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Themes and Style in “The Road” Written by Cormac McCarthy

The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy, is a dystopian novel where a man and a boy are trying to survive in a world where morals and order have disappeared, driving humans to commit deliberate acts of cannibalism and murder. It represents the desire to never losing your principles, even if you are starving or dying. It also shows the strong relationship between an unnamed father and his son. In this outline, I will describe the main themes that surround the story, such as social conditions, setting statements, and the relation between dreams and reality. Besides that, I will also introduce the stylistic features that are included in this novel.

Place, time and weather conditions. Place and Temporality. The story starts in a post-apocalyptic world that is destroyed and covered with ash. “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (Page 1. The Road) “Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind” (Page 2. The Road) Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. (Page 1. The Road). Vegetation has died because of the apocalyptic event that took place in the past, which eradicate almost every life signal. Buildings and houses were destroyed, and isolation is present. “The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of colour.” (Page 2. The Road). “A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadow-lands stark and grey and a raw red mudbank where roadworks lay abandoned” (Page 3. The Road)

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Time and place are never mentioned as specific decades or locations, but we can deduce that the boy and the man are walking in what once was a developed country with roads, houses and gas stations. Time can be inferred by technology that the book includes, such as cars and televisions. Clearly, the story is set in the near future. “There was an antique pump organ in the corner. A television set also.” (Page 6. The Road). “On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few old cars in the trash-strewn parking lot.” (Page 7. The Road) The setting is a crucial and essential condition because later on, ash and destruction will be the primary causes of the man’s death. Ash drove him sick because of breathing dust and polluted air. At the end of the book, he dies, leaving the child alone, although we are not sure if the arrow in his leg was the main cause of his eternal rest.

”Slogging to the edge of the road with his back to the child where he stood bent with his hands on his knees, coughing. He raised up and stood with weeping eyes. On the grey snow a fine mist of blood” (Page 9. The Road) “He slept close to his father that night and held him, but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. He sat there a long time weeping, and then he got up and walked out through the woods to the road. When he came back, he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again. He never woke up.” (Page 91. The Road)

Weather. The weather is extremely cold, so life conditions and surviving chances decrease as the temperature stays below freezing. You can’t read more than three pages before finding a concept related to cold. “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night, he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him” (Page 1. The Road). “You’re freezing, aren’t you? Yes. If we stop, we’ll get really cold. I’m really cold now. What do you want to do?”- Dialogue between the man and the child. (Page 39. The Road) One of the main purposes of moving south is finding better weather conditions, because where they were, cold and wind made the desire of surviving more complicated and demanding. Besides that, winter was coming, and the best alternative was moving on.

“They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here” (Page 1. The Road). “And we’re still going south. Yes. So we’ll be warm. Yes. Okay.” (Page 3. The Road) Weather plays an important role in this book because it creates worse conditions for the boy and the man while they´re are trying not to freeze. Besides that, it makes a languishing and desolating environment for the reader. ”Where all was burnt to ash before them no fires were to be had and the nights were long and dark and cold beyond anything they’d yet encountered. Cold to crack the stones. To take your life.” (Page 4. The Road) “Their feet were wet and cold, and their shoes were being ruined” (Page 6. The Road)

Social Conditions.  Social Classes. Social Classes are established as a weak-strong battle. First, we have the “Bad Guys”, which are organized in groups where a leader commands every single action that the “team” will make. They decided to team up with others survivors to have more chances of attacking weaker travellers. They had trucks and weapons, and they seem to be cruel and merciless. They also became cannibals when they found that there are few possibilities of surviving. “He was a big man, but he was very quick. He dove and grabbed the boy and rolled and came up holding him against his chest with the knife at his throat.” (Page 20. The Road). “No, I’m speaking the truth. Sooner or later they will catch us, and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us, and you won’t face it.” (Page 17. The Road)

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On the other hand, the man and the boy consider that they are the “Good Guys”, the ones that have a mission to help people and to don´t miss the moral codes. They mentioned something about “Carrying the fire”, which means carrying hope and faith. “Maybe there’s a father and his little boy, and they’re sitting on the beach. That would be okay. Yes. That would be okay. And they could be carrying the fire too? They could be. Yes. But we don’t know.” (Page 70. The Road) “We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we? No. Of course not. Even if we were starving? We’re starving now. You said we weren’t. I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving. But we wouldn’t. No. We wouldn’t. No matter what. No. No matter what. Because we’re the good guys. Yes. And we’re carrying the fire.” (Page 40. The Road)

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow, where he established the different levels of needs that humans need to have in order to survive. First and more basic, physiological needs include breathing, eating, sleeping, drinking, and having sex. As we continued reading from the bottom to the top, we can find another type of need, such as the ones related to being safe.  Then, we discover needs connected with feelings and with belonging to a group. Last but not least, self-esteem needs constitute the top of the pyramid. We can relate Maslow’s pyramid with “The Road” by understanding how society changed needs like being loved or having compassion in order of fulfilling more relevant needs such as eating or calming sexual desire. This happened because they have no other chance of living, so they prefer to kill or rape instead of dying of starvation, forgetting every moral concept that they have acquired. Here’s where humans take out their animal instinct to preserve the species.

