How does the setting in The Road serve as the main antagonist?

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A story's antagonist is the person or group that stands in opposition to the protagonist . The central conflict involves the "fight" that exists between the protagonist and antagonist. A general assumption is that an antagonist is a character because the protagonist is generally a character; however, that is an...

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A story's antagonist is the person or group that stands in opposition to the protagonist. The central conflict involves the "fight" that exists between the protagonist and antagonist. A general assumption is that an antagonist is a character because the protagonist is generally a character; however, that is an overly simplistic assumption. Plenty of literary pieces involve a man vs. nature conflict, and no actual second character stands in opposition to the protagonist. Gary Paulsen's Hatchet is a good example.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road isn't quite as extreme in the man vs. nature conflict as Paulsen's book because there are people that the Boy and the Man do come in conflict against. Of course, even without those people, the Boy and the Man have serious survival conflicts. Finding adequate food, water, and shelter are a constant battle. The two characters are on the brink of starvation multiple times. Readers are never told what caused the cataclysmic ending to the world and society, but it is clear that the lack of food, water, and shelter has turned people animalistic. Everybody is forced to fend for themselves, and even spending days or weeks away from other people doesn't remove the dangers that nature puts in place.

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The road in Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the enemy.  It is the obstacle more than it is their path.  The setting of the story, a post-apocalyptic Earth with few remaining humans (and hostile, animalistic ones at that), is trying to kill the man and his son continually.  Forest fires, cannibals, a nagging lung disease the father has, the long journey they have along with the unknowns at even their destination all make for a setting that is inherently antagonistic and hostile.

Were it not for that setting, they could find food and water more easily, they could find their way perhaps to something like safety, or have any chance at a more stable society, but the hostile environment has driven all of humanity nearer to the edge that the man and boy face.

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