Deconstructing The Road – Section 2

Yikes! Is it Wednesday already? How did that happen?

For those who know my schedule (she has a schedule? yes, I have a schedule), my apologies. I should have had this post complete and posted at dawn. Such is life. Let’s get on with it.

When we left our unnamed hero and his son wandering the blasted lands of America, the duo are traveling along a road. It so happens they are traveling south. The father had decided that going south to a possibly warmer clime is their only hope of surviving the winter.

In Section 2 of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, they do just that. Travel south until they reach a gap in the mountains. As far as plot goes, there’s not much going on here. However, we are treated to a deeper understanding of the man and we soon begin to realize that most of the places we visit are places he has been to as a boy with how own father.

The author is building a relentless portrait of a man losing his faith in his god (and thus humanity), while at the same time contrasting his past experiences with the boy’s current experiences. He sort of supplants his old faith with a new one. This is a theme I definitely did not pick up on during my first read and I am interested to see how it plays out.

Let’s look at how the author does this.

Faith and Fire

Throughout the first and second sections, the man refers to a god and the boy, equating the two, in two places and almost forsaking his old god in one. I’ll give you the lines:

Page 7 (in my digital edition):

He only knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Here, I think McCarthy does an amazing thing. In two short sentences, he tells us exactly how the man feels about his son. The boy is his justification for living, without him, there’s not even a god. In his opinion, there might as well be no world if the boy is not in it.

Page 10:

He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he crouched and coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.

And in the passage above, the man is admitting to himself (and anyone else who may be around to hear) his doubts about his god.

Page 19:

He dozed in the wonderful warmth. The boy’s shadow crossed over him. Carrying an armload of wood. He watched him stoke the flames. God’s own firedrake. The sparks rushed upward and died in the starless dark. Not all dying words are true and this blessing is no less real for being shorn of its ground.

And here, he even calls the boy an agent of god. And not just any sort of agent, but a firedrake, evoking images of not only a powerful being, but something that burns eternal or at least will tend to a fire eternally.  The boy is not only humanity’ s future, but the god’s future as well.

In addition, at several instances, in the language the man uses to describe what he see around him, the author supplants the idea that the world has been forsaken by the man’s god. Like this:

Page 7:

…walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless.

Page 19:

On this road there are no godspoke men.

All taken together, we get a clear picture of a man losing his faith in his god and shifting that faith over to his son, who will carry the flame into the future.


At the same time, the two are traveling through country that is the man’s homeland. They visit the man’s home, and the boy is frightened of the place. But not just of the place, but – it seems – of his father’s memories of the place.

While in the man’s childhood home, we get this:

The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but imagine that the boy might even be jealous of his father’s memories. Maybe, like a jealous god?

Later in this scene, the boy tells his father he’s scared and the father admits that they shouldn’t have gone there. I can’t figure that one out, but I suppose it is because the boy doesn’t want to lose his father to a past that will never be again.

Story Mood

One thing that I admired in this section was the language the author used. Words like gryke and firedrake evoke very specific and powerful images.

Using gryke, natural limestone weathered into a patterns that looks like paved stone, reminded me of a natural altar, where the man has gone to talk to his god. And the firedrake, well, that’s a dragon! And we all know they are one of the post powerful symbols in fiction, often used to convey power, longevity, wisdom, and fire (in this case, fire would be life or life-giving).

Coupled with words associated with religion, the author very clearly sets an ominous, religious mood. And he does so very economically. Like this:

The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.

When I first read this, I didn’t know what ‘discalced’ meant, but I knew it had to do with religion. It just sounded like it would and with all the other references, I got a stark picture of what was left of the god’s faithful. Not a pretty picture.

But what I enjoyed with this second reading was how well-chosen Mr. Carthy’s words are: cloven – usually associated with hooves and this made me think of the devil; latterday – coupled with bogfolk, it would seem it is a new faith of the dead; pilgrims and order convey (to me) that the dead have entered a cult of some sort.

