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.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for a section-by-section study of the narrative. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities for students to preview the vocabulary words they will encounter in each narrative section and to acquaint them generally with the section’s content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the narrative sections that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each section are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the lesson plan’s vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each section that are most appropriate for them.
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
1. Explain what the father means in thinking, “There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth is in grief and ashes,” followed by whispering to his sleeping son, “So . . . I have you.” How does the novel illustrate the “common provenance” of pain and grace?
2. Discuss the possible interpretations of the title of the book in the context of the story and beyond, including allusions to classical journeys taken in literature.
3. Before she commits suicide, the mother tells her husband, “They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all . . . my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.” Given her statement, is her response to her situation to be expected? Explain how and why the mother’s suicide might be considered reasonable given her circumstances. Do you find her suicide selfish or framed by love for her child?
4. Contrast the reasons and feelings that compel the mother to surrender to despair with the motivations of the father to keep living and to continue trying to protect their son. Describe the emotions and reactions the mother and the father each elicit in the reader through their philosophical reasoning and their resulting actions.
5. Cormac McCarthy’s novels are populated with “good guys” and “bad guys,” though the good guys don’t always win as they do in more conventional narratives. Drawing examples from the text, explain whether or not you think the good guys ultimately triumph in The Road and if they do, why. As part of your answer, describe what makes someone either “good” or “bad” in the context of the novel.
6. Removed from the structure and restraint of civilization, many characters in the novel resort to violent, predatory, and cannibalistic behavior. In what ways do the boy and man preserve a grasp on their humanity? What do you believe the author is saying about the essential nature of mankind?
7. The protagonists in the story remain unnamed throughout the novel. The only character who gives a name to the boy and man is Ely, an old man they encounter and help along the road. What is eventually revealed about Ely? Why do you believe the author made the choice not to name the other characters? How does that choice affect your attitude toward the characters and how you relate to the narrative?
8. The mother describes the world in which they now live as a “horror film.” What conventions does the novel share with those of the horror...
(The entire section is 1102 words.)
alabaster: a pure stone, usually white, often carved into vases or ornaments
apparition: an unusual or remarkable sight; a ghost
charred: partly or slightly burned
enshroud: to cover completely
forded: crossed a body of water
glaucoma: a disease in which excessive pressure inside the eye causes a gradual loss of vision
granitic: made of granite, a very hard rock
gryke: a vertical crack in rock made by water
knapsacks: bags worn on the back used for carrying supplies
lolling: drooping, hanging loosely
loped: ran or moved with a long bounding stride
lurched: moved in an abrupt and uncontrolled manner
mote: a small...
(The entire section is 1863 words.)
autistic: marked by a failure to use language and perceive surroundings normally
batboard: a type of siding material used in buildings
blowsy: having a sloppy or unkempt appearance or aspect
breakfront: a large cabinet or bookcase whose center section projects beyond the flanking end sections
cauterized: burned as a means of controlling bleeding
chiffarobe: a piece of furniture combining a wardrobe and a chest of drawers
clapboard: a narrow board that is thicker at one edge used for house siding
cloven: split in two
declination: a bending downward; the angular distance north or south from the celestial equator measured along a great circle...
(The entire section is 1337 words.)
barrows: large mounds of dirt or stones placed over the dead
basalt: a type of rock that is dark gray to black in color
creedless: without a set of fundamental beliefs
disclets: small disks
dismembered: disjointed, cut into pieces
doghouse sleeper: a small section behind the front seats in a truck cab in which a person may sleep
escarpment: a high cliff or steep slope that separates two flatter areas
feral: savage, untamed
firedrake: a mythical, fire-breathing dragon
frail: fragile, physically weak
frailty: weakness; imperfection
ginseng: a Chinese herb that can be used as medicine...
