It is arguable whether or not McCarthy has one set ending because there are many possible ends in The Road. There is the literal end which is when McCarthy finished writing but there is the end of the focalisers’ journey on the road when they reach the shore, which was their destination, or alternatively, there is the possible interpretation that the end of The Road is when the man dies as he is a focaliser.
Another area of interpretation of this question is the level of pessimism as “unbearable” suggests that it is so devastating that the reader couldn’t continue even if there was more to read. I personally think that yes it could be interpreted as a pessimistic end (all three aforementioned) however there is also an inevitable spark of hope as McCarthy makes sure to create more narrative gaps instead of answering previous ones.
McCarthy ends the novel with the boy being found by a man who is shown as being the only colour in the grey world the book is set in, wearing a “gray and yellow ski parka”. The reader can infer that if it is anything like the jackets we have now, the yellow in the jacket would be extremely bright and prominent in a world so void of any colour, which could be interpreted as him being a beacon of hope in such a dull world, and therefore a beacon of hope for the boy.
However, I see how it is possible to see this as being pessimistic as ski jackets are known to be big to keep the warmth inside which would be an essential in the world McCarthy has created, so the reader could suppose that surely other people have tried getting it off of the man but the fact he has it could mean he has somehow avoided getting it taken, and with the previous interactions in The Road, we as readers could guess that he probably killed them to do so, making the reader believe the boy is in grave danger.
But a critical view made by Adam Roberts was that The Road is largely about sacrifice and if this is the case, the ending could be seen as a positive one as the man’s death at the end is sort of a sacrifice as throughout the book, he has pushed himself to the limit in order to get the boy to a safe haven. Then the boy covers his father with a blanket but we as readers now that supplies like that are sparse in the novel so this too is sacrifice made showing that the man’s morals have lived through to the boy, giving a spark of hope of moral standards surviving such a vicious world.
I personally agree with the former and Adam Robert’s views as I believe McCarthy deliberately leaves the ending ambiguous so the reader can decide and debate whether it’s positive or not. However the question does apply more to the end of the focalisers’ journey; when they reach the shore as it is made clear by McCarthy that to make it there was the man’s goal throughout the book so as to fulfill the promise he made to his deceased wife. From beginning to end, we as readers see that the man’s pinnacle of hope and motivation is the idea of reaching the shore as he is sure this means they’ll be safer somehow.
However when they reach their destination, everything was “gray” “dull” and “cold”, much like the rest of the book. Arguably one of the most striking sentences in the novel is when the man just says “I’m sorry it’s not blue”. This creates a sense of utter defeat for the man as it just seems like a blind ambition and the reader starts to think about how careless he was for letting himself believe that the shore would be any different. This is more so felt by the reader when the quote is followed by the boy saying “It’s okay” as we realise how he must have also felt let down because of the false hope that the sea shore will be different.
However, another interpretation is that McCarthy uses this to show the audience how strong willed a person must be to survive in such a world because the man seems to have put all his hopes in to finding some sort of safe haven and this idea is what motivates him but he is let down completely and yet he carries on for the boy so that the child doesn’t give up. This links in with the idea that the boy is in fact “the one” but McCarthy is reminding the readers that he is still a child and needs emotional support in times of hardship and the man sees that as his job to do.
I personally agree with the latter as McCarthy seems to constantly keep it ambiguous whether or not the boy is “the one” and the book is in fact a religious book like Adam Roberts suggests it might be due to the idea of carrying the fire and how the man and boy are on a pilgrimage so it is left to the readers to decide whether or not the ending of their journey, or the ending of the book is pessimistic (and the level of which it may be), optimistic or just neutral but I personally believe that McCarthy leaves it on a slightly optimistic note by reminiscing of the time when “there were book trout in the streams” and speaking in past tense of the boy talking to the woman about God and his father, almost suggesting that like the deceased, the old world will just become a memory but there is hope for revival.