By Sidney Williams
I’ve noticed that I consistently choose to not read “fun” books. I always enjoy what I read, but it’s always something that I would usually choose to describe as “impactful” instead of fun. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road certainly falls under that descriptor. It is devastating, but important.
I’m not going to pretend to be the world’s leading expert on The Road and certainly not on Cormac McCarthy, but it was important to my reading development, and it is a story that I keep coming back to. In this retrospective, I’m going to talk about my impressions and thoughts I had while reading, and some analysis of key moments. I shall also be covering some differences between the book and the movie. This being the case, I am obligated to issue a strong spoiler warning. If you read this, you will be spoiled on major parts of the book (and therefore major parts of the movie as well). You have been warned.
The Road showcases the darkest parts of humanity in its darkest hour. Following an unnamed man and his son walking along a highway after an unnamed apocalypse, Cormac McCarthy paints a dark, drab picture of what a post-human world would look like. Obviously, I think The Road is a great book. On the surface it’s just a sad story about the struggle to survive against all odds, but it’s all that’s below the surface that stands out. The many allegories and the pervasive “show don’t tell” style of writing makes the reading experience active, and engaging. Every encounter with other people is tense, sad, and often disgusting. The vocabulary is impressive, but not overbearing, and the atmosphere of the story is exactly what it needs to be. However, the actual writing isn’t for everybody. There are no quotation marks, minimal commas, and interesting ways of writing words, such as “roofingfelt”, “dont”, and “coathanger” (I didn’t forget any apostrophes or spaces!) This bothers a lot of readers, and makes the reading experience quite a bit different from most other books, but there is an argument to be had on the meaning of this unique use of punctuation. I am not the most qualified to discuss the use of punctuation and the meaning that deviating from the norm can hold, so I’ll point you towards a short analysis that I found while researching for this retrospective which talked about the Unorthodox Use of Punctuations in “The Road”. Beyond the punctuation, the pacing can be slow in many places throughout the story. I personally enjoyed the slow, methodical pace. It let me absorb everything and really try to grapple with the state of the world, but this slow pace can just as easily take another reader out of the immersion, which The Road relies on maintaining. So, if you are a person who would get bogged down by the punctuation, and pacing, or someone who would be scarred by the gruesome scenes, The Road may not be the best choice for you, but I want to emphasize that if none of that is a deal breaker for you, the story Cormac McCarthy presents is deep, thoughtful, and will stick with you.
Some differences between the book and the movie (bodies hanging in a barn)
There are some key differences between the book, and the 2009 movie. There’s only three that I really want to mention though. The first is how the boy deals with finding bodies hanging in a barn. In the book, this scene was glossed over, both the man and the boy knew that many people chose to kill themselves instead of facing the apocalypse and McCarthy left the reader to realize that the barn had been the site of suicide. But in the movie, the boy seemed confused as to why people would do that, and the man was left to explain to both the boy and the viewers that people had felt hopeless enough to kill themselves. This choice broke away from the “show don’t tell” nature of the book, and caused a contradiction with the boy knowing about, and understanding his mother’s suicide. Speaking of the mother, in the movie her death seemed much more raw to the man, he was still grieving, whereas in the book he had long ago accepted what happened, and only when he was nearing death or starvation was he actively pining for the past. This change seemed to come in direct conflict with the decision to change the portrayal of “the woman”. The book was not exactly kind to the woman, painting her as depressed at best, and weak and cowardly at worst, but the movie made her (understandably) cruel. This can be seen in these quotes (pulled from IMDb):
The Man : I will do anything. Anything.
Wife : Like what? Hmmm? I don't even know why I ask you. I should just go ahead and empty every goddamn bullet into my brain and leave you with nothing. That's what I should do.
The Man : Please don't talk like that.
The final difference I want to touch on is how the encounter with the Cannibals plays out. In the book the man and the boy were able to find a way out of the house almost immediately, they still think that they were seen, but they still have the relative safety of being out of the house. In the movie, they end up cornering themselves in the bathroom, only escaping when the cannibals become distracted. While they are trapped in the bathroom, the man tries to make sure that the boy knows how to kill himself. I actually really like this change. It adds to the tension, it makes the man telling his boy how to kill himself make a little more sense in the moment. It is really well done.
