Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” Essay
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A novel entitled ‘The Road’ sparks the image of a journey, not necessarily one concerning movement, but an experience, where by the time you reach the ‘destination’ you have either witnessed something or come-by certain things which may affect you as a person, changed the way you think or possibly had an effect on your personal ethics. For example, a mental journey, whereby somebody lives through a certain period in their life and comes out the other end with a new perspective and attitude, like in J.
D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. Another type of journey is an actual physical one ‘from A to B’; at the destination in this type of journey one may feel a sense of achievement and arrive at ‘B’ with scores of anecdotes and stories that can range from little events that make a good joke to events which may actually change you as a person.
Writing about journeys like these is a genre of writing in its own right: Travel Writing, an example being John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’. The third type of journey that I associate with the phrase ‘The Road’ is the concept of being on an open road, simply going with no particular interest in where you may arrive, simply the journey itself has its importance. This may simply be on a whim or yearning for open road or maybe because of a need to travel, to not stop and just keep going and perhaps to get away from something, an example of this is the film ‘Thelma and Louise’.
This is a key image in American Culture, not only featured in many novels and films but important simply because it represents a freedom to be who you want to be. The open road offers new horizons and the prospect to witness new and unexpected things. This idea represents the liberty and freedom found in America
The way in which the protagonists travel in ‘The Road’ is not the picture perfect, open road, free spirited adventure, they rarely travel on the actual road, to avoid being seen by others who may want their belongings and food. ‘This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road’. The iconic concept of the open-ness and the freedom associated with it is no longer present in Cormac McCarthy’s America. The idea of the road being such a dangerous and deadly place and the paranoia of the man is installed firmly in the readers head by the fourth page, when it discusses the shopping trolley the man has in which he carries all his possessions, food, blankets and tarpaulin. On the handlebars of the trolley the man clamped a ‘chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind him’ which shows that whoever is left in his world isn’t to be trusted and it’s a ‘fend for yourself’ environment with none of the trust and neighbourliness that America is famous for.
In the post-apocalyptic world portrayed in ‘The Road’ we see an utter breakdown in the sense of community and the ‘love thy neighbour’ ethic for which America is renowned. In the book, the few people the man and child come across are treated with utter caution or are avoided altogether and people who need help are ignored. An example of this would be when they come across the man who has been hit by lightning and they don’t help him. The son cries for his father to help the man, but he bluntly refuses and does nothing. This is an accurate account of how some people may react in today’s world where help may not be given to the man by some people so as not involve themselves, but the good thing to do would, of course, be to seek medical help.
Traditional American values would instruct that one do the good thing and aid the lightning struck man. Another good example of the lack of common ethics is when the stranger robs all their belongings and they run after him and not only get it back, but also take everything he has on him, including his clothes. The fact that the man and robber are prepared to leave the other to die of the cold and starvation, represents how McCarthy’s world has changed human nature and the love thy neighbour and ‘do unto others only what you would want done to yourself’ ethics are left disregarded and one cares for no-one but themselves..
‘I’m starving, man. You’d have done the same.
You took everything.
Come on man. I’ll die.’
This proves my point that the people left will do anything to survive even if that worsens the chances of another individual.
For me, the theme that is present throughout the book and had me contrasting McCarthy’s world to today’s is the relationship between the father and son. The young child is, of course, dependent on his father for food, guidance and moral support like most children are today and this image is strong in America with the concept of a nuclear, wholesome family being very important. In the book, whilst the sense of community may have collapsed, the father-son relationship is very strong; they care for each other, keep each other company and the father brings the child up as best he can, but in Cormac McCarthy’s world nothing is left quite the same. What unsettled me was how freely the child spoke about their possible impending death and themes of a similar nature. The situation in which this child has been reared has left him matured beyond his years, an example showing this being when he asks his dad,
‘You think we are going to die don’t you?
We’re not going to die.
The child is so unfazed by the topic and it strikes me as odd and proves how even something as simple as the carefree thoughts of a child have been distorted by the world and lifestyle of the people within the America McCarthy depicts.
