by Cormac McCarthy
Memory and the Past Quotes in The Road
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Section.Paragraph)
They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the streets caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
[The Boy:] You forget some things, dont you?
[The Man:] Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget. (14.1)
Memory becomes both plague and salvation for The Man. The barren landscape that he and The Boy wander across has little in common with the world The Man remembers. It's all ashes and death. So the memories The Man has of a more or less normal world – our world – highlight just how terrible things have gotten. Memory is necessarily tinged with sadness and loss for The Man. That said, he also recalls moments of terrific beauty from the former world, and these provide sustenance and hope – though only occasionally. It would be more accurate, we think, for The Man to say he remembers a lot of things but that he can't help pairing all memories with loss (see 226.1 below).
They slipped out of their backpacks and left them on the terrace and kicked their way through the trash on the porch and pushed into the kitchen. The boy held on to his hand. All much as he'd remembered it. The rooms empty. In the small room off the diningroom there was a bare iron cot, a metal foldingtable. The same castiron coalgrate in the small fireplace. The pine paneling was gone from the walls leaving just the furring strips. He stood there. He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see. We should go, Papa, he said. Yes, the man said. But he didnt. (39.1)
The Man often fears the pre-apocalyptic world will claim him. In fact, he distrusts comforting dreams set in the former world. This is sort of what's going on in this passage. The Man and The Boy visit The Man's childhood home and memories filter into The Man's consciousness. There's one problem, though: these sorts of happy memories prevent The Man from focusing on their survival. They make him want to give up. They also serve, we think, to alienate him from The Boy, since The Boy never experienced the former world. And perhaps The Boy is somehow dimly aware of this alienation when he "watched shapes claiming him [The Man] he could not see."
He woke toward the morning with the fire down to coals and walked out to the road. Everything was alight. As if the lost sun were returning at last. The snow orange and quivering. A forest fire was making its way along the tinderbox ridges above them, flaring and shimmering against the overcast like the northern lights. Cold as it was he stood there a long time. The color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember. (48.1)
This is a point in the novel when The Man actually welcomes memory. It's morning, light from a forest fire has illuminated the landscape, and The Man is moved by the sudden revival of colors. (Remember, he and The Boy see mostly shades of gray and black.) Instead of suppressing memory, The Man directs himself to make a list of what's been lost. With the word "litany" thrown in there (repetitive prayers used in church services), the list, and The Man's memory of these lost things, becomes sacred. This is a far cry from The Man's occasional avoidance of good memories elsewhere in the novel.