A Few Thoughts on Missing Thumbs in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

The thumb is very versatile, it is a universal signifier which crosses language barriers and it’s the most flexible part of our hand; we use it to grip things, to steady the barrel of a gun as we take a shot, manacled in chains you would need it to turn a key in a lock. In Shakespeare, to bite one’s thumb was considered an insult, for children it’s a pacifier, for others (when sucked) it’s a sign of cowardice, there’s also the ubiquitous thumbs up – everything is a.ok. But in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, things couldn’t be further from the truth, because the thumb or rather lack of, signifies that something terrible has happened in the character’s past.

In the novel when ‘the Man’ orders ‘the Thief’ at gunshot to strip and remove his shoes, the fingers of the Thief’s right hand have been cut away and described as ‘a sort of fleshy spatula’. McCarthy never details how the amputations are incurred nor why they happen – everything is left to supposition. The most likely explanation is that it was part of some tribal ritual, and signs throughout the novel point towards this. The charred bodies and tattooed skulls the Man and ‘Boy’ come across, (both on and off the road) suggest that the degeneration of mankind has surmounted itself in the scarring of the human body – nothing is sacred anymore and the world has become a place where men eat other men. In essence, humanity has lost its humaneness and civilisation has collapsed.

In John Hillcoat’s film version of The Road (DVD released May 2010) the missing thumb is foreground more so than in the novel. In a civilised society, people greet each other with a wave to say ‘hello’ or a shake of the hand, so you would notice immediately if someone had a thumb missing. In Hillcoat’s apocalyptic film, the absent thumb is also immediately noticeable whenever a character without one appears on screen. This leads onto many unanswered questions about why the missing thumbs are so provocative: why would someone hack off somebody’s thumbs? Did they do it to themselves? Were the outcasts ‘outcasts’ or were they escapees? Did they do it to prove themselves a worthy member of a commune?

If the amputation of the thumbs were performed in a commune as some sort of test, to prove loyalty for instance, it would have been more efficient to amputate their pinkies or get a rudimentary tattoo instead. A commune depends on co-operation and presumably in a post-apocalyptic scenario, a necessity to be able to use tools, hunt and forage etc; without thumbs a person is inhibited from performing any of these tasks. If the outcasts had been disowned by the communes, as their name indicates, it’s more than likely to have been because they didn’t obey the rules, consequently the most likely explanation for the missing thumbs is that it was done as punishment, something which Hillcoat  says was, “some hint of tribal punishment in the past.”

Hillcoat strongly alludes to tribalism in his film and it makes an early appearance in the novel, when the Man and Boy come face to face with a road agent, Cormac writes: “He wore a beard that had been cut square across the bottom with shears and he had a tattoo of a bird on his neck done by someone with an illformed notion of their appearance.”

Through expulsion from the tribe, the outcasts are stripped of their communal identity and are free to roam without being tied down to a collective ideology. This freedom, though risky and dangerous, has a presence in the film version of The Road, as every character the Man and Boy come across who are ‘thumbless’ are also not cannibals, the Thief could have killed the Boy and taken his body with him, but he didn’t. The Boy realises this and is part of the reason why he pleads so strongly with his father to return the Thief’s possessions. And, more tellingly, the thumbless Veteran who appears at the end of the film to offer the Boy a ‘new way’ along the road is also not a cannibal.

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Filed under Books/Novels/Authors, Cormac McCarthy's The Road

116 responses to “A Few Thoughts on Missing Thumbs in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

  1. Carl

    Nice piece of writing Catherine. The mention of missing thumbs reminded me of a man I saw on a tram in Hong Kong a few years ago. He was holding on to a pole with both hands and I was transfixed looking at the two thumbs he had on each hand! Maybe having two thumbs on each hand would be as much of hinderence as having no thumbs at all?

    • Mike

      Hi,

      Just a theory, The thumbs that are taken away could be related to suicide on hand guns that need to be cocked. The wife at the end could have made her husband swear an oath not to commit suicide and leave them behind and by this he removed his thumbs. You cant commit suicide with a rifle its to long and with a knife its harder and not a quick death. A hand gun to the head is a quick and painless death. The removal of thumbs takes away the luxury of an easy way out. Just a thought that came to my mind. Loved the book and the movie it got me through times when I went days without eating and lost my apartment and life gave me hope to never give up.

      Mike

      • I love The Road too, and can understand how it gave you the hope never to give up.

      • Chas

        BS. I can cock my S&W .38 with my fingers, even my little fingers. I suspect frostbite was the cause of the loss of thumbs. Nuclear winters can get very cold, in theory.

  2. stan

    I’m not so certain that the veteran at the end is a “good guy.” When boy asks him if he is a good guy, guy pierce’s eyes roll from side to side. The camera made sure to focus on this eye motion, which indicates to me he is lying. The female with the two kids seems to be disingenuous in concoling boy, and the two children do not look happy at all.

    Didn’t read the book so I don’t know if it was clear in Cormak that the boy ends up in good hands or getting eaten.

    • after the first song in the closing credits, you hear children all laughing together. i think that was a sign that everything did workout okay for the boy.

      • john g

        in the book it indicated that the woman talked to the boy about god and he tried to talk with his dad in heaven and nothing about him being eaten so yeah it was a good ending for the kid

    • Highman555

      the reason his eye roll from side to side (note only one eye moved) was because he has a fractured cheek bone which dwelled into more detail in the book as to why he had a slightly mishapen right hand side face

  3. Hi Stan, I agree with the uncertainty at the end of the film, I went to see it without having read the book first and no film has ever got me thinking about things so much, for so long after I’ve left the cinema. I bought the book and I’ve read it twice now and there’s still things which can’t be explained. I hope I don’t spoil things too much if you’re going to read the book, but the Boy survives, or at least it’s implied he survives through the 3rd person narration which recounts all the events (otherwise how would the narrator know the tale if everyone died). I’ve been a geek enough to watch the end of the film as soon as I got it on DVD and skip to the ending and play the Director’s commentary because I really wanted it all explained to me – he too comments on Pierce’s wandering eyes, but he says that they decided to include the dog to show that there was hope (because the Veteran and his ‘wife’ could have eaten it). I thought the kids seemed a bit weird too, as though they’d been brainwashed but I guess if you’ve been trekking around a post-apocalyptic landscape you’re going to look a bit weather-beaten and scared. The ending of the book is just as tear-jerking as the film, I found the Man’s death as hard to read as Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls when the lead character dies in that. McCarthy has been likened to Hemmingway – so if you’re into books I highly recommend him too.

  4. Tami M

    I also just finished watching The Road and was intrigued about the missing thumbs, which in turn started a 1 am web hunt for information about possible reasons for the loss that left me not quite happy. After some calm thought, I think the loss of thumbs might be the result of a type of punishment for a crime or the cost to leave a commune. If a person doesn’t have a thumb, survival becomes more difficult. Also, that person would no longer be as serious a threat to whomever took the thumb in the first place. There are still places in the world today that take fingers, thumbs, or whole hands for stealing and other crimes. Such a punishment does two things – it punishes the criminal and marks them forever so they are more easily recognized.

    This historical precedence only adds to the instability of the ending because if The Veteran is missing a thumb, he has probably stolen from someone before or he might have left a commune at the price of that thumb. Does this mean that he is a thief? a former cannibal? or someone who left a group that was turning to cannibalism? I couldn’t tell if the female was also missing her thumbs – the camera angle was perfect to keep that part just out of view.

    Symbolically, the loss of thumbs could have several interpretations. The thumb supposedly keeps man separate from animals, so losing a thumb could symbolize man’s decline, but then why do all the cannibals still have their thumbs? The cannibals still appear to have some form of societal structure and order. The loss of thumbs among the loners compared to the thumb-possessing cannibals might symbolize a return to a better, more natural way – an attempt to reject the technology that caused the destruction – a step back. If men with thumbs are the destroyers, perhaps men without thumbs can find a way to restore the world.

    And a final note to the doom and gloomers: the movie is not without hope – despite the shaky eyes and worried kids. 1. The boy found a bug – that is new life and it didn’t look like they had seen any new life for a long time. 2. The boy survived -he could have died a thousand different ways, but he lived and chose life after his dad died. 3. The people had a dog – dogs are man’s best friend, but they have also served as an important food source for many years. Yet these people didn’t eat their dog, and we know they had to have suffered hunger at some point because they had been following The Man and The Boy. 4. They have a daughter – they also have a son, but with The Boy humanity has diversified breeding stock and that means the human race has a tiny chance.

    They can’t be the only couple to survive. The cannibals will run out of food eventually and turn on themselves because they have forgotten any other ways to survive. Meanwhile, the wanderers might find places to endure while the world mends until they can safely find each other. Hopefully.

  5. Jmob

    In the book, a missing thumb is the mark of someone who has been kicked out of a commune. The fact that the vet had a missing thumb in the movie meant that the boy was doomed. In the book, the vet was clearly a part of a commune and was in good standing. This subtle shift in the movie was an odd one as the only people who would have picked up on the meaning of the missing thumb were those that read the book. I was shocked that they would so completely change the end of the story like that.

    • V

      Im a bit confused.. you said that in the book, “a missing thumb is the mark of someone who has been kicked out of a commune” I read this book recently and definitely did not pick up on that. Do you know where it says that or mentions missing thumbs in the book specifically??

      • Hi V,

        Here is the paragraph:

        Get away from the cart, the man said.
        He looked at them. He looked at the boy. He was an outcast from one of the communes and the fingers of his right hand had been cut away. He tried to hide it behind him. A sort of fleshy spatula. The cart was piled high. He’d taken everything.
        Get away from the cart and put down the knife.

        Taken from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, pg 273 (Picador, London, 2007)

      • Zech

        Being kicked out of a commune would then imply just the opposite. In the book, the only societies were the communes, therefore the communes were the organized cannibals. So someone who was no longer welcome in the cannibalistic communes must have not agreed with what the communes did. To me it seems logical that, in order to “buy” your way out of the cannibal tribe, maybe one had to sacrifice thumbs as some sort of pennance or ransom, therefore making you a marked man and less of a threat should you ever be encountered again. My point being that being kicked out of these groups would, to me, signify a “good guy”. Not to mention that in the book the cannibals ate the newborn baby of one of their own. I would assume the man left the commune to save his two children and his thumbs were the cost of their freedom. Just my thoughts.

  6. kebman

    I’m Norwegian, and I was sent to the border to Russia to serve my country, far to the North-East. I remember when the new guys came in during the winter. It was about -30°C below freezing and they were sent out on their first field march, camping in their scruffy little button-up tents in the snow. Poor bastards.

    Most of the soldiers were freezing, but they did their best to keep warm over their small portable stoves. One guy couldn’t hack it, though. Or rather, he did. When he was sent out to fetch fire wood, he put down his thumb on a wooden block and hacked it off with his axe. I still remember the blood in the snow.

    It was a real waste since he had many other options to get away, but when people get desperate, they stop thinking, I guess.

  7. Michael

    I haven’t read the book the movie was adapted from. I remember Paulie had his thumbs cut off by the Mob in The Pope of Greenwich Village, so I didn’t get that the thumb-less weren’t cannibals.
    I noticed, when the protagonists found the thief, that the thief’s hands looked simian because the thumbs were cut off at the first knuckle(which kind of made me cringe because I’ve heard “monkey” used to describe a black guy.)
    Consider that half a thumb is more useful then no thumb at all. Consider also that poor Paulie’s thumbs were detached at the second knuckle. Now imagine my utter confusion when the “good guy” with the woman, the kids and the dog (a dog? they must have been vegetarians) was shown to have half thumbs too.