“Let’s just go. We should hide our trash. Because they’ll think we have lots of food. Yes. And they’ll try to kill us. They won’t kill us. They might try to.” (Page 62. The Road). “Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip, and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous. Jesus, he whispered. Then one by one, they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us. He turned and grabbed the boy. Hurry, he said.” (Page 34. The Road). “Whoever is living in this house is eating their way through a store of human beings locked up in the cellar” (Page 35. The Road). “He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit” (Page 64. The Road)

How society is organized is indispensable in this story because it demonstrates the lack of control and the emotionless feelings that drive the people to a situation where “dog-eats-dog” and where they kill babies to eat—relationship between The Man and The Boy. Father’s Responsibility. From the start, it’s clear that the boy is all the man worries about. He is all the man has, and the man believes that he’s been entrusted by God to protect the boy, and he considers that he has to give everything to protect him, even his life. When the “bad guy” tried to kill his son with a knife, he shot to his head, killing him instantly. “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (Page 1. The Road). “Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last?

Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn, you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh, God. You give me the mission to protect him, but I can’t do that on my own. Oh God” (Page 3. The Road). “The man had already dropped to the ground, and he swung with him and levelled the pistol and fired from a two-handed position balanced on both knees at a distance of six feet. The man fell back instantly and lay with blood bubbling from the hole in his forehead.” (Page 20. The Road)

The Man identifies his son as his “warrant”, – which means the child provides him with a reason to live. “The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. He is your only hope, and you didn’t notice that” (Page 17. The Road). “No, I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys, but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear? I want to be with you. You cant. Please. You are always taking care of me. Don’t leave me. You say I’m The One Papa.” (Page 91. The Road)

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The special bond between parent and child. As we read, we can find details that show us the relation between the boy and the man, and how the man still has those “old world traditions” such as giving him Coca Cola or encouraging him to swim, which are lessons that fathers from the “old world” would have taught to their children. “He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola. What is it, Papa? It’s a treat. For you. What is it? Here. Sit down. He put his thumbnail under the aluminium clip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said. The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said. Go ahead. He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said. Yes. It is. You have some, Papa. I want you to drink it, son.” (Page 6. The Road.)

“Is it over my head? the boy called. No. Come on. He turned and swam out to the falls and let the water beat upon him. The boy was standing in the pool to his waist, holding his shoulders and hopping up and down. The man went back and got him. He held him and floated him about, the boy gasping and chopping at the water. You’re doing good, the man said. You’re doing good.” (Page 11. The Road). We can also see that the man will prefer to kill his son instead of letting the “bad guys” torture him. He mentioned that he doesn’t know if he will be able of murdering his own kid. When he felt worried about the boy, he gave him the gun, and he said to him that if they catch him, he should put it into his mouth and pull the trigger as fast as he can. In the end, the man died, leaving the child alone and giving him vague instructions before he passed away. He told him to keep moving South until he finds the “good guys” who are carrying the fire.

“He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it. Take it, he whispered. Take it. The boy was terrified. He put his arm around him and held him. His body is so thin. Don’t be afraid, he said. If they find you, you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? Stop crying. Do you understand? I think so. No. Do you understand? Yes. Say yes, I do, Papa. Yes, I do, Papa.” (Page 35. The Road) “It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it. You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to. No, I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys” (Page 91. The Road)

Dreams. Good dreams. Through the story, we can find that the man and the boy have “good dreams” where they feel comfortable and happy, forgetting, at least for a little while, what they are living in the real world. “In dreams, his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed, and her rib bones painted white. She wore a dress of gauze, and her dark hair was carried up in combs of ivory, combs of the shell. Her smile, her downturned eyes.” (Page 5. The Road.) “He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril, and all else was the call of languor and of death. He slept little, and he slept poorly. He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue, but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds.” (Page 5. The Road)

