The Road Less Travelled

Last night, I sat down, and decided to read my novel for next week; the novel in question being Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The novel focuses on a destroyed America; a world in which commercial values and commodities have been completely destroyed, and the only living people left are either ‘the good guys’ or ‘the bad guys’. The two groups are defined; society has been reduced, in the wake of this destruction, to being composed of binary opposites; good and bad, dead or alive, starving or not.


The world of binary opposites is something proposed in Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. Binary opposites exist to define the world in relation to what it is not; something that is essential in McCarthy’s The Road. The child is a haunting reminder of the innocence of childhood, and the ways in which it can be affected by the nature vs. nurture environment, and is a striking example of how environment is paramount to the development of a person.

The way in which America, or the developed world is portrayed here takes us back to an almost prehistoric sense of existence. The scavenging and hiding that occurs is almost animalistic, and the country seems to reduce its inhabitants to little more than dogs, in the ways in which they try to survive. Hiding, and seeking refuge, is a part of human nature, or of the fight or flight response. This is not however limited to humans alone; animals often confront their attackers in the same way as the man in the novel, who shoots the person holding his little boy hostage.

The division between being a human and being an animal is made by way of the fact that the man remembers his wife, and the birth of his child; his ultimate role in the novel is to keep the boy safe, to protect him from harm. The harm that befalls him is primarily psychological, and represents how parents, with all the love in the world, cannot always protect their children from the world outside; this idea is not just limited to burned out pieces of America, or a world in which law has been removed; it is present throughout real life too, and the novel highlights rather acutely, how experiences befall people and how they cannot always be protected from these experiences.

The issue of paternal love then, is very prevalent throughout the novel; there is nothing the father won’t do for the child, and rather disturbingly, he has had to teach the child how to use the pistol, a symbol that runs through the novel, to commit suicide in an emergency. Self destruction is constantly debated through the novel, and the man himself often meditates on the benefits of suicide; his goal is to reach the coast, however the reasoning behind it isn’t made particularly clear; what lies ahead of them seems to be endless foraging, scavenging, seeking survival; however in such a desolate landscape, the reader simply wants to ask, “but why?”.

This term as far as novels go, has been far more rewarding than the last. I’m a huge fan of postmodern literature, and the development of modern literature often grabs my attention to a much greater extent than classical literature. The novel itself is terrifying and extremely sad; it makes a person question how they would survive under such a hostile environment. I recommend reading it, if you have an evening devoid of entertainment, especially because it’s thought-provoking, and asks questions that focus very much around the environmental crisis, and the nature of human survival in the wake of an apocalypse.





6 thoughts on “The Road Less Travelled

  1. I’ve not read this but I want to. I have seen the film and apparently a lot of the bleaker aspects of it are toned down.

    • I’ve never seen the film, but I’d like to. The novel is fantastic; a read-in-one-night arrangement, and very insightful.

      I must confess however, that the novel did unerve me, scared me even, just a little bit. The language and nature of dialogue really makes you feel as though you are there too.

      (: Thank you for reading.

  2. I’ve read the book AND seen the film. The film actually helped me understand the significance of a bit of the book (when they hear a dog while in the bunker).
    I loved how McCarthy makes us consider right and wrong. It is somehow “wrong” for the guy to take their stuff, and he gets punished in a potentially fatal way, yet the entire book has them doing the same thing – taking apparently abandoned things to help themselves survive… no more than their own accidental attacker had done.

    • I think right and wrong tends to be subjective throughout the novel; there is no real bad or good; it is a perception of the man himself. I think the boy, at the end of the book, represents a change in the situation; there is a vague glimmer of hope there. I’m going to watch the film soon, it looks good!

      Thank you for reading!

      • I agree, re subjective. That was my point. “Right” and “wrong” depend on your perspective at any given point. There was also the concept of an absolute wrong though (the food cellar). One of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a long time.

      • I really agree with you about the thought provoking nature of the novel. The food cellar is something that I thought was very much a part of the subjectivity of the wrong, myself; if humanity has been completely altered, and society completely disintegrated, then how can we evaluate good versus bad?

        There’s no means of upholding justice, and therefore the world is reduced to the man, the boy, and the pistol. The justice is their own, as opposed to the mechanism of the state. This is same as that the man who robs the cart has no sense of good versus evil in our traditional understanding of the world.

        I do wonder what would happen if we were survivors in an apocalypse; would you care about ownership rights, if your own life, and especially the life of your kid, was on the line? I suspect that for children, parents (a lot of them at least) would do anything, including kill a man, and indeed, stranger things have happened in our own society.


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