Please explain the following dream from the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
"The Man just had a dream in which he and the Boy were wandering in a cave. Like pilgrims in a fable, they walk deeper and deeper into the cave; in stoneroom, they see a black lake. There's a nasty-looking creature on the other side."
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This dream takes place at the very beginning of The Road, in Chapter 1. Like with most dreams that are described in narratives, we can analyze this nightmare for its symbolism. Throughout this novel, the man’s dreams do in fact play a prominent role. His nightmares throughout reassert the man’s primary concern—that of protecting his young son.
The dream consists of the boy taking the man by the hand and leading him through a cave. They seem to be surrounded by some source of light. Since the source isn’t explained, we can almost sense that the light is actually emanating from the two of them.
They come to a point in the cave that holds “a black and ancient lake.” At its other side they spot the monster of this nightmare:
And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders (pg 1).
The creature sniffs the air, sensing the man and boy’s presence. Once it detects them, it shakes it head, seemingly disturbed by the humans. Then it “gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark” (1).
From this entire encounter, we can pick apart some points of symbolism:
- Firstly, the setting has the connotation of an ancient world. That the man and boy walk through an unlit cave seems to cast them as part of an old realm. In this light they seem no different from early humans—something the dream actually has in common with their real-life situation, as they now live in a world lacking in civilization and are at that very moment sleeping in nature. The sentence, “Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease” signifies the massive age of Earth. It reminds us of the fact that once mankind is extinct, the world will live on as it has down without us for millennia. This idea of life after humans is a reality one faces when reading The Road.
- The fact that this dream is a bad one actually serves to reassure the man and the reader both that he is still fighting—fighting to survive and to protect his boy. The man believes that bad dreams are better omens than good ones. “He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death” (5). This shows us, then, that the man hasn’t given up hope.
- The creature across the lake represents mankind’s lost humanity. It is blind, translucent, and relegated to the shadows. It cannot stand to be in the presence of two who still fight to uphold innocence and purity.
- That the two are likened to “pilgrims in a fable” brands their journey in the dream, and in the novel, with a spiritual, mythical quality. Pilgrims embark on a journey to reach a spiritual destination, to find solace. The man and boy similarly head South to find some sort of comfort, carrying with them their faith in a better world. And this belief does require an awesome amount of faith, given their surroundings and the depths their fellow people have sunk to.
- Finally, the light that follows the two through the cave gives us the first glimpse in the novel of the symbolic fire that the father and son carry with them. This fire represents hope. It lights up a world that is both genuinely and metaphorically bleak and dark:
Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world (1).
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