Thursday, April 8, 2010

On Courage

"He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke" (McCarthy 5).
My AP students and I just started our study of the final work of the year, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I feel this cathartic novel is the perfect conclusion to a high school experience at an all-boys school. First, it brings their literary education full circle as they started high school with a modern survival story (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) and they end with one. Second, the novel offers a powerful meditation on courage in the face of despair. Third, McCarthy’s muscular prose offers a deeply masculine understanding of love rooted in a father-son relationship. Fourth, the story’s minimalism, symbolism, and setting all serve to remind us of the essentials of life in an increasingly dark world.

The quote at the start of this post points to the father’s primary reason for living—his son. He cannot bear to travel the titular road of life in such a blasted world without a creed to imbue his journey with some larger significance. His boy is his creed. I love that idea. Maybe it’s the imminent arrival of Sara in my life, but I find this a very compelling warrant indeed to summon courage. This speaks to my manhood as a father. When we have given our all and feel that there is nothing left to give, the image of our child can motivate us to carry the world on our shoulders like Atlas. The gray feverland of the novel with all its horrors and nightmarish atrocities is no match for a father’s love for his son. Talk about heady stuff!

I also love how the father’s characterization of the son as the “word of God” harkens back to Genesis and the Gospel of John. The son symbolizes for the father a new man, a new Adam, a new creation, a new hope for a cosmos that had seemed destined for extinction and meaninglessness. The boy’s vitality and innocence and conscience all encourage the father to put one foot in front of the other when every other impulse and instinct screams for him to cash it in and join his wife in the eternal nothingness. The father sees his duty as a sacred one, and rightly he should, for a father’s love for his child is a sacred responsibility. I hope that I live up to this duty myself, for I certainly see the word of God in my own daughter, and I fervently desire to demonstrate the kind of courage exhibited by the father in this sublime novel.

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