The Sacrifice of A Treasured Son

Religious connections and ideas referenced in The Road, a post-apocalyptic book written by Cormac McCarthy that show the inevitable’s of destiny.

Quote from Joseph Campbell’s Epilogue

It has been customary to describe the seasonal festivities of so-called native peoples as efforts to control nature. This is a misrepresentation. There is much of the will to control in every act of man, and particularly in those magical ceremonies that are thought to bring rain clouds, cure sickness, or stay the flood; nevertheless, the dominant motive in all truly religious (as opposed to black-magical) ceremonial is that of the submission to the inevitables of destiny—and in the seasonal festivities this motive is particularly apparent.

No tribal rite has yet been recorded which attempts to keep winter from descending; on the contrary: the rites all prepare the community to endure, together with the rest of nature, the season of the terrible cold. And in the spring, the rites do not seek to compel nature to pour forth immediately corn, beans, and squash for the lean community; on the contrary: the rites dedicate the whole people to the work of nature’s season. The wonderful cycle of the year, with its hardships and periods of joy, is celebrated, and delineated, and represented as continued in the life-round of the human group (384).

Throughout The Road there are various religious connotations used that apply well to the quote from Campbell’s Epilogue shown above. While reading this story, there was something quite familiar with this setting and situation of a father and a son journeying together, but the connection was not made apparent right away. It was through pondering more on the religious symbolism of this book that the realization came. This story reminded me of one Bible story in particular: the story of Abraham and Isaac. It was when this realization occurred that the meaning of the book completely evolved.

In the Bible, we learn of Abraham who longs to have children one day, something that he and his wife struggle with. One day, they were finally blessed with a child when they were quite old and had expected the wish to go unfilled. Sarah gave birth to Isaac- meaning ‘rejoicing’ -and raised him well. His parents loved him dearly, but one day Abraham was asked by God to take his son away and sacrifice him in the name of God. Distraught, but obedient, Abraham listened and followed God’s command, taking Isaac away on a three day journey where, at the end he was to be killed. Isaac had no idea of the situation, happily following his father while wondering about just what they were going to sacrifice. How terrible Abraham must have felt and how relieved he was when God allowed his son to be spared, instead giving a trapped ram nearby as the true sacrifice. It was through this sacrifice that Abraham and his seed was blessed, due to his full obedience to God.

In this story, the father is much different from Abraham. He seems to often question and disbelieve in the idea of God. But, his son is his treasured gift, as Isaac was to Abraham. Like Abraham, he set out on a journey, though the father in The Road was going on the journey in the hopes of finding a better place for him and his son to live, leaving the boy’s mother behind as Abraham did(though the mother in The Road chose to commit suicide, unlike Sarah who waited patiently at home, oblivious to what was going on). The father cherished the son, but saw the dark world around him and the terrible people that inhabited it and knew that one day he may have to lift the gun that he had with him and kill his own son, just as Abraham went on his journey knowing just what he would have to do, both wondering if they could truly manage to kill their own son.

Isaac and the boy in The Road are very similar to one another. They trust their father implicitly and follow him willingly on the journey, asking questions all the while on what was to be expected, the boy in The Road asking questions about life and the world around them. They are both gifts from God, given in a dire situation when such a joyous thing was not expected- Abraham and Sarah when they were quite old and the father and mother in The Road when they were dealing with the post apocalyptic world around them. They were both a “Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please don’t tell me how the story ends”(McCarthy, 75). Here in this quote, we see the father’s torment over the idea of what the end of the journey will bring- a better home with his wonderful son or a lifted gun and his son’s soul forever gone.

Both father’s go through so much torment in their story, not able to fight against the world around them and the journey they must walk. They continue on, trying to keep their son happy and oblivious to the darkness around them, trying to continually uplift their son in any way they can. Abraham is completely obedient to God while the father in The Road often questions about his existence- his son is the only proof he has that God may exist and here at the end of this journey that prized treasure may be forever lost. “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God”(McCarthy, 77). Both instances are truly a religious ceremony based on the father’s dedication- both to their son and their duty to protect him. Of course, Abraham’s journey is also weighed against his dedication to God and which he holds more dearly. 

While Abraham is obedient in glorifying and following God’s command, the father in The Road, curses him, “Are you there? He whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God”(McCarthy, 11-12). Though a quote from the start of the book, this perfectly shows the father’s attitude to God. He had already lost his wife “He did not take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark”(McCarthy, 32) and now all he has left is his son, his gift from God, and he may lose that as well by his own hand. Abraham sees this as well and agonizes over this, but he is obedient to God and follows through with tying his son to the altar.

In the end, both of the son’s are saved. For Abraham, God rewards his complete obedience with a nearby caught ram who is instead sacrificed to God. In The Road, the son is found. But, like Moses, the father is never able to see the better life that was at the end of the journey as he passes on, the father being the sacrifice instead of his son. Both son’s continue on, growing and evolving in the world that surrounds them. For the boy in The Road, he finds a new family to live with and it is left to the readers to decide what happens next. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, Isaac grows and is the line that truly starts the Abrahamic Covenant. He is married himself and has his own sons which then go on to have their own, soon leading to thousands of descendants across the world. They each are able to live their own lives after this religious ceremony.

In this story, there are various religious instances used. We could compare the journey that the father and the son go on with the journey of life to a better place- to ‘heaven’ or ‘the promised land’. We could see the father as a modern-day Moses leading his ‘people’ to a better place. We could look at the world around them and see it as this battle between Good and Evil. But the most compelling religious connotation of the story is in comparing the father and son in The Road to the father and son Abraham and Isaac and their three day journey under the command of God. Both father’s have to deal with the idea of killing their own dear son, their gift from God. The son’s are totally trusting of their father, continuing on the journey with them, unaware of the danger that they may face from the person they trust the most. Both father’s agonize over the situation, Abraham listening to God’s command while the father in The Road curses God over the idea of losing the only truly good thing in his life, his son the only proof that God exists. In the end, both sons are saved, a ram being sacrificed in Isaac’s stead and the father being sacrificed in the son’s stead. The son’s continue on and grow in life, rewarded after the fulfillment of the religious ceremony. Abraham does not fight against the sacrifice itself, following the ceremony as God decrees; the father in The Road curses and is angry with God, but he still continues on the journey, obedient to his duty to God to protect his son while knowing he may have to kill his at the end of the journey so as to protect him from the world around him. The journey and religious ceremony for them is inevitable and so they continue on, in the end being rewarded by the better lives their son’s gain and the possible futures they now have. This journey teaches that the darkness around us and the paths we walk that will one day come to an end is inevitable, but if the journeyer is obedient and protects those around them, that things can get better. That one must coexist in the world around them and try to make at least themselves better; to live as well as they can in that journey and hope for something better in the end.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.

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