Study Guide

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

The Road Introduction

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Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about The Road, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.


Maybe you stumbled upon The Road because you're into the post-apocalyptic scene – you have a soft spot for Mad Max and Terminator movies, or found yourself enjoying Children of Men, 28 Days Later, and The Book of Eli. Or maybe you've read some of Cormac McCarthy's novels before. Either way, you're in for a treat with The Road.

Not only did The Road – a book about and a father and son traversing a post-apocalyptic landscape – win Cormac McCarthy the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for literature, but The Times named it the best book of the decade. The attention didn't end there. Literary critics have lavished praise on the novel, and Oprah Winfrey (yes, the Oprah) even interviewed Cormac McCarthy for her show. It's impossible to say for sure whether any novel will become an American classic, but The Road seems like a good bet.

Was McCarthy just twiddling his thumbs before The Road? Not exactly. He's been writing a string of well-received novels since the 1960s, including Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men. In a 2003 article, the big-time (and highly picky) critic Harold Bloom called Blood Meridian "worthy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick" and named McCarthy one of the great living American novelists (source).

McCarthy's work has even made it to the big screen. The Coen brothers made his 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, into a film of the same title, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2008. And you may have first heard of The Road from the 2009 movie starring Viggo Mortensen (of Aragorn fame).

When The Road appeared on bookstands in 2006, critics noted the book's (expected) brutality and its (unexpected) tenderness (source). The Road simultaneously advanced McCarthy's reputation for violent, brutal writing and introduced a new depth of compassion.

Yvonne Zipp wrote the following about The Road in her Christian Science Monitor review:

The love between the father and the son is one of the most profound relationships McCarthy has ever written, and the strength of it helps raise the novel – despite considerable gore – above nihilistic horror. (Source)

To sum up: this is a novel by an American master. It has all the thrills you'd expect from a post-apocalyptic novel, a fair share of horror and gore, and you'll also encounter an incredibly sweet relationship between a father and son.

What is The Road About and Why Should I Care?

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Reading this book can, at times, feel a lot like you are right there with the characters, slogging through a gray, bleak, uncaring landscape that stretches out before you with no hope of rescue. If we were to play the word association game (which we love to do, by the way), the first thing that would pop into our minds when we hear The Road is GRIM.

Yes, this book has more than its fair share of brutality and despair, but it also has a thin, but powerful, vein of love running through it. And that, Shmoopers, is the reason that you should rush right out and read it.

So maybe you're not struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but we bet that there have been days where it seems like you are all alone in the world, right? When everyone else is either out to get you, or couldn't care less about you? And to whom, Shmoopers, do you turn to in these moments?

In the case of this book, we have a boy's love for his father, and a father's love for his son. It is, for the most part, literally all that keeps them going through unimaginable horrors. As clichéd as it might sound, love gets them through it. Love sustains them, just like—in a very real way—we are all sustained, sheltered, and ultimately saved by the love in our own lives.

This is not a new idea; it's been celebrated by great artists before McCarthy, but it is a powerful, enduring truth that speaks to all of us. We may live a world that is too cool for mushy displays of affection, but we are no less dependent on love for all of that. Reading this book is a grand reminder of a simple truth, one we should all recognize and celebrate—just like this book does.

The Road Resources

Websites

The Cormac McCarthy Society
Informative and a little weird. You know you want to join.

The Road to a Big, Odd Vocabulary
Links to definitions of McCarthy's gnarliest words. It might even help you with the SAT.

Movie or TV Productions

The Road (2009)
This film didn't get the best reviews. On the other hand, it does star the ruggedly handsome Viggo Mortensen.

Documents

Wall Street Journal Interview
McCarthy talks about his novel and the movie.

The New York Times Interview
We guess this is more along the lines of a profile, but you still get plenty of quotes from the man himself.

Vanity Fair Interview
This a shorter interview compared to the two above. Plenty of info about McCarthy's home away from home, The Santa Fe Institute.

New York Review of Books Review
Author Michael Chabon reviews The Road and talks about sci-fi and horror.

Slate Review
Novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan talks about masculinity in The Road.

The New Republic Review
The always perceptive James Wood reviews The Road.

Pop Matters Review
Chris Barsanti explains The Road's very simple formula: Apocalypse + Samuel Beckett = The Road.

"Big Two-Hearted River"
Ever wonder where those brook trout came from? Some critics think they're from this Ernest Hemingway short story.

Video

The Infamous Oprah Interview
This is only a small portion of a larger interview, which seems to have disappeared from the Worldwide Web.

The Film Trailer
Here's the trailer for the 2009 film.

Movie Clips
Yahoo! Movies has seven clips from the 2009 film.

Audio

NPR Review
Writer Alan Cheuse reviews The Road.

Slate Audio Book Club
The poet Meghan O'Rourke hosts a (long) discussion of the novel.

Images

Author Photos From 1965 to 1998
McCarthy cultivates "the mysterious look" on his book jackets for 30 years. Wow.

Cormac and Oprah Together At Last
The pairing McCarthy fans thought they'd never see.