Memory, Art, Transience, and the Road

Throughout the novel, the man and the boy find oases along the road, where they find food and supplies to sustain them on their journey. I find these brief respites fascinating because of how short lived they are – the man and the boy are not driven away from paradise, they chose to live. I’m not sure whether, if I was in their shoes, I would have the strength to walk away from the underground bunker, or the house hidden along the curve of the road, or the ship on the beach. These spots act as siren calls, prompting them to stop for a few days and luxuriate in the remnants of the past. In class, we talked about how the road, and the journey along the road give meaning to the man and the boy’s lives. If so, then these places serve as reminders of how meaningless their lives really are. The things they find – the canned good, the first aid kit, the waterlogged books – are all traces of the world they lost. In comparison, the lives they have built for themselves seem so fragile and pointless.

These places are also a reminder of the existence of other people. For most of the novel, the man and the boys exchanges with other people are limited to brief, often violent episodes. Even as the man assures the boy that good people still exist in the world, he is wary of any people that cross their path. Outside of these encounters, however, the rest of humanity populates the book as ghosts of the past, and every time they come to one of the “oases,” the boy asks about the people who were there before. He wants to know whether they survived, and each time the man is forced to answer that they didn’t. Even though the boy is terrified of people and the unknown, he also craves companionship, and the comfort that comes from seeing “themselves among others, everything in its place” (182). As seen in this exchange, for the boy, without other people, particularly without other good people, their journey along the road becomes an exercise in futility:

He shook his head. I don’t know what we’re doing, he said.

The man started to answer. But he didn’t. After a while, he said: There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. (244)

That is why they have to keep moving; if they stop, no matter how tempting it seems, it would mean certain death.

As an aside, I find the boy’s sense of morality interesting because I fall firmly on the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate. While some of the boy’s empathy and kindness might be attributed to his youth, most of it is derived from what his father taught him. On the other hand, the man, though he taught his son about the existence of good people, is unwilling to help others because he realizes how dangerous it might be. It forces us to question whether morality might be outdated in a world populated with cannibals who eat newborn babies (as a further aside, I felt ridiculous just typing that out because it is one of the over-the-top characteristics of a super villain, but it is presented so pragmatically in The Road).

I really liked our discussion about the lack of interiority in the novel, and the absence of art, mostly because I hadn’t considered it prior to class. I remembered it during the scene where the man finds the sextant on the ship and is “struck by the beauty of it” (228). It’s over a hundred years old and almost perfectly preserved; after a moment of looking at it, the man puts it back, as if to say that there is no place for such objects in this world. A sextant is a navigational tool, which measures the distance between celestial bodies and a point on the horizon. It is another one of those objects, like maps and phone directories that remind you of your place in the world, as one amongst a billion different worlds. This moment is followed, a few pages later, by the boy building a village in the sand. “The ocean’s going to get it, isn’t it?” he asks the man (245). Those two moments highlight the differences between father and son: the man grew up in a world where things were permanent and ideas seemed unshakeable, unchangeable, while the boy only knows a world of instability.

2 thoughts on “Memory, Art, Transience, and the Road

  1. The father’s reaction to the sextant also stood out to me. I believe it is the first time that he is “stirred” and “struck” by the “perfect” “beauty” of ANYTHING in the novel. It makes sense that he would put the sextant back after he left the photograph of his wife behind. He really has rejected all things, ideas and people from the previous world.

    I have a question, though, about how you came to the conclusion that the boy’s morality was shaped by the father because they seem like polar opposites. If we agree on the nurture side of the debate, I would think that it has nothing to do with the father and it would have to come from his early years spent with his mother who has demonstrated a nurturing sense of morality – similar to the compassion that the boy displays throughout the novel.

    • I thought the boy’s goodness was less innate than it seemed at first, particularly the scene where the boy seemed “strangely untroubled” (101) by the people half-melted into the blacktop. It is the father’s impulse to protect him, as much as he can, from the brutality of the post-apocalyptic world that has preserved the boy’s innocence for so long. For example, when they finally reach the coast, there is a corpse floating in the water, and the man wishes “that he could hide it from the boy but the boy was right. What was there to hide?” (236) There are also references to the man telling the boy stories of the past, as well as teaching him his letters. I assumed that his sense of morality was a learned trait as well. Furthermore, the boy always turns to his father for confirmation about the existence of good people who carry the fire. Though the father vacillates between perseverance and hopelessness, he never allows his son to lose hope.

      Last week, during our discussion, a few people said that they identified with the boy. On the other hand, I always found myself sympathizing with the father, so maybe I am willing to cut him more slack.

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