Ambiguity in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited and The Road

Cormac McCarthy sheds light on the complexities of modern life throughout his writing.  Two of his works, The Sunset Limited and The Road, present paradoxical values through characterization. In the play, The Sunset Limited, a man named White tries to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. But Black, a man who lives near the train station, rescues him from his demise. Black tries to convince White to see life in a more positive light by keeping him in a long philosophical discourse. Yet White ultimately stands his ground, defending his bleak view of the world and leaving Black behind.  McCarthy’s novel, The Road, takes place an apocalyptic land of ash and snow. A father and his son are traversing their way through the rough, sullen terrain, trying to survive on whatever they can find and avoiding vicious cannibals along the way.  The father dies protecting his son, and the little boy has no choice but to join a new group of people also making their way through the land.  Throughout both of these works, the characters each have conflicting standards; thus McCarthy proves that humans are ultimately ambiguous when it comes to their beliefs.

White, the man who tries to kill himself in The Sunset Limited, presents a philosophical division in that he respects humans yet believes that they are not worth an individual’s time.  Black uses a derogatory term to refer to his own race: “…And I can’t get you to fill out the blanks about what this nigger said” (18).  The word “nigger” has traditionally been used to defame African Americans as to their intelligence. Why would White be concerned by Black’s blatant use of the word if not to have respect for the black race: “It just seems unnecessary” (19).  White believes that respecting people with language helps one gain empathy towards others.  His philosophy of caring about others stems from his background in literature, or the tenets of western civilization, which once gave him meaning in his life. He describes the west’s culture in terms of “books, music and art” (10). In order to have meaning in life, White seems to believe that having faith in the civilization as a whole best fosters a sense of security.

But on another level, culture no longer consoles White’s soul. When White decides to explain to Black why he feels that the world lets a person down, he totally bashes the concept of bonding with humanity. He does not regard the people in his life worth seeing again: “If I thought I was going to meet those whom I’ve known in life in the afterlife, then I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate horror” (56).  The people that White has had in his life cause him torment simply because they exist.  He fails to have a bond with people that are close to him. He desires to be in a state of pure isolation in order to escape the pain that others often bring him in his life.  There appears to be evidence that he even didn’t care too much about the death of his father: “I didn’t want to see him” (13).  White has lost faith in the “essence of things”, a phrase developed by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Quirk 34).  Nietzsche believes that the world has meaning simply because people want it to; he also thinks that the individual will always come back from the same place in which it started.  But White no longer wants to compel himself to believe that life has meaning; life has become meaningless. Hence, he develops the view of atheism in that God does not exist, and he uses this view to counter Black’s insistence on religion. The best thing for White to do at this point would be to look forward to nothingness: “The truth is that the forms that I have seen have slowly been emptied out. They are shapes only, without any content. Man can only hang over a senseless void” (56-57).  There is another German writer referred to in the play by the name of Franz Kafka (Quirk 32).  Kafka believes that the world traps itself in an endless repetition that brings despair. White does not see why life has to be so significant; it only presents a repetition towards no ultimate goal.  He refers to Kafka at the end of the play: “that would be the final nightmare, Kafka on wheels” (56). There can be nothing worse, in White’s view, than life becoming a monotonous repetition.  White’s philosophical disposition contradicts itself in that, while he believes that empathy and understanding are strong tenets for civilization, life essentially becomes pointless when you view it up close. The line between life having significance and being senseless becomes unclear.

Similarly, Black, the character who tries to convince White to abandon his hopelessness, has conflicting emotions himself.  Black, a believer in the Christian religion, tries to share his faith with White in the hope that he will abandon his atheism and come to saving faith; that stands as the reason why he saved White’s life in the first place.  White mocks the idea that Jesus can be present in the room as they are talking to one another. Black responds: “I don’t think He’s in this room, I know He is” (4).  Black fully assures himself that God exists despite the lack of evidence thereof.  He will not take any kind of philosophical challenge unless it promises not to challenge his most deep-seated beliefs (Riley 2).  Black wants White to understand that there are simple, absolute, and rational answers to life.  Black even employs a particular strategy in order to further his beliefs and tries to keep White from committing suicide; he simply wants to keep White engaged in civil conversation, even if their talk centers on difficult issues such as the meaning of life and religion.  The philosopher Nietzsche also plays a role here; he has a “theory of tragedy” in which two people keep themselves alive using language. Words become not only the means of self-expression but also of survival (the act of storytelling saves the listener) (Quirk 38). The stories that Black tells are “jailhouse stories’ that reflect his life’s experiences and how he came to believe in God.  They serve to provide something that can comfort White from his misery (Quirk 38).  Even though White ultimately prevails in convincing Black to let him back out into the world, the fact that Black talks to White keeps his mind from his problems at least for a little while (Quirk 38).  If Black can keep White’s mind diverted onto another topic, such as the importance of Christianity, then he may be able to convince White of the folly of his pessimism.

