The Road Literary Devices

Introduction to “The Road”

The famous novel in English literature “The Road” was written by Cormac McCarthy. The story is about a father and his son who survive in a world where most people are dead and the environment itself seems to be inhospitable. It was first published in the year 2006 and received critical and commercial success including winning a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel of 2007.

However, the enormously bleak description of the place with sparse yet chilling and inspiring use of the English language by McCarthy adds considerably to the overall feeling of hopelessness and destitute of the story. There are quite a few of the literary devices and techniques, which McCarthy used in “The Road” and which only add more marks to the novel’s credit.

Short Summary of “The Road”

The novel is about a father and his son travelling through a cold, gray, lifeless landscape after a catastrophe. The few survivors they encounter are often threats.

The father and son remain un-named throughout the play in order to achieve a touch of universality.

The places they migrate to are in the more southern regions of the country in their desperate search for warmer places and the hope of security.

During their drift they have to overcome many challenges like starvation, cold, as well as enemies who have survived the impact.

It is almost impossible to watch “Field of Dreams” without feeling overwhelmed by hope, despite the ruthless incessant struggles of the movie’s characters.

Literary Devices Used in “The Road”

1- Symbolism

“He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In the cart were other things that he piled over the boy’s possessions, the most important things. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the dead sun circles in the murk like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

The road itself is a major symbol throughout the novel that shows the cycle of life and the constant motion inherent in the endless road for survival.

As a matter of fact, the road here is a literal and symbolic trail that both the father and the son must travel – in spite of the wasteland that it winds through and the threats that await them.

It is a replica of what they want and need: the hope and the strength to keep going even when they don’t know where the road will lead.

The comparison of the sun as the “grieving mother with a lamp” underlines the notions of loss and change in describing the overwhelming alteration in the planet.

2- Imagery

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground foxes in their cover.”

The author creates scenes to depict the post-apocalyptic earth after a cataclysmic event.

The phrase “cold relentless circling of the intestate earth” and “darkness implacable” represent the world which continues moving with no interest or good will towards anyone.

The ‘the blind dogs of the sun’ and “the crushing black vacuum of the universe” emphasizes the vanity and artificiality of the human existence in this transhuman world.

The imagery of “two hunted animals trembling” adds the power to the story in two helpless and terrified male characters.

3- Minimalist Style

“He woke in the woods and the fire was out and his clothes steamed faintly in the cold autumn air. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. He stood there thinking about things that he could no longer remember. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them. He had to concentrate to keep from thinking about his son lying in the darkness on the road just the other side of the fire. How was it the child had seemed to see something in the squalid house on the hill beyond the barns? He could not think. He could not think at all.”


The author employs short simple sentences to denote the actions and thoughts of the father. The language is plain and to the point and this increases the sense of survival.

The sentences are simple or compounds but not complicated. This simplicity corresponds to tendency of the characters to live their bare lives concentrating on life necessities and its primary needs.

The description is confined to the physical proximity of relevance like father”s “steaming clothes”, “cold autistic dark” and his “great marching steps”.

This concentration on physical perception and practice gives the reader a place to stand while reading about the characters’ brutal situation.

4- Dialogue and Fragmentation

I’m scared, he said.
I know. I’m sorry.
Do you think that there could be people alive somewhere?
I don’t know.
Do you think there could be?
Maybe. Maybe not.
What does it mean?
It doesn’t mean anything.
Why did you say maybe?
I didn’t say maybe. I said I don’t know.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.

The conversation has been characterized by a pattern of short, abrupt exchanges, which do not form complete sentences.

This split attends nicely to the way the characters live in broken existence and with a fractured universe around them.

They rarely use many words in their conversation symbolizing the efforts that they invest to survive and the fact that they do no longer want to waste their energy physically and emotionally.

It is nevertheless a long dialogue but the simplicity of the story through dialogue adds sentiments.

The boy’s questions highlight his fear and confusion, while the father responds, albeit perhaps misunderstanding it as meaningful effort from the boy to follow his advice, in simple answers not relating to the boy’s emotions.

This interaction shows the father’s standpoint of protection and his son seeking him for reassurance.

5- Stream of Consciousness

“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 had once been men but he could not be sure. He and the child had run through a gauntlet of creatures and he had lost the child and started to scream but he was only shouting in the dull dawn. He could see the sun in the easterly bend of the road before him, there was no other road, no other path. He believed that they were dying, his sight turned on a periphery of some unimaginable apocalypse.”

The passage starts with a dream which is the most powerful approach used to mix dream and the reality of the stream of consciousness.

