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What are some situational archetypes in The Road by Cormac McCarthy?

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Authors throughout history employ situational archetypes to effectively portray the structural elements of a good story. Several of these prominent situational archetypes in literature include The Task, The Journey, The Fall, The Quest, Death and Rebirth, Good vs. Evil, and others. In creating his vision of a postapocalyptic world in The Road, Cormac McCarthy uses essentially all of these formulaic elements in one way or another as the narrative follows the man and his son’s journey south to survive the winter.

One evident situational archetype in The Road is The Task: most significantly, the father is tasked with ensuring his son’s survival in this destroyed version of the Earth in which most of humanity has been wiped out. Prior to their journey, the man’s wife takes her own life; beforehand, she says to him,

The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself.

The novel indeed results in the man’s death, but his wife’s statement remains the truth: while he ultimately dies in this hostile environment, he continues on long enough for the sake of his son, thereby surviving for him until the man no longer can.

Likewise, Cormac McCarthy explores Death and Rebirth in relation to The Task. One of the most beautiful passages in the book—which occurs after the man tells the boy, “If you died I would want to die too”—uses vivid imagery to reflect upon the cycle of death and rebirth:

The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

This image, which illustrates a continuous cycle of ashes carried by the wind, represents the man’s anticipation of his death and his desperate motivation for his son to continue on—to not give up hope, and to remember that he will always carry his father’s spirit with him. Consequently, when the boy encounters a family on the beach that offers him protection, his father ultimately completes his task; in doing so, he instills hope in the possibility of rebirth among the ashes of a broken world.

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Situational archetypes basically describe the structures and expectations we have for how a story will play out based on a formula that has been used and re-used throughout literary history. One such archetype is the quest narrative, which will include obstacles, a hero figure, and more. The Road is a modern quest narrative wherein the man and the boy attempt to reach a destination and must overcome obstacles in their path along the way. The characters, namely the boy, learn lessons during the journey as well.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the aftermath of some catastrophic event that has wiped out most of humanity and left the planet in shambles. Desperation has driven people to stray from their civilized ways, and the world is a very dangerous place. The man must tutor the boy in survival tactics, while the boy represents a sort of unmarred innocence that is extraordinary, considering his surroundings. Over the course of their journey, the man teaches the boy how to find food and how to decide when to trust another person. At the end of the novel, the man dies and the boy is left on his own. He is offered the community and assistance of a group of people who find him on the beach and decides to take up with them. The boy's innocence remains, and his faith in humanity is also intact despite seeing the worst that people can and will do to each other. At a certain point in the story, the boy becomes more of a hero figure than the man, especially after the incident with the man who steals their cart. The man is passing a metaphorical torch to his son, who he believes carries the light, or the hope for the future of humanity. McCarthy's absences of names adds to the archetype as well, since our characters could be any father and son trying to survive in difficult times.

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Great question to ask. This excellent book is of course reminiscent in many ways to other great epics such as The Odyssey, which features the archetype of a journey. If we examine what happens to the father and the boy on this journey, we can see that there are situational archetypes that occur to them that are similar to those encountered by epic heroes such as Odysseus. For example, consider the obvious danger that the father and son face so often, in particular, the house they enter when they find the people locked in the basement. Clearly, the way that they are nearly trapped in this house and are kept as food has echoes of when Odysseus and his men are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops. You might also like to think about the way that the father dies, leaving his son to "carry the torch." This could be related to the relationship between Odysseus and his son Telemachus. Archetypal themes such as the perseverance of hope in the face of despair dominate this compelling narrative.

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