“He’s Coming To Steal My Eyes”: Vision, Survival, Connection, and Existence in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Sight is a profoundly important sense. Vision helps one navigate through the world, but it is also intensely emotional. It matters what we choose to look at, as well as what we allow to look at us, and it is terrifying when vision is obscured, for that not only puts one in danger but can also obstruct relationships as vision serves as a force of connection. At the same time, it can also be frightening to look, to accept the reality of what is happening; however, the courage seeing requires is a testament to the strength of the action, to the bond it can create, between people or between a person and the world. This intensely powerful force of vision runs through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Vision is so important and omnipresent in the novel because of the multiple, essential functions it has. Sight is necessary for survival, especially in a post-apocalyptic world in which one’s sight is constantly being obscured by darkness. At the same time, vision is also intrinsically connecting, playing a huge part in relationships. Through the strength of sight, one can tie things to existence, both through memory and acceptance. As a force, vision is also linked to time, a way to direct focus to the past or the future. Finally, in a world where vision is so often obscured or harshly unidirectional, the boy has a remarkable sense of sight and desire to see, which makes him uniquely special.
The story begins in darkness; the second sentence describes not just night but, “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before” (McCarthy 1). And of course, darkness is inextricably linked with vision, or more specifically the lack thereof, for humans see best in the light. The book is very clear about the link between light and vision, describing the blackness of night as “sightless and impenetrable” (McCarthy 15). The man and boy cannot see what is around them, creating a need to be constantly aware and watching for danger. The lack of sight leaves one vulnerable in this fiercely perilous world. As Christopher T. White describes in his essay, “Embodied Reading and Narrative Empathy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,”
[t]he pair’s acute physical and psychological vulnerability are dramatized through the numerous scenarios in which the man and the boy are forced to feel their way blindly through the dark… From its first sentence onward, The Road … thematizes darkness (as despair, spiritual privation, cosmic loneliness). (536)
The pervasive darkness in the novel and the inhibition of sight that it creates emphasizes how precarious and tense this fragile, post-apocalyptic world is. Sight is how they keep themselves alive: they watch for danger, look for supplies, and navigate their way down the road.
The father and son are living in a dying world, a world where “slow darkness fall[s] over everything” (McCarthy 45) and takes vision with it. As Hannah Stark says in her article “All These Things He Saw and Did Not See,” “it is not surprising that looking occupies a central place in The Road. The man and the boy must be vigilant in order to survive; they must hunt for food, stay out of sight, and watch for the ‘bad guys’” (Stark 75). Because of this, the novel is deeply concerned with acts of looking, and visual perception in general, for it is so necessary. As the man says when they encounter Ely (who suffers from impaired vision), “I don’t understand how you’re still alive” (McCarthy 170). Without sight one is normally quick to die, and the very existence of sight can confirm one’s life. At one point near the end of the novel when the father feels that his death is quickly approaching, he even describes it as “He [death] is coming to steal my eyes” (McCarthy 261). The importance of vision is also clearly illustrated when, out of only a very few personal belongings, the father produces a pair of binoculars from the cart. Sight is a protective force, for it helps them see what lies ahead — both in the road and the future. It is also necessary for sustenance — a major part of the novel is the man and the boy scouring their surroundings for any provisions. Each time they stop, they investigate any houses or structures that are near, looking for food, blankets or shoes, anything that can help them survive another day.
