Close reading of excerpt from The Road by Cormac McCarthy:
“He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded. They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
The man’s and boy’s anonymity helps them become more universal characters and just as easy to care for as named ones, especially since they are in danger and alone. In addition, ‘man’ and ‘boy’ are identities themselves. These labels work as character archetypes, already hinting us a bit about who they are and how they will act. The man, for example, is already filling out his role of being an adult by showing concern for the boy and by being the one in charge of pushing the cart.
I have a feeling that the story takes place in our contemporary time, as all the items they have and carry are very familiar, but their world is seemingly a post-apocalyptic one. If the story is set in the future, I don’t think it is a future too far away from our own time.
• Danger and type of disaster
We can tell that they’re in danger by their unfriendly surroundings and because they seem to be walking away from something. They have a knapsack each in case they have to ‘make a run for it’, something that tells us that they might encounter danger along the way.
From their surroundings, which is gray, empty, and covered in ash, I assume that the disaster is most likely an environmental one, either one caused by humans or a natural phenomenon. The presence of ash hints of a destruction caused by fire or chemicals. The greyness of the world and the lack of nature hints more at a disaster caused by humans, such as chemical pollution, a nuclear accident, war, global warming, etc.
• The others
This unknown catastrophe doesn’t seem to have been survived by many people, or any kind of life at all. Even though they are alone now, they still feel the need to check for unwanted company in case they need to flee. The man has a mirror attached to the cart so that he can look behind them, which means that they are definitely watching their backs. Perhaps resources are very limited and other people are willing to hurt them to get their possessions. Perhaps the country was struck by some kind of infectious disease and they are avoiding contact with others.
It is hard to say exactly where they come from, but it’s likely that it is from their destroyed home; this would explain why they’re carrying a cart and knapsacks with their belongings. Common sense would say that they are travelling to some place safer but perhaps they themselves don’t know where they’re heading to and are simply running away from whatever is behind them.
• The road
The road can mean many things, both literally and metaphorically. They are clearly travelling on a physical road, but it might also be referring to their journey itself. They are moving from one place to another, but it is not clear where they come from or where they are going. They might be nomads, always on the move but never staying, or they might be seeking a new home. It could also be referring to a series of events that will lead to something (on the road), something in the future (down the road), or a connection or link between things (such as a pathway).
• Post-apocalyptic world vs. man and boy. Religious symbols and imagery.
We know that there is a man and a boy walking along an empty road covered in ash. There is a small valley with a still, grey river lined with dead reeds. The country is barren and grey, there are not many people (at least not friendly), and there is danger of some kind. This state of dreariness and lack of life is contrasted by the fact that there is a man and a boy living in it. Without them, there is really no hope left and nothing can change. Their presence, and most specifically their journey, is what will show the reader what happened, what is happening, and what will happen.
There are a couple of specific hints that let us know that there might be danger lurking, such as the fact that they are ready to ‘make a run for it’, that the river is ‘serpentine’, that the light is ‘gunmetal’, that they are alone but wary of others, and that they are walking over ash. The ‘gunmetal light’ is what gives me the strongest sense of danger; I immediately relate ‘gun’ to danger, coldness, and death.
‘Serpentine’ might be referring to several things, including something that twists and turns like a snake, something that is cunning or treacherous, and/or to the biblical references of the serpent. In the Bible, the serpent is a synonym for treachery, evil power, and immorality and is even used as a name for Satan. By using biblical imagery, McCarthy emphasises even more the presence of an apocalypse and the end of humanity. Religious imagery and symbolism is very strong and so will strengthen the elements of the story, while probably also giving more room for interpretation to the reader. If there are obvious religious references in the story, then the reader might be more inclined to read between the lines and find less obvious examples and metaphors.
• Poetic devices
The metaphors in the excerpt play a great part in creating imagery and a certain mood; ‘the still grey serpentine of a river’, ‘a burden of dead reeds’, ‘in the gunmetal light’, ‘each the other’s world entire’. The first three examples help describe the coldness, stillness, and emptiness of their surroundings. There is no doubt that this is a world filled with death rather than life. The last example shows us just how important these two characters are to each other and how, in fact, their company is all they really have left.
There are also some cases of consonance (‘below in the little valley the still…’, ‘motionless and precise’, ‘burden of dead reeds’, ‘shuffling through the ash‘), repetition (road, knapsacks, cart), alliteration (‘motorcycle mirror’, ‘clamped…cart..chrome…country’) and rhythm created by pauses (‘…still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise.’, ‘Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded.’). These all help create a balance between poetry and prose in the passage, giving imagery and rhythm to an otherwise precise and stark description.
• Stylistic language and prose
I notice that he creates a strange rhythm by making pauses where perhaps the reader doesn’t expect them. For example, in describing the river (‘…still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise.’) he places the adjectives after the period. The first time I read the passage, I was a bit surprised at the abruptness of this sentence. After reading the whole passage a few times, I noticed that all of the sentences are short and precise and, except for the last sentence, don’t make use of commas. Rather than using excessive adjectives and details, he uses short and strong descriptions that go straight to the point. Even the only piece of dialogue (‘Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded.’) feels blunt.
This helps create a language and mood of coldness and starkness that serves as a reflection to what the story is about. Even from this short passage it is clear that this is a dark and cheerless story. A more colourful and flowing prose might not help deliver the right message and would instead be painting a more hopeful and romantic image. We are given almost the minimum of details and emotion necessary to understand the story, so everything feels tense and brisk.
• How does it all make you feel?
This passage is very depressing and suspenseful, thus making me feel both sad and anxious to know what is happening. The anonymity of the characters makes me want to find out more about them. I will definitely be reading this book soon.