In what ways is the road an important symbol in the novel? (what can the road represent?)Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Cormac McCarthy's Southern Gothic and Naturalistic "The Road," the father and his boy travel the road to the ocean.  The road is what gives them direction, what gives them purpose, what affords them the opportunity for a reason to survive:  they must keep traversing the road.  It is the life-driving source in a world devastated and eradicated. That the road is central to the father and son's existences is evidenced in this passage from page 261:

He got up and walked out to the road.  The black shape of it running from dark to dark.  Then a distant low rumble...A sound without cognate and without description....He walked out into the road and stood.  The silence...At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering....

Throughout the novel, the father has flashbacks and he and the boy have misgivings about their survival, but the road ahead takes on a spiritual meaning and gives them some direction to their lives. But, unlike a road of many novels, such as the road to California that takes the Joads to new life and new hope in "The Grapes of Wrath"--albeit fraught with dangers along the way--the road of McCarthy's narrative can only be traveled in the night by the father and the boy, for Death lies in wait for them.  Finally, in a naturalistic denouement, the father must succumb to implacable Death.

James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Roads almost always represent the journey of life. They can also be seen as connectors and, in the post-apocalyptic world of McCarthy's novel, as a pathway that is fraught with danger (pretty much all the cannibalistic "bad guys" are encountered along the road) and that may or may not lead to salvation.

The open road is, of course, a standard symbol of freedom and self-discovery in American literature (and American mythology in general). Just consider the film Easy Rider or Kerouac's novel On the Road or the opening lines of Whitman's poem "Song of the Open Road":

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

McCarthy seems to be turning this conventional symbol on its head.

Read the study guide:
The Road

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