The Road is set in some undetermined location, probably on the East Coast, though this is not confirmed. There is mention of distant mountains, several rivers and creeks, the Piedmont (a plain that runs along the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains), and a coastline. The landscape and the air are soaked in thick, gray ash. Vegetation has been destroyed. There are no fish in the water. When snow falls, it collects the ash in the air and falls to the earth already gray.
The man and boy encounter few people in this story. Most of those they do come across are brutish because everyone is starving and fighting for survival. It is also always cold. The disaster that has caused this dismal setting is not named, though there are hints of explosions. But whatever the cause, all the cities have been destroyed. There is no electricity or working phones. Grocery stores have been emptied; most houses have been abandoned.
Almost all the people in this story are constantly on the move. The man’s goal is to make it to the south, to the coastline. This goal is neither defined nor explained. The south might represent warmth. The ocean might be a source of food. But neither warmth nor bounties of food are found once the man and the boy finally reach the edge of the water. The shoreline is just as cold as the mountains were. The only food they find is in an abandoned yacht that has washed up on the sand. The landscape is more level along the shore, but the overall setting remains the same: drained of life, bitterly cold, and hopeless.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Discuss the clues provided in the story and try to guess where the man and boy are and how far they travel.
2. Although the landscape and its destruction are mentioned, what do you think caused the devastation? What clues are provided?
3. At the end of the story, the boy asks the stranger if he is “carrying the fire.” What do you think this means? How many interpretations can you come up with? Point out passages in the story to back up your conclusions.
4. How are good people distinguished from bad people in this story? What are the major characteristics that good people have that bad people lack? Use lines from the story to strengthen your statement. Make a note of which character provides this information. Are there differing points of views from the characters?
5. If you were forced to live under the conditions presented in this novel, what things would you have in the shopping cart?
6. Why do you think the mother of the boy killed herself?
7. Do you think the author ended the story with a hint of hope? Or do you think the author meant to suggest that there was no hope left in the world?
8. Read the last paragraph of this novel about the trout in the stream. What is the author doing here? What is he saying? Why do you think he used this paragraph and these thoughts to end the story?
9. Why do you think the author did not provide names for his characters?
10. Is the young boy just naive, or is he more compassionate than his father, when he constantly appeals to his father to help the strangers they meet along the road?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Write a paper in the form of a letter from the mother to the son, meant for the boy to read when he turns eighteen. In the letter, try to explain why the mother left him. Read your letter to your class.
2. From the clues provided in the story, decide how the world was most likely devastated—climate change, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, or the explosion of nuclear bombs? Then research one of those catastrophes and write a detailed report of the consequences of such a disaster as science might predict it. How close do these predictions come to the details provided in the story? Report your findings to your class.
3. Choose three passages from The Road, and then find three different pieces of music that you believe match the tone of the passages. Practice reading the passages with the music in the background, and then present your performance to your class. Take a vote at the end to see which one they liked the best.
4. In the middle of their journey, the man and the boy come across a well-stocked underground sanctuary where they hide for several days. Write a mock journal that the boy might have kept while they stayed there. What did he enjoy most about this place? How does he reflect on what he has already been through? What are his thoughts of what lies ahead?
5. Research the author’s life as well as the themes and topics of his previous novels. Look for clues as to what might have inspired the topic of world destruction as found in this novel. What elements of hope exist in this story, if any? Is hope expressed in the author’s other books? What types of destruction are found in his previous novels? Is anything as dark as this novel? Present your information to help to enlighten your classmates as they discuss this book.
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
No reviewer disagrees about the terror and devastation that is presented in The Road, nor does anyone disagree about the beauty of the book’s prose. Critics also frequently comment on McCarthy’s ability to create a story of such destruction alongside a story of such intense devotion. For example, Mary Fitzgerald, writing for the New Statesman (December 4, 2006), described the novel as a “gripping, heart-rending story, which explores the depths of despair and savagery beside the heights of love, tenderness and self-sacrifice.” A reviewer for Newsweek (October 2, 2006) was not caught off-guard by the high quality of McCarthy’s writing, which readers have come to expect. But the reviewer was surprised that McCarthy, whose novels are known for being “terse, unsentimental, bleak,” could also be so “touching.” In other words, McCarthy has astonished readers not with his outstanding command of language or his economical style of writing, but rather with his ability to demonstrate (and to make his readers feel) a tremendously deep sense of love. And he has done so through one of the bleakest stories he, or anyone, has ever told.
