The Road Book Essay

  • 1

    How does the man demonstrate his love for his son in The Road?

    The man demonstrates consistently that he is prepared to take whatever action necessary, even if violent, to ensure his son's survival and best interests. The most obvious example of this occurs when the man does not hesitate to shoot the attacker who holds a knife to the boy's throat. In less dramatic examples, the man continually sacrifices his own health to give his son nourishment. He also works hard to reassure his son that they are good people who hold the fire of goodness within them, and that they would never do things like eat other humans.

  • 2

    Overall, does The Road put forth a positive and uplifting view of humanity, or one of darkness and pessimism?

    The striking last paragraph, with its vivid imagery of trout hidden in deep mountain glens, offers a redemptive ending to what has been a story of awful indifference and destruction, where hope has eked out a meager, slight existence in the face of the ubiquitous destructiveness of human nature, which has both caused the catastrophe and perpetuated the evils in the world afterward. The boy's rescue by a family of "good guys" might be read as an ironic ending with hope in the face of disaster, where somehow the good-guy fire persists. The result is optimistic resilience, a hope against hope, which offers humans an existential choice about how they want to live, whether or not human nature and physical nature make those choices easy or hard.

  • 3

    How do the man and the man's wife differ in their conceptions of death?

    Both the man and his wife understand that in this post-apocalyptic environment, they are likely to be brutalized at the hands of rapists, murderers, and cannibals. The wife considers death to be a needed relief from these threats. To the contrary, the father considers death an abhorrent threat that would prevent him from protecting his son; his commitment to life drives him on the journey south to ensure his son's survival.

  • 4

    Discuss at least two contrasting ways in which the survivors of the catastrophe deal with the chaos.

    The man's wife responds to the catastrophic circumstances by committing suicide and avoiding whatever gruesome fate might befall her. Scavengers on the road choose to resort to murder, thievery, and cannibalism in order to survive. For them, humanity, kindness, and empathy are greatly diminished, it seems, although many of them continue to live in groups. The man and the boy, however, choose to scavenge and refrain from harming others unless violence is absolutely necessary to their survival.

  • 5

    What is the significance of "the fire" to the man and the boy?

    That the man and the boy internally "carry the fire" signifies that they are the "good guys." Upon his deathbed, the man assures the boy that the fire can be found within the boy. The fire represents internal human strength in the form of qualities such as hope, perseverance and resilience, as well as morality, the ability to retain one's humanity in the face of ultimate destruction and evil.

  • 6

    How do the protagonists distinguish the "good guys" from the "bad guys"? Are the protagonists indeed the "good guys"?

    The man and the boy consider themselves good guys, which they tend to see as seeking survival without harming others. They only scavenge for food and supplies, but they try not to steal from others, and they punish those who steal from them. In contrast, the "bad guys" are willing to hurt, use, or murder others for their own benefit. Yet, a central conflict in the novel is between the boy’s idea of what good guys do, on the one hand, and what the father does, on the other hand, in being so afraid of others that he refuses to help them, and in more severely punishing others than the boy thinks is necessary.

  • 7

    How does the boy's relationship with his father change over the course of their journey?

    The boy matures over the course of this journey, and his changing relationship with his father reflects this growing maturity. At the beginning of the novel, the boy looks to the father for knowledge and guidance, believing his father to speak the truth unequivocally. However, as he gains new experiences, the boy learns to use his own judgment and can assess somewhat better whether or not his father is telling the truth. He begins to question his father's honesty on such matters as whether or not they are truly the "good guys" and asserts his own opinion when believing that they should help other people. He never doubts his father’s love for him, however, and continues to love and trust his father, even while he begins to have more and more serious reservations about his father’s choices. In a sense, it is time for the father to die when the son is mature enough to make his own moral decisions for the new generation.

  • 8

    What purpose do the father's memories and dreams serve in The Road?

    The man's recurring memories and dreams poignantly underscore, often by contrast with, the hopeless destruction and chaotic violence which characterize his situation in reality. These passages also demonstrate the man's struggle not to succumb to wishful fantasies but instead to persevere throughout the journey's seemingly insurmountable hardships. The vivid excerpts from his past life remind him (and the reader) that such a life did once exist, despite the hellish present circumstances.

  • 9

    Discuss some of the literary techniques used by McCarthy to evoke and maintain the novel's largely grim and bleak setting.

    Perhaps the most important literary devices used to achieve this end are flashbacks, repetition, and vivid imagery of nature. The bleak imagery he evokes insistently impress upon the reader the extremely harsh conditions the protagonists must face. Throughout the novel, the boy and the man also touch upon the same themes in their conversations: whether they will die of starvation; being the good guys; carrying the fire. These repetitions or mantras keep the sobering themes of death, violence, and unlikely survival to the fore. Furthermore, the contrasting flashbacks, full of life and color, juxtaposed with the imagery of a dead land inhabited by the walking dead, highlight the gravity of the protagonists' present circumstances. The flashbacks also scramble the linear telling of the story, seeming to lengthen the arduous journey endured by the man and the boy.

