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The Road


The Road Cover

ISBN13: 9780307387899
ISBN10: 0307387895
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. Cormac McCarthy has an unmistakable prose style. What do you see as the most distinctive features of that style? How is the writing in The Road in some ways more like poetry than narrative prose?

2. Why do you think McCarthy has chosen not to give his characters names? How do the generic labels of "the man" and "the boy" affect the way in which readers relate to them?

3. How is McCarthy able to make the postapocalyptic world of The Road seem so real and utterly terrifying? Which descriptive passages are especially vivid and visceral in their depiction of this blasted landscape? What do you find to be the most horrifying features of this world and the survivors who inhabit it?

4. McCarthy doesn't make explicit what kind of catastrophe has ruined the earth and destroyed human civilization, but what might be suggested by the many descriptions of a scorched landscape covered in ash? What is implied by the father's statement that "On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world" [p. 32]?

5. As the father is dying, he tells his son he must go on in order to "carry the fire." When the boy asks if the fire is real, the father says, "It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it" [p. 279]. What is this fire? Why is it so crucial that they not let it die?

6. McCarthy envisions a postapocalyptic world in which "murder was everywhere upon the land" and the earth would soon be "largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes" [p. 181]. How difficult or easy is it to imagine McCarthy's nightmare vision actually happening? Do you think people would likely behave as they do in the novel, under the same circumstances? Does it now seem that human civilization is headed toward such an end?

7. The man and the boy think of themselves as the "good guys." In what ways are they like and unlike the "bad guys" they encounter? What do you think McCarthy is suggesting in the scenes in which the boy begs his father to be merciful to the strangers they encounter on the road? How is the boy able to retain his compassion--to be, as one reviewer put it, "compassion incarnate"?

8. The sardonic blind man named Ely who the man and boy encounter on the road tells the father that "There is no God and we are his prophets" [p. 170]. What does he mean by this? Why does the father say about his son, later in the same conversation, "What if I said that he's a god?" [p. 172] Are we meant to see the son as a savior?

9. The Road takes the form of a classic journey story, a form that dates back to Homer's Odyssey. To what destination are the man and the boy journeying? In what sense are they "pilgrims"? What, if any, is the symbolic significance of their journey?

10. McCarthy's work often dramatizes the opposition between good and evil, with evil sometimes emerging triumphant. What does The Road ultimately suggest about good and evil? Which force seems to have greater power in the novel?

11. What makes the relationship between the boy and his father so powerful and poignant? What do they feel for each other? How do they maintain their affection for and faith in each other in such brutal conditions?

12. Why do you think McCarthy ends the novel with the image of trout in mountain streams before the end of the world: "In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery" [p. 287]. What is surprising about this ending? Does it provide closure, or does it prompt a rethinking of all that has come before? What does it suggest about what lies ahead?

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Emily Minzel, April 2, 2014 (view all comments by Emily Minzel)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is not what I was expecting. The novel follows a father and his son in a post-apocalyptic world, travelling to the southern coast. Their struggle to survive dominates the story. The somber tone of the novel is depressing throughout and never wavers. McCarthy’s decision to abandon the readers with an unhappy ending was intentional, leaving them wanting more. The boy and his father’s fight for life in McCarthy’s The Road is brought on by the post-apocalyptic, dull world they live in. The unchanging and relatively uneventful plot portrays a devastating journey that turns readers off.
The setting of The Road is dreary to say the least. Ash covers all. Everything is described as black, filthy and lifeless. Each night is “dark beyond darkness” (3) so nothing is visible. McCarthy describes everything in this way to emphasize the horrible conditions the world is in. No specific information is given throughout the entire book. Readers remain unaware of the names of characters, where exactly they are located and how long the world has been in ruins. The boy is most likely a pre-teen, but no age is ever included. One bit of information provided is the boy does not remember the previous world at all because he was too young. The father does everything he can to keep the boy alive. Hunger becomes a constant reminder of how he cannot provide for himself or his own son. While it pains the two, many “bad people” resort to cannibalism. The boy sees a “charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit” (198). This would scar any normal child, but the boy is almost resilient. Feelings of hunger, cold, and sadness are always present; sometimes they come in pairs. In the tragic end, the father finally dies, but the boy lives on, “carrying the fire” (283).
Many novels are full of literary elements that provide interesting detail, but The Road excludes most elements to showcase its uniqueness. McCarthy’s choice to eliminate important literary devices is intentional, but lacks purpose. The missing punctuation and terrible grammar is careless and overrated. McCarthy notes, “he drained away the filthy water he sat in and laved fresh warm water over him from the pan and wrapped him again in a blanket”, proposing a run-on sentence. The act is very common in the novel. If it was a way to show the toll the world has taken on the characters, it failed. Characters, as mentioned, remain nameless, which are in need of personal connections. Readers do not respond as well to the characters because all they have to call them is “the boy” and “the father”. They want something personal to latch onto, even if it is just a name. Also, the plot remains anticlimactic. The only major event happens in the very last pages of the novel when the father dies. The boy is left to fend for himself until someone comes for him. He joins a group of people, the group he and his father were looking for the whole time. Although it presents itself like a hopeful ending, it is just the opposite. The story focuses on the father protecting the son, but in the end, he cannot even protect himself. The tone of The Road is constant throughout. The depressing, heartbreaking tone feels like a burden on the soul. Dialogue is another omitted component. Though there is a little of it, the dialogue is not very prominent. It stays in the background, not playing a key role. The author does this to communicate that speaking is not everything. The fears and thoughts that go on in a character’s head is just as important, if not more than dialogue between them. Overall, McCarthy’s novel is missing key elements of literature.
When considering the book as a whole, it is still intriguing even though it lacks action. For the majority, the father and son are only walking. The road they travel is bare, dark and cold. The same ideas are regurgitated over and over again. Hunger comes up in so many instances that it is odd when the pair are not speaking of it. For me, it was obnoxious to be told multiple times that the same thing was happening. I wanted more twists and turns in the plot. I found myself to be bored with the storyline, wishing for excitement. At the same time, McCarthy’s artistic choices left me in awe. He was very specific with the relationship the father and son had. The son’s backlash against his father illustrates his coming of age in a confusing world. The major issue deals with lack of hope. The major theme is when hopelessness sinks in, there is not a lot to do about it. Their journey to the coast is filled with hope that better life will be waiting. Without hope, the son and father give up. The man proclaims, “hope is for eternal nothingness” (57). Readers are aware that he does not have the energy left to hope. When their dreams are shattered, the story takes a turn for the worse. The unpleasant death of the father is McCarthy’s way of getting under his readers’ skin. He does not give them the happy ending they desire, but instead writes their worst fear. The major complaint about the novel is the shortage of surprises.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is mostly uneventful, but it has its moments of pure artistic genius. The novel is overwhelmed by the struggle for life. The depressing thoughts are extremely prominent and carry a somber tone. The hope the boy and man share dies off, followed by the loss of life. McCarthy’s novel proves that a person can only hang on to hopelessness for so long before he must give up.
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pkdubreuil, January 6, 2013 (view all comments by pkdubreuil)
Well written.
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Sue Bond, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Sue Bond)
Simple and powerful prose that made me read the novel all the way through in one go. The Road is the first novel of Cormac McCarthy's that I read, and I came to it with my partner's strong recommendations for his other books, particularly Blood Meridian. It is a tough story of the end of human civilisation as we know it, told through the characters of a father and his son, and I was right there with them in the blackened remains and the frightening encounters with other humans mostly stripped bare of their humanity. Absolutely devastating; I will never forget it.
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Product Details

