Notably reclusive and private, famed American author Cormac McCarthy publicly credited as the generating spark of The Road his fierce love for his youngest son, John, to whom the book is dedicated. The boy’s influence on the book is reflected throughout the novel; McCarthy told the Wall Street Journal that some of the conversations between the main protagonists are verbatim transcripts of exchanges between McCarthy and his child. However personal the roots of the narrative, McCarthy’s novel has been heralded as a modern masterpiece, drawing critical comparisons with timeless classics, such as Eliot’s The Waste Land and Dante’s The Inferno.
The Road marks a departure from the author’s previous novels, including his 1985 breakthrough novel, Blood Meridian, as well as All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain, McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. With McCarthy’s discerning and unflinching eye, the trilogy traces themes of desolation and evil along the western frontier lands; many critics feel the romanticism of All the Pretty Horses capitulates to the brutal realism of the two novels that follow, leaving the reader with hard-edged despair.
Leaving behind the western past, McCarthy sets The Road in an equally bleak, undetermined future in which a father and son wend their way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland on a journey of possible futility. Their road is haunted by danger, death, and heart-rending pain. They encounter near starvation, suffer through a persistent, unyielding cold, and despair of ever seeing the sun again, the orb hidden by a dull gray curtain of ash that falls mercilessly upon the earth. The two travel in blind fear, hunted as food, and their resolve and very humanity are tested on every page. However, the narrative is also gracefully and poetically marked by signposts of hope and possibility. Even when they have no food or shelter, the man and boy still have each other, “each the other’s world entire.” The reader is ultimately lifted both by the persistent love of a parent whose selflessness transcends death and by the shared obstinate faith of the characters and of the author in humanity’s ability to endure.
McCarthy, thought by many to be the greatest living American author, has garnered a string of awards, winning twice the Ingram-Merrill award for creative writing, as well as the prestigious MacArthur Award. All the Pretty Horses earned the National Book Award in 1992, and in 2007, The Road won for McCarthy the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Many believe McCarthy’s highest honors are yet to come, however, placing him on the short list as a future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor he would share with such critically acclaimed American novelists as John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.
McCarthy’s style is often compared to Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s in that it is remarkably distinctive. His stripped-down prose is instantly recognizable, and The Road proves to be no exception. Formal structure and conventions, including most punctuation, are absent, replaced by haunting, lean, but extraordinarily realistic and detailed prose that manages a dreamy poeticism. Each paragraph in The Road seems to stand on its own as a snippet of a hallucination or a dream, each tied to the next until the novel resembles a loose, varied bundle carried by The Road’s protagonists along their journey— the essential pieces of survival, philosophy, morality, beauty, and devastation edged with fear and love. The imagery is so finely wrought and the language is so exquisite that the horrors that comprise the premise of the novel and that pepper the narrative are muted into grayscale. The unnamed father and son, too, are subsumed into every reader that toils to “carry the fire” of love and hope forward. In The Road, McCarthy gives us a terrible and terrifying look at what humans are capable of becoming when we remain dedicated to pursuing mutual destruction, while urging us to reconnect and put our faith in nothing less than our own shared humanity.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the elements of McCarthy’s distinctive prose and how they affect the mood of the novel.
2. Describe how the motif of fire is developed both literally and figuratively.
3. Identify how the old man acts as an archetype of a prophet.
4. Identify and contrast the alternating lean and lyrical narrative styles in the novel.
5. Describe the elements of the novel’s post-apocalyptic setting.
6. Identify how the novel explores themes of love, faith, and hope.
7. Identify multiple ways in which characters confront and synthesize their past and present in dreams.
8. Discuss the elements of a civilized society, and identify the components that lead to a breakdown in civilization.
9. Identify the elements that make up our humanity.
10. Explain the selflessness, compassion, and empathy demonstrated by the man and the boy.
11. Explain how the novel works as a journey narrative, and interpret multiple meanings of the title.