The Law of the Road

9 December 2014

The biblical allusions in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are fairly evident. The story follows a father and a son. The father in The Road follows a vengeful path, and the son advocates to temper the father’s wrath (McCarthy 256). The father and the son are on a pilgrimage of sorts searching for the Promised Land. This is very much like the Israelites who wandered forty years in the desert.  And like Moses who led the Israelites, the father does not get to enter the Promised Land. The allusion to Moses is particularly interesting because he was known for giving the law to the Israelites, and the father and the son in The Road are on a mission to find a community that follows some semblance of law. Francesco Casetti’s concept of fields of discourse allows McCarthy’s book and John Hillcoat’s film The Road to work together using subtle hints to show that even in the seemingly lawless world, the rule of law still holds sway.

In Hillcoat’s film, the father and the son encounter much less danger once they reach the coast. The cannibalistic communes that hunt the woods for human prey and the armed bands of cannibals roaming the roads on broken-down vehicles are no longer seen. And the roads are safe enough for an old man to wander the roads alone without fear from cannibals (The Road 2009). Although they have seen little to prove it at this point in the film, the father feels safe enough in this area to approach another person on the road. As the father and the son approach, Ely does not attempt to hide from them or hide in any way. Instead he drops his bag and offers to let the father and son search his things but informs them that he has nothing to take (The Road 2009). This interaction shows that while there is definitely the possibility of bandits on the road looking to take things they do not want to eat the victims. Their encounter with the man that stole their things on the beach shows the same thing. Even though the thief catches the boy asleep and the father away, he only steals their things (The Road 2009). If there had been no law he would have likely killed the boy and taken his corpse along as additional food.

Both the theif and the man that comes to help the son after the father dies have fingers missing. While this could be seen as one more proof that there is law along the coast, this missing digits do not register in the film like they should. The depiction of the world in which these fingers were lost is an unforgiving and violent one. The opportunities in which one could lose a finger are likely numerous. But the book shows that fingers are removed from people who have been ejected from the communes and the thief is ashamed to show the hand without the fingers (McCarthy 255). But with this knowledge gleaned from the book, the missing digits are a strong indication of an existing law in the film.

In fact, the film’s version of things could be an indication of a more nuanced and widespread law than the one explained in the book. In the book, all of the fingers are removed from one hand and the bearer of this mark is expelled from the commune. But the way that the thief from McCarthy’s book tries to hide his maimed hand shows that having been punished puts him at risk by anyone that comes into contact with him. This indicates two things. The crimes that receive punishment are horrific ones, and the only law is that which exists within the individual communes. However, in Hillcoat’s film, only the thumbs were cut from the thief and he was not reluctant to show them. Even the man that comes to save the son after the death of the father has one of his thumbs missing. The lack of stigma against having had fingers removed shows that there are more than just laws forbidding the most grievous of crimes. Less stigma means that more people run afoul of the law because there more laws covering a variety of offenses both large and small. More laws means a safer society. Therefore, the film’s ending is a more hopeful one than the books because the son has a much safer society because even the good guys sometimes run afoul of the law.

But even in the anarchic world away from the coast, laws existed. Any form of social construction is governed by laws even if they are loosely constructed, informal, or unspoken laws. The communes of cannibals and the bands of cannibals hunting the roads would not be able to function together as a group if they were not constrained by laws. When the father and the son encountered the truck full of men on the road, the men looked dirty, tired, and hungry. The man that they stumbled upon their hiding spot could not restrain himself from staring at the son. He is so hungry that even though the father threatens to kill him if he looks at the son, the man attempts to capture and kill the son (The Road 2009). Once the father and the son returned to see if there were any of their belongings left behind, the camera pans over the road to reveal a pile of intestines sitting by the broken-down car, and a burned out fire pit with that contains the charred remains of human ribs that showed signs of sawing and hacking. If the roving band of cannibals do not follow any form of law they would not wait for one of their own to be killed before eating them. The man that stumbled upon the father and the son would have been more likely to find an alternative course of action that would not have resulted in his death at the hands of the father because they would have just eaten one of their own band before they had gotten that hungry.

Even the relationship between the father and the son works because they are governed by laws. The father and the son have two basic laws that control their relationship. While the father remains alive the son must obey his commands, and if the father dies the son must kill himself. The first law, the son must obey the father’s commands is an unspoken law but the film does not make the law evident by the many times that the son obeys the father as by the two times that the son disobeys him. But when the son runs after the kid that he saw when the father was in his childhood home, and when the son falls asleep on the beach and allows their things to be stolen, the father punishes him by yelling at him (The Road 2009). The father’s yelling is punishment for breaking the law, but Laws that are not enforced or are unenforceable typically do not hold sway.

The second law that the son must kill himself if the father dies is passed down by ritual and conversation between the father and the son. After the father and the son find the bodies hanging in the barn, the father opens the chamber of the revolver and shows the bullets to the son. The father says, “Two left. One for you, and one for me. Put it in your mouth and point it up just like I showed you.” The father then proceeds to demonstrate by putting the gun in his mouth (The Road 2009). But these measures only work to inform the son of the law and when it comes time for him to put the suicide law into practice, the son cannot do it. When the cannibals come back to the house and the father and the son are hiding in the bathroom, the father instructs the son to put the gun in his mouth and prepare to kill himself, but the son cannot do it (The Road 2009). However, when they escape, the father does not punish the son because he could not uphold his end of the law. And when he is on his death bed, the father decides that he cannot bear for his son to kill himself and he changes the law.

In both McCarthy’s book and Hillcoat’s film, the only laws that seem to be irreparably broken are the laws of nature. The worldwide ecosystem has been so misused that crops and animals no longer reproduce. But amidst this chaotic, dying world the laws, the seeds of civilization are still viable and have been planted in certain areas of the world. But McCarthy’s book ends with a hopeful vision for the future. The book ends with a scene of brook trout swimming in a stream (McCarthy 286-287). This idyllic scene ends the story with the hope that if the seeds of civilization, the laws can still take hold maybe the laws of nature can take root again as well.

Work Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.

The Road. Hillcoat, J. Dimension Films. 2009. Film.


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