  • 10

    Describe the role of trust in the novel.

    Trust or the lack of trust is the expression of a basic human relationship. Those who can be trusted will work together; those who cannot be trusted will be either ignored or killed. The father's paranoid and unsympathetic behavior towards other travelers on the road, though they may be harmless like Ely and the burnt man, stem from his distrust of all other individuals, because of his past experience. The boy has seen much less trouble in his short life and tends to trust others much more. His trust in his father reflects his love but also his immaturity, and as he matures he learns to decipher the situations in which his father may be lying to protect him, so that by the end of the novel, he does not simply take his father's words at face value.

  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2007. The postapocalyptic work ostensibly marked a thematic shift in McCarthy’s corpus. His first novels—The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), and Suttree (1979), set in the mountains of Tennessee—are often broadly classified as Southern Gothic. A later set of novels began with Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985) and continued through The Border Trilogy (1999; includes All the Pretty Horses, 1992, The Crossing, 1994, and Cities of the Plain, 1998) and No Country for Old Men (2005). These novels explore decidedly Western themes and terrains. Physical landscapes are of primary importance to McCarthy, often suggesting the interiority and moral compass of his main characters. The Road marked McCarthy’s literary return to the southeast and explores themes, motifs, and concerns posed throughout the McCarthy canon.

    In 2007, Oprah Winfrey selected The Road for Oprah’s Book Club, heightening favorable mainstream reactions to the novel. Significantly, The Road was the first McCarthy novel to receive both popular and academic appreciation. The book’s language is sparse yet poetic and philosophically motivated, and the text is composed not of chapters but of discrete, punctuated paragraphs that mirror the movements of the father and son on their journey.

    The Road employs a third-person narration that is generally omniscient but that often lapses into a limited third-person perspective to develop the father’s internal despair. Stylistically resembling Suttree and The Crossing, the hinge novel of The Border Trilogy, The Road employs the narrative shifts that emphasize the protagonist’s moral compass, as well as the metaphorical nature of the titular road. The father and son journey, but their quest to reach the coast reveals a spirituality that supersedes the tangible. The man often sobs as he watches the boy sleep, but his sorrow is not about death: “He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness.” The father continually resurrects the rites he believes once brought beauty and grace to the world.

    Born after the apocalypse, the boy has no memory of ceremonies and privileges of the previous world. At one point, the man realizes that he is like an alien to the boy, “a being from a planet that no longer existed.” Throughout the novel, the man evokes the forms of his vanished world as he struggles to imbue his son with a sense of the lost civilization. Although the narrative often highlights the father’s agnostic crisis and the man exhibits the ego necessary for his own survival, he ruminates on the loss of the world and the humanity he once shared. As the father contemplates his complicity, moral and otherwise, in the devastation of the world, so do readers. The man tells the boy that he was appointed by God to care for him. Unlike the father, however, the boy exhibits no ego but only the altruism required for the survival of a species. The boy practices hope in a hopeless world; he appears to know no other way.

    There is a mythic quality to all of McCarthy’s works, and in The Road the ultimate challenge of humanity’s cosmic insignificance is found in the fire spoken of by the man and the boy. As the man lies dying, he tells his son that the fire is real and that the boy must assume responsibility for it. “It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it,” the man says. The man’s journey has ended, as readers have come to know that it must. The woman who appears to instruct and love the boy after the father’s death also reminds readers that, although keeping alive the memory of human kindness may be difficult in a seemingly forever-barren landscape of ash and human horrors, the fire of humanity—the breath of God—yet remains to kindle their hearts. The fire, in the end, burns strong, and it illuminates the boy. The man sees the light, which moves with the boy, all around him. Significantly, although the boy survives, it is the father whose vision readers share.

    Regardless of the many charred bodies, ghastly horrors, evils, and vanished ethics of the human race that The Road portrays, the novel evinces an ambiguous hope in the possibility that goodness lies buried deep within the human frame. The forms are gone, but love can yet evoke that which can be known beyond language. This attitude makes The Road a profound and poignant work. There is a fearless wisdom in McCarthy’s speculations. The novel invokes a fierce vision, but it is a vision wrought by shreds of optimism and the rules of redemption. The Road, despite the emptiness it ostensibly professes, nonetheless brims with a penetrating insight that obliges readers to reckon with the uneasy precariousness of what it means to be human. The collapse of the world is secondary to the collapse of all that is humane.


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