering them).

The passage also provides more evidence for the way that memory can be a distraction from one's duty--for instance, the Man's duty to take care of his child at all times. And it is also perfectly clear that memory is a vital of part of being a human being--it's only because the Man remembers a time when he was happy that he has the courage and optimism to strive on behalf of his Boy; he wants to give his Boy the kind of life he himself used to enjoy.

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. 

When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man and the Boy have arrived on the beach--a dreary, depressing place that's nothing like what the Man and Boy hoped it could be. Bitterly, the Man remembers an episode from his life long before the world plunged into chaos: he was sitting with his wife, and thanked God for making the world be so "perfect."

The contrast between the man's memories and the present day couldn't be clearer: the Man now curses God for making his life miserable and hard, and for letting the world dissolve into such horror. And yet the memory has one thing in common with his present situation: a loved one. Even before the harsh post-apocalyptic world of The Road, the Man was already drawing all his strength and meaning from his almost worshipful love for his family. At this point, the Boy is the Man's sole reminder of a better time, when he wasn't so bitter or pained. By caring for his child, then, the Man protects his family and protects the past, too.

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.