Discussing THE ROAD

The Road (Oprah's Book Club Selection #57) Cover

Last week my book group discussed Cormac McCarthy’s The RoadIt’s a powerful book, evoking a desolate, post-apocalypse America where there are few survivors, and even fewer who haven’t thrown human decency out the window to survive.  A man and his son are at the center of the story.  The boy was born into this world of ashes and death and destruction.  The man remembers the world as it once was, and while he fills his son’s mind with stories of valor from a bygone world he must prepare his son for the world he was born into.  They carry a gun with two bullets, and this boy, at perhaps 10 years of age, knows that he is to use one of those bullets on himself if anything happens to his father and if one of the “bad guys” tries to lay a hand on him.  Yet with all of the misery and degradation this boy sees, he is still full of hope and compassion.  These two lonely wanderers represent the last bastions of civility and morality in a world torn and plundered many times over.  The man and the boy “carry the fire,” the last sparks of goodness left.

There was some debate in my group as to whether The Road provided a message of hope or not.  Man’s inhumanity to man is, I understand, often in stark display in McCarthy’s books.  William Kennedy, in his New York Times review, called it one of McCarthy’s most accessible and hopeful works. 

The love between the father and son is one of the abiding themes in the novel.  It is palpable, and it does keep the reader going in what is otherwise a relentlessly bleak book.  But as to whether a reader thinks that the book offers hope or not is an entirely subjective thing.  As is always the case, our perspective on the messages or themes in a book colors our reading of a book overall.

There were some provocative questions posed. Why does the man leave his wallet and the picture of his wife, the boy’s mother, in the road?  Why is the reason for the apocalypse never named?  Why does the book end with an image of a fish, a creature that no longer exists?  Is the final image one of hope or not?

My question for the group was also why this genre, of post-apocalyptic or dystopian societies, has become so popular in the last 10 years.  Why do we keep reading this story and its variations over and over? Why do we pay to see the end-of-the-world, last-man-standing films?  (Incidentally, the film for The Road is currently in production, starring Viggo Mortensen.) I know what I think.  But how would you, or your group answer these questions? 



About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

4 Comments on "Discussing THE ROAD"

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  1. kgalles@msn.com' Kristen says:

    I just finished The Road (and coincidentally posted it on it, too — check my blog tomorrow, if interested). I really enjoyed it…

    I think we are so drawn to post-apocalyptical visions right now because we fear the repercussions of the past years of excess. Now that we are starting to wake up to the environmental effects of our current habits of consumption, we’re starting to freak out a bit. That’s one theory!

  2. cynthiabaxter@metagenics.com' Cynthia says:

    I read this book on the flight back from Chicago – very intense indeed! As to why this subject has become so popular in the last ten years – I disagree with that. Was not Stephen King’s “The Stand” a hit or Larry Niven’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” or David Brin’s “The Postman” – not to mention the movies like Mad Max, Waterworld, etc. I think the question isn’t why is it so popular NOW but why are we drawn to these types of stories at all? And I think it has the basis of a cathartic reaction – we feel better returning to our normalcy afterwards. Such as it is. That there is hope and there is a chance and that we will survive.
    Having said that – I loved the story. I believe it finally topped ol’ Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” as far as hopelessness. And I don’t necessarily disagree with the casting of Vigo as the father. However…they have also casted Charlize Theron as the wife. As you know – her part in the novel is very, very small….and by the casting of an “A-List” actress as this character – you already know they have tinkered with it – and so the story will not have the same impact. It’s a shame really.

  3. mishamstone@yahoo.com' misha says:

    Thank you both for chiming in! I think there are valid reasons why these stories in literature and film are popular now and are popular in general, regardless of what’s going on at the time. These stories are definitely not new–Mad Max, The Stand, The Night of the Comet, etc. Part of the allure, I agree, seems to me comes from a cathartic place. Survival stories also capture the imagination and make a person wonder what they would do, how they would react in a given situation. In the same way that orphan stories are hugely popular (Harry Potter, anyone?), because we like to imagine ourselves rootless, adrift, alone, having to fend for ourselves, testing our mettle against the elements or those of lesser moral standing than ourselves. We love being the hero or heroine in our own stories.

    See, you can take an hour to talk about this subject alone!

  4. shelmusejoy@yahoo.com' Michele says:

    It is one of the bleakest books, if not the bleakest, I’ve ever read. It has haunted me, so that is probably testament to its power. Right after I finished it, I hated it. I hated the ending. It has since grown on me a little. I didn’t and don’t see the “beauty” that other reviewers have written about. Yeah, the relationship between the father and son is nice, but it is expected, I think, from any parent. I didn’t see it as extraordinary, only the circumstances. I think I would have really liked it, if not for the end. I would not have left my son in that world alone without a stronger sense of hope. Something green. Some other living animal alive. Not with the cannibalistic crazies around. I would not have left him there. I would have at least given him a choice. He expressed desires to die throughout the story. He deserved a choice. Yeah, he seems to find other “good ones” after, but that seemed very contrived and convenient. If the man had met them BEFORE “leaving” then maybe. Plus, if there is no green life or animal life left, what is there to live for? I would not want him to become like the man in the cellar, and that is what was likely, a ten-year-old(ish) alone. But with the ocean seemingly dead and everything else… to me, it did not end hopefully, and I kept reading because I thought there would be some sense of possibility. Some little green bud, one little ray of sunshine breaking through, anything, but no. Just a memory, a thought of the past, not the future. I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone, though it was powerfully even in its starkness. It just did not enrich me as a human being, unless it made me more grateful for my life.

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