  8. Andrew Brannigan

    There are three things that seem to come up the most in this thread. The first is the symbolism of missing thumbs. The second is the presence of the dog. The third is the symbolism of the gun. For those of us who actually read the novel, the first two are moot points. Hillcoat, like any artist, took a good amount of leeway when recounting the film version of the story. In the novel, only the thief is described as being without all of his fingers, and to me, it’s made quite clear that the reason for this is that he was outcast from a commune. Why is a matter for discussion, but McCarthy himself writes: “He looked at them. He looked at the boy. He was an outcast from one of the communes and the fingers of his right hand had been cut away. He tried to hide it behind him. A sort of fleshy spatula. The cart was piled high. He’d taken everything.” That to me, is clear cut enough that his fingers were removed for an infraction of the rules. The veteran is never described in the book as having any fingers missing. This was pure artistic license on the part of the director. The dog however, is mentioned only once in the book, and it’s interesting that this is the one part of the book where the narration changes from silent narrator to the man himself. “The dog he remembers followed us for three days…” Why did McCarthy feel that the mention of the dog required the only break in the narrative in the entire book? Only he really knows, but the addition of the dog to the film version raises a rather interesting question: In the film, the man and the boy are forced to flee the underground shelter because the man hears a dog. He knows that with dogs come people. In the film, the woman, upon meeting the boy, says to him: “We were following you, did you know that?” Is the viewer supposed to infer that the veteran and his family had been following the man and his son from at least that point on? If so, why did they wait until the man was already dead to reveal themselves? Surely, by that point, they would have plainly seen that they shared food with “Ely” and that they were indeed simply “survivors on the road.” To me, it’s completely nonsensical that they would have allowed the man to waste away whilst they deliberated over when to come forward. Lastly, the symbolism of the gun is that even though the man and the boy want to consider themselves “the good guys”, they “can’t take any chances.” Even though the marauders and roadrats and cannibals use force and violence to obtain sustinence, the man needs to have some form of protection to survive. It’s directly implied in the novel that at one point, there were many more rounds in the pistol. Possibly, it had once been fully loaded. It was immediately preceding the wife’s suicide that there were 3 rounds left and only after the roadrat is killed is the man down to 1 round. How many people has the man killed since the cataclysm? As many as he had to. The bigger questions, whether or not they hold the key to unlocking the themes of the book, are, #1) What exactly caused the cataclysm? And #2) Just how old is the child supposed to be? I would hazard the guess that it wasn’t atomic exchange that decimated all life on earth because there is never any mention of radioactivity and because it seems that the destuction was widespread across the whole of the earth (at least in the man’s calculation) That implies some type of worldwide decimation, most likely a comet striking the earth, which would cause rock and ash to be hurled into the atmosphere and widespread fires. And I would guess that the boy’s age as difficult as it is to pin exactly, is even more skewed because, subsisting as he has on such meager rations his whole life, he is indeed seriously hampered in his growth compared to a child of equal age before the disaster. A fantastically warm and at the same time heart-wrenching story, told by a master storyteller, prosist and poet, it’s certainly best to look at the novel completely separately from the film.

    • Hi Andrew,

      I will attempt to answer some of the questions you pose in your response in a little while. I agree with your thoughts that the apocalyptic scenario the survivors of The Road face was not caused by a Nuclear Fallout. Some months ago I composed another blog entry on The Road which you may find of interest:

      http://thepoplartree.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/a-few-thoughts-on-what-caused-the-%E2%80%98end-of-the-world%E2%80%99-in-cormac-mccarthy%E2%80%99s-the-road/

      • Hi Andrew,

        Here are some more thoughts I’ve pieced together on The Road and I hope I’ve responded to some of the thoughts you’ve detailed above.

        I feel that Kebman’s response to missing thumbs which has been posted a couple of posts above yours has so far been the most illuminating on the mystery surrounding the thumbs – it may be possible that the thumbless in The Road hacked them off themselves so that they no longer had to ‘work’ in the commune.

        Anyway, here is my reply to some of your other chains of thought: “Why did they wait until the man was already dead to reveal themselves?” At the end The Road, the Boy stays with his Papa’s corpse for three days before he makes out for the road again, and when the boy first sees the veteran, he doesn’t turn and run away; something makes him stay. What this something is, is difficult to say, possibly it’s intuition – as an orphan in a post-apocalyptic world it’s the only thing he has left to guide him, and the boy admits to the veteran: “I don’t know what to do.”
        There is no way of knowing whether or not the Veteran and his ‘family’ knew that the Man was dead. They too may have been just as wary of approaching the Man as he would have been of approaching them.

        The Man is suspicious of everyone, but his son believes in something beyond the fear and suspicion, he believes that somewhere there are good guys like him and his Papa, that somewhere there is another little boy for him to meet. In the film version, Guy Pearce deliberately portrays the Veteran as a shifty character, he has the missing thumb and his eyes wander. The Boy repeatedly asks him if he eats people because he knows that in order to survive he has to avoid the cannibals and road agents. Some may feel that the Veteran’s children and dog act as decoys, is the Veteran luring the Boy into a false sense of security? I don’t believe this to be the case, because after all, the Veteran allows the Boy to keep his gun.

        The gun is important symbolically as an object that retains its import in a world where nearly everything has fallen apart. It draws together the two narratives of suicide vs survival, a choice that would confront any survivor of a post-apocalyptic scenario when faced with starvation, poisoning and the threat of cannibalism and this is especially true during the scene when the man begs his wife not to go into the dark alone and become Death’s whore.

        Not only is the Man physically tortured throughout the novel, he is also mentally tortured, and on more than one occasion he comes close to committing infanticide and then presumably, his own suicide. But as we all know, The Man ‘carries the fire’ and cannot bring himself to enact either of those choices, and this is where the morality of Cormac McCarthy’s novel lies.

    • Josh

      Check out Daniel Ellsbergs work on nuclear winter. An over arching war could devastate the entire earth based on new models calculating the amount of smoke from cities in unquenchable flame.

  9. MrMintanet

    The thumbs remind me of the movie The Book of Eli. The thumbs signified that the person had cannibalistic tendencies, and they should not be trusted. They literally eat their own thumbs out of starvation. Pretty simple. I’m not sure why you guys are writing paragraphs and pages on pages regarding this.

    The boy obviously was eaten by the family. The reason the family was “following” him was because they did not want to risk conflict with the father. They had seen he was weak, sick, and dying. Rather than having a hand-to-hand battle, they wait for the father to die, and then they take the boy up.

    But then again, why wouldn’t they just knock the boy out and kill him?

    Ultimately, the ending makes no sense.

    • Hi, people are writing tons about missing thumbs because it’s a mystery and I have to disagree, the ending does make sense (sort of): http://thepoplartree.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/the-image-of-the-brook-trout-at-the-end-of-the-road/#more-589
      Also, if the family wanted to kill the boy why did the Veteran let him keep his gun? We could go on about it forever, that’s why The Road is so good!

    • jack

      I’d agree with the more sinister vibes the missing thumbs imply but apart from that you’d want to maybe actually think about the movie rather than picking that shallow conclusion that the ending makes no sense. because we are not given a solid conclusion it is more up to the viewer to decide what happened in terms of the boys survival/future abuse (by these ‘followers’)/or if all goes peachy and they live happily ever after. i personally felt very shook by the presence of the dog for a few reasons. 1. owning a dog represents a privilege (wealth) (definitely in this world). 2. they can track humans efficiently since nearly all other life is dead at the time. 3. the ability to have kept such an animal in good health is eery in such a desolate world (cannibalism). for me this implies they are cannibals but whether they intend to feed off the child is unknown. as said before attention is brought to the vet’s eyes shifting so suspicion is intended. I feel that these people probably have intentions for child abuse / or otherwise they just like to help children (unlikely says i). the fact that they let his father die before appearing just says it all i think it cant really be justified that they are good if they were following the whole time (at least in my opinion).

  10. Bun

    At the time I first watched the film some months ago I searched the internet for a website like this one as I was fascinated by what the missing thumb could mean and at that time couldn’t find anything. Hadn’t read the book so the commune thing didn’t does mean much but my initial theory which as far as I can tell hasn’t been touched on was self cannibalism due to lack of food. Quite why I assumed the thumb might be a good thing to eat I don’t really know but in my mind all beat it an odd one that seemed to make sense.

  11. Bun

    Yes apologies Mr Mintanet, as always I spotted it afterwards but I thought you might not be a frequent visitor so didn’t mention it for fear of talking to my self.

    I’ve also seen The Book of Eli since which reaffirmed my belief that it relates to self cannibalism or should?

    Great minds… 

  12. shaun

    Having just watched The Road and not having read the book, my thoughts on the missing thumbs are that perhaps these people with missing thumbs had been previously captured by the cannibals and cuffed and had intentionally cut off or ate (?) their own thumbs in order to slip their shackles and escape. As for the veterans shifty eyes -when the boy asks the veteran if he is a good guy – I saw the gesture as a way of saying ” good- bad-whatever – I’ve had to do things to survive. can’t wait to read the book

  13. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned (or maybe I just overlooked it) is that the Veteran gave the Boy a chance to stay and strike out on his own. “Listen you got 2 choices here. You can stay here with your poppa or you can go with me. If you stay here you need to keep off the road.”

    I read that as the Veteran knowing of the dangers of all the road bandits and cannibals and warning him away from those dangers. It would obviously be prime area for cannibals to hunt and for people to get robbed.

    Too many variables to make him a bad guy.

    1. He lets the Boy keep the gun.
    2. The dog is alive (that mutt would have been turned into fajitas by ANY starving family)
    3. The warning to keep off the road and away from danger.
    4. If they were really cannibals, the Man’s dead body would have been lunch right away. As the movie had shown us, the cannibals aren’t picky about eating their dead.
    5. Shifty eyes could be explained by the fact that the man is a “veteran of old skirmishes” living in a post apocalyptic wasteland. I’ve had fellow buddies I was in the army with that had the same look after coming back home from war. Hell, my wife said the same thing about me when I came home. Your eyes always shift around because you don’t want to be caught off guard.

    For the thumbs…I’m still up in the air on that. If it’s punishment, it’s pointless. If a commune was very serious in those conditions on people stealing, they would have taken a hand and cast them out. Harder to hide the fact that you’re missing a hand and harder to survive.

    The Thief may have also been a veteran as well and the mark could have happend with a previous battle with cannibals. (I really wish we could have seen the cannibal army in the movie)

    The only other thing that comes to mind is mutilation to help in combat/POW situations. Sort of like an amazon had cut off a breast to make it easier to shoot a bow or throw a spear. Losing the thumbs would definately make it easier to slip handcuffs. Cant be help in handcuffs? Less of a chance you will get captured and eaten by a cannibal.

    So I guess my theory is that the mutilated thumb means they would be harder to hold captive and a mark of the people in that area.

  14. Hi JesusPJ, you’re the second member of the armed forces to make some comments that no one else had thought of, there’s a guy called Kebman quite a few posts above who tells a great tale of his experience in the Norwegian army. I think the thumbs were docked to get out of shackles, it’s the most rational explanation I’ve come across. I also think your list of thoughts about the Veteran is spot on too, thanks for your contribution

  15. Kris

    Oh my God, thank you- the shackles idea makes so much sense! It has been driving me crazy. Eating your thumbs is the most ridiculous idea I think- you would always eat a finger or toe before your thumb or cut off flesh from your leg or another body part. Isn’t there an artery or vein that runs through the thumb?

    • MrMintanet

      Artery in the thumb? What planet are you from?

    • Todd Sullivan

      I’m having trouble about the whole losing the thumbs to get out of shackles. You would have to lose more than the thumb to slip out of cuffs. If you got past the first knuckle of the thumb the thumb itself wouldn’t be a problem slipping through with the fingers. It’s the first knuckle so basically the bone in the hand with the fleshy padding at the thumb and palm that would have to go.
      As to the Vet and family being cannibals. That’s a tough one. The Mom kind of creeped me out, the Vet seemed sincere about giving the kid his choice or was it to give him false confidence? Get him when his guard is down? Or am I just liable to be as paranoid as his Father was?
      Hope the kid was okay.
      Still don’t get the thumb thing aside from the commune reject which was stated in the book.
      Hasn’t the author been asked in an interview anywhere?

