by Cormac McCarthy
Memory and the Past Quotes in The Road
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Section.Paragraph)
He'd carried his billfold about till it wore a cornershaped hole in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it out and went through the contents. Some money, credit cards. His driver's license. A picture of his wife. He spread everything out on the blacktop. Like gaming cards. He pitched the sweatblackened piece of leather into the woods and sat holding the photograph. Then he laid it down in the road also and then he stood and they went on. (85.1)
It's fairly obvious here that The Man is trying to disengage himself from the past. He spreads (very neatly, we might add) the contents of his wallet on the road: money, his driver's license, credit cards, and a picture of his wife. His whole pre-apocalypse identity. We think this is quite sad – each suggests some part of a civilized world – but necessary if The Man is going to forge ahead with The Boy without being weighed down by the past.
He'd a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets. He tried to remember the rules of childhood games. Old Maid. Some version of Whist. He was sure he had them mostly wrong and he made up new games and gave them made up names. Abnormal Fescue or Catbarf. Sometimes the child would ask him questions about the world that for him was not even a memory. He thought hard how to answer. There is no past. What would you like? But he stopped making things up because those things were not true either and the telling made him feel bad. The child had his own fantasies. How things would be in the south. Other children. He tried to keep a rein on this but his heart was not in it. Whose would be? (90.1)
One of the odd things about the setting of The Road is that there's very little left to remind people of the pre-apocalyptic world. There's trash, abandoned houses, decks of cards and beds, but no animal or plant life and no community. (Unless you count the bloodcults.) How do you explain to your child that people once sat together in their homes in the evening and played games with marked pieces of paper? The safe domesticity of it probably doesn't make that much sense – most relationships on the road seem based on mutual distrust and cunning.
He thought about the picture in the road and he thought that he should have tried to keep her in their lives in some way but he didnt know how. He woke coughing and walked out so as not to wake the child. Following a stone wall in the dark, wrapped in his blanket, kneeling in the ashes like a penitent. He coughed till he could taste the blood and he said her name aloud. He thought perhaps he'd said it in his sleep. When he got back the boy was awake. I'm sorry, he said. (92.1)
The plot of The Road allows McCarthy to explore memory and the past in really startling ways. Don't we often feel guilty when we start to forget the face of someone we loved? Because the previous world has vanished in the novel, and because survival demands that one focus on the present, McCarthy has an opportunity to explore the guilt of forgetting concretely. Very concretely: the Man leaves a picture of his wife on the road. He then kneels in the ashes like a penitent. How much more concrete can you get? There are none of the abstract, big words here you might find in flightier explorations of memory. The loss of the past in The Road is universal and shared instead of being limited to the thoughts of one character.