Yet when White leaves the house, having just explained to Black about his longing for death, Black appears to have a moment when he is no longer certain of the purpose of his faith: “I don’t understand why you sent me to him. If you wanted me to save him, then why didn’t you give me the words? You gave them to him. Why not me” (58).  Black believes that God sent him to save White from the Sunset Limited in order to share the Gospel of the Bible with him. But when White leaves without changing his mind, Black becomes confused as to why God sent him to White.  Throughout the play, Black has been in control of the language; but now, White has defeated him, and this leaves Black shattered as to his expectations. This instance shows that Black is not always sure why God does what He does, even though he expresses complete faith in Him.  There seems to be a layer of doubt or non-assurance under the faith he expresses.  Nietzsche would be correct in saying that Black tries to make sense out of the world by hiding himself.  Black also seems to believe that God gave White the very words to defeat him. Why would He believe this if he was convinced that God is completely on his side? His whole task has been centered on the belief that he is supposed to save White; otherwise he can never know why he was sent to The Sunset Limited (Riley 2).  Yet Black accepts this ambiguity, even admitting his failure to always understand God’s purposes. If Black trusts God, then he has to face the truth that he must deal with the mysteriousness of his Creator as well.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, the father has the responsibility of taking care of his son; yet this love for his child also conflicts with his sense of duty.  The father’s ultimate hope is that the boy may be able to survive long after he dies. But this hope dims throughout the story in that their journey becomes more difficult. Yet they persist. The key way the father takes care of his son consists in providing food for him, a basic skill even more important than usual. They find a safe place to eat amidst the wasteland: “They ate slowly out of bone china bowls, sitting at opposite sides of the table with a single burning candle between them” (176). The candle serves as a symbol for the hope the father has for his boy. He wishes him to make it alive through all the anguish they are going through. One way to avert the anxiety they experience is to tell the son stories that he remembers to the best of his ability.  Indeed, the hope of his boy surviving keeps himself going through the pain to remain alive through all the snow.

But in order to survive, the father has to watch out for the cannibals lurking around.  This entitles killing those who threaten his and the boy’s safety.  The “roadagents” or “bad guys” seem no less evil than the father in the sense that they, too, are violent in order to survive (Vanderheide 111). The only primary difference consists of the fact that the father and the son are not cannibals.  The fact that the father must resort to violence contradicts his hospitality to the boy; this shows that his values do not always stay in the same direction depending on the situation.  How can the boy trust what his father tells him if he himself is not always sure what to do? The boundary between good and evil isn’t clear when it comes to the father. He even admits to the boy that they will probably not “meet any good people on the road” (Tyburski 127) and the boy agrees with him.  Since the father must use violence, he can no longer see the connection between himself and other individuals besides the boy (Gallivan 104). Does that, in effect, make the father as evil as the cannibals? He suffers from a lack of humanity with the people that are left stranded in the wasteland.  When the father comes to an abandoned shack, he almost points a gun to the mirror and shoots it, until the boy reminds him that it is simply a reflection (Gallivan 104).  The father’s ultimate challenge, then, is not only insuring that he can make it alive with the son, but also reconcile the conflict between his self-preservation and hospitality to strangers who are in as much danger as they are.

The boy also shares the same ambiguities as his father in that he is divided by a sense of faith in being kind to others yet being skeptical of his father’s positive stories about heroics.  Throughout their journey, the boy always asks his father questions about how they will act. Every time the father gives him lessons, the boy always replies with the word “Okay.” The boy’s complete trust is in his father. But that does not mean that he never disagrees with him.  Like Black in The Sunset Limited, the boy thinks that being sympathetic to others serves as the best way to not only relate to their fellow man but simply help them to see life better. The boy even says a prayer to a person that might have left food for them and his father when they desperately need it.  Yet in this case, the matter of sympathy does not relate to a long philosophical dialogue but a race for survival.  When the son and the father meet people in need, the boy wishes to help them.  In contrast to “the barren, silent, godless” landscape (4) that surrounds him, the boy stands as a moral and spiritual milestone for his father (Tyburski 125).  The atmosphere around them suggests that the world gives challenges to its inhabitants so that it takes faith and endurance to go through it.  There seems to be a religious significance to the boy as well, so that the hope he presents serves as a spiritual one.  Near the end of the novel, the man sees the boy as glowing like a tabernacle in the waste (230).  The boy, in this sense, acts as the father’s moral support, even the God he worships since he does not believe in God (like White).