  16. Andrew Brannigan

    I would have to disagree with some of my fellow posters that the most logical explanation for the missing thumbs is that the Veteran and his wife were forced to resort to hacking them off to escape from shackles. That theory doesn’t sit right with me for two reasons. Number One: if they had been fettered at some point, it’s more than likely that they wouldn’t have been able to perform a feat like that while cuffed (or bound) Number Two: If one of them had to resort to doing that, why would the other? Isn’t it more than likely that the first person to free him or herself would attempt to find another way to free the second person than simply chopping their thumbs off as well? That’s not to mention that had they ever been captured at some earlier point, it’s doubtful that the entire family would have managed to stay together anyway. The Veteran is armed. Of course we have no way of knowing that he was armed all along, but my guess would be that he had been armed since the cataclysm occured, hence the survival of his family. How would a roving band of cannibals manage to both disarm and shackle this person? And his family? And if that had been the case, I’d love to know how exactly he managed to effect a successful escape (and keep a weapon) I realise that this thread is geared toward exploring the symbolism behind it, but again, it’s never mentioned in the novel that anyone other than the thief is missing thumbs. Try to imagine what one of the communes would look like. A group of survivors band together and attempt to forge some kind of civilised society out of the ashes of the old one. Everyone has a part to play. Some of the members of the commune are on sentry duty, prepared to defend their tiny slice of civilization from anyone who would seek to destroy it. Others are assigned to the task of foraging for whatever sustenance they can find and are responsible for bringing it back to be meted out amongst everyone. Now imagine that you are a member of that commune. You have been accepted to take part in probably one of the remaining scant few instances of collective survival not based on cannibalism and murder. Someone is caught stealing from the commune’s collective stocks. In the novel, the punishment when being cast out of the comune is that the fingers of your right hand are cut away. The thief makes an effort to hide this fact from the man and the boy after stealing the cart. Why? Because not only is the punishment an effective way to ensure that the offender will have the utmost difficulty from now on considering that most people are right handed, and now, theirs has been rendered useless, but also too, it’s a symbol. A mark, a brand. It’s a distinctive emblem of someone who has committed the crime of stealing from those he swore an oath to stick by. I’ve read everyone’s thoughts on it so far, but I still believe through and through that the best explanation is that there isn’t one (at least as far as the film version goes) For some reason, Hillcoat believed that it added some aura to the story and it could be debated from now until Judgment Day why he felt that way. I never understood for instance, in the novel, when the man and the boy awake and come out of the woods into the road and find the wagon tracks in the snow, the man tells the boy that they must hide, “someone is coming.” A short time later, two men come along the road, “almost at a lope.” It’s revealed later that this same wagon is sitting outside the “once grand house” where they uncover the cannibal’s prisoners in the cellar. So, what’s the explanation there? Who exactly passed them in the night?, “they passed within fifty feet of the fire and had not even stopped to look.” If it had been the cannibals themselves, wouldn’t they have made an attempt at capturing whoever was camped just off the road? If it was just another group of people on the road, who alerted the two men who came to hunt for them later? Were the people captured, then questioned and revealed that they had passed a campfire hours before? The man never reveals if the two men he sees in the road are some of the same two men he sees back at the house later. Much like the boy never mentions if the young boy he sees is the Veteran’s son. The man later comes to realise that the cannibals occupying the house have devised a system for capturing people who unwittingly pass by their lair. They lay in hiding and wait for fresh victims, then call their companions by ringing the bell. Who in their right mind would allow themselves to be taken alive by a group like that? Even if they are armed, isn’t it far better to die fighting than to be taken prisoner and meet a face far worse than death? Of course, the victims have no idea what’s in store for them (actually, in a world like the one depicted by McCarthy, it’s a safe bet that they do have somewhat of an idea) but I just can’t see starving and desperate people surrendering so easily and being taken alive. The mystery of the turn of events that leads the man to realise that someone is hunting them, followed by actually seeing those people, then on to his dicovery of the wagon at the house is one that has kept me guessing as to what exactly there is to get from it all. I think only McCarthy will ever know for sure how it all comes together. One last thought: I’ve seen quite a few posts that point to the Veteran’s disinterest in the man’s corpse for food as evidence that he couldn’t be a cannibal. let’s keep in mind that the man has been dead for three days by the time the Veteran makes his appearance. Would you eat a piece of chicken that had lain on the beach for three days? At one point, earlier in the story, the man and the boy decide to take a pass on some homecanned tomatoes because he doesn’t trust them. They would have turned to poison by then. Same thing with the corpse. Human beings begin to deteriorate very quickly after death. It’s estimated that the tissue behind the eyes actually begins to rot within 30 minutes after death. Even an amoral cannibal (if he had any sense) would realise that to eat flesh that has been rotting for half a week would be suicide. Again, I want to thank everyone for their contributions to the discussion and I’m very pleased that this magnificent work has stirred so many questions in the minds of so many readers. Cheers.

  17. Andrew Brannigan

    One thing forgot to mention, I’ve seen a few posts that reference the army on the march that the man and the boy see after trekking through the dead orchard. One of the early posters to this thread speculates that might have been a dream sequence. After more than 15 reads of the novel cover to cover, I would have to say that’s a very interesting point. Several details from that scene stand out that make it seem as if it could be imaginary. The first is that the boy actually asks his father if he saw them. The man was the one to warn the boy to keep his head down and not to look. If that had been the case, the child wouldn’t need to ask whether or not the man actually saw them. The second is the mention of color. Practically no mention of color is made in the novel except to talk about the blackness of the exposed rocks and the grayness of everything else. Even when they have a fire or see an inferno in the forest, color is barely mentioned. Yet the ‘horde’ is described as wearing red or orange scarves about their necks, as close to red as they could find. They have tassels of ribbon hanging from their weapons. To me, this scene stands out as the one most likely to be imaginary. It paints a picture that’s so different and far removed from the rest of the story. Possibly, the man needs to put an image to the enemy. The marchers appear four abreast, behind them come wagons piled with the goods of war, then the women and last, a supplementary consort of catamites in dog collars. Yoked each to the next like animals. Oddly enough, one of the most graphic and distinctive passages in the book didn’t make the cut for the film. Why? Well, the army passes them by without incident, that’s true enough. But what is it about that scene that made it so disconnected from the rest of the novel that it wasn’t incorporated into the film? Possibly because it didn’t happen. After the army disappears down the road, the man takes it as an omen that they’re on the move. What should the reader gather from that? In a world like the one they’re living in, does it really make that much of a difference which arbitrary direction one chooses to head? Isn’t there just as much possibility of finding something no matter where you’re going? To the man-No, there isn’t. He’s obsesed with reaching the coast. The army is heading in the opposite direction, which leads the man to believe that they must have some reason for turning around, they are coming from the direction he intends to take. Finally, when the man realises that he can go no further, it’s fitting that the place where he will die is not on the beach as it is in the film, but rather at a crossroads. He tells the boy to continue to head south alone. I know it’s just one of the many, many details that we can read into over and over again a million different ways and we can interpret it a different way each time, but I think there’s a lot of validity to the claim that the horde might have never actually existed.

  18. davakins

    Maybe frostbite.

  19. Ville

    So nobody had the idea occur to them that maybe the thumbs froze off? I live in Finland and if anyone knows about cold weather it’s a person living in the nordic region. No matter how warm your gloves/mittens are, your thumbs always get cold after a while no matter what. The man and the boy had means to make a fire every night so they could warm up, but the thief had nothing on him so I’m guessing he was cold every night. Now, the commune thing makes sense in the context of the book but I imagine it would have been explained in the movie somehow if it was something of that nature. Just a guess

    • Ville

      Oh never mind, I should have searched deeper before commenting.

      The director explains it in here:
      http://thephoenix.com/BLOGS/outsidetheframe/archive/2009/11/24/interview-with-john-hillcoat-part-2.aspx

      “PK: I’m sort of running out of time, I just have two quick questions. There seem to be a lot of people who are missing thumbs, is that just…

      JH: Yeah, that’s like in the book, I asked Cormac, again open to interpretation, I think some kind of primitive punishment, whether it’s stealing or some kind of hint going back to a more primitive”

    • MrMintanet

      Sure… but ultimately, why focus on someone who was frostbitten? It’s kind of a moot point. There has to be some sort of reason that the camera focuses on the veteran’s thumbs, and my suspicion is that it is an obvious mark of someone who has either canabalistic tendancies or someone who could have had their thumbs lobbed off as some sort of “scarlet letter” or permanent scar that shows them to not be trusted.

      A frostbitten thumb is hardly something to show when the boy is clearly questioning the Veteran’s integrity.

      Just my .02.

      We’re all entitled to our opinions regarding this, being there is clearly no definitive way of understanding the meaning behind the thumbs.

  20. Rick

    So i wonder why the man and the boy had their thumbs if everyone else seemed to be missing theirs?

  21. Juno

    I’m not sure about the self cannibalism. Eating your thumb would be akin to slow suicide. It would make it difficult to survive without the use of a thumb. Why not eat a finger or two? You have a better change at basic survival with a “pincher” – thumb and pointer finger. I tend to gather that it’s an exile punishment of some sort. Or, perhaps something symbolic from the author for his readers to determine on our own? I’m disappointed that the director of the movie took liberal artistic license by amputating the Veteran’s thumbs, since that was not evident in the book.

    • McCarthy visited Hillcoat on the set of The Road with his son, so I think it’s safe to say that Hillcoat was right to use his artistic licence in this instance. Every director who has ever made a film uses aristic licence – that’s what translating literature into moving image is all about. I really don’t think it was self-cannibalism, drinking your own urine I can understand, but eating your own body parts is insane and counter productive.

  22. Ardendro

    The veteran only has one thumb missing, the thief could have lost digits to the cold or ate them. The ending of the book/movie I think is the happy ending, the reason why the veteran and his family followed the man and boy is because they probaly knew that the man could have over protective of the boy resulting in a conflict. As to the destruction, maybe the Earth had grown exhausted and the garden of eden became hell on Earth.

  23. Wade

    Hello all,

    I know I’m a bit late to the conversation, but I agree with those of you who favor the interpretation that the absence of thumbs on a character is primarily symbolic. Scars and disfigurements could have manifested themselves in a multitude of ways, so specifically having multiple missing thumbs appear is no coincidence. It is a deliberate machination of the author. As the original post pointed out, thumbs are important for the operation of tools and weapons, and neither of the characters sporting thumb-stubs do violence to either the Man or the Boy even though they have ample opportunity. One can easily infer, then, that those who lack thumbs still maintain some human decency in spite of their desperate situations.

    I would argue against the point that Tami made in her (excellent) comment: that the loss of thumbs symbolized humanity’s decline. It is true that we humans are distinguished from the animals by our opposable thumbs and ability to use tools, but we are also unique in the way that we destroy and feed upon one another. Our thumbs may be a symbolic link to our destructive natures. This nature may have been the force which let to the cataclysm which befell the world of The Road. The Man and the Boy retained their thumbs because we as viewers/readers spent enough time with them that they didn’t need such simple labeling, but we need some little clues to gain insight into the hearts of the Thief and the Veteran who are less developed characters.

    This is my first visit to The Poplar Tree, but I’m very impressed with the quality of the articles and the comments. It’s very unusual to see such intelligent discussion from each and every commenter. I’ll try to keep pace.

  24. Lauran

    I do apologise for this late entry into your discussion but I, too, have been wondering about some of these themes having both seen the film and read the book. What about the idea that the thief and the veteran were scarred and thrown out of a commune or a road gang not for doing something we in this safe, modern pre-apocalyptic world deem “wrong” in a grouped living scenario (ie stealing from other commune / gang members) but for something those in that wretched, wasted world would deem wrong (ie refusing to kill / eat infants, rob and murder encountered travellers, etc)? These men could have been ejected from their groups for crimes of virtue rather than vice – they were holding onto the virture instilled upon them by the old world. Refusing to participate in the depraved activities of a group of cannibals or gang members such as killing “innocents” could be akin to stealing from their group – refusing to kill prevents the commune members from eating the same as stealing food does. So in this story, the “thief” was once virtuous but hunger and solitude forced him to lower himself to the level of the individuals who removed him from their group – this could be why he was protrayed, in my eyes at least, in a relatively sympathetic light in the film. The veteran appears to have retained his virtue. And on the sifty eyes of the veteran, perhaps he hesitates at the boy’s question and searches for an answer simply because he just doesn’t know what it means to be a “good guy” anymore.

    • Pamela

      Lauran – you were the first to hit upon what my intuition/my heart was telling me. These men without thumbs came from somewhere where they refused to kill and were marked/punished by it. Somehow they did manage to get out of those communes or situations with their lives and I have a feeling they created their own group… one that also looked for others that were like them. But like any group you are tested to see if you fit. When the old man they ran across on the road talked about when he first saw the boy and thought he was an angel, I felt like he was talking about it as if he had seen him before, much earlier. He also seemed mystical and wise but hidden to only those of the heart to see. Follow me with this… we see the bug in the film…new life… maybe somehow things were turning around – that life was going to be able to come back. What if there were a group of renegades that were the non-killers that came together to create their own group. They found a way to survive (I have lots of thoughts on this) and were open to pure-hearted people that would not kill and CARED about others. You need a community to rebuild but you can only have people of that type within your group. You would need to test people. You can see where I’m going with this and either you think I’m in LA LA Land or you feel me on this. Anyway… I have feelings on the old man, the thief and the family with the dog. I believe in the end, the boy is with a group of people that have been following, testing and are now very happy to have him in their group. I think they view him as VERY special. Going back to the old man I got this. And, no, I’m not looking for a happy ending – watch the film again considering what I have said. Whenever he has interactions with these people pay close attention. Also – when asking a Good Man if he is good he will be able to remember lots of questionable acts he considers not good and it will show in his eyes. When you ask an evil man the same questions he can look you steal in the eye without blinking and say yes. Just a few thoughts. I choose not to post my disagreements (like eating your own thumb – ok, so I threw one in with slight un-useful attitude) and instead wish to add something new. Wishing you all well.

  25. Hi Pamela and Lauran,

    The Poplar Tree errs on your side of the arguments about The Outcasts being ‘good’ even if they do have a shady past and appearance. Eating your own thumbs would be an insane thing to do and doesn’t make sense.

