For this final project, we’re asked to consider the following extract from the beginning of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006):
“He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the 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 backtop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
-McCarthy, 2006, p.4
Exercise 1: Narration/Point of View
a. Use bits of this extract to experiment with different points of view.
- First-person: Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that I used to watch the road behind us. I shifted the pack higher on my shoulders and looked out over the wasted country.
- Second-person: Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that you used to watch the road behind you. You shifted the pack higher on your shoulders and looked out over the wasted country.
- Third person (omniscient or limited*): 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.*Since the omniscient narrator gives so little emotional detail in this extract, I’d have to change more than just pronouns and verb conjugations in order to convey a perspective limited to just the man or just the boy.
b. What might have been the implications of choosing a third-person limited POV, from either the man or the boy’s POV?
- There’s a distant, bleak and hopeless feeling that this novel conveys right from the first passage. It’s what I hated about the book when I read it: too depressing. I believe that hope for something good, for happiness, for human connection, is what we live for. Even if I’m all wrong, humans have emotions; this book is powerful partly because it has very little of those things, and narrating the story from the POV of a person who dares to hope and feel, literally against all odds, would have changed all that.
- A limited POV from the man’s/father’s perspective might have offered more details about the child’s mother; about life before the apocalypse; about what it means to witness the shift from a living to a dark, dying, zombie world. In any case, the effect of mixing in a larger dose of human perspective and (necessarily) personality and sentiment would have been to create a world that looks a little more like the one we already know. It would have distracted from the bleak hopeless and loneliness of both man and boy; they’re driven by an animal instinct to survive and the father of course to protect his child, but otherwise there is little conviction that life is worth living. That’s the great moral dilemma of the story, I think, and part of what is so horrifying to readers: true hopelessness is unimaginable.
- A limited POV from the boy would have changed the tone of the story as well because of both his innocence and ignorance. He doesn’t have images of a beautiful lush world stored away in his memory. He is still grappling with basic moral questions about good and bad. Again, telling this story from the child’s perspective would completely alter the novel’s tone. A reader would necessarily bring to their interpretation of the text what they already know of how children see and carry on in the world. McCarthy wants to alienate us beyond the point of being able to relate: again, the story’s power depends on complete defamiliarization of character, motivation and environment.
c. Why did McCarthy choose an omniscient narrator?
- An all-seeing, all-knowing and unbiased narrator keeps the reader at a distance and limits our ability to empathize with the characters. The whole world is portrayed in a way that is shocking, unimaginable. It refuses to give us a true hero, because we’re in a world that seems to have devolved beyond the possibility of human connection or hope for salvation. Reading The Road is (intentionally) disorienting, and the detached, unfeeling narrator reinforces that. The omniscient perspective also affords us a more expansive image of the bleak environment the boy and his father are up against.
Exercise 2: Close reading for more information
a. Does the man and the boy’s anonymity change the way we feel about them? Can we still care about them? Can they still be said to have an identity?
- I think the anonymity keeps us at a certain emotional distance from the characters, and also indicates that, in this world, details don’t matter. It doesn’t keep us from caring about them as characters; the question of their survival is immediately positioned as the motivation to keep reading. Additionally, we know that they care about each other: they are “each the other’s world entire.” McCarthy doesn’t adorn the man and boy with the decoration of a name, but they do still have histories, thoughts, feelings–whether or not the reader is privy to them. Insofar as they exist as morally-concerned beings, I think they can lay claim to an identity, but one that is pehaps more vague than that of most fictional characters.
b. How can we tell they’re in danger? Are they fleeing or are they expecting danger? What kind of danger?
- Initially, we’re given the sense that the danger/threat is above all environmental. The man and boy are thus living with danger lurking on all sides: they’re both fleeing (the cart and knapsacks with “essential things”) and anticipating it (the mirror for “watch[ing] the road behind them”). The landscape (if one can still call it that) reads as colorless, lifeless, grey. They seem familiar with the road ahead of and behind them, and accustomed to the bleakness that surrounds them.
c. The chrome mirror indicates that the time is roughly contemporary. What’s happened to the rest of the world? Is the story set in the (post-apocalyptic) future?
