Lonesome Landscapes; Environment and Alienation in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Mysterious Kor’
Cormac McCarthy has created a tradition in American literature of violence and desolation, his work dismembering American myth and replacing it with a brutal, epic and often uncomfortable reality. In The Road McCarthy maintains the hallmarks of his previous work but shifts his focus from nihilistic violence to post-climate change concerns, exploring the landscape of a post-apocalyptic America and its effects on the human psyche. In a similar way, Elizabeth Bowen treats blitz-era London as a city in the grips of terror and brimming with marginalized individuals. In her short story ‘Mysterious Kor’ Bowen creates characters who are products of their environment: isolated, emotionally stemmed and in the midst of individual existential crises.
Cormac McCarthy’s style of prose has become recognizable for its solidity and impenetrable resistance to interpretation, yet still retaining a universally recognised poeticism and lyrical nature. Associated with the great writers of the American canon, McCarthy’s writing professes a sense of pastoral brutality and beauty, the critic Steven Shaviro stating that his “sublime prose style resonates with those of Faulkner, of Melville and of the King James Bible.” In The Road McCarthy pushes his deadpan writing even further, stripping back all unnecessary additions to produce prose as bleak and desolate as the world it is describing. So as to engage with a world that has lost nearly everything in an unnamed and unexplained disaster, McCarthy strips his prose of overt metaphor and simile. His description of this new world is sparse and void of any unnecessary adjectives, creating a bleak and inhospitable environment.
“On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels.”
In this passage, as in the rest of the novel, McCarthy creates an environment that is simultaneously identifiable as American but unrecognizable and unimaginable. He presents a land of open rural plains similar to conventional image of the American prairie, a concept usually associated with safety and an easy leisurely life. By reversing the given associations of this scene McCarthy creates a space of uncertainty and distrust. The meadows no longer signify agricultural stability and plentiful food but rather the loss of such comforts. The abandoned roadworks symbolize the loss of industry and economy. But this loss is juxtaposed to the road which remains a constant throughout the novel, creating a hollowed out memory of evolving infrastructure and thus acts as a comparison between this recently dead America and the long dead civilizations of the ancient world.
But what permeates McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic America, wherever the protagonist duo of father and son go on its roads, is the overbearing sense of gray. Whether it be “meadowlands stark and gray”, “shreds of clothing blown against the wall, everything gray in the ash” [Page 95] or “the cold gray light” [Page 199] gray surrounds the travelers and is the most prominent aspect of their environment. This overbearing presence of gray in the novel creates a sense of claustrophobia that the protagonists cannot escape nor deny, symbolizing the fate that has consumed this now cremated Earth and, more immediate to the father and son, humanity. In his essay ‘“The cold illucid world”: The poetics of gray in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, Chris Danta notes that this color “marks the apocalypse in this novel—or, to be more precise, gray marks the sheer fragility of the post-apocalyptic, in which everything appears to be heading, like the central figure of the father, inexorably towards its death”. Thus, gray comes to symbolize that in this world humanity, and the environment which it inhabits, are both marked by death. The ash is inescapable, facemasks are required to avoid breathing it in and it blocks sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface, thus the environment is designed by McCarthy to act as some form of immediate death sentence. McCarthy creates an environment in The Road that is the ultimate and undefeatable antagonist. The man and child are ignorant to this fact, instead focussing on the horrors of their amoral and cannibalistic counterparts, never realizing that it is the land they inhabit that will ultimately kill them. Whether it be respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of ash, starvation due to unfertile land, cremation from forest fires or freezing to death in their sunless world, the man and his son were fated from day one to lose their battle for survival because no matter how hard they try they can never escape the spectral phantom of gray. Thus McCarthy professes that the end of humanity will not be caused by the wars it wages against itself or the next epidemic it faces, but instead the Earth crumbling under the stress its inhabitant place upon it.