McCarthy, Cormac
Vintage Books USA
Fathers and sons
Voyages and travels
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage International
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
12 x 9 x 5 in 9.74 lb

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The Road Used Trade Paper
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Product details 304 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780307387899 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Partial spoiler: the part with the cannibals comes out of nowhere and is utterly terrifying. I had planned to get out of bed and brush my teeth before going to sleep that night, but once I had read that part of the book, I was just too scared (to my husband's great annoyance) to do anything so potentially risky.

"Review A Day" by , "It's an adventure, believe it or not — the sort of book that, if only for the relentless clarity of the writing, the lucid descriptions of the grasses, the mud, the thorns, and the very arc of the road that cuts through all that, presents a clear and episodic progress from one small terror to the next. Forget comfort and possession. Postapocalypse or not, it's classic McCarthy....You should read this book because it is exactly what a book about our future ought to be: the knife wound of our inconvenient truths, laid bare in a world that will just plain scare the piss out of you on a windy night." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review A Day" by , "The love between the father and the son is one of the most profound relationships McCarthy has ever written, and the strength of it helps raise the novel — despite considerable gore — above nihilistic horror....Fans of McCarthy's brutal world view may not approve, but other readers will welcome the unexpectedly hopeful ending." (read the entire CSM review)
"Review A Day" by , "The Road is a much more compelling and demanding book than its predecessor....The new novel will not let the reader go, and will horribly invade his dreams, too....It is an interesting question as to why McCarthy succeeds so well. The secret, I think, is that McCarthy takes nothing for granted." (read the entire New Republic review)
"Review" by , "Even within the author's extraordinary body of work, this stands as a radical achievement, a novel that demands to be read and reread....A novel of horrific beauty, where death is the only truth."
"Review" by , "The Road offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be."
"Review" by , "One of McCarthy's best novels, probably his most moving and perhaps his most personal."
"Review" by , "I'm always thrilled when a fine writer of first-class fiction takes up the genre of science fiction and matches its possibilities with his or her own powers....[A] dark book that glows with the intensity of his huge gift for language."
"Review" by , "[B]eyond the inherent technical difficulties of concocting the unthinkable, McCarthy has rendered a greater and more subtle story that makes The Road riveting."
"Review" by , "[O]nly now, with his devastating 10th novel, has [McCarthy] found the landscape perfectly matched to his cosmically bleak vision....[E]xtraordinarily lovely and sad...[a] masterpiece... (Grade: A)"
"Review" by , "The setup may be simple, but the writing throughout is magnificent....McCarthy may have created a world where things are reduced to their essence, but he continually surprises by finding a way to strip them further."
"Review" by , "The wildly admired writer Cormac McCarthy presents his own post-apocalyptic vision in The Road. The result is his most compelling, moving and accessible novel since All the Pretty Horses."
"Review" by , "[F]or a parable to succeed, it needs to have some clear point or message. The Road has neither, other than to say that after an earth-destroying event, things will go hard for the survivors."
"Synopsis" by , National Bestseller

Pulitzer Prize Winner

National Book Critic's Circle Award Finalist

A New York Times Notable Book

One of the Best Books of the Year:
The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Denver Post, The Kansas City Star, Los Angeles Times, New York, People, Rocky Mountain News, Time, The Village Voice, The Washington Post

A man and his young son traverse a blasted American landscape, covered with "the ashes of the late world." The man can still remember the time before. The boy knows only this time. There is nothing for them but survival — they are "each other's world entire" — and the precious last vestiges of their own humanity. At once brutal and tender, despairing and rashly hopeful, spare of language and profoundly moving, The Road is a fierce and haunting meditation on the tenuous divide between civilization and savagery, and the essential, sometimes terrifying power of filial love. It is a masterpiece.

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