Study Guide

The Road Memory and the Past

By Cormac McCarthy

Memory and the Past

Sections 11-20
The Boy

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).

Sections 31-40
The Boy

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."

Sections 41-50

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.

Sections 81-90

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.

Sections 91-100
The Man

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.

Sections 131-140

By the time they got there it was dark of night. He held the boy's hand and kicked up limbs and brush and got a fire going. The wood was damp but he shaved the dead bark off with his knife and he stacked brush sticks all about to dry in the heat. Then he spread the sheet of plastic on the ground and got the coats and blankets from the cart and he took off their damp and muddy shoes and they sat there in silence with their hands outheld to the flames. He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of possible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (137.1)

Cormac really outdoes himself with the language here. We want to point out a very cool paradox, though. Just as McCarthy starts letting fly with some very beautiful and sinuous language, he slyly suggests just how fragile language is. What happens if the things words refer to disappear? Do our words for those things also cease to exist? And what if most things in the world cease to exist? Does language vanish as well? Here's McCarthy's fancy way of saying all that: "The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality."

Sections 191-200

Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not. (200.1)

The "party game" McCarthy mentions here is "Telephone." (At least that's what we've always called it.) You whisper something into your neighbor's ear, she whispers that into her neighbor's ear, and so on until everyone has heard the thing. After all the whispering and mishearing, the phrase barely resembles the thing you originally said. Everyone laughs at human error, at how we hear what we want to hear, and it's really fun – unless you're Cormac McCarthy and you see the scary implications of such a game. When The Man remembers something, he changes the original memory. (He might focus on one part of the memory, or let his current mood alter his view of it, and thus alter the memory.) What's does all this mean? If The Man truly wants to preserve the past, he can't think about it.

Sections 221-230

When he woke again he thought the rain had stopped. But that wasnt what woke him. He'd been visited in a dream by creatures of a kind he'd never seen before. They did not speak. He thought that they'd been crouching by the side of his cot as he slept and then had skulked away on his awakening. He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they'd come to warn him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they'd never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over. (228.1)

The Man desperately wants to tell The Boy about how the world was before the "long shear of light" (88.1). We can't blame him – wouldn't you want your son to love the world instead of hating it? And who would love the world The Man and The Boy have found themselves in? One problem: "He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well." Basically this means that The Man can't talk about a happy world without always implicitly suggesting that it no longer exists.

Sections 381-390

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (390.1)

We can't read this passage without tearing up. This is the world human beings lose in The Road – either through their own self-destructiveness or through some random disaster. It's almost as if, though, in this memory of the past there's a pattern for how the world might begin again. McCarthy says: "On their backs were vermiculate [like worms!] patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again."

We know McCarthy says the disaster can't be undone, or made right. But don't you hold out some hope that deep in a glen there's still a brook trout with the pattern of the world on its back? And that somehow the world can be reconstructed from that pattern? It's possible, of course, that we've fallen into the very trap The Man tries hard to avoid: nostalgia for a lost world.