Project 4, Exercise 2: The Road

Read the extract again – as many times as you feel you need to. Think carefully about
the following and make rough notes in your writing diary:

  • ‘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?

    There could be any number of reasons why the two are nameless: because they don't know each other; because they don't know themselves; because being named could put them at risk; because there is no one else around to name them; or because they are representative figures and their personal identities are not important (yet). Their anonymity heightens our interest in the mysterious characters and we can still care about them because of their humanity and vulnerability.
  • Do they still have an identity without a name?

    Yes, 'he' and the 'boy' still have identities, largely because there is no one else around at this point. If there were many men and boys with no names it would become difficult to distinguish them from anyone else but, for now, they are safe.
  • 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?

    We know they're in danger because they are only carrying "essential" things and are prepared to abandon the cart, if necessary. The fact that it is necessary to watch their backs continually also signals their sense of danger. Whatever the risks, their forward motion suggests that whatever is behind them is worse than what might lie ahead. We have no idea what the nature of the danger might be.
  • 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?

    We have no idea what has happened to the rest of the world, but something seems to have rendered it barren: it is characterised by "wasted country," an "empty road," "dead reeds" and a lifeless river. The fact that a mirror was the only salvageable piece of the motorcycle also suggests a risky environment: the motorcycle was damaged, and/or there is no fuel, and or the roads are not passable for motor vehicles.
  • 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?

    Again, we don't know where anyone else is, or if there are any other humans. They are clearly scared of something that could approach them from behind, but we have no idea what the threat might except that it is mobile.
  • There’s been some sort of disaster: ‘wasted country... dead reeds ... shuffling through the ash ...What sort of disaster might it be?

    The disaster could be natural (fire or plague) or it could be the result of human action (war, environmental collapse, nuclear or chemical mishap) or non-human action (alien invasion, revolt of nature, malignant supernatural presence).
  • They’re on a journey with everything they own. Where are they going? Where have they come from?

    We don't have enough information to answer this question, but we can surmise that they are moving to a better place (food, shelter, other people) or to escape imminent danger.
  • The road is mentioned three times in these few lines. It is also the title of the book. What does it symbolise?

    The road may symbolise the nature of the journey they must take, possibly parallel with an interior journey or path to wisdom/self-knowledge. In this sense the road could be like some of the epic journeys of classical literature (Homer's Odyssey) or a pilgrimage, a path of enlightenment.
  • Can you spot any poetic devices in this short passage? What effect do they have?

    McCarthy sets up an interesting rhythm in the passage, mixing longer sentences with short staccato phrases. It gives the sense that there is no time for lengthy observations: the characters are taking in only what is essential in their environment and assessing its risk. There are also repeated references to metallic, grey objects and images: a "chrome motorcycle mirror," a "grey serpentine river," "gunmetal light," and "ash." All is lifeless and menacing.
  • What other stylistic language choices does McCarthy make and why? Why might he not punctuate speech?

    The author may not punctuate speech to help indicate that the regular rules have broken down or that the two characters don't have time for such niceties. The choppy rhythm and lack of punctuated speech also help to propel the reader breathlessly through the passage—just as the man and boy are being propelled forward.
  • 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 have some sense of where we are because McCarthy establishes a "place" for his characters. It is in ruins, but the descriptions leave the impression that it wasn't always like this—the boy and the man have known another reality and are aware that nature is dead. As mentioned above, the grey and metallic imagery conjures up pictures of lifelessness and mechanical—perhaps armed—threat.

    If the rest of the narrative is indeed post-apocalyptic the serpent may call up references to the symbol of the demonic. The story then takes on another dimension, as it is not just a story about a particular disaster or threat, but becomes embedded in an epic struggle between good and evil. Such interpretations are always a challenge, because it can become tempting to read too much into an author's appropriation of symbolism and myth—he or she might draw upon symbols from an earlier tradition while reinterpreting it in a new or limited way (just as William Blake does in a number of his poems, or as W.B. Yeats does in "The Second Coming").
  • 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?

    I'll repeat what I wrote above: The author may not punctuate speech to help indicate that the regular rules have broken down or that the two characters don't have time for such niceties. The choppy rhythm and lack of punctuated speech also help to propel the reader breathlessly through the passage—just as the man and boy are being propelled forward. Writing lengthier and detailed descriptions would give the reader the impression that the man and boy had all the time in the world to take in the sights and find just the right words to describe them. The sense of threat in their environment doesn't give them that luxury.
  • How does it all make you feel?

    This opening passage is off-putting and disorienting: nothing is as it should be in the world. We catch the characters on the run and are not allowed to ease gently into the story. There is no background or back story to orient us and the dialogue between the characters—which might tell us something about them—is as brief as it could be.

    It makes me feel like I'm on the run with them... and I want to know more.