We are asked to read the extract from ‘The Road’ again – as many times as we feel you need to – and to think carefully about the following and make some notes:
- ‘He’, the man, and ‘the boy’ are nameless. Why? Does their anonymity change the way we feel about the characters? Can we still care about them without names? Do they still have an identity without a name?
There are various reasons the characters are nameless. One could be that, without names, we as readers can’t project any of our own biases onto them. For instance, if they had names we consider to be ‘upper class’ that projects the idea of them once having been rich, and the opposite for names we consider lower class.
Another reason could be to keep the location and time period more of a mystery. Old fashioned names could say something about when the story is set, as could names that we associate with particular countries.
By referring to the characters as ‘he’ and ‘the boy’, it leaves their relationship open to interpretation at this point. We could presume that they are father and son, but there is a question mark over this. If the first line had read ‘He pushed the cart and both he and his son carried knapsacks’ then we would know for sure, but instead, these could just be an adult and a child who have found each other out in the wasteland and decided to stick together.
In a way, leaving the characters nameless forces us to concentrate more on what they are doing and where they are, in order to pick out clues about who they might be.
To me, the anonymity makes me care even more about these people. Who are they? What happened to them? Why are a man and boy wandering around this wasteland. Without names, it appears to me that something has gone horribly wrong in this world. They still have an identity – they are two people who have gone through something terrible, and currently appear to be the only people present in the aftermath, and that makes them important. They are survivors.
- How can we tell they’re in danger? Are they fleeing danger or do they expect to encounter it along the way? What sort of danger? Human? Animal? Elemental?
The two main clues that they are in danger are them carrying knapsacks containing ‘essential things in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it’, and the mirror on the cart that the man uses ‘to watch the road behind them’.
They do not seem to be particularly panicked, so it seems like they are anticipating danger rather than fleeing from it. Based on the line ‘The road was empty’ I assume that the man is looking out for people, vehicles, or perhaps some kind of animal. If he was looking for something elemental, I imagine he’d be more interested in the sky or the horizon.
Based on the fact that they are expecting to make a run for it, my guess is that they are looking out for humans, possibly in vehicles that could catch up with them quickly.
- The chrome motorcycle mirror tells us the time is roughly contemporary. So what’s happened to the rest of the recognisable contemporary world? Or is the story set in the future? Post-apocalypse maybe?
The fact that the man and boy are ‘shuffling through the ash’ and that the motorcycle mirror is chrome, i.e. vintage, I think that the setting is post-apocalyptic, post 1940s, and anything up to the near future. The fact that they have found a chrome motorcycle mirror and a cart (I’m assuming the shopping cart type) makes me think that this is not a futuristic world, but one not so far removed in time from our own.
- They are alone: ‘The road was empty.’ Where is everyone? Why are they scared if no one is around? Because no one is around? Because someone might be around?
They are out on a road, shuffling through ash, being able to look out over the ‘wasted country’, so I imagine the area they are travelling through is devoid of houses or other buildings. This conjures up images of deserted lands. If they’re walking in the road, presumably there are not any vehicles around. Without buildings and vehicles, I imagine that the man and boy are the only people around, and if so much of the land is destroyed, then much of the population probably is too. My own image of such an post-apocalyptic world is that there are small clusters of people sticking together and trying to survive, while gangs and renegades roam the land, and they are who I think the man is scared of encountering.
- There’s been some sort of disaster: ‘wasted country… dead reeds … shuffling through the ash …What sort of disaster might it be?
The ash suggests that things have been burning at some point – warfare/bombs perhaps? Maybe it was a natural disaster like widespread forest fires, or even some kind of meteor crash.
Whatever it was, it was big, and it happened long enough ago that the man and boy have become accustomed to carrying their worldly belongings with them and looking out for danger.
- They’re on a journey with everything they own. Where are they going? Where have they come from?
The passage doesn’t really give many clues as to where they might be going, but as they are walking along a road, it’s reasonable to assume that they are following it to somewhere where there might be signs of civilisation, or perhaps just looking for safe shelter or supplies.
The last sentence says ‘They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light…’ which suggests that they have just started this particular part of their journey. Gunmetal light implies that it is perhaps cloudy/overcast, or that the light is filtering through dust and ash in the air. Alternatively, perhaps the sun is just rising or setting, although there is clearly enough light for the man to be able to see the landscape.
- The road is mentioned three times in these few lines. It is also the title of the book. What does it symbolise?
The road is clearly important, seeing as it’s the title, and the author wants us to know straight away that they are travelling along it. Having ‘a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them’ indicates that they haven’t just stumbled upon this road, but have been on it long enough to know that they need to keep an eye on their surroundings.
