Sartrean Existentialism in the Road

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 7 November 2016

Sartrean Existentialism in the Road

Michael Ross Jeff Bell 1,365 words 21st Century Lit. Sartrean Existentialism In The Road McCarthy tells the story of a nameless father and son struggling to survive in the aftermath of an apocalyptic happening. Religious elements are deeply interwoven with the text and form much of its basic thematic construction. McCarthy writes with a particular focus on existential themes; paying particular attention to the existentialist views of Sartre, Kierkagaard, and Camus and integrating them deeply into his own text.

It is asserted throughout the novel that God is not actively participating in this environment. Ely stated that “There is no God, and we are his prophets. ”. Ostensibly the implication is that God did once exist, but is now gone, leaving those few with a discernible sense of morality to comport themselves ethically, independent of any punishment or reward from God. The goal of this essay is to examine the role of existentialism in the text, and the extent to which its tenants participated in the decisions of the characters.

The analysis will operate under Sartre’s existentialism, as it is the most popularized and coherent. The first key point of Sartre’s existentialism in relation to the novel is his assertion that “Existence precedes essence”. This claim is applicable to the text in a number of ways, but its most salient application lies in the implication that there is also no universal “human-ness”, as an assertion of a universal humanity is grounded in the belief of a bond transcending pure essence. There is no essence which precedes historic existence.

And, notably for the boy, his conception of historic existence is entirely limited to the world post-apocalyptic happening. In the novel, any concept of universal humanity has been torn to shreds by the grey sometimes red reality of the Bloodcults and their indulgence in cannibalism and degeneration into animals that trick, trap, and eat their food. As an element of Existentialism, this lack of universal humanity is not an inherently “bad” thing, but its absence in The Road manifests itself in distinctly inhumane and unnatural ways.

An integral element of all existentialist philosophies is the affirmation that there is no God. With regards to morality, Sartre pragmatically refers to the concept of God as an a priori. Essentially this a priori is a preexisting moral framework from which an ethical consensus can be derived. Without a discernible heaven from which to derive moral values, humanity is left in a state of complete freedom. “If there is no God, then everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky). The path of the father and son is not predetermined.

They are no longer restrained by cultural or societal conventions as these institutions and their fetters are non-existent. However, their freedom goes beyond the release from social conventions onto a complete freedom from any moral framework. Clearly the father and son are not the only ones free from social and moral conventions; on the contrary, all of humanity is similarly free. But it is as a result of this freedom and in their distinction from the decisions of the Bloodcults that the true nature of their individual character emerges.

They represent the sole good left in the world. This complete freedom comes at a price. Entailed along with this freedom is the existential concept of complete responsibility. In a universe unsubscribing to the ideology of determinism, complete responsibility falls on the shoulders of the individual in their decision making and its radiating effect. In choosing for oneself, one chooses for the whole of humanity. This concept of responsibility is vital to the analysis of this text through an existential lens.

It is both a theme deeply woven into the novel and a plausible explanation for the unconventionally moral conduct of the father and son, as the majority of humanity has taken to scavenging, animalistic tendencies. “One always ought to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception” (Sartre). This quotation is included to describe an aspect of existentialism which has become largely obsolete in the context of the novel.

This quotation addresses the existentialist substitute for the Christian fire and brimstone purely in that it serves as a rational for virtuous moral conduct. The father and son are already essentially living in hell, so the threat from a vindictive God of eternal damnation holds no water. Subsequently, there must be an alternate explanation for the moral conduct of the father, and it is likely in part his effort to cling to the world he has lost. He shares his desolate situation with the Bloodcults and many others of questionable moral ground; that which sets him apart is his ethical superiority.

He likely persists in his (relatively) morally virtuous behavior in an effort to maintain this disparity and because he truly believes it will be their salvation. This claim cannot be absolute, as little insight into the real substance of the character’s thoughts is permitted outside of physical description, from which mental process must be inferred. However, it does serve as a plausible explanation. Another important aspect of Sartrean existentialism is the concept of anguish. Humanity is alone, abandoned with no God or pre-existing essence.

Life is not inherently meaningless, but rather than possessing an intrinsic importance, its meaningfulness is a function of what is put into it. For the man, meaning is derived from his son and the struggle to keep him alive. “The boy was all that stood between the man and death”. Were it not for the son, the father would lose his raison d’etre. The position that the father and son have been placed into by the apocalyptic happening is essentially the forced realization of the existentialist ideology. However, the father still carries with him a preconceived notion of God, whom he often calls to in a time of worry or desperation.

It is important to note here in this analysis that the objective is not to prove the father or son to be existentialists, but rather to analyze how the ideology as a whole influences and participates in the text. It is self-evident how anguish plays a substantial role in the novel; they are living in a world simultaneously bound together and torn to shreds by anguish. It is notable here how the father’s notion of God persists despite the reality he is living. This apocalyptic happening would certainly be sufficient grounds to call into question any belief he did possess.

It would not be irrational to view such a catastrophic event as abandonment by God. However, his faith persists. This is an opposing but equally understandable reaction; even those atheists most opposed to the idea of God,( such as Freud, who believed God to be an artificial construct of man created to satisfy our need for parental figures later in age) acknowledge its cathartic effects. Thus, this Freudian outlook on God does call into question the true nature of the father’s faith. Or, rather, the process by which he came to realize it.

The son, while in a similarly desolate situation, has the father. For the vast majority of his life, his father has been his only substantial companion and parental figure. The son does not need a God. However, in the case of the father, it would be an entirely understandable reaction to a desolate situation to resort to what Freud would see as a weak cop-out; a faith in God. This is not even to say that the father needs justification for his faith, but an analysis of this novel dealing with religious tenants would be remiss without its mention.

There are numerous ideologies included in the deeply woven fabric of the text; a similar analysis could have been written employing the nihilistic writings of Nietzsche. However, existentialism appears to be among the most substantially included ideologies, and the Sartrean outlook on God holds a particular relevancy to the text. However, a critical analysis reveals that the Father’s faith, regardless of its nature or providence, does not succumb to the cumulative weight of his burden. And the son, while little light is shed on his true personal thoughts, appears to exist transcendent and without need of a religious ideology.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 7 November 2016

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