The Road

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Survival and Perseverance 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.
Survival and Perseverance Theme Icon

Much of the action of The Road consists of the protagonists’ daily struggle to survive. This creates a mood of constant suspense as death looms always overhead, and most other humans have turned to cannibalism. One of the novel’s central questions then is why to persevere in such a hellish existence. The man’s reason to keep struggling comes to him as the idea of “carrying the fire”: an idea that seems to consist, for him, of preserving the goodness or civilization of mankind by maintaining his basic humanity, having the strength to refrain from murder and cannibalism, and prioritizing a sense of love and protection for the boy’s compassion and naiveté. The woman, on the other hand, considers death better than living in the post-apocalyptic world.

Over the course of the novel the man creates more immediate goals to justify his survival, like reaching the coast or going south. In this way the road becomes the great symbol for the struggle to survive. The man has no reason to persevere except his love for the boy and his natural, human desire to keep going down “the road.” In the end, the going on itself is reason enough to go on. Even when the man dies, he gives up his earlier plan to kill the boy so as not to send him into the “darkness alone.” Instead he opts to pass on the “fire,” and he advises his son to keep going south and to remain as one of the “good guys” – the last humans to persevere against brutality.

Survival and Perseverance ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Road related to the theme of Survival and Perseverance.
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

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

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

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.

Pages 189-246 Quotes

When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man teaches his son a valuable lesson: don't dream. To dream about better times and places, the Man argues, is to give up on the present-day. Thus, if the Boy spends too much of his time dreaming of fantasy-lands, then he won't take care of himself in the real world, and he'll die.

The Man's lesson might seem callous--what kind of father doesn't let his son enjoy his own dreams?--but there's a serious point here. When life itself is painful and frightening, there's a great temptation to give into one's natural instinct to escape. But of course, in this environment such an instinct is suicidal--by resorting to fantasy, the Boy would be wife did).

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").

They went on. In the nights sometimes now he’d wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun.

Related Characters: The Man
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel nears a close, the Man is gravely wounded. Walking on becomes a burden to him--a stranger shot him in the leg, making it difficult for the Man to move. A sure sign of the Man's declining health comes in this passage: McCarthy notes that the Man is now having vivid dreams of his wife, birds, and the sun. Throughout the novel, the narrator has associated dreaming with dying: to give in to one's dreams is to turn one's back on the real world. Here, at the end of the novel, the Man is finally breaking his own rule. He seems to be "giving in" to the sheer seductive power of the dreams--he senses that his life is at an end, and doesn't have as much strength to resist the seduction of fantasy and memory.

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.