Entropic Realism and ‘The Road’
The following contains unmarked spoilers for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and its film adaptation. Be on your guard!
He stood listening. The boy didnt stir. He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please dont tell me how the story ends.
—Cormac McCarthy, The Road, p. 75
From the earliest pages of The Road it is clear that we are reading the most bleakly nihilistic novel ever to grace Oprah’s Book Club. Set after an unspecified apocalypse in a ruined world populated by thieves, murderers, cannibals, a man, and his son, in which the main character’s primary inner conflict revolves around whether or not he will have the fortitude to use his gun’s last remaining bullet on his son “when the time comes” (29), The Road winds its doomed characters and traumatized readers on a path through the Cumberland Gap towards the East Coast in a kind of reverse Western Migration, in which the final destination offers neither hope nor opportunity, just dead, stagnant water, not even blue (215). When they reach the coast, it isn’t long before the father dies of the illness from which he has been suffering throughout the novel, leaving the boy completely alone in a ruined, evil world. (The father, in the end, couldn’t bring himself to murder his son before dying after all.)
Up until this moment the novel is perhaps American literature’s best example of what I call entropic realism: the ideology of apocalypse, of breakdown, of things falling apart. Entropic realism is the literary-aesthetic positionality appropriate to depressive nihilism, when God’s being dead means not “anything is possible” but “nothing matters” and “there is no hope.”
Up until this moment. But now The Road throws its reader a curveball. The boy stays beside his father’s corpse for three days, and then walks about twenty feet before discovering a substitute father accompanied by a replacement mother and two ersatz siblings who happily take the boy in and provide for his well-being from then on. The end.
This second father, and the quasi-happy ending his unexpected appearance represents, appears completely out of nowhere, both narratively and thematically. There is nothing in the book before the last six pages that suggests any sort of non-disastrous resolution to this story is possible, nothing in the world McCarthy makes that gives us license for this sort of hope. That the man would die, and that his son would be better off dead than alive without him, are both framed as inevitable, as the only possible ending for the story despite any desire that it be otherwise. True to its entropic realism, in The Road all stories end in failure and death; see, by way of example, meditations on this pessimism on 153-154, 168-169, 242-243, and elsewhere. (Please, don’t tell me how the story ends.)
The book hammers home, time and again, that such things as “trust,” “kindness,” and “happy endings” are artifacts of a dead world that is never to return, and any hope they might is just a fairy tale, a dream:
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. (32)
I went to see the film last week specifically to see how this ending was played cinematically, and I can confirm it is played entirely straight: the substitute father appears out of nowhere twenty feet away, emerging not three days but seemingly three minutes after the first father has died. The end.
There is, I argue, something necessarily unsatisfying about this ending for nearly any reader of The Road. It just doesn’t make sense, doesn’t fit; it doesn’t seem “realistic.” Just where has this new family come from? How have they survived, intact and apparently secure, all this time? Why have we never seen any hint, before p. 281, that any such people yet remained alive?
The strange improbability of the ending has suggested to many readers that The Road is a book about faith being rewarded, a book, indeed, about miracles—if not a book about the literal Tribulation described in the book of Revelation. The father’s last recorded words suggest this sort of redemptive religious possibility: “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again” (281). In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
But I would frame my reading of The Road differently. I think the ending is a kind of dare, or leap of faith, or perhaps even a sort of literary Rorschach test. After everything you have seen, can you let yourself believe a happy ending is actually possible? Can you, as they say, buy this?
The possibility that we can’t is repeatedly thematized throughout the novel. The boy is preoccupied with narratives and the problem of their realism, particularly by the growing sense he has that the actions he and his father take, and the world in which they live, do not comport with the moral fables about “good guys” and “bad guys” on which he has been raised. In one of the last lengthy conversations he has with his father this comes out explicitly:
Do you want me to tell you a story?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Those stories are not true.
They dont have to be true. They’re stories.
Yes. But in the stories we’re always helping people and we dont help people.