    In reply to your thoughts about The Boy being recognised as very ‘special’ I think this certainly holds sway. Maybe he is a representation of some sort of post apocalyptic Second Coming envisaged by McCarthy? Religion and its role is left open to interpretation in the novel and film – McCarthy refers to a ‘godless’ world throughout the book, yet the tale is so powerful and moving, the story so black and white, so about good and evil, that you can’t fail to notice comparisons to religious texts.

    The Boy is not instilled with religious powers, he can’t heal the sick or make food magically appear from loaves and fishes, but he does have the power to make a choice between right and wrong.

  26. Tara

    I think it is important to regard the film as standing alone. Screenwriters and directors often eliminate, add to, or change characters, events, and meanings that were in the book. They do not assume that people have read or are going to read the novel. For that reason, it is irrelevant why Cormac McCarthy had characters with missing thumbs or whether he intended the boy to be saved by the family in the end. What is important is why John Hillcoat had characters with missing thumbs and whether John Hillcoat saved the boy in the end. Beyond that, it is even more important how the viewer interprets these things and our interpretations need not be Hillcoat’s.

    I noticed only two characters with missing thumbs: the thief and the veteran. Hillcoat has not overtly told us why they were missing thumbs so it is up to us to decode the film to get the answer. If that doesn’t produce an answer, we were intentionally left with the task of supplying the answer ourselves.

    I have lived in extremely cold areas and have never even heard of someone (let alone multiple people), losing their thumbs to freezing. The tip of the thumb is fleshier than the tip of one’s fingers and, thus, would freeze after, not before, the fingers. Moreover, these people are not living in the extreme cold required to freeze body parts. I think we can rule out the “their thumbs froze off” theory. Only one joint of the thumb is missing and that would, in no way, facilitate escape from handcuffs or anything securing the wrist. The entire base of the thumb would have to be missing and that is not the case. If the people had been secured by some sort of thumb lock, the first and second joints would have to be removed to facilitate escape and that is also not the case. I also don’t think it is credible that they ate their thumbs. As far as I know, there is no historical evidence that anyone apart from severely mentally ill people have ever eaten parts of themselves. Their is no evidence that starving humans have done so.

    My first thought upon seeing that the veteran had missing thumbs and learning that his “name” was Veteran was that veterans had their thumbs cut off upon release from the military, thus rendering them less dangerous. There is no reason to believe that the thief was not also a veteran. I don’t claim that this is an entirely satisfactory answer, but it did come to mind. In any event, I think it does make sense to conclude that someone cut off their thumbs and that this signals the viewer that they thus share some experience or trait. It also makes sense to conclude that cutting off their thumbs was some sort of punishment. Cutting off thumbs for ritual reasons is a bad survival strategy. It is possible to cut a joint off any finger but the first one without causing a huge problem, but it defies reason to believe that cutting off thumbs is some sort of bonding ritual or identifying signal.

    The thief, who had missing thumbs, did not kill and eat the boy. That puts him in the position of doing what he had to do to survive (ie. steal) up to a point (he was not a cannibal). It seems clear that he is one of the “good guys”. Father and Boy didn’t encounter a child with food and other supplies so we don’t know what they might have done. However, we do have some hints. Ultimately, the Father left the old man and the thief to die after doing something to convince his son that he, Father, was one of the “good guys” and, perhaps, soothing his own conscience a bit. Would it be unreasonable to imagine that if they had encountered a sleeping boy with food and possessions the father might have stolen everything except for leaving behind a can or two of food? Taking on another child would greatly lessen the chances that Boy would survive.

    Because I identified the thief as one of the “good people” and the veteran shares the missing thumb identifier, it suggests that he has also done what he has had to do, which was pretty ugly, but he is not a cannibal. Having to have done ugly things to survive would explain his shifting eyes when Boy asks if he is one of the “good people”. The presence of the dog strongly suggests that he is one of the good people. However, there is intentional ambiguity in the final scene. The veteran’s family appears to be remarkably well fed. The shifting eyes could signal deception. The dog would be very useful for tracking food sources (including people) and alerting them to danger (approaching people). Perhaps most significantly, there is the question of why they were following Father and Boy. They could have made contact from out of hand gun range indicating their intent to join forces and share resources, but they did not do so. Their concern for Boy once they saw him walking with his clearly dying father seems admirable; however, the boy heard the sound of a dog when they were in the survival shelter. This tells us that they were following Father and Boy before it was clear that Father was dying. Not a good sign. Joining forces with Father, before they knew he was dying, would have ensured their chances of survival. Taking on another child would decrease their chances of survival. I think the faces of the Veteran’s children speak volumes. Whereas Boy previously expressed a desire to find another child, these children do not seem at all happy, or even curious, about Boy. Perhaps they know his fate.

    Did the boy hallucinate the Veteran’s family? Maybe. His imagining another boy earlier in the film foreshadows this.

    Clearly, the ending is carefully crafted to leave it to us to reach our own conclusion about Boy’s fate. Whereas the appearance of the dog initially led me to conclude that he was safe, after due consideration I’ve reached the opposite conclusion.

  27. Imsuckingmythumbs

    I too, as a big fan of the book, immediately paid notice on the missing thumbs and the subject has lodged into my mind ever since. On second viewing of the film I felt like Googling the topic and obviously a lot of other people too paid notice on this mysterious end. I’m contributing late and what I write are mostly just my though stream mostly wondering if “The Veteran” and his family were good or bad guys. To be more precise, whether the kid got a nice nuclear family or ended in the pot.

    The Veteran is obviously a bit shady character with the rolling of the eyes and generally murky demeanor. I don’t feel like this makes him bad at all. You gotta remember that extreme hardships all parties have endured. Imagine it this way, if one of The Veterans kids encountered the protagonist father and son, the encounter certainly wouldn’t have been any jollier. For outsider they would have easily seemed like bad guys. I’m not saying that this makes him a good guy but I definedly don’t think his appearance or behaviour alone makes him either good or bad. He seemed like a sceptic surivalist who has lost it a bit just like anybody would have.

    On another note The Veteran doesn’t even seem overly interested in the kid. He even says that that the kid can stay and suggested how to avoid trouble. In my mind neither did his children signal distress that would suggest they were kidnapped. The world has ended, you couldn’t exactly expected them to smile and hold flowers. Maybe there’s more to it but more on that later.

    I also gotta disagree on the thumbs. I have really hard time seeing how not having thumbs makes it easier to escape handcuffs or any some other form of restrains. If you’d want to escape handcuffs cutting the thumb wouldn’t help, you’d had to cut a significant segment of your hand below the thumb (I’m not a native english Speaker nor a doctor so unfortunately I can’t describe the specific part better) them to makes it easier to slip the irons off. In the films the characters retained their hands, only the thumbs were removed, not necessarily even fully. To actually aid slipping off the cuffs one would have to chicel off parts of the hand bone. Why I think also why the “Houdini theory of thumbs” fails is because you gotta remember that the cannibals or others are masters of bondage to extend to make the most experience dominatrix turn green of envy. They’d find a way to tie you down no matter what you’re missing or kill you for the sheer extra work. People are their livelyhood, they know their business.

    I very much agree on that the thumbs imply an a ritualistic banishment from the “communes” as I believe was hinted in the book. What kid of communes is certainly what I’ve been thinking. “Civilized”, neutral or downright cannibalistic? Judging by the thief those who are banished haven’t likely done for any extremely depraved deeds they’re thought to have done. Extreme ofcourse by our standards, like cannibalism or murder. The thief seems more like an opportunist, not a bad guy and certainly not a cannibal. He could have so easily munched on the kid but instead he just a bit sheepisly stole their goods. I was also wondering that perhaps the cannibals wouldn’t put even that sorta rudimentary effort into forming a justice system of somekind ie. marking the wrong doers by cutting the thumb. If I was a cannibal and someone did wrong on my group, no thumb games, on the pot you go. And even if you get banished from cannibal group that’s more a merit if you ask me.

    But there are few things that still bother me. The cannibals were the most civilized group apart from their culinary preferences and the general dislike of human rights and common decency. What they had was tribalism taken to extreme. Their in group dynamic worked amazingly on post apocalyptic standards. They managed and communicated well and even showed some courtesy to each others. This was ofcourse mirrored by the unnecessary sadistic brutality towards anyone outside their group. The cannibals had also some sense of style. They were all dressed and groomed quite well and their homestead was in good shape. The female cannibal even went upstairs to change clothes. That’s classy in a post apocalyptic world.

    Their method of gathering meat was exceptional too. Instead of hunting trips it seemed as if they waited for the pray to come to them. What if the Veterans group is just a well set prop to lure people? It did seem too good to be true but I still doubt that they’d went to such extreme to get food which they even weren’t in shortage of (or atleast that particular group, maybe the Vet’s could be differrent).

    What I think is the strongest case for that something is wrong with the Vet’s family and therefore undermining the kids future was the sheer fact of how good it all seemed. They were the true all american postapocalypic family. Man, wife, two kids and a dog. This ain’t a feel good movie folks. The way the woman touched the child and her whole mannerism was downright macabre in my opinion and that surely isn’t an oversight by the director.

    Somebody wrote earlier that ultimately the ending makes to sense. The fact that you’re looking into it and writing about this, in the end a very small part of the whole movie, does indeed make nothing but sense. All in all I’m pretty sure that the makers of the film don’t even themselves know what happened to the kid and from storytelling point of view knowing it would ruin a good bit. Maybe Cormac himself envisaged it but it doesn’t really matter for the perceptive viewer. That small segment added by the film makers still mystifies people and that’s really the best answer, atleast the most accurate anyone can give.

    Don’t know if my personal opinion really matters but if I’d had to bet I’d lean a bit more on the side that the Vet’s family weren’t cannibals or bad guys but rather survivalists. I certainly am not sure about it but I lean more on that side.

  28. R

    Obviously just watched the movie and ended up here into a google explanation on the missing thumbs.

    Quick point: some debate about how long the veteran had been following the man and boy. But remember about half way through the movie, the boy thought he saw some other people (including a boy) that ran around the corner. Plus, the dogs sniffing around the bunker. Both lead me to believe they had in fact been following the man and boy for some time. Most likely to observe whether they were “safe” or not.

    Also voting for the idea that the thumbs were cut as part of an exile from a commune. But, it is strange that the people would be allowed to leave the commune without becoming a food source for the commune unless you believe there would be non-cannibal communes.

    • Hi R,

      Completely agree with your thoughts, I think the man and boy were followed for some time to see if they were ‘safe’. I too think there were non-cannibal communes but can’t figure out why they would kick people out. If only Cormac McCarthy would write a sequel!

      • R

        Do you know what else is strange?

        Could be by pure omission, but you hardly see any women in these cannibal clans. Nothing specific, but I got the feeling the women being ran down in the field towards the end was going to be eaten instead of raped.

        Even in the most atrocious of genocides, men have valued women for sex if nothing else. It tends to be one or the other; women are either killed or raped rather than getting both (let’s just say 70% of the time). In this type of movie, it’s nearly certain that it would include one implied rape scene.

        Maybe that along with the lack of women are indicators that these cannibals will never live past the next generation.

        There that line in the beginning by the man’s wife about being raped, but I don’t think she really knows what would happen at that point. Could purely be an omission but seems strange that you don’t see more women (even as slaves) in these cannibal clans.

        Didn’t quite understand the necessity of the mother committing suicide was either (if she actually did).

  29. Knight 99

    I’m not a religious person, but I would have to say the entire story appeared to me to have religious connotations throughout. It read in many ways as a parable of sorts, travelling along “The Road” meeting three mysterious and vague strangers along the way.

    I do not have enough religious experience to know the meaning of the cryptic messages woven into the story, but I think allot of the authors secretive meanings lay in that vein. Not necessarily as a religious person himself, but certainly there is somewhat of a religious element intended that is obscure to me. There was more than one reference to god & angels along with long panning of the church fresco’s in the movie version. Although there is a philosophical debate of morality prominent in the story, there is also the spiritual one. Good versus evil, good guys and bad guys, is man born good and then learns to be evil etcetera.

    The thumb question from the movie brought me to this post. Obviously if the film adaptation changed the story then most of my questions about the film version are moot. I thought the thumbs were a punishment of sorts and still believe that to be the case, the interesting unknown is why and by whom?

    The family finding the boy does not appear to be a ruse to me. They could have killed the father at anytime they wished with the superior firepower and training the “veteran” had. He carried a shotgun and lots of ammo. It seems fairly unrealistic to me that a whole family of four would have followed the pair, but it is the authors story. I could follow the idea of the family building on a new future with the children, and I believe that is the message of hope at the end of the morality trial I believe the author was hoping to achieve.

    Anyway, the religious aspect adds another layer to the mysterious destruction on a prophetic scale and shapes the story in another dimension if you see it from another angle.

