How does the wife specifically die in The Road?

The wife dies in The Road by slitting her wrists with a piece of obsidian.

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The wife dies by suicide. Unable to adjust to the challenges and threats faced in the world in which the family now find themselves, she gives up on life. Another way of looking at her suicide is that since she believes that rape, murder, and being eaten are inevitable in this new world, she ends her life on her own terms.

To get into the specifics, she ends her life using a piece of obsidian, which is an igneous rock known for its usefulness in making cutting tools. Prior to her suicide, her husband begs her to change her mind, but since he is unable to rationalize away her fears, all his attempts to dissuade her prove futile. She ends her life without bidding their son farewell and uses the piece of obsidian to slit her wrists. Ironically, it was her husband who had taught her about obsidian and its usefulness for cutting oneself should the time come to end one’s life.

Later, the man empties everything out of his wallet and places his late wife’s picture on the road. This symbolic gesture marks the end of her being part of their lives. Later, however, he thinks back to the picture and wishes that at least a part of her could have stayed with him and their son as they continued their journey through the wasteland that their world has become.

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The wife dies before the action of the novel begins. The man remembers her death, and we learn of it through his memories. He recalls that they had frequently discussed suicide and that he had taught her how she could slit her wrists. One day, she tells him she is finished and wants to die. He appeals to her on the basis of the boy. However, he knows he cannot stop her when she decides to kill herself: it is a rational response to their hopeless, frightening existence. Her suicide is described by the man:

She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He'd taught her himself. Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick. And she was right. There was no argument.

The short, emotionless sentences show the way the man has cut off his emotions in order to survive. He cannot allow himself the luxury of grieving her death. He moves on and eventually rids himself of his wallet filled with his credit cards and a photo of her. He hesitates over leaving her photo behind but finally does it so that he will not be held back by the past.

After his wife's death, the man's focus is completely on his young son. Having a relationship with him through loving him and protecting him gives the man a sense of purpose and a reason to stay alive.

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In the film version of Cormac McCarthy 's novel, the "wife" played by Charlize Theron, looks intently at her husband (Viggo Mortensen) and speaks...

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clearly: "They're going to rape me. They're going to rape him (meaning their young son). They're going to kill us. And then they're going to eat us."

Her death is not shown. She merely disappears one night. The sound of the riots outside their apartment, and the blurred outlines of explosions and fire, are a backdrop to her husband's realization she has gone. She is shown going out the door, and not looking back. It appears she is going to allow herself to become a victim of the brutality she feared; and perhaps by sacrificing herself she allows a window of opportunity for her son and husband to escape the city and travel to a safer place.

In the novel, there is a sequence where the husband has a dream of his wife and after awakening he thinks, "she died alone somewhere in the dark." The novel also makes it seem that the wife was on the road with them briefly; her last moments are related in one of the flashback sequences which occur throughout the novel. She tells her husband she wants to kill herself and refuses to stay until the boy wakes up in the morning. The husband assumes she uses obsidian to slit her own wrists, as he showed her to do, in case things became desperate. The next morning realizing his mother is not there, the boy merely says, "She's gone, isn't she?" suggesting he may have overheard his parents the night before.

The man also removes his wife's photograph from his wallet and leaves it behind on the roadside; this is symbolic of both honoring her "as she was" (not having to contemplate how she died) but also of wanting to let go of his memories of her, perhaps because they are too painful—or too easy a distraction from the constant vigilance needed to survive.

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After the unspecified natural disaster destroys society as they know it, the world of the characters in The Road spirals downward until cannibalism and crime is the order of the day.  Our main character, his wife and child have survived up until now, but the wife has grown despondent.  She knows eventually she will be captured, assaulted, and then eaten, and she cannot live with the fear.

Her husband has tried to prepare her for this by teaching her to slit her wrists with obsidian, even teaching her how to do it most effectively so that she can avoid her most feared fate if it comes to that.  Without knowing it, he has taught her how to commit suicide before they are ever captured.  He tries to talk her out of it, but she is adamant, and the man and their son walk away knowing she cannot be convinced not to kill herself.  While the book doesn't detail her death beyond that, it's clear that's what happens.

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