The Road is a 2006 post-apocalyptic novel written by Cormac McCarthy, and chronicles the journey of a father and his young son as they trek across what’s left of the United States, hoping for a better life once they reach the coast. Throughout the novel, McCarthy provides the reader with hauntingly beautiful descriptions of the charred landscape, but it’s never explicitly stated what cataclysmic event has left the world such a barren, desolate wasteland almost devoid of all life. McCarthy seems to have intentionally left this element of the story vague, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsistent. Fans have theorized on message boards since the book’s debut on what extinction level event has bought humanity to its knees, and while there has been much debate, it seems like the internet has settled on three possible explanations: a nuclear holocaust, a meteor collision, and a super volcano eruption.
Early in the book, we’re provided with only a single sentence glimpse of what the man saw that night the world ended: “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” This is the most direct evidence we have of what caused the apocalypse, yet it unfortunately doesn’t get us any closer to narrowing down our explanations, as such “low concussions” could be equally accounted for by nuclear warheads, fragments of an asteroid, and the break up of the Yellowstone Caldera. We can, however, eliminate the super volcano as a viable explanation thanks to a sentence later in the same paragraph, which said, “He went into the bathroom and threw the light switch but the power was already gone.” This suggests that, whatever these far away explosions were, they set off an electro magnetic pulse, which, for those of you who may not be aware, fries electrical circuits and causes power outages. While nuclear bombs can set off EMPs, and meteors can, as well (although less likely), no volcano of any size would be able to do so.
Throughout the novel, the man and the boy find corpses everywhere, long dead and seemingly untouched, some of them even still in their cars or sitting on their front porches, almost as if everyone died immediately. This is what eliminates the possibility of the extinction level event being what killed off the dinosaurs. While the environment does match with what scientists say the Earth was like after the Chicxulub impactor – a dark, gray and empty world – looking at what we see left behind makes the asteroid explanation very unlikely. If it was an asteroid that blotted out the sky, then we wouldn’t see skeletons left in their beds and chairs as if they just dropped dead, as it was the cold and the starvation that caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, not necessarily the immediate impact. During a nuclear exchange, however, intense radiation would kill those who didn’t vaporize in the blasts in days. It also seems as if what caused the man to start vomiting blood was radiation sickness, as not only is that a symptom, but so is intense diarrhea, which we see the man suffer through, and we know could not be the result of black lung caused by the ash.
There are many more reasons why a nuclear war is the most likely explanation for the apocalypse in The Road, but there’s a reason why McCarthy kept it ambiguous. The Road isn’t about that. It’s about a man and his son fighting not only to survive in a hostile environment, but to preserve their morality. Less is more, and Cormac McCarthy knew that.