    Please comment about it, if you think there’s something to it. I’m not looking for a religious debate, just interested in the religious perspective with possibly biblical references that may be prudent to the storyline.

    • R

      There is some kind of religious aspect (to the movie at least) that I don’t quite understand either.

      It almost seems like a different take on judgement day. A conclusion one would draw is that the cannibals will eat each other and die off. Only the humans will survive. For all we know, the boy, the man/wife, and his 2 kids are the only really humans left. Not a perfect fit to judgement day, but the overall theme seems to fit. Main difference would be that even the good/saved people are subject to canibals.

      People automatically assume the disaster is either man made, climate, or asteroid related, but the fire at the begining could be something biblical.

      Old guy (Eli I think) said something about God turning his back on the world. Then, there’s the church scene, but it doesn’t seem like the church really has any relation to anything in the scene. Maybe, mankind has turned his back on God, which is why they don’t even mention the fact that they are in the church. It’s kind of an odd omission. The guy takes the effort to teach his son about coke, but makes no mention of the church and it’s probably the boy’s first time in one. You would expect a 2-5 minute discussion on religion in this scene, but you get nothing.

      Probably are more/better clues in the book if there is a religious connection, but I only watched the movie.

      • Knight 99

        We seem to be on the same page with this.

        If there is indeed a stronger religious connection to the story, then allot of supposition by some commenter’s about the story’s full intent are inaccurate.

        I believe the story’s intent was to bring a biblical style holocaust to fruition. Hence the gray “godless” aftermath, “the absence of god” and the journey through the waypoints back.

        As I stated earlier you can take the story any way your mind’s eye wishes to view it, making it brilliant in many ways. I believe there is a spiritual lesson meant to be understood, a shadowy dimension laying beneath a simple horror story.

      • Knight 99

        (Didn’t have a reply link to your comment above so will use this one)

        R >

        I agree that “the women being ran down……. was going to be eaten instead of raped”.

        Of course you are correct that women would be used as slaves during any complete catastrophe including a cannibalistic society until the last – I’m thinking of Russia ww2 as an example. The difference here I think is about proving the utter despair and utter hopelessness, a provable understanding of “the end” with no hope possible once you start eating the women.

        It reminds me of the caption on the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno – “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” .

        R – “Didn’t quite understand the necessity of the mother committing suicide was either”.

        Again defining hopelessness I would guess? Either or, some people just aren’t that strong in life unless everything’s running smoothly. I think the man & boys “fire inside” has several meanings, one with the mother in mind including an allegory for goodness, but also a survival instinct or will to live etcetera…….

      • Eleonora

        Eli was not totally right. When humankind turned its back on God, God could do very little. Imagine, all of those cannibals and very few ‘good guys’- what would the world come to? But God will always be there, true and righteous for those that have faith and that have not turned their back. Think of the man and his son, and the ‘Veteran’ and his family- they are still alive alive and have not lost their humanity and they have not lost hope. Surely this is enough evidence that God is still present, at least in their souls.

  30. klein

    I think its fairly simple to tell that the family at the end meant no harm to the boy…the children looked unhappy because obv they werent living in good circumstances and were born into it (they were younger than the boy). The man looked nervous and hadden sudden eye movements, yes. But that doesnt mean he was bad…if he wanted he could have killed the boy right there as soon as he dropped his gaurd. They also had a dog, which they could have killed a long time ago if they wanted. Last but not least he offered the boy a chance to go alone “just stay off the road”.

  31. Daniel

    I think they cut their own thumbs off to escape the cannibals. Cutting ones thumb off is the only way to get out of handcuffs or hands being tied.

  32. MovieMatt

    The movie definitely meant to leave hope of survival at the end. If you listen to the audio during the credits you can hear birds singing and children playing. There would be no point in adding that in if the boy was simply eaten by the family. However, I disagree that just because they have the dog they don’t eat people. I might eat a mean stranger before I ate my sweet dog.

    You would have to ask the director if he even had any point about the missing thumbs other than to link the thief and the veteran together. I’m not sure cutting off the part of the thumb they were missing would really help with handcuffs much. Cutting the whole side of a pinky and side of the hand would work just as well or better and save your valuable thumb.

  33. Eleonora

    ‘The Road’ was an absolutely incredible film, and I was also wondering about the missing thumbs. I would be most disapointed and heartbroken if the ‘Veteran’ at the end was a cannibal. Though that scenario is very unlikely, as the ‘theif’ from ealier had a knife and chose to take the food and not the boy. I like to think that the thumbs mean that the outcasts have been bannished from a group before they actually started cannibalism.
    This is a gruesomely beautiful story that I will never forget!

  34. mennogreg

    Interesting comments abound this thread. While the film ending itself was perhaps meant to be ambiguous, the novel provides enough hints to suggest a “happier” (albeit relatively) ending for the boy. Points mentioned already include letting the boy keep his weapon (twice; when the boy confronts him, the Veteran tells him he doesn’t want it and to just put it away, and later when the boy offers it to him freely).

    Also, the boy asks the Veteran to leave one blanket for his father; when he revisits his father’s corpse to say his final goodbye, the man is covered with a blanket, so the Veteran did keep his word. Already mentioned of course is when the Veteran tells the boy he can go off on his own, but just stay off the road.

    However I think there is an angle that is looked over, with perhaps a myopic focus on the Veteran being the catalyst in all this:

    “Look, he said. You got two choices here. There was some discussion about whether to even come after you at all.” This last sentence is the juiciest nugget.

    The information offered that there was a discussion about even going after HIM (singular) reveals that it was the Woman who wanted this, not the Veteran, who is clearly impatient with the boy (a “let’s get going; you coming or you ain’t” vibe throughout their conversation). When she meets the boy she puts her arms around him and holds him tight. She discusses God with him; in fact her seemingly devout religious belief is the only thing we know about her in the novel. In contrast, there is little warmth in the relationship between the boy and the Veteran. Re: this wasn’t his idea.

    Also, it is never implied they were following the man and boy, at least intentionally (though it is stated in the film); they could easily have been travelling in the same direction and noticed the deterioration of the Man. Speculation, but she knew the boy would die on his own (the Man was clearly sick around the middle of the novel, going off on his own on several occasions to cough his lungs out, blood, phlegm and all.). She has children of her own (whether biological or adopted, it is not mentioned) and coerced the Veteran enough (alas, some things don’t change) to bring the boy into their fold.

  35. Julia

    I think in regards to the ending the family that takes the boy in only appraoched him when the father was dead because they knew otherwise they wouldn’t have had a chance. They’d seen the father make very harsh choices to try and keep himself and his son alive, for example having a thief strip completely and be left with nothing (He could have left him without the knife but instead he took things further). For a family trying to keep a sense of humanity alive (i believe so by the fact that they kept a dog and didn’t eat it through starvation) they saw the father although with good intention, dangerous. Ultimatley a threat to the boy himself. Although i might just want to think this after a very bleak journey.

    As for the thumbs, i’m very torn to whether it means that people are cannibals or non-cannibals. It could show desperation of a person where they have had no food and no other option but to eat their thumbs? I think the man saw the not having thumbs as such a danger because it reperesented such desperation. But then again these desperate people that we have seen thumbless have also been alone and on the road. Perhaps their hands deteriorated due to harsh weather conditions so to cure (for example) frosbite they had the cut off their thumbs? Or it could be sign that they are not cannibals, and it’s a way of letting or survivors know it? As you can see i am also very confused and in need of answers!

  36. Julia

    Also to add quickly, the man when coming across a threat accused them of following him. As it turns out it is infact the family that admits to following the pair after his death. Odd don’t you think?

  37. Umberto

    I’ve been reading some of the more recent comments and I see that some posters have begun asking questions and offering insight into the many religious references in the novel. This thread began as a forum to trade theories as to why the thief and the veteran/his wife were missing thumbs. I understand that there are still quite a few people that feel that issue hasn’t been resolved to their satisfaction, but if you look at some of the posts going back quite a while, including some of my own, I think there are enough theories put forth to say that there isn’t and can’t be one definitive answer to the question of why they’re missing thumbs. Again, the novel mentions only that the thief was missing thumbs, I still firmly believe (and have read interviews with the director where actually mentions this) that it was purely the artistic whim of Hillcoat alone to add that tantalizing bit to the movie version. I understand how it can be tempting to analyze each and every crumb of evidence to make the attempt to narrow it down to the most likely scenario, but although I think some of the ideas put forth have been really intelligent, I don’t think that they hold water when put into the full context of the story. They more than likely didn’t lose their thumbs escaping shackles/fetters/chains/or any other type of confinement as it’s nearly impossible to manipulate any type of cutting tool with bound hands. They more than probably didn’t lose their thumbs to cold either if you consider the fact that they’re not missing any other digits (although feel free to speculate as to whether or not they possess all ten toes) It’s also quite a stretch to imagine that they succumbed to their starvation and were compelled to eat their own thumbs. It’s far more likely that they’d be missing an ear or two if they were actually that desperate. I’d be open to any new information but I’m pretty sure that we’ve covered all the bases so the most likely explanation is in the running to be the correct one and that is simply that there is no explanation and the liberties taken during the filming of the novel aren’t supposed to have mirrored references.

    As far as the religious overtones to the novel, they’re simply everywhere. The man asks “Are you there? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart?” (I’m paraphrasing from memory) but the man continuously remarks about how he feels God has forsaken humanity and is at a loss to answer why any valiant, caring, loving, noble God would do such a despicable thing to his children. This theme is inverted in other parts of the novel, namely whenever the man describes the meaning that the boy holds for him. The boy is really he only thing keeping the man alive and he alludes to this often throughout the novel, he calls him a God and says that if his words are the word of God and if not, God never spoke. he refers to his son as “a tabernacle in the waste” and upon his deathbed looking up at his son comments that “All the prophets are honored here today.” Even the one human being that the two encounter on their journey who there is any semblance of bonding with is named Eli, a Biblical name which means literally “My God.”

    There are literary scholars who pore over great novels for an entire lifetime and still bring forth new theories and make new observations even after countless reads. people can talk about the merits of Moby-Dick as a love story for fifty years and people will still be talking about how various scenes from the Bible are mirrored in McCarthy’s “The Road.” It’s all there. God putting his beloved children to the test. God’s wrath unleashed on mankind, wherein the innocent as well as the guilty are subjected to torment in that all-consuming holy fire. Also too, ever present signs of God’s mercy and Divine Providence. The discovery of the bunker. The passage over the mountains. The name of the ship they salvage supplies from, in English it means “Passage of Hope.”

    This remarkable work exists on so many levels and tells so many stories, teaches so many lessons at once that it’s just phenomenal the book isn’t two thousand pages instead of a few hundred. People will still be talking about it and discussing it and breaking it down into morsels that are more easily digested each in turn and that’s the mark of a truly genius novel.

    Thanks to every last one of you for sharing your thoughts and observations on this forum. I’ve learned so much and I look forward to what’s to come. Again, Cheers.

  38. Mary

    I read the book a while ago, but just finished the film. I’m really late to the party but this is too good to pass up.
    I wonder if the missing thumb thing has more to do with the repeated theme of good and evil, particularly the co-existence of good and evil in humans. Is the thumb a true representation of being human? Does being human mean you are good or bad? It has been discussed that the “bad” guys seem to have thumbs and the good do not. Are the good guys less human? The same sort of question is posed again with the communities encountered. It certainly is a human trait to be associated with community- but is this one of our good or bad traits? The cannibalistic communities are evil but the “family” at the end could be perceived as good. Even the naming of the Veteran- a word associated with a kind of hero but one who may have killed or wounded other people returns us to the conclusion that things are unclear, or maybe more simply humanity is both good and bad. Thanks for the fun!

