This is the first post of a series in which I will make my feeble attempt to dissect each section of The Road by Carmac McCarthy. I will be concentrating on the dialogue, but will comment on other bits, too (like pacing, tension, story development, etc).
Be forewarned: these will be rather long posts. I won’t hold it against you if you skip ’em!
But if you would like to follow along, please do! Since the book doesn’t have chapters, I am using the divisions presented over on Cliff Notes.
One final note: the quoted material is from the digital edition and written just as presented in the e-book (sans punctuation).
Section 1 introduces us to a nameless man with his son. They wake to another dreary day in a world shattered by some major event. Everything is destroyed, the sky overcast and dark. Here’s how the novel begins:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
While reading that, did any of you think of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine (those horrid underground creatures called Morlocks) and/or Gollum from Tolkein’s The Lord of the Ring/The Hobbit?
I can’t help but think that Mr. McCarthy may have deliberately referenced two of the most seminal works (representing both science fiction and fantasy literature) in the first paragraph of his dystopian tale, but who knows.
What I do know is that this is a foreboding start to what I know will be a heart-wrenching tale. The dream described above is how I imagine the man feels about his fate or the fate of humanity; mournful and confused.
From this woeful waking in a dying world, the story moves as the man and his son move. They wake, they walk a bit, they search for food, they find some place safe to bed for the night, they sleep. Throughout these mundane tasks, the author imbues each of their actions with finality, frailty and fear.
For instance, take this first exchange between man and son:
Hi, Papa, he said.
I’m right here.
And it is. But those simply words convey so much. Why does the father feel the need to reassure the boy that he’s right there? I imagine it is because the father is afraid. He fears that at any moment, either of them could be lost. He’s not reassuring the boy. The boy is sure, he knows his father is right there, but the father isn’t – so he reassures himself. I think this also shows the reader that maybe the father isn’t quite right in the head. Who would be under these post-apocalyptic times?
This first, introductory section ends with a bit of dialogue and then a memory. I’ll summarize the memory first. The man recollects his perfect day from childhood. A day in which he spent time with his uncle removing a treestump from a lake’s edge.
Again, very simple. But preceding that memory is this text:
They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer.
Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, don’t you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.
Re-reading this, I see exactly what Mr. McCarthy wanted to show, that juxtaposition between the man’s memories and what his son’s memories will be.
Another thing that becomes crystal clear after re-reading this introduction is that the man’s only purpose is to care for his son, but he feels he is not up to the task.
Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.
McCarthy never writes those words (man must bring the child to safe place before death finds them). But through the man’s actions, how he observes the world, and what he says, the reader comes to understand the man knows he is going to die and he fears it will before he can give the boy a chance for a happy childhood.
Until next time, give your kids a kiss for me.