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In much the same mood as McCarthy’s cataclysmic novel is Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which tells the story of a young man who loses his parents and joins the circus. Gruen has carefully researched her material and displays behind-the-scene details of the misery of both animals and humans who are trapped in the world of cheaply run circuses.
Khaled Hosseini, known for his popular book The Kite Runner, has written another novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). This one is set in Afghanistan and traces the lives of two women who learn to survive the destruction of their homes and family.
Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2006) invites the reader into rural China as seen through the eyes of a nineteenth-century woman. Here, in a remote village, the female protagonist is well aware that she is unwanted, but she still tries to find dignity in a world that wants to devalue her.
For more of McCarthy’s writing, read All the Pretty Horses, winner of the National Book Award in 1992. In this novel, McCarthy tells of three young men and their fateful journey from Texas into Mexico.
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For Further Reference
Babwin, Don. 2007. Cormac McCarthy opens up to Oprah. Los Angeles Times, June 6, p. E 7. Find this article in your local library to read excerpts from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the author. McCarthy opens up a little about what inspired his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.
Chabon, Michael. 2009. Dark adventure: On Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. New York: Harper Perennial. Chabon discusses McCarthy's writing style and significance.
Jones, Malcolm. 2006. On the lost highway. Newsweek 148 (12): 68. Jones reviews McCarthy’s The Road, finding the author’s themes both familiar and surprising. McCarthy is no stranger to bleakness, Jones states, but what is surprising is McCarthy’s expression of love.
Maslin, Janet. 2006. The road through hell, paved with desperation. New York Times, September 25, p. E 1. Although The Road is as bleak as some Biblical parable about the end of the world, Maslin states that McCarthy has presented his story with a “stunning, savage beauty.” Maslin concludes her review by saying that the book is both frightening and inspiring.
Williamson, Eric Miles. 2007. His Oprah moment. Los Angeles Times, June 4, p. E-3. Williamson also comments on McCarthy’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, but he adds a little more detail about McCarthy’s novel in this article.
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The Road (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
Violent death has always been a central preoccupation of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, perhaps most memorably in the critically acclaimed Blood Meridian (1985). Now, in The Road, he offers his readers a fascinating if horrifying vision of a world plunged into the throes of a nuclear winter. Dozens of novels dealing with the theme of nuclear holocaust have been written since the end of World War II. Few if any of them achieve the emotional power of this novel’s relentless focus on its two central characters: a nameless father and son, traveling south-southeast on foot out of the devastation and horror of unnamed northern parts, through the Appalachian Mountains where forest fires still burn, and across the coastal plain to the seain the dim hope that there they might find warmth and some hope of survival. Virtually all the usual trappings of postapocalyptic science fiction are eliminated. No explanation is offered about the political events that brought about this nuclear disaster. Readers learn only that several years have passed and that food supplies have been all but exhausted, cannibal cults roam the highways, and the cities are uninhabitable hells populated by gangs of looters.
In spite of the bleak reality that it depicts, The Road’s touching portrayal of the father’s obsessive love for his only son is easily the...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Cormac McCarthy. 2d ed. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009. Collection of essays by leading scholars of McCarthy, several of which focus on space and landscape in his work. Includes a comprehensive introduction by Bloom. Essays in the first (2001) edition of the collection place McCarthy’s work within a broader Southern canon that includes Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.
Cant, John. Cormac McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism. New York: Routledge, 2008. An excellent study that deconstructs the mythic forms surrounding American exceptionalism and grand narratives found throughout the McCarthy canon. Appendix 2 focuses on The Road.
_______, ed. The Cormac McCarthy Journal 6 (Autumn, 2008). This journal is published once a year by the Cormac McCarthy Society. Volume 6 is devoted to critical interpretations of The Road and features twelve essays. Contains the keynote address of the McCarthy Society 2007 conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, titled “The Road Home.”
Greenwood, Willard P. Reading Cormac McCarthy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Press, 2009. Part of a series entitled “The Pop Lit Book Club,” this volume is aimed at general readers. Focuses on McCarthy’s works, characters, themes, and contexts and relates these to current events and popular culture. Includes...
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