  39. dallek

    if you want to hobble a person render them powerless you would remove the thumbs. our thumbs have allowed us to get to where we are, we could never have devastated the earth without our thumbs, try to go through your day without them, the opposable thumb

  40. Alfredo

    Hi, everyone, and congrats for the post.
    I only watched the movie, and I am too late. But, I hope too contribute a bit. Let’s analyze the objective facts that the movie gives to the viewers:
    1.The cataclysm occurred approximately 15 years ago. The boy was born already in the doom.
    2.In the first years of the destruction, the narrator tells us, there was still some sense of social structure, and religious groups,sheltered in the mountains. That gives us some notion, of the process of declination the human race has experimented and at what point we are.
    3. Survivors come generally from two groups:
    - generally high class people, or at least the ones with means to buy food supplies, medicine, better built houses.The man, was one of this group(he was a doctor)
    -the other group, (and this is something that can be discussed), is formed by those members of the society that they were already predisposed to violence. The cannibals gangs, highly suggest that they were mainly formed by criminals, or at least PEOPLE WITH ACCESS TO HEAVY LOADS OF ARTILLERY. Has anybody realized that some cannibals have a “red-neck accent”? When the Man’s first encounter with a cannibal, he interviewed him, that shows that cannibals respond to some specific profile.
    4.The cause of the cataclysm, although unspecified was some sort of Nature’s response to the human’s aggression to the environment. Remember conversation with the Old.
    5.The whole world is “fucked up”.
    When Father and Son are sitting in the beach facing the Atlantic, the Kid asks if there’s any difference in the other side,(Europe,Africa, and Asia) and the Man responds that is the same situation.
    6. The missing thumbs:
    Wether bad or good, provoked by punishment or by self-mutilation, we know for sure that it’s a symbol,a status in the apocalyptic world. The fact is “Cannibals in the movie have all their fingers,because they are predators” On the other hand, the one with missing thumbs could be part of other sub groups, even criminals at some point but not cannibals. Example: the black guy, who did not kill the kid.
    7.The dog:
    Although it’s kind of ambiguous because it’s not really explained which role dogs play in this “Futuristic World”. We inferred from the reaction of the Man and Kid, that dogs are not usual either running free, they go with humans. But, it’s inferred too,according to Man’s respond, that dogs are not only necessary used by human hunters,there is some chance that not. (The Man might have run into Good people who had dogs in past)

    Just more thing, “the social structure of the cannibals in the movie, it’s basic and primitive, they look unstable and any member can be a potential victim of any other. Keeping alive and fed a dog for years would be impossible.
    8 The most important point. The kid’s intuition:
    There’s evidence all the movie that the kid is smart enough to survive, although he looks weak and over protected by his father. The kid knows how to read the signs of this Apocalyptic world because he was born in it. a clear example, nobody mentions, when Father and Son got inside of the Grand house, the kid already had found out that they are in a tramp (the amount of shoes and clothes left in the living room from the victims).Actually the kid saved his dad from get eaten that day.
    9 The last point, the Vet:
    When the kid interviewed him, it’s because he has a template in his head to distinguish between “Good” and “Bad people” based on simple details through his years. He’s young but he’s met a lot of different people in the Road, he recognize some patterns. For example, he knows from all the years that a “cannibal” does not walk by his own with a beautiful woman and two kids. That’s incompatible.
    If the Vet and his family are still alive, and look better fed than usual, it’s because they represent a different type of survivors. The Vet is younger than the Man, and he seems to be a tough guy who has not hesitate to left some death fellows on the Road.
    10. The worried reaction of the kids is normal! they were born in a bad ass jungle, and they have the same reaction a group of animals would have to each other, between suspicious and curiosity.
    Great movie. Thanks

    • Andrew Brannigan

      I would have to debate a few of those points with you, Alfredo. I think you raise a lot of important arguments, but I think if we look a bit closer, we can get some answers that fit a little bit better.

      #1) I don’t think that fifteen years have elapsed since the cataclysm occurred. The boy was born very soon after it happened and I doubt he’s older than 10 or 12, so I would put the time that has passed since the cataclysm at roughly a decade.

      #2) I think that you’re 100% correct when you say that in the very beginning, immediately after the cataclysm occurred, there was definitely some sort of organized effort to bring relief to the survivors. Whether those efforts were organized and executed on a national, state-wide, or local level, we’ll never know, but, it’s made clear that initially, there had been some system in place to help people. I think that when everyone realized that things weren’t going to improve, that’s when the system fell apart. The initial shock was enough to keep people focused on getting aid to where it was needed, but once the realization set in that EVERYONE was in need and EVERYONE was in dire straits, whatever system had been furnishing the aid collapsed. You see it all the time in the aftermath of war. Once the defending army realizes that it’s been beaten by the aggressors, it collapses. Many of the soldiers are fearful that if they don’t desert and return to their homes, their wives and children will be subjected to the horrors of a pillaging force. The sense of duty that a soldier has to his service, to his country, even to the men who serve alongside him are secondary to his responsibility to his own loved ones. So, in my opinion, everyone deserted, initially in dribs and drabs and finally en masse, it was most likely bloody, as those deserting tried to procure as much food and equipment as they could for their own families. The people at the top of the pyramid who were left alive retreated to their bunkers and left their subordinates to fend for themselves. Normal people who had always looked to law and order to maintain the balance in society were ill-prepared for the animalistic displays that would follow the collapse and many weren’t able to adapt.

      #3) Which brings us to your argument about who was left. I would have to disagree with your black and white theory on this one. You claim that only former members of the upper-echelon of society as well as the most lowly and uncivilized were left to fight it out for whatever was left. I think that it was undoubtedly more complicated than that. If the cataclysm was caused by a meteor colliding with the Earth (which is my theory) then it’s safe to say that there would be much more disparity amongst the survivors. We don’t know for a fact that the man was indeed a doctor. Just because he threw a few words around that reference different parts of the brain, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was a neurologist before the cataclysm. He also displays knowledge on tons of other subjects. He knows about boats, he’s extremely knowledgeable about nautical terms and geography. He displays a great knowledge of tools and working with his hands. He fixes the cart, sharpens rusty saw blades, he knows how to dismantle and reassemble stoves. He has more than a passing familiarity with guns. He even knows a good amount of Spanish. It’s far more likely that those who survived the cataclysm were just the lucky ones (or rather the unlucky ones, depending on how you look at it) Once civilization collapses, you have just as much to fear from a doctor or a teacher who’s trying to stay alive and provide for and protect his family as you would from a truck driver or a garbage man. People will either acquire the new skills that they need to survive in a new environment or they’ll die, that’s it. Whoever’s left has been able to adapt as much as is required to stay alive. Guaranteed they all have a different story.

      #4) This is the big one, the $60,000 question. What caused the event? Taking only the clues from the novel and from the film, I would have to say that without a doubt, it was an object from space colliding with the Earth. Here’s why: An asteroid or meteor that entered the Earth’s atmosphere would slam into us and immediately begin to burn up as it moved through our air. It would compress and superheat the oxygen in its path to over 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything in its way would be incinerated like cellophane thrown into a fire. It would come in so hot that it would actually boil huge amounts of seawater as it passed over the ocean. The force of its impact would be stronger than the simultaneous detonation of every atomic bomb ever built. It would throw several square miles of dust, rock, and ash into the sky. Burning debris would rain down on places far from the actual blast site and start more fires. It’s a possibility that the force of the impact could even be enough to throw the Earth off its axis. In the aftermath of the collision, clouds of dust and ash, intermingled with the smoke from the fires would block out the sun for weeks, perhaps months. Vegetation would die. Animals would die. The algae and plankton so essential to the foundation of the food chain here on Earth would die, either because the delicate balance of salinity in the Earth’s oceans has been too drastically altered, or due to the lack of sunlight. With the oceans thrown into chaos, weather patterns would change worldwide. Storms would rage with fury, tsunamis would slam the coasts, possibly penetrating deep inland in some areas. It would grow unseasonably cold everywhere because the sun’s rays would be unable to break through the murk in the atmosphere. If the Earth was knocked off its axis, places that had before been very temperate could be turned to ice. The Earth being knocked off its axis would explain the frequency and the sporadic nature of the earthquakes that have become so common.

      #5) Initially, people might have believed that once the dust settled, there might be some return to normalcy for whoever was left. The government might have made some effort to contain fires, treat the injured, issue provisions to survivors. But once it became clear that things weren’t getting any better and it was every man for himself, that’s when everything went to pot.

      One can infer many things from what’s provided in the novel and in the film. Even more stirring are the questions that are never asked. is there anyone alive in some massive Federal bunker somewhere? if so, who? Even those at the top of the pyramid depend on people beneath them to do their duty. When there is no more USA, no more states, no more counties or townships, what then? Where is a soldier’s loyalty or a National Guardsman’s when there is no such thing as money anymore? When there is no law? When a piece of bread, a gun, a bottle of water, some medicine is worth more than all the gold and all the diamonds and all the priceless art that existed before the cataclysm, how can anyone buy the loyalty of anybody else? When people turn to animals, what sort of depths are they truly capable of reaching? Could a husband and a father kill his own family to stay alive? Where would a survivor draw the line on what is considered an acceptable act of survival? Are things equally bad all over the world? The man seems convinced that’s the case. The ship that runs aground off the East Coast of the US had drifted over from the Canary Islands. No one mentions having seen a plane in the sky in years. The man is shocked to see that a bunch of roadrats have managed to get a truck running. Survivors are on the move, migrating in every direction, rifling through everything to get every last crumb off the land as they go.

      An act of God? Maybe. The man seems to hold God responsible for the end of the Earth. The boy has no real constructed concept of God, yet he exemplifies what is most good and decent and holy in mankind.

      #6) Pure, total artistic license on the part of the director. Severing the thumbs was a punishment that was discussed in the novel, reserved for those members of a commune caught stealing.

      #7) The question about the dog is a good one, there are a few different ways of looking at it, but I would have to say that for the veteran to have kept the dog alive, he must have had his reasons. These are the ones I can guess at: Having a dog is like having the best alarm system possible in this new dangerous world. The dog would be alerted to danger much sooner than a human would. Although the dog would require food which takes away from the total amount of sustenance at hand, it might actually be a good investment to keep the dog around as its skills at tracking and foraging are superior. Plus, it’s a piece of the old world preserved, to show mercy and love to a lesser creature. That, in and of itself, is a beautiful and profound act that shows that although things are forever going to be different, a small shred of humanity endures in the cold gray darkness.

      • Hi Andrew,
        Totally agree with every chain of thought in point 5. I’ve mulled over all that too. Someone should write a book about that moment in time when civilisation actually goes to kaput and government abandons the state – I like the idea you suggest about the government giving up when they realise its pointless and every man is out for himself. The Road seems to look at things from the point of view further down the line from when this happened, it’s definitely post government! In crappy films like The Day After Tomorrow they show the catastrophe and how the authorities come to the rescue, but it’s not realistic – I think you’re right that the government would give up. I can’t imagine David Cameron going out of his way to save the nation if an asteroid struck us. He would be tucked up in a bunker somewhere, hoping that in a few years everyone will have eaten each other and the sun will have come out.

      • Andrew, also point No7 is Top notch and I completely agree

    • Hi Alfredo,
      I’m glad that you’ve also noticed that the Man could have been a Dr. It’s something I’ve thought and observed from the book. What made me think this was the scene when the boy is born because it’s described so graphically, but also so precisely. I think a layman with no medical expertise would dwell on the bloodiness of birth, but the Man describes things with precision like a Dr might do, for instance a lamp used during the birth to give light, is not any old lamp but a “drycell lamp.” The boy enters the world “Streaked with blood and lank black hair. The rank meconium.”
      What made me stop and think at this part of the book was the word ‘meconium’. I had to look it up in a dictionary because it’s not one I think most laymen would be familiar with unless they were in the medical profession.
      There’s also the scene when the Man gets shot in the leg with the arrow and he knows how to stitch the wound up and clean it so that he won’t get an infection. Andrew Brannigan also points out that the Man knew what parts of the brain were called – although he says this doesn’t prove he was a Dr, I think it does. Most people don’t know what parts of the brain are called unless they were in the medical profession.
      I believe that before ‘the apocalypse’ struck he had been a Dr.

  41. Pingback: Bondage thumbless | Molluscmania

  42. I had my left thumb amputated due to gangrene.there is a lot I can’t do anymore for example hook my bra strap put my earrings on braid my hair so much more I sure do miss it.

  43. People have wrote that the only communes would be groups of cannabilistic pepole. I however disagree. There is a scene in the book where mushrooms were growing by a waterfall. Mushrooms are the one crop that could thrive in the post apocalyptic world described in the book. so it could be possible that communes grew mushrooms and not ate people.

  44. Andrew Brannigan

    I think that the question of just what exactly the man did with himself before the cataclysm is one of the most tantalizing mysteries in the novel – what did he do for a living and what did he do in terms of a hobby?

    There are a lot of clues in the novel as to the various types of knowledge that he displays about an array of different subjects. He’s asked if he’s a doctor by the roadrat after dropping some medical jargon. He displays more than a passing understanding of medicine when he cares for the boy during his illness and he manages to stitch his wound when he’s shot with the homemade arrow. he also displays a good amount of understanding about ships and the sea. he can recognize nautical objects, knows what they’re used for, he knows the correct nautical terms for the parts of a ship. He knows a ton about the outdoors in general. He knows how to track and hide his tracks, he knows which type of mushroom is safe to eat and which wouldn’t be. He has a very good understanding of tools and he’s very adept at taking things apart and putting them back together again, he can sharpen saw blades, fix a wonky wheel on a shopping cart. He mentions that he can shave a bullet down to size to fit a different caliber casing. He also seems to have a very good understanding of The Bible and western history in general. He recounts a few childhood memories of a boyhood spent out of doors and he recounts a fair amount of adult memories that conjure up images of a well-traveled man. Some of the beach scenes and the cafe scene strike me as being without a doubt wholly foreign, All of these things mesh and come together to form a very intriguing and amorphous depiction of what he might have been like before the cataclysm occurred. I’m curious to hear what some other “Road Scholars” might think about his background.

