The Road by Cormac McCarthyA searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.
Compassion vs. Cruelty: Why You Should Read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
This afternoon, sometime before dinner, you will turn on the evening news. A suited-man seated behind a desk welcomes you. Then, without warning, he launches into a blitzkrieg of stories:. A little unnerved, you linger by the TV, catching your breath, hoping that when the fine-suited man returns, he returns with lighter news. You shake your head and hold your stomach and wonder, while listening to your children play in other room, if the world is purging itself of compassion like its been purging itself of fossil fuels for all these years. The Road is a parable that narrates the harrowing journey of a father and son as they move cautiously through a post-apocalyptic America. So scarce, people have resorted to cannibalism.
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Cormac McCarthy has an unmistakable prose style. What do you see as the most distinctive features of that style? How is the writing in The Road in some ways more like poetry than narrative prose? Why do you think McCarthy has chosen not to give his characters names? How do the generic labels of "the man" and "the boy" affect the way in which readers relate to them? How is McCarthy able to make the postapocalyptic world of The Road seem so real and utterly terrifying? Which descriptive passages are especially vivid and visceral in their depiction of this blasted landscape?
The novel begins with the man and boy in the woods, the boy asleep, as the two of them are making their journey along the road. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world, date and place unnamed, though the reader can assume it's somewhere in what was the United States because the man tells the boy that they're walking the "state roads.
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Shorn of history and context, Cormac McCarthy's other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle. We can divide the contemporary American novel into two traditions, or two social classes. The Savants' blood line curiously unrepresentative of Americans generally has gained undoubted ascendancy in the literary firmament of the US. Upper middle class, urban and cosmopolitan, they or their own species review themselves. The current Tough Guys are a murder of great, hopelessly masculine, undomesticated writers, whose critical reputations have been and still are today cruelly divergent, adrift and largely unrewarded compared to the contemporary Savant school.
Some unnamed catastrophe has scourged the world to a burnt-out cinder, inhabited by the last remnants of mankind and a very few surviving dogs and fungi. The sky is perpetually shrouded by dust and toxic particulates; the seasons are merely varied intensities of cold and dampness. Bands of cannibals roam the roads and inhabit what few dwellings remain intact in the woods. Through this nightmarish residue of America a haggard father and his young son attempt to flee the oncoming Appalachian winter and head towards the southern coast along carefully chosen back roads. Mummified corpses are their only benign companions, sitting in doorways and automobiles, variously impaled or displayed on pikes and tables and in cake bells, or they rise in frozen poses of horror and agony out of congealed asphalt.
The Road opens after some unknown apocalyptic event has struck. The first few pages of the novel situate us in the landscape: ash, isolation, and a long road to travel. You could say the novel alternates between two settings: the road and excursions away from the road into houses or other possible food mother lodes. Although The Boy and The Man suffer from exposure to cold and from a lack of food, they don't encounter too much danger early on. That changes about a quarter of the way into the book.