Guest Lecture

“Barren, Silent, Godless”: The Apocalypse and the Human Condition in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

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“Barren, Silent, Godless”: The Apocalypse and the Human Condition in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Matthew Carter (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK)

Matthew Carter is a Senior Lecturer in Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and will present on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” (2006: 54). These lines from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – replicated verbatim in the opening narration of director John Hillcoat’s film adaptation – seem to describe a nuclear attack as cause for the apocalypse that provides its backdrop. It is, on the surface, a fair interpretation. It is also, an all-too simplistic one frequently assumed. Even the environmentalist, George Monbiot, who declared The Road “the most important environmental book ever written,” takes as read “the nuclear winter McCarthy proposes” (Guardian, 30 Oct, 2007).

The denatured world that McCarthy describes in The Road – and that Hillcoat faithfully (re)presents – is nothing if not overdetermined. Besides the nuclear war reading, it has most commonly been understood in an American context: either as a post-9/11 story, with references to the atrocities of Iraq and Abu Ghraib and/or as a warning about climate change, with Hurricane Katrina and the damage ‘she’ wrought to New Orleans as its national marker. But Alan Warner argues against relegating these “nightmare vistas” to a singular focus on contemporary American traumas. Terror did not come into being only in 2001. Thus, he writes: “It’s perverse that the scorched earth which The Road depicts often brings to mind those real apocalypses of southern Iraq beneath black oil smoke, or New Orleans” (Guardian, 4 Nov, 2006).

John Cant suggests that “the post-nuclear holocaust world,” if such it is, “is itself a metaphorical explanation for the state of the world that McCarthy creates as his wider metaphor for the condition of man in the realisation of his cosmic insignificance” (2008: 268-9). The absolute desolation of the Earth The Road presents – “[b]arren, silent, godless,” along with the “borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” – is suggestive of the author’s definitive statement on the undoing of mankind within the “crushing black vacuum of the universe” (2, 138). This reading helpfully expands the spatial-temporal axis upon which The Road operates to encompass McCarthy’s essentialist view of human nature, and of human history. Indeed, one only has to look to his 1985 novel, Blood Meridian for such introspective reference. Here, in the “terra damnata” of the mid-19th Century American West, a character declares: “This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons” (1985: 147).

When studying The Road, both novel and film, we can look toward a possible future with our faces set firmly to the past. We can ponder a world that mankind has taken for granted through its flawed logic of anthropocentric dualism (Greg Garrard, 2004). We can take an ecofeminist perspective and interpret its account of the death of the woman who doesn’t wish to be among “the walking dead in a horror film” (57). And, we can consider a universal failure to concern ourselves with environmental justice – a failure which has, in the words of Tom Gifford, “turned the world to ash,” and spun a tale of a “desperate reductive interdependency between father and son to the exclusion of all other possible concerns” (2013:17). As Eli, the quasi-prophet the Man and the Boy come across observes: “I always knew this was coming, this or something like it. There were warnings.”


This online event will take place on January 18 at 2.15 pm.

Everyone interested is welcome to attend via this link.