  45. PM

    I just finished watching the movie and loved it. I haven’t read the book. I was very intrigued by the missing thumbs and the fate of the boy with the ‘family’…so intrigued that I went to google to search for answers, which led me to this blog. I’ve read at least 10 comments and its after midnight where I am so I just decided to comment real quick on my perspective on the thumbs and fate of the boy. Judging from the movie alone, I believe the boy ended up being eaten by the family. I hate that I came to this conclusion but here me out as to why for in the 10 or so comments I read, this thing I’m about to share wasn’t mentioned (maybe it was in some of the others comments so forgive me for repeating what has already been mentioned if this is indeed the case).

    First I agree that the cut off thumbs are an indication of excommunication from a commune. I get the sense that it was a cannibal commune that the black guy and veteran were kicked out off. This could have been for a number of reasons…maybe the black guy didn’t have the stomach to kill people in cold blood (but just eat them after the dirty work was done). Remember the cannibal the Man shot in the head? Remember how hardened and arrogant he was. He wasn’t afraid to die. The black guy was so afraid to die though. He was a softy. Probably why he didn’t kill the boy. He definitely timed his theft to when the Man went after the ship because he didn’t want a confrontation. He also probably knew he would get that if he harmed the boy because his father would have hunted him down. So my best guess why the black guy got excommunicated was because he was a softly and a thief. as for the Veteran maybe he excommunicated himself to protect his children and wife from being eaten. Maybe someone from his family stole or broke some rule. In playing devil’s advocate here with the notion that it was a cannibal commune that these 2 thumbless guys were excommunicated from…why didn’t the remaining members of the commune just eat these people? Why show them mercy and respect? The are freaking godless, moral-less cannibals. A cardinal rule in such a commune I believe would be that there is no getting out. Once you are part of the packed its til you death, either from starvation of becoming the next meal. Evil maintains control by fear, not respect. The leaders of the cannibal commune would not give weaklings or thieves or law-breakers the luxury of leaving and going it on their own I don’t think. They wouldn’t want to set that tone that one could get away from breaking a rule or just wanting to leave by ONLY sacrificing their thumbs. No. The cannibals would have such of their own people for breakfast. Now with this being said, I still hold to view that it was a cannibal commune that the 2 thumbless guys got excommunicated from for whatever reason, but I think it wasn’t a thoroughly thought-out idea in the movie considering the nature of an evil, godless, heartless and moral-less cannibal commune.

    Next is the dog. Comments I’ve read speak of the dog as a sign of hope and humanity of the family. I did at first until it struck me. First of all, putting myself in the veterans shoes, in a post apocalyptic world, with a wife and 2 kids, and with nothing to eat and death whispering in my ears every second and seeing it draw closer and closer to me and my family…it seems to me that it would be immoral to not eat the dog at the expense of the lives of my wife and kids. I don’t think many know what it is like to starve or to watch your loved ones starving to death. Trust me, you would eat the dog…UNLESS…unless the dog had a greater purpose other than food…unless the dog was an assets to your survival. And this is why they didn’t eat the dog. The Veteran was poaching human beings with the dog as his tracker. It was his dog that found the Man and boy in the bunker or led him to them but since they were hidden underground he could find their exact location. When they got out of the bunker however the dog had their scent and allowed the Veteran to follow them. Probably after seeing that the Man was hurt by the arrow the Veteran knew it was a matter of time before he would die and the boy would be in his most vulnerable state.

    Finally the Veteran’s kids. Yes they had been traumatized by the apocalypse and by having to survive the way they had been so it can be understandable why they appeared so hopeless in the scene where they and their parents were with boy. However something still felt wrong about their expression. It hit me. Remember how throughout the movie, though they boy had many moments of despair, fear and trauma, there were also a lot of times that he displayed love, joy and hope because of the strong relationship he shared with his father through his love and the ‘good guys’ hope he instilled in him. Also remember when the boy thought he say another boy? Remember his response? He was overjoyed. He was determined to see the boy and be with him. It was a sense of hope to him to see/be with someone his age. We didn’t get none of this from the other 2 children when they saw boy. We didn’t get the sense that their dad AND mom were giving them the ‘good guys’ hope. No. We got a reflection through the kids of the nature of their parents…evil godless moral less cannibals. =(

    • Andrew Brannigan

      For anybody that has seen the film but hasn’t read the book: There are many differences between the two. In the novel, the thief is the only character described as missing a thumb (and even then, he is described as missing all the fingers on one hand, not just the thumb)

      The man and the boy don’t encounter all that many people on their journey toward the coast. They pass a man who was struck by lightning, they encounter the pack of roadagents with the truck, they witness an army on the march complete with women, slaves and concubines, they escape from the cannibal gang in the house after discovering the prisoners in the dungeon, they encounter the two men and the woman in the woods. They also hide and watch as two men come down the road toward their camp. They meet the thief. They meet “Ely”, they encounter the man with the bow and the woman with him. The boy claims to have seen another little boy. And finally, the boy meets the veteran who then takes him back to the rest of the family. It’s never fully explained whether the two men they hide from are members of that cannibal gang at the house. And it’s never explained whether or not the little boy that the son saw is indeed the veteran’s son.

      There is no mention of any other character missing thumbs anywhere in the novel. In fact, it’s made clear that the man knows for a fact that the thief is indeed an outcast from a commune. It’s implied that having the fingers of one hand cut away is the punishment one receives before being exiled from a commune.

      Many things from the novel didn’t find their way into the film. Some parts of the story are just too disturbing to watch so they were left out. Other things were added for effect that weren’t in the novel. When searching for the meaning behind certain things, it’s important to keep in mind that the novel and the film exist as two distinct pieces of work, and although they in essence, tell the same story, they’re actually very different.

      One striking difference between the novel and the film is the idea that the man and the boy are being followed. In the novel, the bunker is completely buried. The man finds it simply by chance and finds it at the eleventh hour. He is about ready to give up and suddenly, things completely turn around. He talks about how there is danger in remaining there for too long. But they leave of their own accord in their own time. Not because they were afraid or because they were discovered. In both the novel and the film, it’s never revealed how long the veteran had been following the man and his son. After the man dies and the veteran approaches the boy, he asks him where the man is. That tells us that he knew that three days before the man and his son were together. But that is the only concrete evidence in the book that the veteran had been watching them.

      Another difference is the way the boy meets the veteran’s family. In the novel, the boy is taken back to the family by the veteran. They don’t meet out in the open. The veteran’s wife is described as religious and McCarthy tells the reader that she talks to the boy about God.

      So many things differ from the novel to the film that it could be argued that Hillcoat’s version is simply a loosely based adaptation on McCarthy’s novel. To argue that the veteran and his family must have evil intentions solely because they are missing thumbs like the thief makes no sense. Although the encounter with the thief is similarly portayed in both the book and the movie, the circumstances of the theft and the particulars are wholly different. In McCarthy’s telling of that part of the story, the thief comes when the man and the boy are away from their campsite while in the novel, the thief strikes as the boy is asleep. But in both versions, the thief doesn’t have any intention of harming them, he only wants to steal and slink away with their provisions. he pulls a knife only when they give chase and confront him, and even then, he doesn’t attack. So that leads me to believe that there really isn’t any connection at all between missing thumbs and cannibalism or odiousness.

      Lastly, there is no mention in the novel of any life anywhere save for a few mushrooms whereas in the film, the man sees a beetle and it’s taken as a sign that all hope isn’t lost after all.

  46. MichaelLou

    Heres my take on the whole thing. First of all, taking in to account both the book and the movie, I would have to agree that its more than probable that the vetaran and his family are in fact cannibals. Mainly because the dog IS alive, and healthy, and the mother is far too welcoming and reassuring. And his father’s body would have been no good to eat anyway.

    But someones comment above about the Army in the book got me thinking, if the army could possibly be a “mirage” or something seen in a dream state, what else could be too? Thinking in this state of mind opens brand new doors to what the true ending could be…and in my eyes, the true ending of it is simple: The boy is hallucinating the veteran and his family, and he hallucinated the boy earlier in the movie as well.

    Why? There is a constant theme present that surrounds the boy: Idealism. When he finally gets to the coast and gets to see what it really is, a wasteland, you can see him drowning in disappointment. He would have liked to see a blue ocean, a golden beach, and “good guys” but the reality (the fathers constant theme) is that its just the same as everywhere else.
    Also, although he has justifiable reasons to help the people his father doesnt trust (The Theif, Ely) its pure idealism to trust them in the slightest in that scenario.

    Now the most important scene in the entire movie is when they are at the mans childhood home. The boy sits outside, takes out his toys, and the next time we see him he is drawing. The important things to note here are A) He is alone, and B) in the boys ideal at the moment would be to have a friend to play with. The father seems bewildered that the boy thought someone was there, as if he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt there was nobody, and the boy said he “had to” follow the boy (he wanted to socialize?). Also the symbolisim of a childhood home is the polar opposite of what they live in, but also ties in to the symbolism of a full, complete family (Father/Mother/Son/Daughter/Dog).

    So again, where do we run in to this same scenario? The end. They only show up until after the boy is alone, and they are clearly the most idealist thing he could have asked for at the moment. He loses his father and an entire family shows up?! And I believe the boy he saw is clearly the veterans son.

    Take in to account the lack of food (intensifies dreams, could cause hallucinations without dreams anyway),the obviously erratic sleep schedule, trauma, and emotional distress, and you have the perfect storm for hallucinations, or even lucid dreaming.

  47. Andrew Brannigan

    I proposed the idea that the army on the march might have been a figment of the man’s imagination solely based on the way that part of the novel was written. There is nary a mention of color anywhere in the novel save for the grim descriptions of the dead landscape the man and his son pass through, and the fact that McCarthy described the horde as wearing “red or orange – as close to red as they could find” made me think that there might have been some deeper meaning behind it.

    It’s true that there are a few things that very well could have been in the man or the boy’s mind rather than real, but to suggest that the boy completely hallucinated the veteran and his family is a stretch in my opinion.

    If you say that the boy imagines the entire episode of meeting the veteran’s wife and children on the beach, basically because a family of four with a dog adheres to the image of a nuclear family, then we have to wonder just how he might have gotten that idea in his head in the first place.

    The boy has known nothing except hunger, fear and difficulty his entire life. His mother abandoned him and his father’s love and devotion is what sustains him – that’s true. It’s also true that in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death, he is cold, hungry, scared and alone for the first time in his life. In the novel, he meets the veteran first and is given the choice of either staying on his own or going along with the veteran. Again, the veteran is described as wearing a yellow parka but for some reason, this scene doesn’t carry the same dream-like quality that the army on the march does, at least not to me.

    Added to that is the fact that in the film, there are multiple references to someone following the man and his son. And as you say, the boy that the son sees at the house looks a lot like the veteran’s son later. That would mean that over all the the miles the two cover in the film and throughout all the difficulties, they were being followed by the family – not just the veteran. In the novel, it’s made clear that the veteran had seen the man with his son but it’s not made clear when that first happened or where.

    One good excuse for the veteran discussing bringing the man and the boy into the fold is simply that the man is protecting his son. The veteran, as a father, would naturally be empathetic to a fellow survivor who’s caring for a child. It’s obvious that the man isn’t going to eat the boy so the veteran might just be inclined to approach someone in that position. It’s a dangerous world they’re living in and maybe the veteran thought that they might have a better shot if they increased their numbers. Only to find out later that the man had died. maybe he purposely waited for the man to die because he figured that nobody would be crazy enough to let his guard down no matter what. But the man and his son showed compassion to Ely and his cryptic words “people give you things… you’re not the only ones…” supports the theory that maybe there are still a few “good guys” left after all.

  48. Jeff

    The book stayed with me like few books have, but I didn’t get around to seeing the film until now. Of course my search for insight into the missing thumbs led me here, and it’s been good reading some of the comments. A few points- and I realize I’m a day late and a dollar short here, but hey, hope endures…

    First, there’s no way the Veteran is malevolent. None. Theories about keeping a dog and children around to give other children a false sense of ease are absurd. Children in this world are so preciously rare that such a tactic would be akin to using whatever food you had left as bait in the hopes of catching a delicious unicorn. The veteran would have to be an epically stupid cannibal. And yes, he could’ve easily overpowered the boy when he put the weapon away, which, of course, he would have done if he meant him harm. And most blatantly, there’s feel-good music playing at the end! It’s a complete and unassailable tell as to the director’s intent. Incidentally, I hated it. Totally unnecessary. But it sure as shit screams “Happy ending!”