My expectation is that the majority, if not all, of the story is going to take place along this road. It symbolises a journey and search for safety, freedom, paradise, or whatever it is that this pair think they’re going to find at the end of it – if anything. The road obviously leads, or at least led, somewhere, so they know that as long as they stick to this path, they shouldn’t end up lost in the wilderness.
- Can you spot any poetic devices in this short passage? What effect do they have?
There are a few literary devices used in these few sentences.
‘Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them’ contains the use of three words beginning with the letter ‘c’. This is an example of consonance – the repetition of sounds produced by consonants in a sentence. This could be there to add more of a lyrical feel to this section, or it may be to draw attention to the mirror, as it’s important for us to know that it’s there and being used to look for danger. In the same sentence we also get some alliteration in the phrase ‘motorcycle mirror’. Again, this not just sounds nice, but adds to the emphasis on the mirror and its purpose.
The use of ‘serpentine’ to describe the river is an interesting metaphor. On the face of it, you can imagine a river looking like a snake from above as it follows its winding course. To be serpentine is to relate to, or resemble, a snake. To describe someone, or something, like this is to say they are wily, traitorous, or malicious. Perhaps the man and boy feel this way about the river. Maybe they have previously tried to cross it, or get down to it, and failed.
Finally, the last literary device I see here is the last phrase of this passage – ‘…each the other’s world entire’. This is an example of inversion, where the adjective has been placed after the noun. You’d be more likely to say ‘…each the other’s entire world’ in normal conversation.
As well as bringing a poetry-like quality to the end of this short passage, this inversion of syntax works to highlight that particular part of the sentence. Because that’s not the way you’d expect to see that phrase written, it emphasises its importance. We already know that this pair are travelling cautiously with all their possessions in some kind of desolate landscape, but now it’s fully brought to our attention that it really is just the two of them and they’re all the other one has.
- What other stylistic language choices does McCarthy make and why? Why might he not punctuate speech?
Grammatically speaking, I think that there should be a new paragraph when the man shifts his pack to look out over the landscape, and with traditional grammar rules, there would also be a new paragraph when the man asks the boy if he’s okay (as well as using quotation marks for the speech).
I haven’t read anything else by McCarthy, and have purposely avoided reading any other parts of ‘The Road’ until I’ve finished this exercise, so I am basing everything I write here on this one excerpt. That being said, I will take my observations one at a time.
Firstly, the lack of paragraph breaks…
As readers and writers, I think we are trained to know that a new paragraph means a new idea, or that someone is about to speak. When we are reading and can see that a break is coming up, we know something is about to change. Removing these line breaks means that we are not expecting it when the subject changes, or when someone speaks. This adds an element of surprise to the writing.
Although this one paragraph contains a few different ideas, as well as a short line of speech, it is not overly lengthy. I don’t know if this is common to all of McCarthy’s writing, but he appears to be extremely economical with his sentences. They tell us exactly what we need to know, with the minimum of fuss.
There is an overall air of simplicity to this passage. It is fast paced and the (mostly) short sentences move the reader on quickly, mimicking the fact that it’s likely the man and boy in the story do not want to hang around in this one spot too long, and need to keep moving themselves.
The other stylistic choice McCarthy has made is not to punctuate speech. There are only three short words of speech in this extract, but I had no problem with them not being in quotes.
Indeed, thinking about whether quotation marks are strictly necessary brings to mind the fact that, as the name suggests, they are used in non-fiction, e.g. journalism, to show that something that a real person has said, is being quoted word for word.
Perhaps the decision to do away with the speech marks is a way of spurning the idea that we should make the story feel real, when these are not in fact real people talking.
I think it comes across as more poetic without the punctuation and paragraphs. Without having to divert my glance to a new line and/or register the speech marks, the words keep flowing and it’s easier to get lost in the writing without having my momentum interrupted.
- What features give us a sense of where we are? How does McCarthy create a post-apocalyptic world? Would the impact be the same if he were to remove the man and the boy? Look carefully at the imagery, for example the grey ‘serpentine of the river’ and ‘the gunmetal light’. What is it about the choice of metaphor that creates a sense of danger? What does the serpentine symbolise? Think biblical perhaps. What effect will biblical and religious imagery, themes and symbols have in this genre of writing?
We know the pair are on a road and that the man is able to look across the landscape which is described as ‘wasted’.
We also know that there is a small valley below them where there is a river. It is described as ‘the still grey serpentine of a river’. As McCarthy seems to shun punctuation, I am not sure whether he means it’s ‘still grey’ as in it was coloured grey at some point and is still coloured grey, or whether he means it’s ‘still, grey’ as in the river is still and grey. The next line says that it’s ‘motionless and precise’, so perhaps it’s the latter.
