The Road is a 2006 post-apocalyptic novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. The book details the gruelling journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed industrial civilization and almost all life.
“He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In theMcCarthy (2006) p.4.
knapsacks were essential things in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome
motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded. They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
Why do we read texts that may leave us feeling wrung out or upset?
I think that this is a huge question that searches deep within the human psyche and is the same reason why people watch soaps like Eastenders with its daily dose of depression. Emotions of all kinds, positive and negative are what make us human. No other species seems to have the same extent and intensity of emotions as what we do. Feeling wrung out and upset connects us to other humans. I think there also could be a deal of it reminding us what the positives are in our own lives that we are to be grateful for.
The Road (McCarthy, 2006) uses a detached narrator, also called an omniscient narrator which is one that sees it all. The narrator builds the intrigue in the story by not giving us all the details at once, although they see everything, they make the story have suspense by not telling us it all.
‘He’, the man, and ‘the boy’ are nameless. Why? Does their anonymity change the way we feel about the characters? Can we still care about them without names? Do they still have an identity without a name?
Names are such an important part of personal identity that it is difficult to identify them as actual people without one. However, this adds impact to the story here as these characters could be anyone, including people we know and love, or even ourselves. It gives an open-ended yet inviting nature to them and helps to include us in the story. In everyday events that we see, we don’t always know peoples’ names, but we can still relate to them as humans.
How can we tell they’re in danger? Are they fleeing danger or do they expect to encounter it along the way? What sort of danger? Human? Animal? Elemental?
There are clues in the narrative that they are in danger without it explicitly saying so. The fact they have essential items with them in an easy to move vessel, they aren’t just out for a stroll, they anticipate needing some equipment and they may need to run with it. They are also using the mirror to watch the road in what seems a nervous way. The dialogue between them seems nervous too, with the only question being “are you okay”, there is no room for small talk. We know from the description of the surroundings that there is ash, implying a disaster, maybe a volcano eruption? The country is described as “wasted” and “empty” implying some kind of event has taken place leaving the world in ruins. We are left to guess the cause of this.
The chrome motorcycle mirror tells us the time is roughly contemporary. So what’s happened to the rest of the recognisable contemporary world? Or is the story set in the future? Post-apocalypse maybe?
We are left to our own imaginations as to what has happened. All we know is at least two people survive, the rest of the world seems empty and desolate. We know roads and chrome mirrors exist so the world had had some technology but we know nothing else of the date. This adds to the suspense and relatability as it could be a world we live in.
They are alone: ‘The road was empty.’ Where is everyone? Why are they scared if no one is around? Because no one is around? Because someone might be around?
Being alone is scary. Quietness is unsettling and your imagination can run il about what is out there. Maybe they have already encountered something? At this point, we don’t even know if they are related or not.
There’s been some sort of disaster: ‘wasted country… dead reeds … shuffling through the ash …What sort of disaster might it be?
Ash implies destruction. Maybe a volcano eruption, maybe a nuclear war, maybe wildfires. We are left to guess at this stage.
They’re on a journey with everything they own. Where are they going? Where have they come from?
All we know is that they are travelling down a road. We don’t know where they have come from, other than a place where they could gather some essentials and a cart. We don’t know where the road goes or if they even know where it goes.
The road is mentioned two times in these few lines. It is also the title of the book. What does it symbolise?
The road symbolises hope and a way out. As long as there is a road to still travel down there is a chance they can find relief at the end of the road. It symbolises their journey to find an exit to the situation they have found themselves in.
Can you spot any poetic devices in this short passage? What effect do they have?
Cormac uses metaphor throughout the piece. The man pushing the cart could be an extended metaphor for the man trying to push through this devastating situation he has found himself in. This gets repeated in the use of “shuffling through” as if movement isn’t easy, there is a sense of struggle. There is also some great use of imagery and personification with the river being described as “serpentine” we can immediately picture what it looks like. The light too is “gunmetal” which evokes far more imagery and description than if was called grey.
What other stylistic language choices does McCarthy make and why? Why might he not punctuate speech?
The language There is also a lot of the “sh” sound, giving the passage this quiet feel to it in “pushed”, “shoulders”, “shore”, “shuffling” which adds to the eerie sombre mood. There is no punctuation in the speech to make it almost seem quiet and blended into the background too. The dialogue is not the main focus, it gives the impression the characters don’t speak much to each other. They are just focused on the road and land around them.
What features give us a sense of where we are? How does McCarthy create a post-apocalyptic world? Would the impact be the same if he were to remove the man and the boy? Look carefully at the imagery, for example, the grey ‘serpentine of the river’ and ‘the gunmetal light’. What is it about the choice of metaphor that creates a sense of danger? What does the serpentine symbolise? Think biblical perhaps. What effect will biblical and religious imagery, themes and symbols have in this genre of writing?
The man and boy are the focus despite being mentioned so little. If they were removed from this scene you wouldn’t get the same sense of emptiness and isolation as it could be a world where people aren’t important at all. Including them in the scene highlights that people have a role in this situation, perhaps they were the cause of it.
By using serpentine we get a very specific image of what the river looks like, it also gives it a dangerous feel that it is a place to avoid. Snakes represent danger but more specifically hidden danger like something that is about to sneak up and attack you. Biblical themes add to the apocalyptic feel with images from the Book of Revelation and a final judgement.
What’s the prose style like? Are the sentences long or short? Are they rhythmic or choppy or stark? What impact does this have? Is the language complex or simple? Often the more dramatic or dark a piece is, the more simple and stripped back the prose. Why might this be? What would be the effect of more flowing, colourful and detailed prose?
The prose is direct and to the point, it represents a world where colour and detail have been lost. There is no time to spend on flowery descriptions, no luxury or grandeur, this is a world that is bleak and you need instinct to survive. The sentences are short with more questions than answers as there would be living in a world like this. It adds to the atmosphere and drama and makes us want to read on to find out the answers.
Cormac Mccarthy (2006). The road. London: Pan Macmillan.