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The Road Summary & Study Guide
The Road | Introduction
The Road, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, is Cormac McCarthy’s most accessible novel, one which immediately gained a foothold in book clubs and on school reading lists across America. It also joins All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian as one of McCarthy’s most critically acclaimed novels, though a departure from his usual western settings and themes. In a rare interview, McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey that his four-year-old son John practically cowrote the book: “I suppose it is a love story to my son.”
Set sometime in the future after a global catastrophe, The Road chronicles a father and a son—maybe the last of the “good guys”—as they tread along a forsaken patch of highway peopled by marauders and cannibals. The novel can be read in a variety of ways. The Road is perhaps the most chilling commentary of the post-9/11 world. The post-apocalyptic setting plays upon the public’s fear of terrorism, pandemics, genocide, and weapons of mass destruction. Other readers hear the poetic passages of desolation and think of Dante’s descent into hell or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Michael Chabon, in his essay “Dark Adventure,” says the novel is both horror and epic adventure, that McCarthy deftly blends the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner and the extreme naturalism of Jack London. Still others see McCarthy continuing to wrestle with the existence of God, as the father tells the boy, “There is no God and we are his prophets.” The novel certainly plays upon a parent’s worst fears, but because its father-son relationship is crafted so tenderly, the overall effect is, ironically, anything but morbid.
The Road is McCarthy at the height of his powers. The father and son’s journey to “carry the fire” is not only a testament to McCarthy’s love for his son but his faith in humanity.
The Road Summary
The novel opens with a father and son sleeping outside in the cold. The father awakens from a dream of him and his child in a cave, facing a huge, nameless creature that eventually runs away into the dark. At dawn, the father (who, along with the son, remains nameless throughout the novel) surveys the landscape, trying to decide where they will travel next. He is unsure of month or day, because "he hadn't kept a calendar for years." The scene before him reveals ash from a post-nuclear holocaust falling from the sky and drifting across the landscape. The father and son are survivors, fighting to live in a world that has been destroyed by nuclear bombs and ravaged by chaos and confusion.
The boy wakens and they set off on their journey, following a road through the countryside. A grocery cart and knapsacks contain all of their belongings. There is a pervasive sense of danger, and they are constantly on the alert. Discovering an old, abandoned gas station, they explore the remains, hunting for food or other useful items. They find some motor oil and siphon it off to use in their only lamp. That night, at camp, the father reveals that they are heading south because it will hopefully be warmer there.
The boy and his father travel south for "days and weeks to follow," with not much break during the monotonous journey. They suffer from an endless "nuclear winter"—rain, snow, and bitter cold. The father has flashbacks to his childhood home, to fishing with his uncle, and to his wife, who likely killed herself because she could not bear living in such a dreary world. He also dreams, and when the dreams are pleasant, happy ones, he worries, feeling that bad dreams are normal, but happy ones are "the call of...death." He believes that his dreams, if pleasant, are harbingers of death to come. Weak and afflicted with a cough, he worries that if he dies he will leave his son behind to fend for himself. He also worries constantly about shoes, shelter, food, and the unnamed danger, which the reader eventually learns is from packs of barbaric survivors who have turned to cannibalism. The father and son carry a single gun with only three bullets as protection against those who hunt and kill any other survivors for food.
Along the road, they scavenge for blankets, canned food, and other useful goods from abandoned houses, grocery stores, barns, and sheds. The father at one point finds a can of Coca-Cola and gives it to the boy to try, who has never tasted the soft drink. They pass the house where the father grew up, and they walk through; however, the son is very afraid of being there. He is worried that there are people living.