Challenge of Survival and Perseverance Through the Motivation of Fear in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’

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One of the most primal motivators that facilitate survival in people is fear. The two protagonists, the Man and the Boy, from Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ demonstrate survival and perseverance through their internal fears, motivating them to continue to ‘carry the fire’ within such a hostile and frightening landscape. Their fear manifests in this novel in three main ways: their fear of loss, their fear of the unknown, and the fear of others. These three fears are demonstrated by both the Man and the Boy. These fears then motivate both protagonists to continue down their journey as the novel progresses.

The Man’s survival values and persevering motivation conveys his fears of losing the Boy and being alone. The narrator says: “He held the boy close to him. So thin. My heart, he said. My heart. But he knew that if he were a good father still it might well be as she had said. That the boy was all that stood between him and death” (McCarthy, 29). The narrator depicts how the Man is afraid of losing his son, and how all that stands between him and accepting death is the fact that the Boy is alive. Without his son, the Man has nothing left to live for. The Man believes that he is not a good father for his son, but he tries his best to be one anyway. He is afraid of losing his son. This, in turn, motivates him to push forward on their journey with the desire of finding a place safer for both of them.

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The Boy’s dependent nature and lack of maturity signifies his fear of losing the Man, his father: “‘You're going to be okay, Papa. You have to’ (The Boy). ‘No I'm not’ (The Man). ‘Just take me with you’ (The Boy). ‘I can't’ (The Man). ‘Please, Papa’ (The Boy). ‘I can't. I can't hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I can't’ (The Man). ‘You said you wouldn't ever leave me’ (The Boy). ‘I know. I'm sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You're the best guy. You always were. If I'm not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see’ (The Man)” (McCarthy, 270). At this point of the novel, the Boy is pleading for his father to stay with him. He is so afraid of losing him, but his father cannot hold his own son, dead, in his arms. The Boy’s fear of losing his father has led to this moment, where his father does not have the strength to continue. The Boy’s own fear is coming to fruition. The Man on his deathbed gives the Boy one final message, motivating him to continue on his path and he would not be alone. His fear of losing his father shows the Boy that he must persevere even without his own father.

While the fear of loss is the primary motivator for both protagonists and their survival, the two are also motivated by the fear of the unknown. The Man’s consistent dreams of his dead wife and the world he once knew illustrates his disregard for the reality he currently lives in. The narrator explains: “In his dream she was sick and he cared for her. The dream bore the look of sacrifice but he thought differently. He did not take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark and there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no other tale to tell” (McCarthy, 32). The narrator explains how the Man dreams of his wife, of how he would take care of her when she would get sick. In his own mind, however, he knows that it is just a figment of his imagination and desire. He does not want to believe that the world he lives in is so harsh and cruel, which is why he would often dream of his dead wife and the world he once knew. He is afraid of the fact that the reality he once knew is gone, and has to come to terms with the reality he resides in. This pushes him forward along his journey because he hopes that once he comes to the destination that he and his son have been traveling for so long to, can finally resonate with the world he once lived in. The Boy’s frightening nightmares highlight the reality he lives in, and how he must mature within it. The narrator says:

“He woke up whimpering in the night and the man held him. Shh, he said. Shh. It’s okay. ‘I had a bad dream’ (The Boy). ‘I know’ (The Man). ‘Should I tell you what it was?’ (The Boy). ‘If you want to’ (The Man). ‘I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary’ (The Boy). ‘Okay’ (The Man). ‘It was a lot scarier in the dream’ (The Boy). ‘I know. Dreams can be really scary’ (The Man). ‘Why did I have that scary dream?’ (The Boy). ‘I don’t know. But it’s okay now’ (the Man)” (McCarthy, 36). The Boy in this passage talks about his rather frightening dream to his father. Although it is an obscure one, it still shows the audience that the Boy has nightmares, with no mention of him experiencing ‘good dreams’. These dreams show how the Boy is becoming more aware of the landscape he lives in, and is terrified by it. He does not fully understand why he has these dreams, but it exaggerates a foreshadow of events, of how the boy must persevere and mature within such a hostile and frightening landscape. Living in such a strange landscape had proven to be another motivator for both the Man and the Boy, along with the final fear that motivates them: the fear of others and their actions.

The Man’s untrusting behavior and fear of everyone supports him avoiding anyone along the road: ‘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?’ (The Man). ‘Yes’ (The Boy). He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. ‘Are we still the good guys?’ (the Boy). ‘Yes. We’re still the good guys’ (The Man)” (McCarthy, 77). The Man has more than likely already seen the horrific acts committed by others within this apocalyptic setting. This would mean that the Man already was aware of how dangerous these people were to him, and more importantly, his son. From this, the Man believes that everyone along their journey was a threat and not to be trusted. He fears that if they do trust in someone along the road, that they might threaten the Boy’s life, something that he already fears. This further motivates him to persevere along the road, whilst avoiding anyone that comes in their way. The Boy’s growing moral values reduce his fear of others on the road, becoming more compassionate: “‘What if that little boy doesn’t have anybody to take care of him? What if he doesn’t have a papa? (The Boy). ‘There are people out there. They were just hiding…’ (The Man). ‘I’m afraid for that little boy’ (The Boy). ‘I know. But he’ll be alright’ (The Man). ‘We should go get him, Papa. We could get him and take him with us. We could take him and we could take the dog. The dog could catch us something to eat’ (The Boy). ‘We can’t’ (The Man). ‘And I’d give that little boy half of my food’ (The Boy). ‘Stop it. We can’t’ (The Man). He was crying again. ‘What about the little boy?’, he sobbed. ‘What about the little boy?’” (McCarthy, 85). Despite the Man’s hardened character, the Boy still feels compassion towards others and worries for their well-being more than he fears the potential threat. The Boy believes that he can help anyone with some misfortune along their journey, just like the Boy along the road. The little boy that our protagonist sobs about is rather a reflection of himself, but without ‘Papa’. This frightens the Boy, but rather than running away, he begs the Man to help him. He matures morally in wanting to help those around him, as they show him what could really happen to himself.

Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ has shown that the main characters persevere through their fears of loss, the unknown surrounding them, and others. These internal fears act as motivating factors to keep them going along their journey and to ‘carry the fire’ of humanity. As our protagonists trek through barren, hostile wastelands that they once considered home, one might question how these characters would persevere and survive. Is it through fear, or through hope?

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Challenge of Survival and Perseverance Through the Motivation of Fear in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 17, 2024, from
“Challenge of Survival and Perseverance Through the Motivation of Fear in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023,
Challenge of Survival and Perseverance Through the Motivation of Fear in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 Jul. 2024].
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