(The entire section is 2247 words.)
anointing: applying oil or another substance as part of a sacred ceremony
bracken: a large fern
chalice: a sacred drinking goblet used in religious services
cheroot: a cigar cut square at both ends
cobble together: to make; to patch together
emaciation: gauntness, extreme thinness
evoke: to call up, to call forth
lank: hanging straight
obsidian: a dark natural glass formed of cooled lava
palisade: a fence made from broken stakes (often used for defense)
parsible: able to be analyzed in separate parts
plundered: stolen or taken by force
(The entire section is 1685 words.)
bedlam: uproar or confusion
canebrake: a grouping of woody grass or reeds
catamites: boys kept as sexual slaves
chary: cautious, wary
consort: group or assembly
foyer: a formal entrance or lobby
frieze: a panel or mural
idiom: a figure of speech
illucid: obscure, clouded
jig: an open frame or box used to guide a machine tool
kerfs: small cuts or notches made by a saw
nickelplated: coated with a metal alloy
phalanx: a group of soldiers in close formation
port cochere: a roofed structure extending from the entrance of a building over an adjacent driveway
privet: a bush often formed into hedges...
(The entire section is 1439 words.)
corroded: slowly destroyed or worn down
begonia: a tropical plant with bright flowers
jerry jugs: narrow five-gallon containers used to hold liquids
krugerrands: one-ounce gold coins from the Republic of South Africa
morning glory: a weedy plant with brightly colored flowers that open in the morning
palimpsest: a document on which the old writing has been erased and replaced with new writing that still shows trace evidence of the former
puttered out: flickered or sputtered out
serpentine: curved or winding in a snake-like manner
sumptuous: luxurious, rich
swag: a sag or droop
(The entire section is 873 words.)
bivouacked: camped; found shelter
bolus: a rounded group
desiccated: dried out
envacuuming: removing air forcefully from around an object
half mired: half-stuck in the ground
patterans: groups of leaves or grass used by Gypsies to mark their paths
rasping: breathing with difficulty
throttle: noun a lever that controls the speed of an engine
1. Describe and characterize the conversation between the man and the boy that begins with a discussion of crows. What does the conversation show about the maturity of the child and his grasp of their circumstances?...
(The entire section is 1649 words.)
bilge: the lowest compartment on a ship
bindle: slang a portable bundle of bedding and possessions such as carried by vagrants
cleats: parts of a boat where ropes are affixed in mooring
dolmen: a monument usually regarded as a tomb
dovetailed corners: in carpentry, corners formed by the interlocking pins and tails of cut boards
fiddles: guardrails used on boat tables to prevent items from slipping in rough water
gantry crane: a bridge crane or large crane used to hoist large objects
gimballed: mounted on axes at right angles to each other so that objects are suspended in a
(The entire section is 1484 words.)
askew: crooked, misaligned
bandolier: a broad belt with loops for holding bullet cartridges (worn over the shoulder by soldiers)
bollards: small posts or pillars
clerestory: windows above eye level
cognate: associated, related
imponderable: immeasurable; impossible to weigh or value
lampblack: powdered carbon
loess: fine-grained soil deposited by the wind
salitter: essence of God
sloe: a plum tree or shrub
stippled: flecked, dappled
stoven: broken inward...
(The entire section is 2001 words.)
1. “In the long ago” is a phrase used frequently in the novel
A. to refer to the beginning of time.
B. as the beginning to stories the man tells the boy.
C. to refer to the time before the devastation.
D. to preface myths.
E. to signal a dream sequence.
2. Which does the boy appreciate for the beauty it brings as opposed to its utility?
A. a carved wooden flute
B. morel mushrooms
C. an orchid
D. the trout
E. the apple tree
3. What role does fire play in the novel?
(The entire section is 1017 words.)
1. Cormac McCarthy is well known for his distinctive prose. Identify the ways in which McCarthy’s writing style is unconventional. Also, describe two distinct prose styles found in The Road, and explain how the author’s use of language and narrative structure affect the novel’s mood. Include examples from the text in your discussion.
Cormac McCarthy’s writing style is very distinctive in the novel, for the most part lean and succinct and peppered with incomplete phrases that heighten the tension with their staccato brevity. It is also immediately noticeable that there is little punctuation; there are few commas, no hyphens or quotation marks, and apostrophes are only used to avoid the confusion of...
(The entire section is 4261 words.)