Vision is also significant in that where one looks signals focus. In this way, the road itself is a central object of sight. The boy and the man constantly look either behind or forward up the road, revealing where their attention lies. As Stark writes in her article, “the novel’s repeated motif, of the man and the boy looking up and down the road, an image centrally concerned with vision, reveals their anxiety about their future and their guilt about their past” (Stark 74). Looking back down the road, as the boy repeatedly does, indicates a connection and ties to the past, to those they leave behind: “the boy would not stop crying and would not stop looking back” (McCarthy 85). On the other hand, looking forwards down the road, as the father generally does—“watching the road fall away before them” (McCarthy 156)—shows the drive for survival, to make it into the future. This is a strange contrast, for one would expect the man to be the one continually looking back, as he has so much more to look back on than his young son does. However, this dying world is the only one the boy has ever known, and he wishes to experience it, remember it; whereas the father believes that lingering on the past will only ensure death. This repeated action of looking up and down the road also helps trace the evolution of the boy, for as Stark notes, “significantly, it is the boy who often looks behind them in an anxiety-laden gesture that demonstrates… his gradual loss of innocence” (Stark 4). For most of the novel, the boy is the one trying to cling to what’s behind them, to those they’ve left to die; but eventually, as he experiences more and more, he begins to look forward. After they leave the encounter with Ely, the man notes that “[t]he boy never looked back at all” (McCarthy 174). No matter how much one might want to explore the past and hold on to a vanishing world, to survive one must look to the future, and the boy’s change of habit shows his evolving maturity and responsibility.
Of course, within the dying world, things are fading: words, objects, light, colour. The world is consistently described as grey, as a vanishing world, and therefore sight is also a powerful preserving force. Looking at something can keep it alive, if only just in one’s memory until one dies. Humanity has witnessed the end of the world, and now all who remain watch as everything disappears. As the father observes, “like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fad[es] from memory” (McCarthy 18). Choosing to look at something is also means choosing what to keep alive. In a world being drained of light, with everything vanishing into both literal and metaphorical darkness, seeing is the only thing one can do to try and stave off the oblivion. Of course, this can be a heavy burden to bear, as some things in this horrible reality are too terrifying to look at. In this way, looking requires courage—an act of acceptance of stark reality. As the father cautions the boy, “the things you put into your head are there forever” (McCarthy 12).
Because of the powerful, even wounding, nature of vision, the father tries to control what the boy sees, for he feels that some things are too horrible for his deeply empathetic son to witness. He often comforts his son by holding his face against his body, absolving him of having to see the awful world that they inhabit. When they come across burned corpses, twisted and sunk into the road, he tells his son “I don’t think you should see this” (McCarthy 190). The man sees sight as dangerous. However, the boy fights this control. When his father orders him not to look at the dead in the road he responds, “they’ll still be there” (McCarthy 191). The boy wants to see the world, wants to see both the horrible and beautiful. This simple courage of looking that the boy grows into throughout the book is part of what makes him so special.
The boy is unquestionably an exceptional individual. His father sees him as a divine being, as almost a god, but even to the reader it is obvious that there is something magical about the boy, this son of the apocalypse. Despite living his whole life in a dark, horrifically violent world he is unflinchingly kind and empathetic—pleading with his father to help those they meet along the road; from the man burned by lightning, to Ely, and even the thief who tried to leave them for dead. The boy is special and a large part of that is his impressive ability of sight—both literal and metaphorical. As Stark notes, “The boy vigilantly watches the man. His surveillance positions him as exceptionally mature and empathetic” (75). The boy is indeed a watcher and devotes a great deal of time to simply observing. The father describes his son as having “great staring eyes,” and that he “sat watching everything” (McCarthy 129, 17). When they find a place of sanctuary in a house near the coast, it offers refuge because the house cannot be seen from the road. The boy worries that others will find it because “we saw it,” but the father firmly counters him with “you saw it” (McCarthy 207): the boy sees things that others do not. When they encounter Ely on the road the father is deeply wary, but the boy chastises him, saying “The man is scared… he’s just scared Papa” (McCarthy 162). In a world where people avoid looking at each other—like the man burned by lightning who “as they passed… looked down” (McCarthy 50)—the boy is an anomaly. The boy sees other people, sees the humanity in them and wants to help. He desires to look at them, to establish that connection. As he pleads after he sees the other little boy, “I want to see him, Papa” (McCarthy 85). He stills sees other people as humans, as fellow people just trying to survive, rather than the father who sees everything as a threat, and everyone as a foe.
