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The Road is set in some undetermined location, probably on the East Coast, though this is not confirmed. There is mention of distant mountains, several rivers and creeks, the Piedmont (a plain that runs along the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains), and a coastline. The landscape and the air are soaked in thick, gray ash. Vegetation has been destroyed. There are no fish in the water. When snow falls, it collects the ash in the air and falls to the earth already gray.

The man and boy encounter few people in this story. Most of those they do come across are brutish because everyone is starving and fighting for survival. It is also always cold. The disaster that has caused this dismal setting is not named, though there are hints of explosions. But whatever the cause, all the cities have been destroyed. There is no electricity or working phones. Grocery stores have been emptied; most houses have been abandoned.

Almost all the people in this story are constantly on the move. The man’s goal is to make it to the south, to the coastline. This goal is neither defined nor explained. The south might represent warmth. The ocean might be a source of food. But neither warmth nor bounties of food are found once the man and the boy finally reach the edge of the water. The shoreline is just as cold as the mountains were. The only food they find is in an abandoned yacht that has washed up on the sand. The landscape is more level along the shore, but the overall setting remains the same: drained of life, bitterly cold, and hopeless.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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No reviewer disagrees about the terror and devastation that is presented in The Road, nor does anyone disagree about the beauty of the book’s prose. Critics also frequently comment on McCarthy’s ability to create a story of such destruction alongside a story of such intense devotion. For example, Mary Fitzgerald, writing for the New Statesman (December 4, 2006), described the novel as a “gripping, heart-rending story, which explores the depths of despair and savagery beside the heights of love, tenderness and self-sacrifice.” A reviewer for Newsweek (October 2, 2006) was not caught off-guard by the high quality of McCarthy’s writing, which readers have come to expect. But the reviewer was surprised that McCarthy, whose novels are known for being “terse, unsentimental, bleak,” could also be so “touching.” In other words, McCarthy has astonished readers not with his outstanding command of language or his economical style of writing, but rather with his ability to demonstrate (and to make his readers feel) a tremendously deep sense of love. And he has done so through one of the bleakest stories he, or anyone, has ever told.

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