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The Road' By Cormac McCarthy: Depiction Of An Ineffably Bleak World Where Everything Has Been Reduced To What Can Be Consumed

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McCarthy’s initial idea for ‘The Road’ came from a trip to El Paso, where he imagined what the city and surrounding hills would look like fifty to one hundred years later. From the notes he scribbled down that evening, he eventually wrote ‘The Road’; a warning of what humans might lose if we continue on our current path. The time setting of the post-apocalyptic world is not specific but still recognisable as our own future. ‘The Road’ is a struggle between the cruelty necessary for survival, the devaluation of all things to how useful they are, and the compassion of one innocent Boy. McCarthy opens the novel with the contrasting ideas of light, blindness and dark. The world is described as suffering ‘the onset of some cold glaucoma’ making the nights a new ‘dark beyond darkness’ and the days getting more and more grey. The dream the man has woken from also carries this theme of blindness.

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The Man is led by the Boy into a cave which they see by ‘their light’, the source of which is unknown but may be suggested is emanating from the pair themselves, a first reference to ‘carrying the fire’ a motif of hope and particularly the Boy’s compassion and morality throughout the novel. The blind creature that is seen by the Man and Boy by drinking from the ‘rimstone pool’ furthers this theme of blindness. While some describe the creature as a monster, Kerry Gray’s interpretation[1], the creature seems to intend no harm to the pair, retreating into the darkness, and McCarthy makes explicit reference to ‘Its bowels, Its beating heart’ and its ‘brain’, suggesting a humanoid appearance. McCarthy continues drawing attention to the appearance of the ‘translucent’ creature with ‘eyes dead white and sightless’ evoking a sense of pity for the creature that seems to be suffering. The creature is representative of something dying or decaying given its ghostly appearance, perhaps the dying and ill natural world, suffering from glaucoma and hidden away as the ‘ashen daylight congeal[s] over the land’, diseased and fading. Another possible interpretation is that the creature may represent the remnants of humanity’s innocence, now corrupted, fleeing from the purity of the Boy’s ‘light’, in this way one could suggest the entire dream as an allegory of the Platonic Cave; the creature “an enchained prisoner” fleeing from the ‘light’ of the Boy, representing the Sun in Plato’s original work, the image of ultimate enlightenment and the highest level of human awareness ‘knowledge of the Good’ (Ronald H. Nash[2]).

Through this opening contrast of light, dark, and Platonic allegory McCarthy presents the reader with a world where nature is damaged and diseased and the suggestion that human morality has been corrupted. McCarthy demonstrates how the need to survive has caused the break down of moral and natural order. Early in the novel, we learn that attached to the cart is a ‘chrome motorcycle mirror’ that the man uses to ‘watch the road behind them’ suggesting the constant and never-ending danger they are in while travelling through this post-apocalyptic landscape. The need for this level of caution becomes apparent when the bandit from the truck attempts to kidnap or kill the boy, ‘He dove and grabbed the boy and rolled and came up holding him against his chest with the knife at his throat’. For the bandit to take such action while the Man aims a readied revolver at him demonstrates the desperation of humanity to survive. While the bandits intended ‘use’ for the Boy is unknown, given the bandits earlier assertion that the group eats ‘Whatever we[they] can find’ cannibalism is insinuated at by McCarthy. Not long after this the Man and Boy enter a house cellar to find it full of ‘naked people, male and female’ pleading for help. McCarthy highlights that one of the men is injured, missing both legs up to the hip ‘the stumps of them blackened and burnt’. The implication being that the group of six the Man and Boy then flee from are keeping the people in the cellar as human livestock, eating them limb by limb in order to keep the meat fresh instead of killing them and the meat going off. McCarthy makes the cannabilsm explicit through the Boy’s questioning of the Man once they have escaped, ‘They are going to eat them, aren’t they?’.

Finally, McCarthy shows the ultimate breakdown of natural order. The Man and Boy see a group three men and one ‘waddling’ woman, realising as they approach that the woman is pregnant causing her different gait. Soon after this, the Man and Boy encroach on a camp assumed to belong to this foursome. It seems the camp was left so quickly that the cooking food,’a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit’, was abandoned over the fire. ‘ The group had been preparing to eat the woman’s child. In this way, McCarthy shows how the struggle to survive in this world has led to actions and decisions being defined by how advantageous they are and not by moral consideration.

15 July 2020

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