Carrying the Fire: Effective Literary Devices in McCarthy’s The Road

January 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a gripping tale of survival in a post-nuclear holocaust world full of marauders and cannibals. A man and his son travel the United States in search of food and shelter, all the while hiding from (and occasionally battling) the marauders. As one might expect, the novel is very dark. The situation for the man and boy is hopeless, and McCarthy uses a great deal of devices to efficiently portray the desperate journey of his two protagonists. An interesting device McCarthy uses is the lack of names or physical descriptions of the man and boy, aside from the boy calling his father “Papa.” McCarthy provides no physical descriptions or ages except when the father describes the boy as thin. The two use no regional dialect when speaking, and no exact description of their location appears. The back cover of the novel says that it takes place in America, but McCarthy never even gives this broad detail within the story. All the reader knows is a broad sketch of their travels: from mountains to coast, and from north to south. One might assume that the two are at first somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, heading southeast to the east coast of the United States. The author, however, takes care never to reveal definitive locations. All of this lack of description of both the people and their location gives the novel a sense of anonymity – a sense that if such a nuclear holocaust were to happen, these two suffering people could be anyone. All people need the basic essentials in the face of such an apocalypse, and previous identities are meaningless. Another important device McCarthy uses is sentence fragments and lack of proper punctuation. Sentence fragments occur early in the novel and continue throughout. Often, sentence fragments extend from a single short sentence, as if they should be connected with commas, such as “In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some gigantic beast” ( McCarthy 3). Later, McCarthy writes, “Standing there he felt the hull of the ship lift and slide. Just slightly. Tide coming in. Slapping along the rocks of the jetty down there” (228). These are just two examples of sentence fragments that are used throughout the novel. The author uses fragments to illustrate the figurative fragmentation of the world in which the man and boy live. Proper punctuation also occurs infrequently in The Road. Quotation marks are never used in dialogue, and contractions often lack apostrophes, such as in “Cant you, Papa?” (7). Apostrophes are used in contractions, but are just as frequently not used, and their usage doesn’t seem to form any pattern. The author seems to be using the lack of punctuation and proper sentence structure to show the futility of all the rules of the English language. In a world where nothing matters but finding food, shelter and clothing, punctuation and sentence structure do not matter. Along with comments about material possessions such as cars and electronics being left roadside because they are useless, McCarthy uses these language errors to show that all of society’s conventions and cares are worthless.Last but not least, McCarthy uses religious language and references to light throughout the novel when writing about the boy. The child is referred to as “God’s own firedrake” (31) early in the novel, and Biblical references to the child continue as the novel progresses. Later, when the father and son meet a man named Ely on the road, the two adults have an interesting conversation about the child:“When I saw that boy I thought that I had died. [Ely]You thought he was an angel? [Father]I didnt know what he was. I never thought to see a child again. I didnt know that would happen. [Ely]What if I said that he’s a god?” [Father] (172).This apparent deification of the child is developed even more before and after this section. At one point, the father plays with his son’s hair as he sleeps, thinking to himself, “Golden chalice, good to house a god” (75). He begins referring to the child as Christ or God later in the story. He does not ever directly say that the boy is God, but the author always follows the man’s references to God with a glance at the boy, or a touch. For example, McCarthy writes, “Christ, he said. Oh Christ. He turned and grabbed the boy” (110), then goes on to say, “Christ, he said. Run. Run” (111). Not only does he speak to the boy as if he were Christ, but the boy eventually begins to answer to this. When they find the bomb shelter full of food, McCarthy writes“Oh my God, he whispered. Oh my God.What is it Papa?Come down. Oh my God. Come down.” (138). It seems as though the father is addressing the son as God, with the child answering. This type of dialogue occurs again on page 253. If these Biblical addresses aren’t convincing enough, the boy actually says, following his father’s statement that he is not the one who has to worry about their situation, “Yes, I am… I am the one” (259). This short statement brings to mind Jesus’ Biblical affirmation that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” The boy is also associated strongly with light. In Revelation 21:5, it says, “They will need no light or lamps from the sun, for the Lord God shall give them light.” The man constantly tells his son that they are “carrying the fire,” something which provides light for their dark world. The father, on his deathbed, watches his son and thinks to himself, “There was light all about him… when he moved the light moved with him” (277). The boy’s strong ties to divinity seem to be used to shed some form of hope and light on his novel of darkness, reinforced by the ending in which a seeming miracle occurs – the boy finds other people who are “carrying the light” after his father dies. McCarthy’s novel The Road is full of hopelessness and danger. The author uses anonymity, lack of sentence structure, and incorrect punctuation to demonstrate this sense of despair. On the other hand, he effectively uses Christ-like references to the boy to show a vague sense of innate good in the world – or perhaps simply desperate hope – even in the face of an apocalypse.

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