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The Road Suggested Essays

by Cormac McCarthy

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. How does the man demonstrate his love for his son in The Road?

    The man demonstrates consistently that he is prepared to take whatever action necessary, even if violent, to ensure his son's survival and best interests. The most obvious example of this occurs when the man does not hesitate to shoot the attacker who holds a knife to the boy's throat. In less dramatic examples, the man continually sacrifices his own health to give his son nourishment. He also works hard to reassure his son that they are good people who hold the fire of goodness within them, and that they would never do things like eat other humans.

  2. Overall, does The Road put forth a positive and uplifting view of humanity, or one of darkness and pessimism?

    The striking last paragraph, with its vivid imagery of trout hidden in deep mountain glens, offers a redemptive ending to what has been a story of awful indifference and destruction, where hope has eked out a meager, slight existence in the face of the ubiquitous destructiveness of human nature, which has both caused the catastrophe and perpetuated the evils in the world afterward. The boy's rescue by a family of "good guys" might be read as an ironic ending with hope in the face of disaster, where somehow the good-guy fire persists. The result is optimistic resilience, a hope against hope, which offers humans an existential choice about how they want to live, whether or not human nature and physical nature make those choices easy or hard.

  3. How do the man and the man's wife differ in their conceptions of death?

    Both the man and his wife understand that in this post-apocalyptic environment, they are likely to be brutalized at the hands of rapists, murderers, and cannibals. The wife considers death to be a needed relief from these threats. To the contrary, the father considers death an abhorrent threat that would prevent him from protecting his son; his commitment to life drives him on the journey south to ensure his son's survival.

  4. Discuss at least two contrasting ways in which the survivors of the catastrophe deal with the chaos.

    The man's wife responds to the catastrophic circumstances by committing suicide and avoiding whatever gruesome fate might befall her. Scavengers on the road choose to resort to murder, thievery, and cannibalism in order to survive. For them, humanity, kindness, and empathy are greatly diminished, it seems, although many of them continue to live in groups. The man and the boy, however, choose to scavenge and refrain from harming others unless violence is absolutely necessary to their survival.

  5. What is the significance of "the fire" to the man and the boy?

    That the man and the boy internally "carry the fire" signifies that they are the "good guys." Upon his deathbed, the man assures the boy that the fire can be found within the boy. The fire represents internal human strength in the form of qualities such as hope, perseverance and resilience, as well as morality, the ability to retain one's humanity in the face of ultimate destruction and evil.

  6. How do the protagonists distinguish the "good guys" from the "bad guys"? Are the protagonists indeed the "good guys"?

    The man and the boy consider themselves good guys, which they tend to see as seeking survival without harming others. They only scavenge for food and supplies, but they try not to steal from others, and they punish those who steal from them. In contrast, the "bad guys" are willing to hurt, use, or murder others for their own benefit. Yet, a central conflict in the novel is between the boy’s idea of what good guys do, on the one hand, and what the father does, on the other hand, in being so afraid of others that he refuses to help them, and in more severely punishing others than the boy thinks is necessary.

  7. How does the boy's relationship with his father change over the course of their journey?

    The boy matures over the course of this journey, and his changing relationship with his father reflects this growing maturity. At the beginning of the novel, the boy looks to the father for knowledge and guidance, believing his father to speak the truth unequivocally. However, as he gains new experiences, the boy learns to use his own judgment and can assess somewhat better whether or not his father is telling the truth. He begins to question his father's honesty on such matters as whether or not they are truly the "good guys" and asserts his own opinion when believing that they should help other people. He never doubts his father’s love for him, however, and continues to love and trust his father, even while he begins to have more and more serious reservations about his father’s choices. In a sense, it is time for the father to die when the son is mature enough to make his own moral decisions for the new generation.

  8. What purpose do the father's memories and dreams serve in The Road?

    The man's recurring memories and dreams poignantly underscore, often by contrast with, the hopeless destruction and chaotic violence which characterize his situation in reality. These passages also demonstrate the man's struggle not to succumb to wishful fantasies but instead to persevere throughout the journey's seemingly insurmountable hardships. The vivid excerpts from his past life remind him (and the reader) that such a life did once exist, despite the hellish present circumstances.

  9. Discuss some of the literary techniques used by McCarthy to evoke and maintain the novel's largely grim and bleak setting.

    Perhaps the most important literary devices used to achieve this end are flashbacks, repetition, and vivid imagery of nature. The bleak imagery he evokes insistently impress upon the reader the extremely harsh conditions the protagonists must face. Throughout the novel, the boy and the man also touch upon the same themes in their conversations: whether they will die of starvation; being the good guys; carrying the fire. These repetitions or mantras keep the sobering themes of death, violence, and unlikely survival to the fore. Furthermore, the contrasting flashbacks, full of life and color, juxtaposed with the imagery of a dead land inhabited by the walking dead, highlight the gravity of the protagonists' present circumstances. The flashbacks also scramble the linear telling of the story, seeming to lengthen the arduous journey endured by the man and the boy.

  10. Describe the role of trust in the novel.

    Trust or the lack of trust is the expression of a basic human relationship. Those who can be trusted will work together; those who cannot be trusted will be either ignored or killed. The father's paranoid and unsympathetic behavior towards other travelers on the road, though they may be harmless like Ely and the burnt man, stem from his distrust of all other individuals, because of his past experience. The boy has seen much less trouble in his short life and tends to trust others much more. His trust in his father reflects his love but also his immaturity, and as he matures he learns to decipher the situations in which his father may be lying to protect him, so that by the end of the novel, he does not simply take his father's words at face value.

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