Desensitization, Morals and Memory

This week, one of the running themes was the father’s detachment, relative to his son’s. In the second half of The Road, there is an interesting moment where the boy seems to have begun to adopt the same desensitized reaction:

“A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, gclutching themselves, mouths howling.

He looked down the road and he looked at the boy. So strangely untroubled.

Why dont we just go on, the boy said.”


This passage immediately struck me because of the boy’s reaction – or rather, lack thereof. Up until this point in the novel, the boy has reacted with horror to many of the sights they’ve come upon on the road, sights often less gruesome or directly horrifying than this one. However, after considering it for a moment, it seemed only natural to me that the boy would grow desensitized and detached as he got older and was increasingly exposed to the horrors of his world. However, just a few pages later, the boy reveals in conversation with his father that he has been thinking about this moment:

“I’m sorry about what I said about those people.

What people?

Those people that got burned up. That were stuck in the road and got burned up.

I didn’t know that you said anything bad.

It wasnt bad. Can we go now?”


The horrifying scene of cannibalism that the boy and his father were almost witnesses to between these two scenes has perhaps rekindled the boy’s sensitivity to the horrors that surround him, or at least made him aware of his relative desensitization. It is this sensitivity and awareness that made the boy a complex, somewhat confusing character. Despite the fact that the post-apocalyptic world is the only one he has ever known, he does not accept the horrors of this world as a given. In many ways, his moral outlook is more remnant of the pre-apocalyptic world than his father: he wants to help those in need while his father sees them as a burden that will thwart their own survival and his father takes revenge where the boy would not. Where does this moral compass come from, given that the boy has only ever known the post-apocalyptic world and that his father does not demonstrate these morals for him? His father seems to think of it as an internal “goodness,” though references to stories the father tells the boy and the fact that the boy’s mother was around him for a few years suggest possible sources.

Ultimately, the father’s death, as heartbreaking as it was, may have been necessary for the boy to continue to grow up without becoming as desensitized as his father, which would have been the likely effect of continuing to travel with and follow in his father’s example. The group the boy goes with after his father’s death has more compassion left as a whole than the boy’s father did, demonstrated by the very act of taking the boy in. One woman, mentioned briefly on the second to last page, seems to hold on to some semblance of her pre-apocalypse religion. Though the boy does not believe in God as she does, he clings to a belief in his father’s spirit, which his father did not do (he leaves the photograph, and then the memory of his wife behind – she is hardly mentioned in the second half of the novel).

One thought on “Desensitization, Morals and Memory

  1. I think your discussion of a moral system as indicative of pre or post apocalyptic thought is interesting. It is certainly difficult to understand why the boy is so enmeshed with the moral system of his father’s world, when the boy himself has only ever seen the father acting in a way opposite to what would have been considered morally appropriate in the past world. I think perhaps the difficulty in characterizing a moral system in this world is partly due to the limitations of fiction writing. It would be incredibly difficult to create an entire system of values that none of the readers could recognize or understand as being acceptable just because they might work in this fictitious rendering of a potential future world.
    I don’t know that I agree about the necessity of the father’s death in terms of it allowing for the boy’s compassion and sensitivity to prevail. From my reading, I found that the father was becoming increasingly sensitive. In scenes like those you mentioned where the boy seemed unaffected, the father had heightened awareness of this attitude shift. I think the father’s awareness points to something else that may have been going on throughout the novel. Perhaps the father leaned on the boy to suggest and do the right thing so that he wouldn’t have to compromise his old system of values and beliefs or so that he could prove to himself that the past is still somehow accessible through the goodness of his son. I don’t know that the boy’s desensitization would have ultimately led to some sort of moral shift for him. The boy seemed to have a rather static perspective of what it means to be good and what it means to be bad. I think he has become desensitized in a way that allows him to live with a degree of awareness of the conditions of the world without becoming as wrapped up in the horror of it as his father has. If desensitization functions this way, then it might actually aid the boy in influencing the morals and attitudes of those he encounters.

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