The Passenger and Stella Maris
By Cormac McCarthy. 
Knopf, 2022.
Hardcover, 608 pages, $56.

Reviewed by Michael P. Federici.

This essay is part of a symposium on the work of Cormac McCarthy.

Few fiction writers achieve the critical and commercial success that marks the six-decade career of Cormac McCarthy. His 2006 novel The Road won the Pulitzer Prize and, like his preceding novels No Country for Old Men and Child of God, was made into a film. He won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses, another novel adapted to film. He has written plays, screenplays, and short stories. In 2012, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

McCarthy appeared to be finished with novel writing after publishing The Road in 2006, but in late 2022 he published two companion novels—in development for decades—The Passenger and Stella Maris. Making sense of these recent novels, and McCarthy’s work generally, is challenging because he rarely comments on the meaning or purpose of his fiction. He is not like Albert Camus, a philosopher who uses fiction writing as the instrument to develop a theory. McCarthy is a fiction writer whose work is its own end. His intent in any one of his novels is unclear as is the relationship between them. The exceptions to the interconnectedness of his novels are his border trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) and the recent companion novels. A few things, however, are clear. McCarthy’s fiction pushes the boundaries of taboos, depicts evil, violence, and civilizational as well as existential disorder in often vulgar ways, and it refuses to conform to punctuation standards. He was, and seems to have enjoyed being, an enigma.

Given the ambiguity of McCarthy’s work, critics speculate about its purpose and meaning. Rather than add to the speculation, it may be more fruitful to explore one implication of McCarthy’s recent works than to attempt a comprehensive assessment of his literary corpus. While his two recent novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, are not McCarthy’s best works, what The Passenger and Stella Maris provide is an interesting contrast to The Road regarding familial love and the ethical life. The Road is a story of storge, the love between a parent and child. The Passenger and Stella Maris are stories of perverted familial love or eros in its deformed state. The love between the father and son in The Road illustrates storge at its zenith. The relationship between Bobby and Alicia Western, brother and sister, in The Passenger and Stella Maris demonstrates the consequences of conflating eros and storge. Their perverted desire takes hold of their lives—especially their imaginations—and shapes them like a Sophoclean tragedy. In some way, they seem to be suffering the consequences of their father’s Promethean sins.

McCarthy’s portrayal of moral responsibility is better understood from the perspective of the early-twentieth-century literary critic Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). Two of Babbitt’s analytical concepts can be employed to compare McCarthy’s last three novels. Babbitt invoked a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing” to draw a distinction between types of standards.

There are two laws discrete

Not reconciled,

Law for man, and law for thing;

The last builds town and fleet,

But it runs wild,

And doth the man unking.

Babbitt uses Emerson’s distinction between the law for man and the law for thing to suggest that there are different standards, each appropriate in its proper place, for human character and conduct and for understanding naturalistic phenomena. While the medieval tendency was to give hegemony to divine or human law at the expense of natural law (understood in this context as the law for thing), the opposite has been the tendency since the Enlightenment. The laws that govern nature, Babbitt argues, are not an appropriate foundation for political, social, and moral life. A second useful analytical tool from Babbitt’s work is his concept of “one-sidedness,” the tendency of a thinker to represent one part of the human condition as its whole, and to the exclusion of other parts. The result is truncated and distorted conceptions of human nature that pull in opposite directions. Babbitt criticizes naturalists for suggesting that humans are good by nature (e.g., Rousseau) or victims of nature’s darkness and incapable of rising above self-indulgence (e.g., Hobbes). What gets excluded from such one-sided conceptions of human beings is what Babbitt considers the central component of human nature: moral choice and the centrality of ethical character in the quest for civilization’s highest aspirations. 

Thus, one can ask two analytical questions regarding McCarthy’s recent work. Is it the product of a one-sided naturalistic pessimism or does he provide a more complete range of the human condition? Do his characters move in the orbit of the law for thing or are they grounded in the law for man as well as the Confucian and Aristotelian law of measure (the law of moderation)? If considered from the perspective of The Passenger and Stella Maris in isolation of The Road, a case can be made that McCarthy is a one-sided pessimistic naturalist. From a wider perspective that incorporates The Road into the analysis, McCarthy’s work provides a broader range of human experiences and, thus, avoids the classification of one-sided or what Babbitt calls “unselective naturalism.” 

Emerson’s distinction between the law for man and the law for thing is lost on the two main characters in The Passenger and Stella Maris, Bobby and Alicia Western. Bobby has a mechanical mind that understands how machines function. He studies physics until he decides that he is not capable of reaching the top of the field. He then becomes a race car driver and a salvage diver. Like many of McCarthy’s characters, he is a drifter and lost in the cosmos (see Walker Percy). Alicia is a mathematical prodigy and a schizophrenic whose hallucinations account for a significant part of the story. Bobby’s and Alicia’s parents worked on the Manhattan Project. The siblings are also engaged in an unconsummated incestuous relationship that drives them to existential disarray and different degrees of madness. The Passenger begins with Alicia’s suicide and both novels are portrayals of a brother and sister who are morally disoriented. Beyond the spiritual and psychological maladies of Bobby and Alicia, there are indications that something is not right with the larger society. For example, the hunter who finds Alicia’s dead body knows that he should pray, “but he’d no prayer for such a thing.”