To give a better idea of the theme of The Road I’ll now move forward to describing and then providing some basic analysis of key moments in the story. There are a lot of ways you could look at the story, in fact there are hundreds of essays, and analyses you could find based on any one of the moments I’m going to touch on. With that in mind, my goal here is to summarize what the key moment is, add the commentary necessary to explain why it is a key moment, and finally provide a basic argument as to what the overall significance and meaning of the moment is. If one in particular piques your interest, I wholeheartedly heartedly encourage you to go onto google and explore the topic to your heart’s content. With that said, let’s dive in.
The first person that the man and the boy meet on the road is a man that had been struck by lightning. He looked horrific, and the man knew he would die soon. The boy wanted to help the lightning man, but wasn’t allowed to. This encounter sets the stage for the primary conflict between the boy and the man throughout the story.
In all circumstances where a person is not directly threatening their lives, the boy always wants to try to help, the man is all too aware that providing that help could result in he and the boy not having enough for themselves. And in some cases, it would be literally impossible for the man to do anything, like in the case of the lightning man; he was too injured, and there no longer existed a hospital he could be rushed to. The boy eventually accepted that there was nothing to be done, but it took him some time, and paved the way for him questioning whether or not he and his father were actually “the good guys”.
The first people that the man and the boy actually interact with is a traveling road gang. The man and the boy hear them on the road and go off to the side to hide, but they’re discovered by accident. The gang member grabs the boy, and after a heated discussion, the man shoots him. Of course the gunshot is heard and the man and the boy have to abandon practically all of their supplies, when they return to the road all that is left of the gang is tire tracks and the charred remains of the fallen member–he had been eaten.
This is the first direct encounter with cannibalism and “bad” people that we have. They have always been in the background and a subtle specter, but now the specter has materialized. This is also the only place where we see the man actually kill someone. All other harm done by the man is left ambiguous as to the final outcome, here it isn’t, the gun goes off and the boy is covered in brains. It’s harsh, but then again so is this new world.
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. The Road page 52.
The cause for the end of the world is never confirmed within the book. Like so much else, McCarthy leaves it up to you to fill in the blanks. I personally think that the end came due to the culmination of a nuclear war…however this would likely require much more radiation than was touched on. So, at times I swing to the other most popular theory: massive meteor/meteor shower. This would explain the lack of radiation, but I think it doesn’t do as well explaining all the fire damage. Anyway, the most detail we get about it is that there was a massive flash of light, and that it happened at 1:17 (my guess is AM considering how profound the flash was). After the flash, the man rushes to the restroom and uses the remaining water pressure to fill the bathtub with fresh water. This is actually what convinced me of the nuclear winter; the man was prepared. He knew that he would need to gather fresh water, or at least that he may need to. If it had been a meteor shower, everyone (including the man) would have been blindsided. Of course, one could argue that “being prepared” would also entire having prepared a bunker of some sort, and my response is that the man was likely thinking that nothing that catastrophic could ever touch him, the thought had come into his head, but never strong enough to take prior action. The 1:17 is practically the only concrete detail that we’re given on the end of the world, so it has been the subject of many theories, the general consensus coming to “biblical allusion”. Which biblical allusion is still a debate. There seems to be many that apply, though my favorite is James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (Taken from the English Standard Version) It gives a darkly ironic twist as 1:17 is when God’s Gifts stopped coming. But it could just have easily been a statement that the apocalypse was not God’s doing and his “gift” was the boy. I don’t have anywhere close to the knowledge of theology that is necessary to make a complete and concrete argument. However, this line does show how much there is to unpack in the book, even now.
For me, the most harrowing scene in the book is during the exploration of the cannibals’ house. The boy was already terrified, and didn’t want to go into the large house they’d found off the side of the road. But the man was getting desperate. Looking through the house, they found nothing, until the man broke a lock on a trapdoor in the floor. In the basement were people, men, women, and a man on the floor with his legs cut off up to the torso and burned at the stump to stop him from bleeding out. They beg the man and the boy for help, but they just run back up the stairs. As they start to leave, they see the cannibals returning, and the man is sure they are seen. This is when the man starts seriously questioning if he could kill his son if it came to being captured, and the boy was unable to kill himself. This part of the book is the one that truly shows how grim the world has gotten.