Rivers can have natural ups and downs of their flows, stopping altogether sometimes. The way it is being described here, I would assume that the lack of river flow is not because of the natural ‘pulses’ due to the seasons, but something unnatural. Perhaps whatever happened has altered the climate or caused a blockage somewhere up stream. Maybe a manmade dam has been erected further up stream to keep the water somewhere specific. As for the grey colour, this could be due to the ash mentioned later on settling in the water.
Reeds do die, but the picture conjured up of a ‘burden’ of dead reeds is one of an uncared for, dry, dying riverbed, stagnant and full of grey ashy sludge.
As mentioned before the use of the word serpentine not only describes the winding path a river might take, but it is also a derogatory term used to describe someone or something as being ‘snakelike’. Most people dislike snakes, and indeed, dislike people who act like snakes, so the use of this term would conjure up negative images in most people’s minds. In the bible, many people would be familiar with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve into sinning with his ‘craftiness’ (although there is an assumption that the snake was just an instrument of Satan). Elsewhere in the bible (The New Testament. Luke 10:19) snakes are used to symbolically represent the enemy.
Biblical and religious themes, symbols, and imagery could turn this type of post-apocolypse story less about the inhabitants of this new world, and more about the theological aspects. I don’t know what caused the catastrophe in this novel, but if spiritual ideas are introduced, it could quickly become the hand of God that is to blame, rather than man, or whatever it turns out to be.
Finally, if we removed the man and the boy, you would still get a sense that something had destroyed the landscape, but you wouldn’t feel the danger they face from whatever they are looking out for, or considering running from. You wouldn’t really get the sense of how deserted this world is without knowing that they are ‘each the other’s world entire’.
- What’s the prose style like? Are the sentences long or short? Are they rhythmic or choppy or stark? What impact does this have? Is the language complex or simple? Often the more dramatic or dark a piece is, the more simple and stripped back the prose. Why might this be? What would be the effect of more flowing, colourful and detailed prose?
The sentences are mostly quite short, some only three or four words long. I also find them quite choppy in rhythm, but mostly they are simple and to the point:
Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them.
They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.
The use of shorter and/or less ‘flowery’ sentences help convey the haste and urgency of the pair to get moving along the road, lest someone catches up to them. There is also tension in these short sentences – you can feel the need to avoid any time wasting, particularly in the single three-word piece of speech. The man says what he needs to and no more, there is not even any need for the boy to answer, just to nod his head and get going.
As well as producing tension and moving things along quicker, shorter sentences can impart a lot of information in a small amount of words:
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.
In these six short sentences we find out that they are on an empty road which runs above a small valley. The valley has a grey river in it, the colour possibly due to falling ash landing in it. The river is not flowing. There are a great number of dead reeds along the shore. No one is caring for this river and has let it stagnate. The man is concerned for the boy’s welfare. The boy is ok, or at least claiming to be. There is no time, or no desire,for them to have a full conversation.
The language is simple. The most ‘exotic’ word in this passage is probably ‘serpentine’. This simple language forces us, as readers, to use our imaginations to answer the unanswered questions that have come up: What are the ‘essential things’ they are carrying in their bags? Why would they have to ‘make a run for it’? Why are they ‘shuffling through the ash’? There is enough information in this passage for us to know that something bad has happened in this world, but not enough for us to figure out what, and that makes us (or, at least, me) want to keep reading to find out.
Long, wordy, descriptive sentences show moments of reflection, of nostalgia, of having time to leisurely contemplate life. I think the reason that dramatic and dark writing tends to favour shorter and more simple sentences, is that there is often a sense of urgency. If you’re character is in mortal danger, they’re unlikely to stop and spend ten minutes admiring their surroundings. Short and simple language conveys the mood better in these dark pieces of prose, while long, flowing sentences tend to convey a lighter mood.
- How does it all make you feel?
I feel worried for this pair. I am making the assumption that they are father and son, and having a son myself makes me want to protect the boy, like I’m sure the man is feeling. There is clearly something around that is a danger to them and I am scared it will catch up with them. There is the expectation that they may have to run, but I really don’t want it to happen.
I feel curiosity also. What would make a father and son end up shuffling along a road covered in ash and pushing their possessions in a shopping cart? What happened to the rest of their family. There must have been a mother at some point – where is she?
I feel sad for this them. All they have is each other, and that must be very lonely, but at the same time, I’m glad they have each other and I hope they make it wherever they’re heading.