The ‘creatures of a kind he’d never seen before’ symbolizes the unknown and the insecurities of the father. This dream can be connected to his fears about the future and his involvement in protecting his son.

Simultaneously, the father’s thoughts are represented in a haphazard way in order to reveal the dreamlike and fragmented themes that surface in his conscious and subconscious mind.

This fragmentation amplifies his psychological struggles and increasing tension he always lives with.

The father’s thought that “there were dying” and his image of an “unimaginable apocalypse” reveal his profound experience of existential despair.

Although he is unable to voice his feelings completely, the reader is able to guess what he means: their battle is not only local; there is a sense of hopelessness and the project of what they are fighting against is immense.

Stream of Consciousness as a Genre writing style makes it difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is unreal or imagined.

The vision of the “sun in the easterly bend of the road” and the phrase “there was no other road, no other path” are both the exact narrative of their movement and the force of the heroic destiny, which has no choices.

6- Repetition

“The cold. The silence. The ash moving over the road and the wind. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In the cart were other things that he piled over the boy’s possessions, the most important things. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.”

The repeated use of “the” at the beginning of each phrase (“The cold. The silence. The ash”) demonstrates that these elements are everywhere and with you.

This repetitiveness and the synchronization of the momentum instill a sense of hypnotism; an effect that echoes the cyclical style of life that the characters have to live.

The term “things” is repeated when explaining about items in the knapsacks and cart as well (‘essential things’, ‘other things’, ‘the most important things’).

This repetition implies that their possessions are scarce and not to be taken lightly, also the kind of attention and care the father is giving to their item is limited. It also recommends the significance of survival basic needs in their everyday lives.

The two phrases that are used under this circumstance are ‘he pushed the cart’ and ‘they went on’ expressing their repetitive journey.

These instances of repetition show how much the characters want to move forward in life despite the inferior conditions in which they live, signifying their grit and spirit.

7- Juxtaposition

“In the nights sometimes now he’d wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun.”

In the passage, the author contrasts the present reality of the protagonist with the harsh memories of the past.

The black and freezing wasteland symbolizes the current futile and sterile conditions in which the characters are living.

This can be compared to the ‘softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun’ which represent memories of a warm environment and a world consisting of beauty and life.

This contrasts the life-threatening situation the lead character’s finding himself in now with a picture of a vibrant past that gives a great contrast of life’s misery and loss.

8- Personification

“Out on the road the dead leaves scattered, and driven by the wind, cried out along the desolate highway.”

The author uses the personification of the dead leaves and expresses how they “crying out” as they are forced to move down the asphalt of the highway.

This personification ascribes life and emotions to the leaves of a tree; makes it seem as though the leaves are in despair or grief and this is similar to the setting of the novel which is very dreary.

McCarthy’s choice to personify the leaves makes readers aware that the world the characters live in is full of suffering and alienation, so the scenes of the leaves become more emotionally powerful.

See also: Themes in Metamorphosis

Themes in “The Road”

i- Survival and Desperation

The main theme prevailing throughout the novel is survival in the midst of looming defeat.

It is a story about how the father and the son wandering for food and protect themselves from dangerous encounters as the journey in the wilderness is harsh and unforgiving.

This ability to survive at any cost gives a hint of the strength and determination necessary to get through one’s day in such a world.

iI- The Bond Between Father and Son


Another theme of the novel is that the father-son relationship is developed throughout the novel.

Their love not only adds some meaning to the story but also gives their readers a sense of hope and positivity as they are exhausted by the endless bleakness.

The honest determination of the father to save his son; and the trust of the boy in his father denotes the significance of family relations for a long time.

iII- Hope and Despair

The novel shifts between hope and despair. The determination of the father and the son’s moments of kindness bring hope.

However, the overwhelming darkness and grief often threaten to crush their hope.

IV- Morality and Ethics

The novel evolves around a post-apocalyptic society which enables the author to scrutinize on the subject of ethics.

The father and son follow the ethics, recognizing themselves from the violent “bad guys” who turn to brutality.

Their commitment to ethics emphasizes the importance of maintaining humanity where it seems to be impossible to do so.

The Road Literary Devices
The Road Literary Devices

To conclude, “The Road” unfolds the struggle for survival, the desperate hope for a better future and the essence of human nature in the conditions of post-apocalyptic world.

The writer employs some literary elements to generate some part of the storytelling that is at the same time terrifying and touching.

The use of symbolism, imagery, elements of minimalism, and other techniques convey the general desolation of this world and the strength of the fateful connection between a father and a son.

The novel further communicates the powerful and fundamental messages about survival and hope; it elicits morbid reflections on how we live and die and sheds light on what life means for us as human beings.

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