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Historical Context: Published in 2006, so during the postmodernism literary period. This means it was written and published during a period where there was spreading of new ideas of the future, such as utopian and dystopian societies. This period also included post-apocalyptic works, such as this book by McCarthy. The protagonist of the novel is the boy’s father, “the man”, who remains nameless throughout the novel. The man is a survivalist who uses his instincts to protect his son from the dangers in the world, as well as preparing the boy to continue living if something were to happen to him.
There is not really a defined antagonist of the novel, so the enemy is the world; the challenges the man and his son face on their journey.
The antagonist takes the face of many different things, such as other survivors called “bad guys” by the protagonist who raid and enslave the survivors they find, as well as the harsh conditions they face.
After some apocalyptic event, a man and his son must survive various challenges while they travel toward the ocean to safety. They meet many disturbing entities along the way, including harsh weather conditions and cannibalistic survivors. The duo struggle to stay alive, constantly having to look for more food and supplies along their journey. They travel southeast toward the coast in order to escape the frigid nights and be in a cooler environment. As they near their destination, someone steals their supplies and the man finds him and violently punishes him for it, which his son was uncomfortable with.
The journey focuses on the relationship between the man and his son; the man is doing his best to try and keep the two of them alive, while also teaching his son about how to survive on his own while his death is foreshadowed. As their journey comes to a close, the man dies of his wounds and disease. His journey as a father was completed, and the boy was taken in by another family to survive with them. Key themes: Mortality, Isolation, and Violence. Significant literary elements (include examples): The title of the book is representative of the travels of the man and his son. They spend much of their time travelling along some sort of roads, and its desolate characteristic is symbolic of how the world has crumbled.
The flare pistol is used by the man on the beach to signal anyone that they are survivors looking for hope. The flare pistol is representative of the abandonment, as there is little hope that anyone will see their signal. When asked if God will see it, the man responds maybe, depicting how little hope they have left.
After the boy is taken in by the new family, McCarthy includes a description of the once existing trout. With everything that the boy has had to experience, the symbol of the trout represents that somewhere, there is hope. “And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you? Walking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly. Like the certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to day.” This quote depicts the feelings of the narrator toward the past. Everything used to be vibrant and colorful, and the unknown apocalyptic event has turned everything into darkness and ash. The man dreams of what reality used to be, as well as what he wishes to be. He later remembers back to a simpler time when he could peacefully spend time on the lake with another family member.
The dreams that the man has draw attention to his own false versions of reality, as well as how he views an inevitable death. This specific passage details how and why this man considers death in an ideal sense. While he does seem bitter about the thought of perishing, there is some part of him that believes it is not inherently bad, mirroring what he said to the boy about how they will die eventually. Dreams rich in color means that in some other reality, the trial ahead of him and his son would not even be a problem. As would any regular individual, he wishes they were not in this position. McCarthy uses these dreams as mirages for the characters in the novel.
This term is much more fitting for the theme of versions of reality as the visions are of things the man desires but cannot reach. The reader can use this as they progress through the novel to observe the changes in the man’s emotions, ideas, and actions. Around page 67, the man and the boy encounter a group of men in a truck. One man separates to defecate away from his companions, and stumbles upon the pair as he does so. They eventual have a conflict, resulting in the boy being threatened and then getting shot by the boy’s father. Rather than specifically state what the man is feeling, McCarthy instead uses an extended sentence to emphasize the frantic nature and panic after the man unleashes a gunshot.
“He shoved the pistol in his belt and slung the knapsack over his shoulder and picked up the boy and turned him around and lifted him over his head and set him on his shoulders and set off up the old roadway at a dead run, holding the boy’s knees, the boy clutching his forehead, covered with gore and mute as a stone.” McCarthy chooses to use short segmented phrases but still connected to convey this frantic behaviour. This makes the reader see the phrase as list of things that the man is doing, but each thing is equally as imperative, so the flow of the sentence is not stopped. While this segment is a series of events, the flow of the sentence makes it seem as if time slowed for the man and the actions were instinctive and instantaneous. This is exactly how a father would protect his son: doing what was necessary and taking the necessary action to ensure the child’s safety.
When the man and his son stumble upon more people, the man instructs that his son must shoot himself in the head if he gets caught. The man did not want his son to suffer, so in order to prevent this, he instructs his son to take the pistol and shoot himself in the head. A quick death is far better than living as a slave and suffering. The man is teaching the boy a lesson on how he should live. While the boy struggles to grasp this lesson from his dad, he still is learning valuable information that will help him in the future. The boy’s struggle is clearly depicted on page 113: “[The man] looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said.”
The boy developing into a smart strong character that can survive on his own is somewhat prevented by his mind block of not wanting to die to prevent his own suffering. The man wants to prepare his son for the eventual time when his death comes. The boy needs to be ready to fend for himself, and this occasion is one of the stepping stones that he must face in order to become the thing that the father needs him to be. The interactions between these two characters are what show the boy’s growth throughout the novel, and it seems to foreshadow that a time where the man is no longer a part of the boy’s life will come soon, which is why all of this preparation for his son is necessary in this post-apocalyptic world.
On page 167, the man and his son help an old man they find on the road. They ask the man for his name, to which he responds “Ely”. The irony in this section comes first with the question of the man’s name. It is one of the only names that the reader is told in the entire novel. Why do they even ask the man for the name? It does not seem important to the story, yet McCarthy includes it anyway. While it was possibly just for simplicity so that there would not be another character just called “the man”, that did not seem to be an issue for the previous characters that he introduced. Another reason the author may have given the reader this man’s name was because he is one of the first people they encounter that is not trying to kill them or completely relying on them for survival.
While a name is simply a sound of identification for someone, Ely being the only person in the novel with a defined name gives him a greater sense of humanity than the other characters. However, another aspect of this irony comes from this man’s name not even being Ely, and keeping his name from the man and his son. He does this because he does not trust anyone and prefers to be alone, yet he still receives food from people who meet him. The main concept that McCarthy is conveying here is that some survivors are too trusting, which is why Ely takes all these precautionary measures for his own self preservation. The irony here works to give the reader an idea about how trust is difficult to come by in this now broken world.
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