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.