Revisiting The Road
If you watch The Road … well, you might cry a lot. You might walk away sad or uplifted or both. If you have children, you may feel differently about it than if you don’t have children. You may feel strongly about The Road’s message, or you may not be able to relate to it at all – it may seem too farfetched to get emotionally involved. It’s an intricate piece, with a wide range of messages and meanings to offer. But at the end of it, as I posted a couple of weeks ago, The Road doesn’t seem to be about the post-apocalypse at all. It’s about a father and his son, and the passing of the world from the older generation to the younger one.
When the Dad gets angry – understandably – at the man who steals their food, the Boy argues with him, as he had once before about the old man with whom the Boy wanted to share their dinner. The Dad has reason to be wary of strangers – it’s not that his advice isn’t spot-on – but in each situation where the Boy argues with his Dad, it turns out the Boy is right. The Dad is always in charge and the Boy always respects him, but when the Boy argues with him about these ethical matters, the Dad relents.
So what’s the point? Well, weirdly, I don’t think it’s particularly about the ethical matters. The Boy is justified in trusting people who have done him no harm, and in forgiving people whose reasons for stealing from him he readily understands. He’s justified in thinking that “the good guys” do good things. The Dad is justified, though, too, in setting boundaries and in keeping his son safe from harm based on his greater experience. He’s justified in his anger at thieves, and his mistrust of strangers in such a harsh world. Both make compelling arguments, and the Dad prevails in some things while the Boy prevails in others. Just like, you know, real parenting and real growing up.
Is the point that the Dad learns from his Boy? – that he learns something about faith, and forgiveness, and compassion from this little kid? That’s an excellent point, to be sure, and I have learned more from my children than I can say. Of course the Dad learns from his Boy, because he’s a good Dad and is willing to listen to his Boy … and in the real world, that happens all the time.
In the literary context, though, I think it’s not so much about learning as it is about realizing. The Dad realizes that his son is making his own decisions about people, about danger, about the rules – not because he’s growing up, but because it’s the Boy’s world to make decisions about. From the Dad’s perspective, everything he knew is gone, but from the Boy’s point of view, it’s just the world, and the things in it are the things in it. It’s the Boy’s world, and he prevails in all the arguments that revolve around defining that world, until finally the Dad sees that the world he knew is in the past, and that the future belongs to the next generation.
It doesn’t matter if our world is getting better or worse, or if it’s changing or staying the same. What matters is that we grow old and die, and new people come to replace us, and it will be their time just like it was ours – they have to build it, and, while we can guide them with a few overarching principals – the “good guy” stuff – it’s really not something we have any say in.
The Dad realizes that, whatever their post-apocalyptic world will become, it is the Boy’s world to shape and define. When the Dad accepts that he has given what he can, and that the rest is up to the Boy, he is able to find some faith, some trust, some future for his son. He’s able, in that moment, to put down a great burden. I think that’s what parenting is all about, and what society is all about, and what The Road is really all about.