How can I write a response to The Road by Cormac McCarthy? How can I develop something to think about it?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The first step to writing a reader response to a novel is to develop a thought reacting to it or an emotional response to it. There are several avenues of consideration that might elicit a cognitive or an emotional response. Some of these are:

  • content
  • theme
  • mood (the same as atmosphere)
  • tone (the narrator's feeling toward the subject)
  • diction
  • syntactical style
  • structure

Very often, a reader's response to a work will be established upon reading the first page. There are several interesting and attention grabbing elements in The Road that arrest attention in the first pages. Let's examine one or two of these to help you find your own cognitive and/or emotional response to McCarthy's novel.

One of the first things the reader notices on page one is the syntactical style of the sentence (syntactical style: style in which words are related to each other to form sentences). With a background of familiarity with Faulkner, a definite influence from Faulkner's work is evident in sentences of combined but streaming thoughts. Additional, though subtler post-modern influence can be noted indicated by sentences lacking standard punctuation and lacking standard components of structure:

Non-standard punctuation: "He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the sinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none." Omitted comma between "light" and "but."

Non-standard sentence components (syntax):"Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang."

Syntactical analysis of sentence: {"Deep stone flues [Subject, Noun Phrase] (where the water dripped and sang) [Post-modifier clause of Subject Noun Phrase]} [Subject, Noun Phrase].

For some readers, these elements lend texture and intrigue while for others these lend annoyance and absurdity. This is one of the things that a reader might respond to.

Another element that will evoke response is McCarthy's style of characterization. It is critical that characterization begin in the first paragraphs, and this does. The tone begins to characterize the first-person narrator while actions and reactions begin to characterize the sleeping child. 

The tone, though gloomy and bordering on despondent, is nonetheless involved with what is available of life registers an awareness of guardianship. This characterizes the narrator as a person of depth of inner character with strong protectiveness and a sense of responsibility that overrides the gloom of circumstances.

The narrators action of reaching "out to touch the child sleeping beside him" characterizes him a gentle and assertive of protective care while characterizing the child as feeling safe ans secure though in insecure circumstances. The narrator's reaction of allowing his hand to rise and fall "with each precious breath" characterizes him as loving and devoted while characterizing the child as feeling sympathetic and grateful love in response; he is fearless in a situation that seems to call forth fear:

Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.

These characterizations and this atmosphere that surrounds the narrator and the child are certainly elements that evoke a cognitive or an emotive reaction for a reader to respond to. Other things to consider responding to are:

  • what literary or rhetorical devices are used, e.g., hyperbaton: "the days more gray each one"?
  • how the principal characters respond to complicating action?
  • how their emotional relations develop or express itself?
  • what levels of tension come and go in the first-person narrator's tone?
  • what feeling the resolution evokes?
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