- It’s not clear what’s happened to the rest of the world, but the country is “wasted”. The gray imagery (gunmetal, ash, chrome, dead) conveys an immediate sense of post-apocalyptic lifelessness. The fact that man and boy are shuffling through ash suggests a great, devastating fire, and its possible to infer that this might be a comment about the future results of climate change.
d. Where is everybody? Why are they scared if they’re alone?
- It’s not clear where everybody is, but one has the distinct impression that the man and boy are survivors in a world where there are few remaining. It’s possible that they are scared precisely because they’re alone; especially if they survived or otherwise witnessed the transition from a pulsing, peopled world to this dead, grey one. It’s possible that they’re scared because they have the impression of being alone, but aren’t sure, and can’t necessarily trust the kind of people they might come across.
e. What kind of disaster is being referenced by the descriptive text in the extract?
- As mentioned above, for me the imagery conveys scorched earth, a lack of moisture or water or colour. In particular, the dried-up river, the layer of ash they are shuffling through makes me think there’d been gradual climate change, ultimately leading to a great fire. What’s left are things that won’t burn (metals, blacktop).
f. Where are the man and boy going? Where have they come from?
- It’s clear that the man and the boy are homeless (the man is pushing a card and they both carry knapsacks with “essentials” in case they have to run) and are following “the road”. It’s not clear where the road leads or whether they have any specific destination in mind. Perhaps the destination is rather a place in time: another day of survival.
g. The road is mentioned three times here. What does the road (also the book’s title) symbolize?
- The “road” is mentioned twice as such and referred to a third time as “blacktop”. It takes on significance as both an image and metaphor because we can infer that the choice of “The Road” as title for the novel, in addition to repeated references to it as the author establishes tone and setting at the beginning of his novel, suggest layers of meaning. A close reading of McCarthy’s choice of the word “the” in the title suggests at once that, in this post-apocalyptic world, there is only one road. Roads (particularly in North America, which connect great sprawling distances) are often symbols for travel, adventure or long journeys. While we definitely get a sense of a long, trying journey, leisure or pleasure words like “travel” and “adventure” are clearly not part of the equation. By juxtaposing the familiar road with the unfamiliar state of things (no cars or people except a homeless man and boy walking along it), McCarthy lets the reader know that this is indeed the world they know–as they’ve never seen or imagined it. The road nonetheless seems to function more or less as expected, symbolically: two people are moving along it with their belongings, presumably going somewhere. Despite all clues from the author indicating the contrary, the road suggests that there may be something beyond this “wasted country”, and that maybe the man and boy will get there. The very possibility that the road leads them somewhere at all drives the plot; if it doesn’t, the reader may as well put down the book.
h. What poetic devices are there in this short passage? What effect do they have?
- McCarthy employs imagery, metaphor and some assonance and alliteration in this first paragraph.The imagery is one of ravaged earth, devastation. The repeated use of words that evoke lifelessness and a palette of grays and metals include “cart”, “chrome,” “grey serpentine of a river”, “a burden of dead reeds”, “blacktop”, “gunmetal light,” “shuffling through the ash”. Mother Earth is absent, as is the actual mother of this family: there’s a total absence of nurture, of nourishment. Immediately, we sense that this is a world we should be terrified of.
The few metaphors for the most part reinforce the gray, lifeless imagery, but they also contribute to a sinister, possibly violent ambiance: the word “serpentine” describes a river, but also suggests snake symbolism, a sneaky evil, an unknown predatory lurking. The “gunmetal” light casts even the light as grey, but also makes us consider the threat of violence. The final metaphor moves away from imagery and gives us a sense of the relationship between these characters: “each the other’s world entire” shows that not only are they probably family (father and son), but they are all each other has left, they trust and live for each other. We can infer that they love each other very much, and that subtle metaphor reminds lends them just enough tenderness and humanity that we begin to empathize and care about them.
I also noticed a lot of assonance and repetition in the first few sentences: short, chunky words and sentences punctuated with soft “a” sounds, including the repeated use of the connector “and”. These two devices juxtaposed in this way effectively draw us into this ugly, desperate place and yet calls our attention to the sad reality: two people are trying to survive here.
i. What other stylistic language choices does McCarthy make and why? What of his unpunctuated speech?