Good dreams act like mirages in the novel, drawing the characters away from their harsh reality. But the man also considers that good dreams are never good signs. “This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be. The kind of dreams that make you forget all the bad things in life.” (Page 48. The Road)  “I don’t have good dreams anyway. They’re always about something bad happening. You said that was okay because good dreams are not a good sign. Maybe” (Page 88. The Road)

Bad Dreams or Nightmares. Nightmares, on the other hand, reflect the terror they face daily. It’s almost as if the unconscious in the novel no longer harbours illicit desires. All the terrible things people could do are already being done, and no one can prevent this from happening. “In his dream, she was sick, and he cared for her. The dream bore the look of sacrifice, but he thought differently. He did not take care of her, and she died alone somewhere in the dark, and there is no other dream nor other waking world, and there is no other tale to tell.” (Page 9. The Road) “He woke whimpering in the night, and the man held him. Shh, he said. Shh. It’s okay. I had a bad dream. I know. Should I tell you what it was? If you want to. I had this penguin that you wound up, and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in, and it came around the corner, but nobody had wound it up, and it was really scary.” (Page 10. The Road)

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They squatted in a bleak wood and drank ditchwater strained through a rag. He’d seen the boy in a dream laid out upon a cooling board and woke in horror. What he could bear in the waking world he could not by night, and he sat awake for fear the dream would return.” (Page 40. The Road). When the boy had bad dreams, the man encourages him, saying that his bad dreams mean he hasn’t given up. Good dreams are just a call from death.  “And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you?” (Page 6. The Road) “You said I would be ok if I have nightmares. That even if they scare me, they are good because it means that I can still be living for something” (Page 61. The Road)

Stylistic features. Allegory. Using a character symbolically to represent an abstract concept that complements the literal meaning. A character personifies a value such as freedom. The boy represents innocence and compassion in a world that is killing itself to survive. He is very mature and intelligent, and he can get mad when someone tries to take advantage of someone less prepared. He always wants justice. “He’s been struck by lightning. Cant we help him? Papa? No. We cant help him. The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said. Stop it. Cant we help him, Papa? No. We cant help him. There’s nothing to be done for him. They went on. The boy was crying. He kept looking back.” (Page 15. The Road)

Allusion. A reference to something which is commonly known, such as an event, place, book, song, among others. It is useful when trying to make the author felt identified with the story. The man gives the child a Coca-Cola, probably the last one on Earth. It is emphasizing that even if Coca Cola is the most sold product in the entire world, in that post-apocalyptic world, Coca Cola is not common anymore. “He’d hooked up a small gas heater, and they drank Coca Cola out of plastic mugs. They were lucky of finding that can” (Page 46. The Road)

Symbolism. Something concrete represents an abstract idea as a concept that must be shown in the shape of an object. “The Fire” carried by both the Man and the Boy inside of them symbolizes the only love left in the world. It could also symbolize the hope that they must carry inside of them in order to survive. “How do I know you’re one of the good guys? You don’t. You’ll have to take a shot. Are you carrying the fire? Am I what? Carrying the fire.” (Page 92. The Road) “And nothing bad is going to happen to us. That’s right. Because we’re carrying the fire. Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.” (Page 25. The Road)

The Road symbolizes hope, courage, good vs evil (whether you choose the life path of good or the life path of evil). It also represents the “Keep moving forward” ideology. “Then they walked out to the road, and he took the boy’s hand, and they went to the top of the hill where the road crested and where they could see out over the darkening country to the south. There were not too far away from their objective” (Page 2. The Road). “That road has been their home for almost all the boy’s life. It was not just a path that they must follow. It was his home” (Page 46. The Road)

Anonymity. A stylistic feature where the author never names a character, place or thing, to create a sensation of generality, where that situation can fit in any other situation. It makes it easier for the author to be identified. Neither the man nor the child has names which give the novel a feeling that this could be happening to anyone. The author didn’t give the country a name because he wanted to add some mystery and because he tried to not establish a concrete place, letting us change the story into what we want. Besides that, he didn’t set the time. As we can see, the author represented a lot of concepts with abstract images, which make the story’s mood deeper and more complete.

Previously, I have mentioned the importance of social conditions and social organization as clue concepts that drive us to understand the symbolism and the author’s purpose. I also talked about the setting and how it complements what the characters are living. Then I included a close look at the Father and Son relationship and how it contributes as an important masterpiece to the novel. Finally, I described some of the stylistic features found in the book. This book is a fantastic way of noticing what humans can do under extreme conditions and how love can motivate us when we are losing hope.

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Themes and Style in "The Road" Written by Cormac McCarthy. (2021, Aug 17). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from