At the same time, however, the boy begins to lose trust in his father’s role-playing in that he sees the violence his father must show to the cannibals in order to survive.  From the beginning of the story, the boy views him and his father as the “good guys” who are like pilgrims going through a world that isn’t theirs to stay in.  But when he finds out that self-preservation entitles killing one’s fellow man, he becomes angry at his father. In one instance, the father refuses to give a person shelter and clothing so that they can survive. The boy, horrified, cannot understand why sympathy is absent.  His father tells him stories about heroes that he no longer believes in; he points out the troubling fact that there are incongruities between what his father tells him over the campfire versus what real life holds. The boy realizes that not everyone in the world acts as a hero, at least not in their actions (Riley 2).  There occurs hypocrisy in what the father deems as acceptable.  As a result, the line between what is acceptable and what is not becomes blurred in the boy’s eyes. He will eventually have make his own choices, such as leaving his father’s dead body and travel with a new family through the apocalyptic wasteland. All the time the father has been trying to shelter him from the harshness of reality, something he will have to come to terms with on his own sooner or later.  After the death of his father, the boy gives a prayer to him; now he is the one who must worry over everything that happens to him, like his father did (Riley 3).  Being in his position, the boy finds it a simple task to be sympathetic towards others. And why not, for his father protects him from harm. But once the control shifts to him, the boy realizes that not every situation in life calls for charity but protecting yourself from danger.

Throughout history, humans have struggled with the question of whether or not there can be absolutes as far as what one believes about life. To make an absolute allows a person to be in control of their mind, or at least be able to rest at night. We tend to have faith and hope in things that are intangible such as God or love. As a result, we can deal with the difficulties of life as they present themselves.  But when the choices in life are looked at from a deeper perspective, it does not become that easy to formulate a solution. As a result, there are divisions between people as to what truth is, and even the truths they hold in themselves are contradictory.  In the Sunset Limited, White looks back on a time where he believed civilization could be understood through the arts, while in The Road, the son believes that the best way to survive in a fragile world is to be compassionate to those in need.  But they both discover that the world they live in is filled with empty promises and stories that only serve to mask the pain felt in the real world. The things that mankind has furnished throughout time are inevitably swept away by confusion and despair.  Black, trying to establish a ground for his Christian faith, becomes confused at his failure to convince White to change his views of life, while the father fights against the despair he sees in the world in the hope that his son will survive and carry on the hope they share.  But even though it may seem that ambiguities leave torturing questions, would it not also be credible to say that there is a strange peace that results from them? What if each of McCarthy’s characters could have found inner rest by accepting the simple fact that they are not perfect instead of going through endless lengths to prove their points?  Peace can be found in accepting one’s limits; when you accept your place in the world, you can find contentment, whether you are having long conversation or running through a snowy wasteland.  Though McCarthy opens his reader’s eyes to the many complexities in life, he also shows us a strange beauty about the universe that cannot be rationally understood, that everything has its purpose to serve.

Works Cited

Gallivan, Euan.  “Compassionate McCarthy?: The Road and Schopenhauerian Ethics.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal. Volume 6 (2008). 100-107. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York Knopf: 2006.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Sunset Limited: A Novel in Dramatic Form. New

York: Vintage, 2006.

Quirk, William. “Minimalist Tragedy: Nietzschean Thought in McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal (2010). 29-46. Print.

Riley, Jacob. “The Sunset Limited.” University Honors Program. 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Tyburski, Susan. “The lingering scent of divinity in The Sunset Limited and The Road.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal. Volume 6 (2008). 121-129. Print.

Vanderheide, John. “Sighting Leviathan: Ritualism, Daemonism and the Book of Job in McCarthy’s Latest Works.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal. Volume 6 (2008). 107-121. Print.

Wilhelm, Randall. “Golden chalice, good to house a god: Still life in The Road.”  The Cormac McCarthy Journal. Volume 6 (2008). 129-150. Print.


3 responses to “Ambiguity in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited and The Road

  1. Pingback: Ambiguity in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited and The Road | The World According to Devin Stevens

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