While The Road closes in on the reader, the ash build up stifling and suffocating them, ‘Mysterious Kor’ does the opposite but to the same result. In her story Elizabeth Bowen creates a wartime London hollowed out and empty of human feeling. In the story’s opening Bowen writes “London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct.” By comparing London to the moon’s capital Bowen creates an immediate sense of emptiness and insurmountable distance from reality. London is immediately associated as a cold, lonely and otherworldly city, emphasized by Bowen’s association of it with emptiness and a pause in time or reality. This pause in reality is created by the sentence “The Germans no longer bombed by the full moon.” [Page 990] The moon, throughout the whole of the story serves as a metaphor for loneliness and a removal from reality, therefore the fact that the Germans no longer utilize the light of the moon to seek out easy targets during their air raids creates a sense of surrealism. The environment of the stories characters, Arthur, Pepita and Callie, does not truly exist, but is rather something of an imagined world caused by the overbearing presence of war.
Even if the Germans aren’t physically flying over London they are still there in the imagination, creating an environment of fear and distrust of the abnormal that is simultaneously unable to return to reality. War has made London an expansive city of emptiness and senselessness. “The futility of the black-out became laughable” [Page 990] and “the now gateless gates of the park” [Page 990] shows how the necessities of war has created an environment that is needlessly dark and made up of undefined borders. The Road creates a dystopia through its characters inability to escape the claustrophobic nature of their world, ‘Mysterious Kor’ creates one by disallowing its characters from finding something solid and defined in London’s vast and empty spaces. For Bowen, London really becomes the barren and forgotten city of “Mysterious Kor” from the sonnet ‘She’.
The environment of both texts leads to the alienation of their characters due to the specific circumstances that they create. The Road is made of a hostile world, ‘Mysterious Kor’ contrastingly is surreally passive and docile, but both are inhabited by characters separated from humanity by both physical and mental barriers. The father and son duo of The Road see themselves as the last “good guys” [Page 81] in a world where disaster has pushed what remains of humanity towards a life of brutality, violent instinct and, most horrifically, cannibalism. While they travel along the road the father and son encounter four major obstacles produced by this new world order of amorality: a convoy of assumedly cannibalistic nomads; a pregnant woman and three men who, after the baby is born, roast the infant; a cellar full of refugees being held to be slaughtered later as food; and a lone man who steals all of their possessions. All of these encounters serve as testament of how the father and son, though not perfect, are quite certainly still in the better part of their species. Everyone in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic America is driven by the need for survival but it is how they act upon this drive that defines their character.
One thing separates the father from the rest of the adults of his world: his son. Throughout the novel the son acts as a moral compass for his father, it is because of him that they help the wandering traveller Ely and leave clothes for the thief at the beach. As Paul Sheehan observes in his essay ‘Road, fire, trees: Cormac McCarthy’s post-America’, the boys “instincts are to share, to assist, to take care of others—instincts that are otherwise absent from the world”. Thus, the child, both our protagonist and childhood as a whole, symbolizes innocence and morality. The fact that it is the hope of other people his own age that helps the child trust the man whom he meets following the death of his father further emphasizes this:
“Do you have any kids?
Do you have a little boy?
We have a little boy and we have a little girl.
How old is he?
He’s about your age. Maybe a little older.
And you didn’t eat them?
You don’t eat people.
No. We don’t eat people.
And I can go with you.
Yes. You can.
Okay then.” [Page 303]
Even if the man is lying to child, luring the child into a false sense of trust so as to disarm him of the revolver that his father made him keep, the presence of childhood is still significant. Children allow trust to exist in a world where nothing can be trusted. If the child is the moral character, then the father is the immoral, but this immorality is created by necessity: he shoots a nomad as he is a threat to his son, he distrusts Ely as he is low on food for himself and his son, and he takes the clothes of the thief as a form of punishment for a crime that would have undoubtedly led to death. The father, however, is conscious that his actions are wrong, his son never allowing him to forget and ignore what he has done. This duo, one totally moral and one clinging on to the shreds of his own, are a clear contrast to their cannibalistic counterparts. Psychoanalytically, it is clear to see that the son is the super-ego, the father the ego and the rest of humanity is the id. There is no doubt that if the father did not have to care for his son he would fall into this new tradition of violence and amorality. But, seeing as he does have to care for his son, he separates them from the rest of humanity. Alienation in The Road is a product of retaining onto ones morality. The father and his son separate themselves from the rest of the world through their belief that they live as pariahs due to their goodness.
McCarthy’s characters are alienated from the world by the invisible but undeniably central role morality plays in their lives, a contrast to the trio of protagonists in ‘Mysterious Kor’. Bowen’s story is set in a London where the imagination creates barriers between individuals, leaving lonely and emotionally isolated characters. As previously discussed, the moon, a metaphor for both loneliness and imagination (creating an immediate link between the two), saturates the entire story, whether it be in the hollow streets of London or the compact flat that Pepita and Callie share. Pepita is the character who is most associated with the moon for it is her that first brings reference to the fictional city of Kor and it is she that Callie decided will sleep in the moonlight. This constant presence that the moonlight has over Pepita creates in her a mind-set focussed on possibilities and what may or may not be. “This war shows we’ve by no means come to the end. If you can blow whole places out of existence, you can blow whole places into it. I don’t see why not.” [Page 991] Outside and drenched in moonlight Pepita questions the limits of her own imagination by replacing London with Kor. This questioning, however, leads to a distance with her lover, Arthur, when she says “By the time we’ve come to the end, Kor may be the one city left: the abiding city. I should laugh” [Page 991] This disassociation with reality, concentration on the city she has imagined and lack of concern for the real habitants of London causes Arthur to respond with “No, you wouldn’t … You wouldn’t – at least, I hope not. I hope you don’t know what you’re saying – does the moon make you funny?” The moon, and thus the imagination, alienates Pepita from Arthur, leading Victoria Glendinning to write that Pepita is a character “who has an ‘avid dream’ in which Kor is more compelling than her lover”. Pepita alienates herself because of her imagination. It creates boundaries in an already hostile and desolate reality, making her character often dissociative and distant from those around her.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Mysterious Kor’ have worlds where environment has a direct effect on the characters who inhabit their spaces. Though these environments as starkly different, one claustrophobically rural the other hollow and urban, they both produce alienated characters. The father and son of The Road retain an outdated and counterproductive sense of what is ethically good, an attitude that does not suit the environment of brutal realism they live in, and thus are hostile to those around them. In contrast, Pepita, Arthur and Callie are placed in a reality that turns out to be too much to handle and thus alienate themselves from the world around them and take solace in the supposedly infinite powers of their imaginations. Both McCarthy and Bowen suggest that alienation is a direct product of an individual’s environment but, more optimistically, the product of only a negative environment. The father and son only abandon the rest of humanity because of the burnt out America that they inhabit and Bowen’s protagonists are simply unable to cope with the horrors that war presents to them. It is the spaces that we live in, therefore, that determines whether we will act inclusive towards our society or, like the characters of McCarthy and Bowen, we will exclude ourselves from the world.
Steven Shaviro, ‘“The Very Life of Darkness”: A Reading of Blood Meridian’, in Cormac McCarthy, ed. by Harold Bloom, [New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009], pp. 16. All subsequent citations are to this edition.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road, [New York: Picador, 2010], pp. 6. All subsequent citations are to this edition.
Chris Danta, ‘“The cold illucid world”: The poetics of gray in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, in The Styles of Extinction, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, ed. by Julian Murphet and Mark Steven, [New York: Continuum, 2012], pp. 10. All subsequent citations are to this edition.
Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Mysterious Kor’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by L. Rainey, [New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005], pp. 990. All subsequent citations are to this edition.
 Andrew Lang, ‘She’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by L. Rainey, [New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005], pp. 990. All subsequent citations are to this edition.
Paul Sheehan, ‘Road, fire, trees: Cormac McCarthy’s post-America’, in The Styles of Extinction, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, ed. by Julian Murphet and Mark Steven, [New York: Continuum, 2012], pp. 102. All subsequent citations are to this edition.
Victoria Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of an Artist, [London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 1977], pg. 145. All subsequent citations are to this edition.