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Analytical Essay on Symbolism in The Road by McCarthy

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'Symbolism is no mere idle fancy or corrupt degeneration; it is inherent in the very texture of human life” (Nair 1). Symbolism has become an essential component of most literary works and in The Road, McCarthy uses symbols very frequently and subtly. The novel The Road was written by Cormac McCarthy. The main characters in this novel are the man, the boy, and the cannibals. The novel takes place after the apocalypse and surrounds the survival of a man and a boy who remain nameless throughout the novel. The man and boy are struggling to survive while taking a journey to the coast in search of a good group of people. Both the man and the boy encounter many dangers including cannibalism, death, and violence. The man dies and the boy moves on with another family but continues to “carry the light.” Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel incorporates many symbols which include the flare pistol, the fire, and the road to enliven and deepen his story.

The first symbol McCarthy uses in the novel is the flare pistol. The flare pistol symbolizes the man and boy’s abandonment by both other people and, at times, he and the boy feel that even God deserts them. It is also interesting to note that later on, the man uses the flare gun as a weapon, which transforms it into a symbol for the atrocious changes that they have had to endure. After they finally make it to the coast, the man finds the flare pistol in a boat and joins the boy in firing it as a “celebration.” However, the boy later realizes that there is nobody left to see the flare, not even God. There is no hope that anyone will see the signal. Later, when the flare is used as a vicious weapon, the reader realizes that the symbolic meaning has clearly changed. While traveling along the coast, they pass through an abandoned town. The man hears a whistle. After seeing a stranger in a window drawing a bow at them, he grabs and covers the boy in an effort to protect him. However, the man is shot in the leg which results in him firing the flare pistol at the stranger. This affirms that the flare pistol, which was once a tool of communication, is now a sick weapon. Ultimately, the flare pistol serves as a reminder that the man and boy only have each other to count on.

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Another symbol McCarthy uses constantly in The Road is the fire. In the expression “carrying the fire,” the fire symbolizes the normal human desire to go on and seek something better. It also symbolizes the corruption of basic morals in The Road. Before he dies, the man advises the boy to keep carrying the fire and keep hope alive in a despairing world. “I want to be with you.” “You cant.” “Please.” “You cant. You have to carry the fire.” I dont know what to do.” “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.” Further down the road, while searching for supplies, the man and the boy stumble upon a house. There they find a cellar full of naked people, some with missing body parts. The cannibals, known as the “bad guys,” are holding people captive and eating them, which reveals that some people will do anything to survive even if it means devouring each other. As a result, they come to the realization that morals do not exist anymore and that they have to continue to be the “good guys” in a dystopian world.

Finally, the most significant symbol McCarthy uses is the road, which also serves as the title and setting. The road symbolizes danger and hope. While on the road, the man and the boy come across a group of armed people in a truck. One of the strangers finds them hiding, which causes the man to draw the pistol. The man gets aggressive and threatens to kill the stranger for staring at the boy. The stranger pulls out a knife and runs towards the boy holding it against the boy's throat. The man quickly shoots the stranger, and they escape conveying that danger is present throughout the novel in many ways. It also shows to what extent some humans will go in order to survive, even if it means turning on one another. While facing danger, one must also have hope. When the man sadly dies, the boy stays with his dead body for three days and then starts a journey down the road. On the road, someone is following the boy, and he is quick to draw the pistol. He asks if the stranger is one of the “good guys.” The stranger replies by saying yes and asks him if he wants to stay with the dead father or come with his group. The boy agrees to go with the stranger and meets new people from his group. The road shows that hope is the only thing that can help people going through hard times. In the end, the road gives both the man and boy a reason to continue in search of something better.

In order to unravel and deepen The Road, McCarthy uses numerous symbols which include the flare pistol, the fire, and the road. The flare pistol serves as a symbol. It symbolizes abandonment and appalling changes they have to make during the apocalypse. The fire is a reoccurring symbol in the novel. It symbolizes the man and boy’s determination to keep going as well as the demoralization of society. However, the road is the most predominant symbol. It symbolizes the danger and hope throughout the journey. McCarthy utilizes plenty of symbols in order to make a connection with his audience so that they could relate with the characters throughout the novel, which evokes thoughts and feelings.

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Analytical Essay on Symbolism in The Road by McCarthy. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
“Analytical Essay on Symbolism in The Road by McCarthy.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022,
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