In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, what is the significance of the narrative voice? Why does McCarthy do this and what is the effect on the reader?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Cormac McCarthy's The Road traces the determined struggle of a father and son to make some sense of their post-apocalyptic world. Desperate to ensure a future for his son, the father goes to extraordinary lengths to keep himself and his son alive and to recognize opportunity and danger. McCarthy purposefully creates a setting that is desolate and unforgiving, confusing and extremely scary and which causes conflict and distress with every sentence. The road they are traveling is unnamed, the characters are unnamed, the potential for death is almost overwhelming and the punctuation in the novel is almost non-existent. When detail is provided it is very significant.

At the beginning, the third-person narrator remains outside the story and observes what the boy and his father do. As the struggle continues, the father exposes himself, and the text is sometimes in the third person and other times in the first. For example, when he talks of his wife, he is invested in the memories but remains distinct from them. The memories are his, and no event will change that. However, the memories are often painful so he remains outside of them. It is the recollection which brings him down to earth, even momentarily, and he is left in the midst of the situation. This is why McCarthy uses this method: to ensure that the reader can also be more than an observer. 

The reader has to remain extremely vigilant, just like the father and son; otherwise the narrative becomes difficult to follow. This reveals the father's own sense of complete disorientation and his efforts to sometimes remove himself from the center of the story when it becomes too much to bear. The third-person narrator then completes the story, ensuring that there is no emotion because that could get them killed, such as when they meet Ely and the boy is anxious to make a connection, something his father does not relish.   

The series of questions and answers between father and son help establish the theme of perseverance. The father says, "This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don't give up." However, there are times when the father does feel like giving up. His flashbacks confuse and unsettle him. He has to be part of the story but an outside narrator can give a realistic picture that keeps the grief and futile nature of their journey at a distance. The narrative gives new hope to the plight of father and son in an untenable situation. "Carrying the fire" and recognizing the "good guys" from the bad becomes all-consuming and it is the narrative voice that reveals the feelings and state of hopelessness or hope (depending on which circumstances the father and son find themselves in). When they find themselves at the father's childhood home, "Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart..." These memories are too real for an observer but they are too painful for the father and McCarthy uses this to his advantage in giving purpose where otherwise there may not be any. 

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