In many ways, this sequence is the peak of the book. It is the most disturbing, and (arguably) the highest stakes interaction in the book, the man even coaches the boy through how to kill himself if they are caught. When I reread this section, I experienced a sinking feeling as it set in just how horrible everything had become. For a moment the boy saw and understood why the man was so reluctant to help others. He never questioned why not helping the “meals” didn’t immediately make him and his father “the bad guys”. This is one of those scenes which offers extreme depth of emotion right on the surface of the page. The stench from the meals, the horror or the man, the fear that they may be caught, everything is right on the page, easy to access and feel. It is gut wrenching, but that is what makes it so impactful.
Throughout the book, the man and the boy have been heading down the road with the intention of reaching the coast and thereby finding the ocean. A lot of speculation is made on why they’re making this trek, and the explanation I find most satisfying is that (as mentioned throughout the book) the winters are getting colder, and the man knows that they will not survive another winter where they started. By nature of it being the destination of their arduous journey, the ocean has been built up, and the boy wonders if it will be sparkly and blue like the man remembers it. It is not. It is gray, and empty, and depressing, like everything else in this new world. In many ways, this is how the last bit of hope in the book is killed. I remember getting to the coast and having it really sink in that everything was dead, and gone. There is no better place. There is nowhere to go that would provide salvation. It begs the question: what was the point?
While the man and the boy are exploring the beach, they come back to see that all of their supplies have been stolen. They find the person who did it, and the man threatens him at gunpoint so that everything is returned. However, the man is not satisfied. He demands that the thief strip, leaving him with nothing. The boy is horrified, crying out to his father that they had killed the thief by leaving him in the freezing wastes naked, and with nothing. Despite the man arguing that, that is what the thief had tried to do to them, he relents and tries to return the clothing and shoes, but the thief is nowhere to be found.
This is an interesting interaction because this is the only time where the man is shown to be vindictive. There was no reason to strip the thief and leave him to die. The boy knew this, but the man was angry and justified his actions by saying that “that was what [the thief] was trying to do to them”. The man was scared, he knew he was dying and so he was becoming angry, and taking his hopelessness out on other people. He came to his senses, but the thief disappearing emphasized that some things just can’t be fixed.
The ending of The Road is of a completely different tone from the rest of the book. It talks about how there “once” was brook trout “in the streams [and the] mountains”. This–again like almost everything else in the book–has a lot to be said on, in fact I encourage you to read this well thought out piece that I stumbled upon while researching: The End of the Road by Sean Hermanson it goes much further in depth than I could ever hope to. However, what I would like to comment on is the word “once”. This word starts this cryptic paragraph, and underlies basically the entire book. Everything that the man knew is gone, and the boy that is carrying on his legacy only knows of the past through “once upon a times” it is depressing, and the brook trout shows off well what was lost. Something unique, beautiful, yet fragile. Personally, I think it is describing to us what the man saw as he died. Something that “could not be put back”, but something that “once” was.
The Road is depressing. But it provides a wonderful, fleshed out story devoid of vast swaths of dialogue explaining what you should be thinking and feeling. This concise nature is what makes the events in the book so impactful; your brain is quickly delivered all the information it needs and then it is free to absorb the horror and sadness. What’s better is just how much this little book has to dig through, there are so many analyses that exist, all with compelling arguments. You could spend months if not years wading through everything before you came up with a full picture, and I think that, that is amazing for something that has so recently been added to the list of classics. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to read, in fact I had to take several breaks in order to recover from how dark the story gets, but if you can make your way through it, I will wholeheartedly defend The Road as the best post-apocalyptic novel. It is truly amazing.
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A searing, post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son's fight to survive, this "tale of survival and the miracle of goodness only adds to McCarthy's stature as a living master. It's gripping, frightening and, ultimately, beautiful" (San Francisco Chronicle).