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'The Road' - Analysis

An analytical essay about Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

The prompt for this essay was, "Literature is often defined as any work that rewards a reader with some insight into an objective truth. Based on this definition, do you believe that The Road is a piece of literature?"


Works which we, as a collective, remember with the most clarity are those that impart a new truth or truths to us. Be it profound or hackneyed, our society is in part shaped by these works which we call “literature.” As the common definition tells us, literature must reward those who partake in its consumption. It may “influence who we are, how we experience our world, and what truths guide our lives.” Truly, these are rewards worth having. But equally as true, not all works are works of literature. Not all works are worth remembering, worth preserving, worth revering. Some are best left forgotten, left at the wayside of the cultural path forward. There are cynics today who say that modern works are nothing but drivel that have not the clout to be spoken in the same sentence as Steinbeck or Salinger. However, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Its prose, bleak beauty, ashen tones, atmosphere of desolation and overall humanity reward the reader with a feeling they will never know, and yet, one they have always felt. The Road embodies all that literature is and ought to be, and shall rightfully take its place among the pantheon of true literature.

The truth that The Road bestows the reader is not one of hope or despair, of exultation or sorrow. It is not one concerning society, or morality, or goodness and evilness. The worn and pallid truth it offers us is one of entropy. It is one of deterioration, of disintegration, of the ending of the end. The Road is not the Alpha, but the Omega. It is the ashes of ashes, the dust of dust. With each turn of the page, it becomes increasingly apparent; all that is in The Road will no longer be. It is the story of an unnamed man and his unnamed son, in the long aftermath of an unnamed apocalypse. Together they traverse the dead and dying land, scavenging for scraps of the world that was and never will again be. The man is dying. Yet he trudges on, his son serving as his sole motivation. It would be easy to think that this is a story about the endurance of the human spirit, of love conquering even death. This, though, is not what McCarthy has to tell us. It may be what we want to hear, but we know that it will never be. The truth, then, that it offers up to us is that death of all things --- of memories, of love, of ideals, of pain, of the world --- is inescapable. The I nevitable and steady deterioration of a system; that is entropy. Thus, that is The Road.

The state of the world is made painfully apparent. “Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before” (pg.1) is the second sentence of the novel, and carries with it a sentiment found in every paragraph onward. The world the man and his son inhabit is dead. The biosphere is nonexistent. Raw anarchy is the norm, cannibalism is commonplace, and there is no hope for recovery. There are no secret havens, utopias or permanent shelters save for the few and far between bunkers, none of which can be lived in indefinitely. The world is stagnant, and everyone knows it, in some form or another. At one point, the man walks out to the road at night, just to stare at it . “ At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt” (pg. 220). Up until this, the man had been periodically telling his son tales of his pervious life, of existence before the unnamed catastrophe. Over time, the boy had grown more and more dubious, until the boy finally lashed out and accused him of lying. After all, the boy had never known anything but the desolation of the world. The world as it was is dead, and shall never live again. The sun no longer shines, the earth is no longer warm. “He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.” Death personified is coming to take that which the man has seen away and to seal away his voice. With it die the final remnants of a reality gone by.

Despite this, the world remains. "Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence” (pg. 231). Even in its death, the world lives. Death and rebirth are, to the world, one and the same; only to its inhabitants are they disparate. Death was present at the world’s genesis in the form of its very creation. And death will be present in its cessation, in its final breaths of relevance. That life somehow scrapes out an existence in between is near inconsequential. The man adds meaning to his life through his son, and his son through his father. They are huddled together against their coldly secular reality, against the sweeping waste, against the silence. None, though, can outrun or outwit nature. And so, the man dies. He dies on the side of the road he traveled, without ever reaching its end. The boy carries on, with a new family, to carry his father’s metaphorical flame.

Entropy, though, dictates that all flames must extinguish. All fuel must be consumed, all resources devoured. The goodness in the boy’s heart will carry him far, and those around him even farther. Perhaps it will be passed on to the next generation. But Time, and its faithful servant, Death, are patient. There will come a time when the boy’s flame must die. For that is entropy, that is nature, and that is The Road.

McCarthy has nothing to say about what to do with the life we’ve been given. The only judgments levied by his characters are “good guys” and “bad guys,” and to call that line blurred is a colossal understatement. Through The Road, he has reminded us of a truth that Man is more than willing to forget. Entropy is irreversible, time is inescapable, and death is insatiable. There will, there must, come a time when we no longer live. All that is known, all that has been known, and all that will be known will eventually reach its natural conclusion. It is harrowing to humans, for we are fearful of the End. To the universe, who knows no fear, it is as it has always been. We ought not be afraid of what is to come, for if we are, we are likely to miss that which makes what is valuable. The Road, as a work of literature, rewards its reader with a glimpse of objectivity and of truth. It bestows upon us much-needed humility, much-needed reverence for what we have rather that of what will come. It reminds us that all roads must have an end, even if it is not in sight.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright 2012, 2013 by Alex Holzman aka alexh

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