Truly seeing someone is an intimate thing. It creates a relationship, in which you trust the other person to see you just as you are seeing them. Because of this, , vision is very important in the relationship between the father and son. The book is rife with instances of them watching each other, whether on the road, when they are sleeping, or when they are sick: “he watched the boy,” “the boy watched him” (McCarthy 5, 7). They keep watch over each other. Keeping each other in sight keeps them both safe, both calm—the father repeatedly assures the boy that he’ll only go so far that the boy can continue to see him. Sight is one of the major signifiers of their relationship. They keep each other alive, keep each other in existence by not allowing each other to fade, or be picked off by danger. Just before the father dies he declines any cover or warmth because “he wanted to be able to see” (McCarthy 277). Sight allows him to be with his son as long as he can be, to love the boy until he dies. Vision is a forceful, tender, tangible connection between the two. Also, the instances of them watching one another helps track the eventual role reversal between the two. For the majority of the book, it is the man who sits awake at night watching his son, but in the final pages, as the father slips closer to death, he describes waking in the night to see “the boy… watching him, eyes welling” (McCarthy 277). But vision is not something to be trifled with; it is intimate but it can also be dangerous, for being seen gives the observer intimate personal knowledge of the observed—a danger in the post-apocalyptic world. This is clearly illustrated when the man demands that the cannibal they catch under the bridge stops looking at his son, saying “if you look at him again, I’ll shoot you” (McCarthy 65). Vision is too dangerous a force for the man to allow an enemy to truly see his son, for vision connects with memory, and to be safe they must not be known or remembered. No enemy must be allowed to turn such an intimate, potentially corrosive, focus on the precious boy.
The father’s wariness about sight is understandable, since allowing oneself to be seen is a huge gesture of trust and faith through which you must accept the risk that you may be killed. This risk is illustrated throughout the novel as the man and the boy repeatedly hide off the road as soon as they hear or sense someone coming. Vision is too powerful a force for them to allow themselves to be seen recklessly. However, the book ends with the boy letting someone who is not his father see him: “someone was coming. He started to turn and go back into the woods but he didn’t. He just stood in the road and waited” (McCarthy 281). One of the boy’s final acts in the novel, one that is critical to his survival, is linked with vision. He goes to the road and stands there, letting himself be seen. Of course, while this strongly illustrates the boy’s specialness, his natural strength of hope, it is also a powerful connection between the man and the boy—the final one. Just previously, as they reach the coast and find the boat, the man surprisingly accepts the boy’s request, and fires a flare into the night—an acutely dangerous action considering how intensely they try to prevent themselves from being seen. However, this time is different, for the father knows in this instance how close he is to death. He realizes that the boy will need someone, that perhaps it is time to be seen, the flare taking on its intended purpose as a signal for help. This final action of the boy is perhaps caused or strengthened by the boy finally understanding and fulfilling his father’s action with the flare. Attaining a new level of maturity after his father dies, the boy seems to realize the flare’s purpose, and that understanding gives him the strength to act on his hopeful nature and allow himself to be seen. The connection between the man and the boy persists even after the father’s death: although it could have ended in awful disaster, the boy’s act of standing in the road and letting himself be seen is a remarkably hopeful and powerful one, right at the end of a story that has so little hope.
Vision commands an intensely important and central role in The Road, as it is essential to the man and boy’s survival and any obstruction of it is potentially deadly. However, beyond this significant practicality, it also creates connections—intimate bonds of trust and memory. Vision ties people together, ties things to life in a quickly fading world, and takes on a temporal aspect, becoming a force of both time and space. In a story so dangerously dark, the connections vision creates are potent and, at times, frightening; and, therefore, actively trying to see and to accept the associated risks is an act of hope and bravery. In the ashen, dying world of The Road, vision itself is a way to continue turning on a light.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.
Stark, Hannah. “’All These Things He Saw and Did Not See’: Witnessing the End of the World in
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” Critical Survey 25 (2013): 71-84. Print.
White, Christopher T. “Embodied Reading and Narrative Empathy in Cormac McCarthy’s The
Road.” Studies in the Novel 47 (2015): 532-549. Print