    Juxtapose the Man’s paranoia about malevolent forces following him with the Veteran’s wife (?) saying, “we’ve been following you.” The Boy represents hope. Hope has been following him. The Man gave everything to protect it in the grimmest of worlds, and it cost him his life and some of his humanity, but he kept the fire alive.

  49. Angilius

    A lot of what I’ve read here may be plausible, but isn’t supported by the facts we’re given. Didn’t read the book, but someone else wrote the veteran wasn’t missing any digits in the novel. The director removed the veteran’s thumbs to create conversation. Same with the shifty eyes. My first thoughts were that the thief lost his fingers to exposure, but after reading here I believe they were cut off for stealing. Probably in a somewhat lawless world where there still existed a measure of decency, but before the widespread cannabalism. In the right hands the dog is more of an asset alive than as a meal. The dog is the reason we can be sure that the veteran is not a cannibal. Much like dogs assisted ancient man in hunting and scavenging this dog would be an invaluable asset in finding food (like that in the underground bunker), rounding up any dead or dying game after whatever event destroyed this world, and warning of or fending off danger. The woman and boy the son sees in the father’s childhood neigborhood are the two struck down by the maurauding army. Lastly, don’t forget that the veteran and his family are part of the story and must contend with the same needs and dangers as the man and boy. They’re not free to simply sit back and observe the father and son’s every move. They themselves are in an extreme survival situation. Thanks to everyone else though for claring up the questions I had.

  50. Francisco

    First of all, great discussion forum, really nice. Now, my entry on the subject does come very late, but after reading every comment here I felt like it could be valuable.
    This film came out in late 2009, and at the time I felt very curious about seeing it, as I had heard of the novel but not read it. However, I didn’t rush to see it. All of 2010 went by and it wasn’t until early 2011 that I picked up the film. But again, I didn’t rush to see it. 2011 was done with and most of 2012 too, when I finally saw it, a couple days ago. It’s curious that things happened that way, because back in 2009 when the film came out I was in the first months of a happy relationship, then in 2010 we had a breakup and got back together, in early 2011 she got pregnant and late in the year my son was born, and only now, in 2012, when my son is 1 year old and his mother has left us, leaving me alone with my son, to care for and protect, did I see the film. Curious, of course, in a very unpleasant way. However, sadly, I feel like I am in a privileged position when approaching this film and it’s thematics.
    What this film is about is quite plain and straightforward: it’s about a man’s love for his child, and the lengths he’s willing to cover in order to protect him. Yes, it has a few other background issues that you may discuss, but the main thematic is very simple.
    Shortly before he dies, there is a flashback, showing the Man and the Woman (whose character, as you might understand, I found all too familiar and just has heinous as my son’s mother) in a car, by the coast, in a sunny day. And we hear the Man’s words: “If I were God, I would have made the world just so. And no different. And so I have you. I have you.” And he wakes up and sees his son. This is by far one of the most powerful fatherly love statements in the History of Art, given the circumstances in which they are proffered. It’s not that the Man would not trade the lives of billions and the wellbeing of an entire planet for his son that makes it poweful. It’s the fact that he wouldn’t even trade his own, and his son’s by extension, wellbeing and sacrifices and sufferings for a different world, in which his son would obviously be a very different person, if existing at all. Then he dies, not before pledging his undying love for his son, the Boy talks to the Veteran, and he comes back to say goodbye to his papa, telling him he’ll never forget him. So you’d have to be a really sick twisted bastard to even entertain the idea that after that, and after what we’ve seen throughout the film, the Boy just gets eaten by a family of cannibals. I did not read the book, and don’t know what exactly were the author’s intentions, but the director’s are very clear: this is a story of love. Of sacrifice and suffering too, but mostly of love. And it makes this one of the most heartwarming films I have ever seen. So it would certainly not end with the boy being eaten, that’s preposterous. Much because, the Boy is the “fire” that the Man is carrying. That’s very obvious. The Boy is the Hope, is the Future.
    So, knowing exactly what happened, what kind of cataclysmic event took place, is completely irrelevant. Also, the thumb/no thumb discussion is irrelevant too. These issues may assume some importance in the book (which I admit I haven’t read), but to the film it is not important, at least not to the main story and it’s unfolding.
    I understand how people always feel like they need to scrutinize every little detail of a film they love, but in this case I think we all should just let the message sink in and feel touched by it, instead of worrying about thumbs and communes, which are quite obviously of no importance to what the director wished to convey.

  51. mullite

    I think the most significant event is the finding of the beetle. And I had to laugh at Andrew Brannigan’s description of the apocalypse- he’s clearly loving it- but all that death and destruction and then he describes the weather as ‘unseasonable’! I’m still laughing!!

    • Andrew Brannigan

      I have to laugh at Mullite’s asinine critique of my vocabulary. Unseasonable is a perfectly apt word to describe weather conditions that are abnormal for a certain time of the year. In fact, that word is ideal when describing the drastic changes in weather described in “The Road”.

      If a man as meticulous and intelligent as the boy’s father is unable to guess the month because the weather is so dissimilar from that which he has always known, it’s fair to say it’s unseasonable.

      I’ve read the novel many, many times and I’ve traveled a fair portion of what I deduce is the route the man and boy walked from the foothills of Kentucky to the Carolina coast so chances are I have a greater understanding of the events and locales than one Mullite’s could ever hope to achieve.

      A good reason for that may be that I possess two Masters degrees which enable me to work only seven months of the year, leaving me free to read and travel for five months. I certainly wouldn’t waste any of my own time leaving bitter comments on the Internet about total strangers that accomplish nothing save for making my own self-loathing completely apparent.

      You keep laughing Mullite’s while I enjoy this beautiful Big Bend sunset. I could paint a picture of the staggeringly beautiful scene before me that would put my description of McCarthy’s devastation to shame but you’re not even close to worthy of that.

      So you run along to your pathetic bitter existence Mullite’s and don’t let my choice of words disrupt your misplaced antagonism.

    • Funny

      You nailed it, there are too many pseudo intellectuals with no other outlet than spouting their absolute nonsense on the internet, then bragging about “credentials” that let them work a few months out of the year (pretty sad and pathetic people do this constantly on the net, yet he says he’s not one, yeah right).

  52. bobfrog

    no thumbs:
    1) life is a lot harder without thumbs. It may not kill you but makes you less of a threat. Could be a punishment or way to make you much less of a threat to the commune.

    2) common myth is that thumbs are the key thing that helped make us human it separates us from the other primates. It is also a common myth that primates are not vicious against other primates.

    • Sean

      Heh, even the myth of lower primates displaying no hostility towards other primates is a myth; used by persons with vain personalities to say humans aren’t at the top of the evolutionary ladder.

  53. i think the missing thumbs are a way the cannibals marked their food, like branding, maybe the cannibals had enough food saved up and the best way to keep it fresh without electricity is by keeping it alive. then their released “free range” the brand (no thumbs) warning other cannibals “hands off” i’m somebodys livestock!

  54. I am left with nothing but more questions, all in all i am very frustrated with how my 5 am search has ended.I want to know the significance behind these damn missing thumbs.

  55. Vasili Arkhipov

    Makes sense to me that the most debilitating, and thus punishing, thing you could do to a man in that scenario is to remove his prehensile ability. That way they could not hunt, forage, climb, wield a weapon… you name it.

    It’s a ‘simple’ but very cogent way to exact punishment for whatever discretion the “Thief” may have been deemed guilty of (probably stealing).

  56. Cubbldy

    Im happy with the movies ending.

    The survival chances of the kid arent too good so i consider him saved or dead, or we’d have to think of a sequal how miraculously he would have survived on his own until he had established a safety zone or settlement with a stable food source, and even after it, if he hadn’t killed himself yet anyway. Dead in the case he hallucinated the family that supposedly saved him. Or he is indeed a hero with a positive outcome to the world in our sequal of the movie. (And i don’t hope for an actual sequal)
    The discussion simply can’t cover each inspiring aspect of the film. Might as well try that.
    I wonder about the thumbs too and it also reminded me of the book of eli after seing it. And what does it have to do with cannibalism, i wonder? Is it some connection to ancient times, or to any distressed civilization? For conspiracists , there are many ways and clues for how to interpret this movie. Looking for a meaning behind it, other then letting our own imagination run free, is perhaps the least fun thing to do. Dont call me a conspiracist, i will respect the things i want to leave untouched for myself. I can however, discriminate what this movie is not about; power. The movie did not make me feel powerless but indeed i recognized the many signs of hope. And that was also not the intention, there was something about the thumbs. As i type this with my thumbs, the lack of thumbs takes away ones relative power to control and operate many things. The lack of thumbs makes one more dependant, in the short term, of those with thumbs. In distress one is likely to make more impulsive decisions, but come to think of it, there is no collective advantage to have somebody dependent around you. The purpose of cut off thumbs, if any, were to achieve or maintain a position of authority, or to prove inferiority to anyone. The ones with cut off thumbs who remain loyal must be very serious about kissing ass.
    Then there are accidents, wich are prone to happen in times when things change and people think less. When one cannot think due to famine…. who knows when they start chewing? Or do only neglected animals do that? Well that wasn’t what the movie was about either, nor bout leadership.

    For me, there is no discussion after this movie. It is not a perfect movie. But it did something for me and i think it wont lose its magic the second time watching it.

    Also, in the sequal there will be zombies. Just kidding.

  57. My theory is that the thumbless men are exiled or outcast thieves from some tribe. The thumblessness is perhaps a symbol to differentiate this kind of survivor from the cannibalistic kind. Someone cunning and intelligent rather than violent and ruthless.

    In the novel, The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, there is a character who is a master thief, played by Willem Dafoe in the film. This thief is captured by the Nazis and forced to be a spy or thief on their behalf. When they are done with him they surgically remove his thumbs to remove his ability to any further thieving on anyone’s behalf.

    The thief who robs Papa and the boy is masterful, taking everything including the tent the boy is in, without waking the boy. It makes me wonder if the thumbless people in The Road are thieves and in a world without prisons perhaps the removal of the thumbs and banishment would be a convenient punishment in a tribal situation. A skilled thief would be a crafty survivor, yet not a violent one like the cannibals, and thus might be a common sort of person to find alone on the road.

  58. you can get out of handcuff faster with out any thumbs…

    • Only if you take the thumb off at the base, right next to the wrist. You have to take out the metacarpal, which creates the boney width of the hand at the base. You couldn’t just just lop of the last joint like it was done in the movie and slip out of the cuffs.

  59. Cat

    I had a thought once I saw Mary’s post that perhaps “the good guys were less human”. Maybe it is that those that are less like animals, not willing to survive at any cost, and maintain a sense of human integrity that keep their thumbs. It could be literary irony that it is the humanness of the thumb, a main physical characteristic that separates man from beast, that is now an indicator of bestial depravity.

    • Cat

      Also, maybe it isn’t irony. Maybe it is a metaphor for the fact that only humans are capable of wickedness, and animals are symbolic of innocence. Hence, the feel-good appearance of the Veteran’s and his family’s dog, and perhaps those that aren’t completely intact are only less human because they are not “tainted” with “wickedness”. Long winded way of saying maybe the thumb signifies humankind’s capacity for evil.

  60. yome

    This thread is old, but I still feel compelled to comment. Just finished the book moments ago. It’s clear to me that the mystery man at the end is indeed good. I think the whole book is an attempt to paint humans as selfish and completely immoral and ruthless when faced with deep desperation and the instinctual need to survive. Yet even in such dire circumstances, the humanity of people will ultimately prevail. It’s not as though it’s a Pollyanna ending, it’s that it symbolizes hope in the face of human’s worst fears and that some humans will still hold onto their values.

    The boy and his father weren’t the only good people in the entire world to hold onto some principles and values. Throughout history, it has always been this way.

    It’s clear that the mystery man didn’t want to have the boy for supper or use him as a sex slave for several reasons. First of all, the man kept his promise to cover his father with a blanket — he certainly didn’t have to. He could have just as easily lied and kept all the blankets. Secondly, he allowed the boy to keep the pistol he was carrying, even when the boy wanted to relinquish it to the mystery man. The man told the boy to hold onto it, which was completely unnecessary as the boy was more than willing to hand it over. Thirdly, the mystery man told the boy he had a choice to go it alone and told him to stay off the road, in order to survive. Fourthly, the man’s wife hugged the boy when she saw him and the second to the last paragraph talks about how she spoke to the boy about God frequently, but that the boy preferred to speak to his father and the woman said that was all right. Unless that paragraph took place within 10 minutes, the suggestion is that these are conversations that took place over time. Finally, the last paragraph, which has sparked the most discussion, about the trout that used to flourish and how they had been around longer than man but were now gone, but once were a map of how life all began, IMO, is a metaphor for how life goes on.

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