Why dont you tell me a story?
I dont want to.
I dont have any stories to tell.
You could tell me a story about yourself.
You already know all the stories about me. You were there.
You have stories inside that I dont know about.
You mean like dreams?
Like dreams. Or just things that you think about.
Yeah, but stories are supposed to be happy.
They dont have to be.
You always tell happy stories.
You dont have any happy ones?
They’re more like real life.
But my stories are not.
Your stories are not. No. (267-268)
In these terms, of course, the ending of The Road, while “happy,” is plainly not “true”; it fulfills the structural requirement that “stories are supposed to be happy” at the cost of its own realist coherence. In its final six pages The Road unexpectedly abandons its relentless entropic realism and becomes more like a fable or dream—both words that appear on the novel’s first page, and which, especially in the case of dreams, are central preoccupation of the characters throughout.
He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.
And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you?
When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that will never be and you are happy again then you will have given up.
Page 269, just after the part of the conversation quoted at length above:
(the boy speaking) I dont have good dreams anyway. They’re always about something bad happening. You said that was okay because good dreams are not a good sign.
To accept the book’s uncomplicatedly happy ending at face value would be to ignore everything we have seen thus far, including, in the pages before the declaration that good will always win in the end, these repeated assertions that such moral fables are lies that will only make you weak. To believe in happy endings, in this particular happy ending, is therefore in the book’s terms to be seduced by what is not real, potentially at the cost of your life. If we take seriously the way the text opposes both dreams and stories against the one-way entropic directionality of “real life,” the apparent happy ending therefore becomes a deeply problematic structural excess: a miraculous suspension of the novel’s own basic law of nature.
But other sorts of readings do present themselves. Instead of accepting that The Road ends happily, despite its own self-prophesy, we can reject the apparent happy ending and conclude (for instance) that everything that happens after p. 281 is merely the father’s interior dream as he dies.
Now, this is so dramatic a manipulation of the text’s surface meaning as to be fairly described as willful misreading. I was first exposed to this alternative ending by my mother, who considered it the plain meaning of the novel until I told her most people don’t actually read the book that way. But as I reread The Road to write this post I found more and more evidence of this possibility staring me in the face: why else, we might well wonder, is the novel so preoccupied with the father’s belief that a man close to death has happy dreams? And when I’ve brought this reading of the novel up at academic conferences I’ve seen the same reaction in others: a sense that this reading may in some sense be better than that the straight one, that it alone accounts for the novel as a totality.
Now of course I don’t actually believe in the dream ending either. This is a fan rewrite, something akin to The Phantom Edit. I certainly don’t think it’s what Cormac McCarthy “intended”—though, with so many references to dreams, death, and the problem of endings, who can say? Rather, I perform this self-conscious misreading as a way of making clear that at the end of the novel The Road is divided against itself: it becomes a site of indeterminacy hovering between two possible end states, almost like a thought experiment out of quantum mechanics. The boy is simultaneously rescued (and we happy, if naive) and doomed (and we sad, but wise); the boy is both at once, suspended permanently in a zone of interpretive indecision.
It seems impossible not to choose one or the other, but I think the novel may be best if we decline; that very indecision, the impossible demand that an ending somehow be both “happy” and “realistic” at the same time, is itself the novel’s crux.
The Road, in essence, provides us with a happy ending we cannot believe and sadder endings we do not want to accept, and dares us to choose between them. In this way I think The Road is best read as a deconstruction of the evaluative terms by which we normally judge stories—a refusal, that is, of the very possibility of narrative closure altogether. Midway through the book the usual flow of narration suddenly breaks to assert this very point directly:
Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground. (196)
Life, would that it were otherwise, is not a story. In its ending The Road embodies the conflict between the ordered teleology of story and the disordered antinarrative of life as it must actually be lived. The entropic realism of the text is necessarily in irreconcilable tension with its own miraculous ending; we simply can’t have both. Please, the novel seems to say to us, and we to it: don’t tell me how the story ends.