However you read those pieces, combined they form a powerful picture of a god turning against his flock and given them up to the devil – in 52 words.

I’m sure it would have taken me a book to say all that.

So far, this section doesn’t really advance the story’s plot much (not that there’s much plot to begin with!), but we do get an overriding sense of how important saving his son is to this man. Humanity hinges on the boy’s survival.

Let’s see if he does.

Until next time, search for words that can efficiently be used to evoke a complex mood or setting.


Section 1 – Deconstructing The Road


8 thoughts on “Deconstructing The Road – Section 2

  1. I have forgotten more than I realized about this book. You’re doing a great job with your reviews. I don’t think I would have seen some of the connections you’re making, but once you point them out, they seem very clear. Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. While I love reading new words…I often read books with a dictionary at hand,
    when an author includes words such as gryke I find myself getting annoyed. It’s as if the author looked this word up on purpose in a geology handbook; it certainly doesn’t strike me as the type of word one would use around the dinner table.
    “Oooh, and look at the gryke on this! We got it at the local Mall. A real bargain.”
    ( or maybe I am simply a backwater hick! Quite possible of course.

    It reminds me of a passage in a Pratchett book where he discusses the word beverage and states, quite rightly, it is one of those words, like rumpus or fracas that is never used except on restaurant menus or, in the case of the latter two, newspaper articles.

    Donaldson did a similar thing in his Covenant series with the word ”bifurcated.” He used it in reference to vision after Covenant suffered a blow to head.
    Trouble is Donaldson used it on a fair number of occasions and it is such a stand out word that 20 years after reading the series that damn word still sticks in my bloody mind and I have made a point not to use it in any of my books….ever!

    Back to the Road introduction of the religious element also annoyed me.
    But then I am an outright atheist so this is to be expected. I am always amazed at the mentality of some humans that no matter how bad the situation is God has to have a role.

    Lastly, why do so many apocalyptic tales happen in the US?
    I did tell you up front that I found the film awful. 😉

    “Dont say you U wosernt worned! ”

    Right now, my natural gregarious, ebullient disposition has lost its effervescence and books like this bring out my combative side.
    with a lot of gnashing of teeth, bifurcating vision and stamping of feet.

    But your review is excellent.

    LOL! 🙂

    1. I agree about some authors using words that just don’t belong. But in the gyrke case (and all the words with religious connotations), I would argue that the author choose the right words to use.

      In that scene with the man coughing up a lung, thinking he’s about to die and beseeching his god for some mercy (or, at the very least, a chance to throttle his neck), he’s kneeling on a natural geological structure that looks made. Rectangular blocks cut into the landscape to look like pavers and, maybe, an altar. Though this is a natural phenomenon, the man (or the reader and author) might see it as a god-made place, a place to beseech one’s god. To me, that word fits perfectly in that scene and makes the scene, so to speak.

      Yeah, the author could have described that all in a few paragraphs, or he could just use one word.

      And I do agree about the religious theme. What’s weird is that the first time I read this book, I really didn’t notice all the religious stuff. But now that I’m reading it more critically, finding these references in just about every paragraph is disappointing. Kind of like seeing the water stains on glass in the right light.

      But, for most Americans, it would make sense that this character would be a god-fearing person. Most folks in this country are.

      Also, in regards to your question about Americans and the Apocalypse… Don’t you know? Americans are hankering for the “End Times”. They can’t wait for all us heathens to get what we deserve. 😉

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review. 🙂

  3. I missed this one first time around – I’m not sure I am getting all of my updates in my reader.

    Anyway, this is an intriguing analysis of the religious symbolism. What struck me is that even though people refer to is as “relentlessly bleak”, the tone and words used seem carefully selected to attach life and spiritual meaning to things where there appears to be none at first glance

    Looking forward to future posts to see if / how this theme pans out

    1. Good observation! That’s very true. There’s a really good example of that in the third section when they are at the waterfall. I’ll make a note to explore that in the next post.

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