- As touched on above, I noted short, clipped sentences, pared-down language and mostly one or two-syllable words. Some sentences are so short as to be structurally incomplete. McCarthy asserts his control over the reader’s rhythm and attention through frequent full-stops and lots of soft or long vowel sounds. The interior reading “voice” takes on a soft, flat, quiet monotonous rhythm. It seems to me that McCarthy omits punctuation surrounding any bits of dialogue to maintain the gray, flat, low-energy dull- and deadness he’s so deliberately evoked here. Instead of imbuing the imagined characters voice and question with the appropriate pauses and inflections, we carry on reading, almost not noticing anyone spoke at all. The imagery and these stylistic choices play into and reinforce each other: the grey is repetitive, the man and boy’s movements and motivations are repetitive. There’s an overall lack of energy and life force, and this is evidenced by the minimal words exchanged between man and boy, and the imagined, muffled sound of their tired feet shuffling through a layer of ash. We have a sense of ongoing struggle, of just-barely-survival, of plowing on through the clipped, sparse text just as the characters carry on through the grey, sparse environment.
j. 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?
- I think I’ve touched on this above in my descriptions of the grey and lifeless environment. Rivers and bodies of water are typically symbols of sources of life and this one is serpentine, dried up, “motionless”. I think the absence of both Mother Nature and the boy’s own mother also kind-of demonstrates the unnatural order of things here. I also think his use of sparse, clipped and stark language and imagery convey a sense of “wasted country” beyond hope. McCarthy wants to evoke a sense of the real end of things. He wants us to know: post-apocalypse is post-everything. You can’t fix it. His short sentences and simple clauses connected by the word “and” have the simple ambition of presenting the reader with the unadorned facts surrounding the man and the boy in this bleak setting.
k. How does the grey “serpentine of the river” and “the gunmetal light” create a sense of danger? What does the serpentine symbolize? What effect will biblical and religious imagery, themes and symbols have in this genre of writing?
- The “serpentine of the river” suggests above all an undulating, dried-up and snake-like form where the river used to be. The “gunmetal light” suggests that even light (the giver of all life, both scientifically and figuratively, as in many spiritual traditions) is dull here and gray.
- In biblical terms (although I’m not convinced that even a close reading here justifies a religious interpretation), the serpentine symbolizes evil, trickery, deception, poison, temptation. In the apocalyptic genre, I feel that religious imagery would be used ironically, as if to prove that no almighty God exists, or if S/He did exist, she would be cruel to leave us so hopeless and destitute. Perhaps there is a sub(versive) text here suggesting that the Creator is, finally, the serpent, laughing at the great trick that was people’s blind faith in, or hope for, salvation.
l. What is the prose style like? Long or short sentences? Rhythm of? What’s the impact? 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 style is simple with short words, a clipped rhythm. It isn’t decorous or overly descriptive. The author’s style echos the barren, sterile, lifeless, gray landscape effectively this way. The impact is dramatic: we imagine a bleak, post-apocalyptic world emptied out, even of energetic or spiritual concepts like hope or optimism. If McCarthy had veered away from this stripped-back style and language by offering more colorful description, longer words and sentences, it would have described a living, still-breathing landscape. It would have suggested what follows is a specific story where even a glimmer of that thing we call hope can guide the actions of the man and boy. But McCarthy isn’t seeking to mislead his characters or his readers. Ultimately, his characters are just archetypal stand-ins for survivors of where we’re headed. He wants us to believe that we are reading about an inevitable experience. He wants us to believe The Road is real. To accomplish this task, he has to avoid prose that feels imaginative or fictional. Both imagination and fiction are lost luxuries in the world he establishes in just a few short paragraphs.
m. How does it all make you feel?
- It makes me feel pretty fearful and depressed, which is the main reason I didn’t like this book. I appreciate the effectiveness and mastery of McCormick’s style, but I didn’t enjoy any part of this book, which I read shortly after the birth of my first son.