Close reading of ‘The Road’ by C. McCarthy – Exercise 2

He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded. They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

(McCarthy, 2006, page 4)

  • I believe that having no names – being simply a ‘he’ (the man) and a boy – the characters expose their humanity at their fullest and in the most poignant way possible. Perhaps they have ‘lost’ their names together with their world and their bearings, they have been stripped of everything and are left only with their most basic human nature. They could be everybody, every human being and also us. It is an anonymity that corresponds to the barren landscape they move in and creates a strange sense of proximity and intimacy, so much so that it’s easy to identify with them and see them as individuals. I, as a reader, could be that man or that boy. And as little as I know of them, by reading these scanty lines I am gathering details about them already: the endurance they show, the desperate care they have for each other, the accuracy of their movements, their cautious attention.
  • Danger seems to be all around them and they are on the lookout: they carry the essential things in their knapsacks in case they have to run away from something or someone, we still do not know who, humans or animals. They watch the road behind them through the rear view mirror to check if someone is approaching, very possibly with evil intentions.
  • The chrome motorcycle mirror indicates that the time is not set in a far past, but so far little else is known. The blacktop on the road implies that civilization has not been totally ravaged yet. But these are just the last fragments of a contemporary world that seems to be destroyed. All the rest speaks of desolation: the landscape is empty and barren, there is no one on the road or around, no human being, no animal, there are no plants.  A terrible catastrophe or cataclysm must have occurred not too long ago, if we are in the future it is not a too far away one. We do not know what has happened: a nuclear war perhaps, but it does not seem to matter much anymore what the event was, what matters is that the consequences are dramatic and probably irreversible.
  • ‘The road was empty’, and they are alone, but they feel in danger, they are afraid of something, so there might be dangerous people they could run into. They are not afraid of being alone: they are ‘each the other’s world entire’. What they seem to be afraid is others, evil people, enemies.
  • The only colours in the landscape are grey and black: the blacktop, the ash, also the river is grey, and the light is gunmetal,  and everything except the two human beings is still or dead: ‘the still grey serpentine of water of a river. Motionless and precise.’, ‘a burden of dead reeds’. And also the man and the boy move slowly, ‘shuffling through the ash’. Life has been totally annihilated, spent, like after a terrible nuclear war.
  • The man and the boy are like pilgrims on an aimless journey. Or perhaps their only aim is to survive and to be together. Perhaps there are travelling towards a place where conditions are still human, a place that was left untouched by the cataclysm, or they are only trying to escape from what is behind them and living day by day, hour by hour as survivors. And they follow a road like all pilgrims do.
  • In this context the road is almost like a character, or at least a very strong presence in that desolation. Perhaps the road is for them the symbol of hope when everything else is lost. The road is there to be followed, is their refuge, to keep to it means for them to not lose hope. Where does the road lead them? As readers we do not know it, the only way to know for us is to follow this road together with them. The road is at the same time dangerous and treacherous, evil people could be found along, but there is no choice, like sometimes in life. Things happen, you have to look beyond and ahead, taking risks.
  • Like this barren landscape also the text is dry and focused. No words in it are useless, redundant or unduly rich. McCarthy makes a measured, considered use of repetition: knapsack, road, cart, all physical things that well express the difficulty of living and the need to depend only on essential things. In these words consonants are harsh like facts: the hard sound ‘k’ of knapsack, cart, clamped, pack, blacktop is probably intentional. I hear a different, lyric note in some assonances, like in ‘below in the little valley the still grey serpentine or a river’ or in the ‘sh-f’ consonanceshuffling through the ash‘ which I think may reflect the nostalgia of a lost world in the eyes of the man and the love which binds the two survivors.
  • The sentences are rather short, to the point. The syntax is simple and straightforward, and the general effect is one of dryness, accuracy, measure. The only words spoken are a question by the man: are you okay? The boy simply nods in return, as if they do not wish to waste words and remain concentrate on survival. Also the punctuation is bare and limited: the text uses only points, with the exception of a comma. No quotation marks are used in speech, as to avoid any unnecessary distraction or interruption, or to underline that all conventions and amenities of the old world are forever lost. Everything in the text corresponds perfectly to the desolation and the barrenness of the landscape.
  • Even if no place is specified – the place is nameless like the man and the boy are nameless – it seems to me that they travel through what looks like an archetypal American desert landscape crossed by a long straight road punctuated only by the small figures of the two human beings. The landscape and the human beings are seen through the eyes of the omniscient narrator, its emptiness, the still grey river, the dead reeds, the ash, every detail speaks of a world at the end of times. The imagery used speaks of mortal danger, destruction and death: the ‘serpentine of a river’ makes one think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden,  of temptation and guilt, and the two human beings, deprived of almost everything, remind the reader of Adam and Eve forever banished and fleeing, while the word gun in ‘the gunmetal light’ suggest murder. The ravaged landscape seems to bear the scars of some terrible guilt and murder.
  • The prose itself is of grandiose simplicity and its short concise sentences have a sort of biblical strength. Every word counts, ‘precise’ and ‘still’, there is nothing superfluous or vague about them. The world and the life of the few survivors have been stripped of everything beautiful and pleasing and the language seems to reflect this desperate barrenness.
  • It is not possible to feel well or indifferent while reading these lines. I cannot help but think about global warming and the consequences that it is already having on the earth and mankind and a read like this causes me anguish and anxiety. As a child I remember how worried I was when I heard adults talking about the possibility of a nuclear war and what it would mean. Of course these or other terrible fears have always plagued humanity, but in the past man felt and was mostly powerless in front of nature while today we have become aware of how our actions can affect the world for the best or for the worst. I have bought myself a Kindle edition of this book and discovered that it is by the same author of No Country for Old Men of 2005, of which I had seen the movie. This is going to be my next buy.


McCarthy, C. (2006) The Road. London, Picador


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