Bobby and Alicia are highly intelligent in regard to the law for thing, but immature and deficient regarding the law for man. Alicia seems to think that the moral or inner life can be understood from the perspective of physics and math. She is one-sided. She sees an order to the physical universe and is intellectually curious about it, but can find no order or meaning in human existence. Alicia seems to deny the existence of an inner self that is capable of rising about the flux of mere passion and appetite. When the Kid, her hallucinogenic companion (perhaps the child of a selkie), suggests that she make an effort to be normal and go out on a regular date, she diverts the conversation/introspection. Neither Bobby nor Alicia can move beyond their incestuous desire, a clear lack of moral perspective and virtue. They obsess about each other and are unable to live in accordance with the law for man. They lack comportment to the law of measure, a standard of moderation. When Bobby recounts how he became romantically interested in his sister, the reader learns that he was in his second year of graduate school, and she was thirteen. McCarthy’s description of the experience is telling.

He crossed along a low wall of sawn blocks opposite the pool and sat as he had sat that summer evening years ago and watched his sister perform the role of Medea alone on the quarry floor. She was dressed in a gown she’d made from sheeting and she wore a crown of woodbine in her hair. The footlights were fruitcans packed with rags and filled with kerosene. The reflectors were foil and the black smoke rose into the summer leaves above her and set them trembling while she strode the swept stone floor in her sandals….watching her that summer evening he knew that he was lost. His heart in his throat. His life no longer his.

Like the hunter who has no prayer for the dead, something is awry in Bobby’s reaction to his sister’s dance. She is thirteen, ten years his younger. Why, one can ask, would his life no longer be his after watching his significantly younger sister dance? Is he incapable of checking the passion to imagine his sister romantically? Has he no moral self-control? Both Bobby and Alicia pay a heavy price for their inability to exercise virtue; their lives fall apart. The Passenger and Stella Maris are not McCarthy’s first novels to make incest a central part of the storyline. Outer Dark (1968), one of McCarthy’s first novels, features a brother and sister whose incestuous relationship produces a child that the brother, Culla, attempts to kill and the sister, Rinthy, to save. Both stories of incest result in disorder and moral disarray.  

The Road offers a different view of moral responsibility in the context of familial relations. Set in post-apocalyptic America, a father and son are faced with the challenge of surviving in a violently anarchic world that is dark and barren. Gangs of cannibals roam the land while the father and son scavenge for what little food exists. No one can be trusted. Post-apocalyptic American life portrayed in The Road reflects at least four of Thomas Hobbes’s five characteristics of the state of nature, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The fifth characteristic, solitary existence, is and is not part of the lives lived by the father and son. Apart from their relationship, the father and son live solitary lives. More than a year passes without them talking to another human being but each other. The father and son, however, do not live a solitary life because the father is devoted to his son. The narrator expresses the father’s view that “the child was his warrant” and that “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The father tells the son that his “job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” The father is true to this calling. The mother, like Alicia Western, commits suicide rather than face the darkness. Yet, the father is heroic in his love and protection of his son. He not only protects the boy from physical harm, but he maintains moral dignity in a world that provides no institutional support for, or cultivation of, it.

In circumstances far more challenging than those faced by Bobby and Alicia Western, the father and son navigate survival and moral dexterity; they must find moral universality in the particularity of extreme and unconventional circumstances. After discovering a group of prisoners in a basement who have been kidnapped by cannibals, the father and son run for their lives. When they catch their breath and the son reflects on the experience, he asks the father, “We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?” The father responds, “No. Of course not.” To which the boy asks, “Even if we were starving?” The father reminds the boy that “We’re starving now.” The boy asks his father for reassurance that they are not like “the bad guys”; that they are “the good guys.” The boy adds, “And we’re carrying the fire.” The father is committed to kill his son—he teaches him how to use their gun to commit suicide—rather than subject him to the worst evils of a post-apocalyptic environment. He repeats to himself, “I will do what I promised…. No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.” Yet, when the father is near death and the time has come to kill his son, he breaks his vow. Instead, he urges the boy to continue on the road and to search for the good guys. He tells the boy, “You have to carry the fire.” When the boy expresses a lack of will to continue without his father, the latter inspires his son to persevere. The boy goes on after the father dies and meets a family that also carries the fire.

What is strikingly different when comparing The Road with The Passenger and Stella Maris is the moral strength of the father and the moral weakness and disorientation of the brother and sister. The father understands, to some degree, the law for thing. He uses this knowledge to decide when food is safe to eat and water safe to drink. He is attentive to climate and landscape and the utilitarian benefit of material things that help the cause of survival. But the father is also attuned to the law for man, the moral law that shapes justice and the highest aspirations of human beings. He tends to the light of the inner life while navigating the darkness of the outer world. He is a man of practical virtue devoted to something that transcends the law of self-preservation.

Bobby and Alicia Western are disoriented in the moral life. They are incapable of finding the moral path as the father in The Road does. Their disorientation is largely due to their inability to overcome their incestuous desires. Neither Bobby nor Alicia is willing to check their perverted appetite. Instead, they let it fester and feed it through the imagination. Their extensive knowledge about the law for thing, which litters The Passenger and Stella Maris, is useless in their moral lives because they lack a sense for what orients it, the law for man.

The Road is arguably a richer novel than The Passenger and Stella Maris because it avoids the problem of one-sidedness and its characters employ both the law for man and the law for thing. The Road is a more rounded depiction of the human condition. It illustrates something central to human existence and happiness, the unwavering and unselfish love of a father for his son. The Passenger and Stella Maris are stories about perverted love and the failure to conform to the higher self, that part of the human character that directs individuals to virtue. Bobby and Alicia Western lack ethical imagination to conceive of life apart from incestuous desire. As a consequence, their lives degenerate into the madness of Macbeth and doth the man and woman unking.

Michael P. Federici is professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University and author, among other books, of The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated