The Inescapable And Irretrievable Past In The Play All My Sons And Novel The Road
Both McCarthy and Miller explore the significance of past actions that are evident in the present world. In ‘All My Sons’, it is Keller’s actions of allowing faulty engine parts to be used, resulting in the death of twenty one pilots, and ultimately Larry’s suicide. On the other hand, in ‘The Road’, we see the irreversible actions of man-kind, rather than an individual. Through an unnamed catastrophic event, which destroys America’s landscape, turning it into a feeding ground for predators. McCarthy explores the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest in the most explicit terms, whilst Miller implies the ruthlessness that is necessary for material success in modern day American capitalism.
In both texts the use of dreams and memories creates an inescapable and irretrievable past. They are a constant reminder of the characters’ past lives and how past actions have come to shape their present lives. Both Miller and McCarthy incorporate dreams into their texts, allowing the reader to understand the character’s longing for the past.
Cormac McCarthy uses dreams and flashbacks to act as a way to escape the post-apocalyptic world the unnamed father and son live in. The dreams are full of warmth and colour which is shown in complete contrast with the present monochrome grey skies and landscape. In the John Hillcoat production (2009) The dreams and flashbacks also have a strong emphasis on the bright, warm colours. The camera projects onto the garden, which is bursting with nature, trees with blossom, the rich green grass and the wife in the centre, laughing with the orange sunlight, in stark comparison to the barren, destroyed world the father wakes up to. “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before”
Throughout the novel the man continuously experiences “Dreams so rich in colour” and “Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from”. McCarthy reveals however, the father’s longing for the past is interrupted by the love he feels for his son, who has no memories of the past world or the warmth the dreams hold. McCarthy has created a world in which the boy cannot connect with his father through memories, the only tie the boy has to the past is through the father. In many ways memory serves as the basis for the man’s desire in maintaining his humanity and his attempts to teach and preserve his innocence.
McCarthy explores the fleeting happiness that is experienced for only a moment. It is through the use of McCarthy’s use indirect free style from the point of view of the man that the past is brought into the present. “The dream brightened. “The vanished world returned”. The oxymoron emphasises the desire to stay in this dream world that the man lives in for only moments. Yet the man is drawn back to the present in order to protect his son.
Miller uses the dramatisation of Kate’s dream about Larry to try and convince Chris that Larry is still alive. Kate interprets her dream as a sign that it was more than just a dream. For Kate the moment Larry was reported missing was the point at which time stopped for her. Kate’s inability to move on from the past and accept Larry’s death would force her to accept Joe’s involvement and control of the crime he committed, resulting in the death of twenty four pilots. “If he’s [Larry] dead, your father killed him” It’s only until right at the end of the play that the audience can finally understand Kate’s unhealthy obsession with keeping Larry alive. In many ways her fear of Joe’s crime is greater than her devastation towards the loss of her eldest son. The use of the direct “your” towards Chris is in retaliation to his bid to convince Kate that Larry is truly dead.
In terms of moving on from the past and its legacy, both McCarthy and Miller use the younger generation as symbols of hope for the future. McCarthy presents the son in ‘The Road’ as a beacon of hope for not only the father, but also humanity. His compassion and morality confirms his own doubts about whether they are “still the good guys”. The son’s concern with remaining on the “good side” confirms his purity and incorruptibility. The son’s constant repetition of the question suggests that through this boy McCarthy is actually asking the reader who are the good and bad “guys” in today’s society. McCarthy has created a world in which there is no God, however the boy adopts the role of a Godly figure.
His innocence and desire to help everyone is shown in complete contrast to the cannibals that threaten the survival of humanity. McCarthy presents the boy with a level of maturity that would not be expected of such a young child, especially in a world without an education system. The boy’s questions address complicated issues of responsibility toward others and compassion in a morally depraved world. The number of these exchanged between the father and son suggests their importance in recognising the ‘boy’ as perhaps in a more mature, sophisticated light. As the novel progresses we see a shift in roles regarding responsibility and decision making. Not only does the son speak out against the father, but also begins to make his own decisions.
When the pair comes across Ely, the son is iminent in helping the old man, by giving him food, and allowing him to stay with them for the night. The boy looks past any suspicion that the father shows, and instantly offers to help Ely. Ely states that he “Knew this was coming” From his name alone it can be assumed that he is supposed to be Elijah the prophet. The character Ely fits in nicely with McCarthy’s Revelations-inspired setting, the Book of Revelation. However, Ely proclaims God’s nonexistence, and that death will disappear along with human-kind. In many ways Ely can be seen as an anti-prophet.
The boy’s determination with carrying “the fire” is linked to the Christian symbolism of fire. In Christianity fire is a sign of divinity. The son’s God-like role is emphasised by the father’s understanding of his “job [is] to take care of you[the son]. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.. These words from the father are seen to be truthful, when he kills the man in the woods to protect them from being caught and potentially eaten. The boy, unlike many of the people who inhabit the world around him, is able to keep from devolving into savagery. The fact that McCarthy has chosen to refer to them simply as “the boy” and “the man” is interesting because on the one hand, it presents them as being representative of humanity but also presents them within their genders and age group.
This should seemingly force them into gender expectations, however the empathic nature of the boy is considered a typically feminine trait and it is the major characteristic, which dominates the personality of the boy. Similarly, Chris Keller from Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ is often portrayed as an epitome of a good Christian. Chris Keller can be considered a Christ-like figure in the play, as his kind characteristics are so vividly contrasted against his father’s. Chris is a beacon of truth as he embodies a forgiveness for others, Chris is a character who is seen to speak his mind, not fearful of what others think.
Miller portrays him in unison with his father, they live in harmony, despite their different views on working and money. Chris demands integrity and honesty from Joe at all times, thinking his father is always truthful, therefore making Joe’s betrayal more powerful and hurtful. “Dad… Dad, you killed twenty one men!” The stage directions that have been paired with the character’s responses allow the reader to see their expressions and makes their words more powerful. Chris’ desperation for his mother to accept Larry’s death results in the truth coming out about joe’s crimes. Larry’s letter to Anne explaining his suicide is Miller’s turning point in the play. The letter acts as a catalyst for Kate’s devastation and forebodes Joe’s suicide.
Kate wants to retrieve the past with small, symbolic reminders of Larry. The apple tree acts as a constant reminder to not only the characters, but also the audience of Larry’s importance. Although we do not see or meet Larry, the audience is constantly haunted by this character. This is achieved by the unity of setting. Miller purposefully sets the entire play in the comfort of the Keller’s home. Kate’s obsession with Larry’s horoscope leads to Frank feeding Kate the false hope that ties her to the inescapable past. Kate gets lost in her re-telling of her dream in act 1.
Aristotle’s unity of setting is present in both The Road and All My Sons to create an inescapable past. McCarthy’s decision to open the novel in a nightmarish dream, followed by careful details of a barren, stripped back landscape inviting the question of the nature of the apocalyptic disaster that has occured. There is a powerful sense of an inescapable and irretrievable past due to the scale of the disaster. Presumably the entire world has been affected and the whole world looks the same. Although the father and son are travelling north to find the sea, which acts as a constant beacon of hope, the greyness of their surroundings isn’t changed. No matter where the father and son travel to or how long they walk, the skies are still grey, the trees are still burnt and a thick layer of ash still lingers.
However, most notably, their setting is brightened with colour when they find the bunker full of tinned food and drink. The colourful labels of the cans and the warmth of light from the oil lamp is the only change in their monochrome world. In the John Hillcoat movie the warmth of the lamp light is very similar to the warmth seen in the father’s flashbacks of the past world. The stripped back world is emphasised by McCarthy’s use of unattributed dialogue and lack of punctuation, or chapters to divide up his novel. ‘The Road’ is a single text that is broken up only by paragraphs.
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