Within the story there are two scenes that are stuck in my mind because of their vividness and brutality. Firstly, when the father and son break into a house and find dismembered, burnt people locked in the basement, a man with his legs ‘gone to the hip’. These people are being held very much like poorly treated animals or cattle, probably to be eaten, because the people are so desperate for food they have resorted to what is one of the most taboo and strictly forbidden act in most societies, cannibalism. Also the setting of their incarceration is chilling and something only thought of in nightmares. Secondly, when the father and son come across the baby gutted and placed on the spit roast in preparation for a meal. America prides itself on the fact that it’s a ‘free country’.
This phrase is thrown around a lot but it basically means that people there have a freedom to say and do what they want as long as it doesn’t break the law. The people locked in the cellar certainly aren’t free and them being held captive shows how extreme people may have become out of starvation and desperation to survive disregarding their previously strong believe in freedom and equality. This is also interesting because it wouldn’t be the first time slavery has been an issue in America.
After the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which was passed in 1865, slavery was made illegal in America and equality reigns. The change was accepted after years of fighting and now America sees itself as a fair nation with racism and the plight of the black man as less of an issue, a good example being that the first black American President is going to be inaugurated January 20th of the coming year. Cormac McCarthy’s book portrays this ethic of us all being of the same level of importance being readily ignored by those in need to feed themselves and survive.
In the news we often hear about anti-abortion lobbyists and pro-life rallies, especially in America. In Cormac McCarthy’s book the protagonists see a group of people travelling with impregnated women and then the man and son walk through the abandoned camp of these people and find a gutted baby on the spit-roast. If you put the two together the idea may strike you that women are being impregnated for the sole purpose of the ‘meat’ they’ll produce. In today’s world this would be considered ungodly and unmentionable and not only brings up the topic of cannibalism but also the controversial theme of abortion which is utterly ignored in McCarthy’s world and the fact that it has gone beyond mere cannibalism but the actual production of babies for meat shows the pure desperation of some to survive and the ethical issue which is so very important today, ignored.
In the scene the author refers to the baby itself very impersonally, as if it’s a piece of meat and nothing more. The author describes it as a ‘human infant, headless, gutless and blackening on the spit’, very brief and to the point much like one may have described it were it a common farm animal. If it weren’t for the ‘human infant’ part it may well have been anything, the author does little to humanise the creature on the spit-roast. I think this may be simply to shield the reader and avoid the text being too explicit but also to show how this is largely commonplace in McCarthy’s world and that whilst shocking to the more good-willed protagonists, for some it is merely a case of survival.
America is often referred to as the land of plenty, with its almost endless resources, especially of food. The poignant scene in which the father finds what could possibly be the last coke can on earth shows just how much has changed in McCarthy’s world and introduces the notion of how we take too much for granted. In the scene with the coke can the author describes ‘drinks machines…tilted on the floor, opened with pry bars’.
This shows the desperation of mankind for such objects like Coca Cola, which are integral to lifestyles in modern society and inexplicable to those who haven’t witnessed it. People now never think such ubiquitous items will run out. What makes the scene sadder is the fact that this iconic can which nowadays is seen in many pieces of pop-artwork, has hundreds if not thousands of adverts worldwide and is truly a universally recognized brand, isn’t recognized by the child, showing how in McCarthy’s world this idea of a constant, ready supply of everything is simply no longer the case, especially with food.
Throughout the book, punctuation is hardly used; with no speech marks and few commas and the father and son aren’t, at any point, referred to by name. I believe that this is to further the image that Cormac McCarthy is portraying; conveying the fact that the breakdown of society and nature is such that things like punctuation and the names of the characters, no longer are of any importance as there are more important things, survival for instance and by dropping things like the names it leaves the reader to focus more upon the father-son relationship and less on the more trivial details.
The ‘American Dream’ is the concept of everybody reaching his or her full potential and having the ability to fulfil their hearts desire, in the land of opportunity that America is famous for. People often immigrate to America to start a business or career in either the music industry or maybe acting. In the book rather than going to America in the hope of having it all, money, glamour, the sweet life, people are trying to leave because they have nothing.
It shows how different this bleak world his and how everything has turned on its head. The phrase itself, ‘American Dream’ was coined by James Truslow Adams in his book, published in 1931, called ‘The Epic of America’; in the book his definition for it is ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone’ but in McCarthy’s world, for anyone surviving there is nothing left of the original values of America, the living are in some cases, hunted for food, their freedom compromised for fear and ultimately nothing remains as it was.