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Literature / The Road

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This. Gets. DIRE.

"All Earth was but one thought — and that was death."

Some time after an unspecified extinction-level global cataclysm, The Road follows two survivors—a man and his young son—who journey south through the ashes of a Post-Apocalyptic United States in the hope of finding enough food to avoid starving to death over the coming winter in a place warm enough that they won't die of exposure either. They have only the rags on their backs, a cart of scavenged food, a gun with two bullets, and one another. As they travel, they (and the reader) bear witness to a dead world where nothing grows, nothing lives, and the sun hasn't been seen in years. "Nothing lives" but refugees like them, wandering the country in search of food... and ever-hungry gangs of cannibals that stalk the roads.

The Road was published by Cormac McCarthy in 2006. It garnered critical praise in America and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book is notable for a stark, minimalist style interspersed with occasional purple metaphors. The writing is idiomatic to say the least, eschewing most punctuation (including quotes) and occasionally including one-sentence chapters of philosophical musing.

Like most of McCarthy's books, it was optioned for a film, and The Film of the Book (Also called The Road) was released on November 25, 2009. It was directed by John Hillcoat, the director of The Proposition, starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce. The score was done by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (no, not that Warren Ellis).

See also Threads for another realistic depiction of life After the End.

Tropes featured:

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    Tropes provided by the original novel 
  • After the End: One of the few such novels to actually make it look like mankind is on its way out. Not just scraping by, but face to face with complete extinction.
  • All for Nothing: The Man and the Boy ultimately reach the coast, their destination... but there's nothing there for them, and the Man dies.
  • Anti-Hero: The Man, doing the best he can considering the world he lives in.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: At the opening of the narrative, there are no civilized places anywhere and almost everyone the Man and the Boy encounters are thieves and cannibals. From what little we learn of the collapse itself, too, it didn't take long after the initial disaster for humanity to completely lose its shit.
    Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.
  • Apocalypse How: Debatable. We don't know how much of the world is dying, but the parts that are may potentially be Class 4—biosphere extinction has already occurred and the affected areas are in the final stages of dying. Some scientists McCarthy knows have stated that the world the novel is set in is consistent with Earth after a meteor strike or the eruption of Yellowstone Caldera, both of which the world has dealt with and recovered from, or perhaps the aftermath of a nuclear war. But just because the world (and life in some form) would be able to recover from such a disaster doesn't mean that humanity, or even most other life would.
  • Arc Words: The phrase "carrying the fire" is constantly repeated by the Boy, doubling as a Survival Mantra. The phrase also appeared in No Country for Old Men.
    • Also between the Boy and the Man, "We're (still) the good guys."
  • Artistic License – Biology: In a world with dwindling food resources, the cannibals stay alive by maintaining human livestock. However, it'd be more energy-efficient to slaughter them all and preserve the meat than it would to slaughter them one at a time and use the meat to feed both themselves and the remaining livestock. Possibly justified in that there might not be enough salt or vinegar available, or they simply mightn't know that they can smoke it.
    • In the same vein, a pack of cannibals is shown to have several pregnant slaves, and it's implied by a later scene that they might be deliberately impregnating the slaves to breed babies for food. The problem is 1) conditions are so awful it's highly unlikely anyone is healthy enough to even menstruate, much less sustain a pregnancy, especially with owners like that, and 2) if the pregnancies were on purpose (rather than an side-effect the cannibals take advantage of), from a resource standpoint it's kind of counter-intuitive.
    • In general the book overestimates how well someone could live on human meat. (In Real Life, there's a reason 99% of human-on-human cannibalism is confined to ceremonies and emergencies—anything as far up the food chain as we are is just not very nutritious.) But it's for Rule of Symbolism.
  • Badass and Child Duo: The Man is just a starving, dying man, but he's a bit more cunning than most other survivors... and he'll do anything (to anyone) to keep the Boy alive.
  • Beard of Barbarism: Averted and played straight. Averted by the Man, whose unkempt beard is mentioned a few times (typically right before he has the chance to shave it off). Played straight when the two main characters stumbled upon the ghoulish larder of a small band of cannibals at one point. As they flee, they briefly glimpse the larder's owners, and the only adjective used to describe the men is "bearded."
  • Beige Prose: Sprinkled with Purple Prose patches.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The ship the protagonists find is called the Bird of Hope.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Man has died, but the Boy finds a new, slightly more prosperous family to take care of him. Of course, they're still in a dying world.
  • Body Horror: The narrative repeatedly mentions how thin and sickly both the Man and the Boy become. In one passage, the Man observes that the Boy looks like something out of a "deathcamp".
  • Boom, Headshot!: When a bandit tries to take the Boy hostage with a knife, the Man shoots him right in the forehead.
  • Born After the End: The Boy was born either during or shortly after the catastrophe.
  • Born Lucky: The Man suspects this of his son – as much as anyone can be born lucky After the End, anyway. By all the available evidence, he's right.
  • Break the Cutie: The Boy is repeatedly subjected to this, most severely when they discover the cannibal larder.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: The Boy to the Man, for leaving the thief to die.
    Do you want me to tell you a story?
    Why not?
    The boy looked at him and looked away.
    Why not?
    Those stories are not true.
    They dont have to be true. They're stories.
    Yes. But in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people.
  • Cannibal Clan: Most of humanity have starved to the point where they eat other humans, and it's implied that they will eventually die from sickness or starvation, or cannibalize each other until no one is left.
  • Cannot Kill Their Loved Ones: As the man lies dying of his breathing problems (which may be tuberculosis or lung cancer), the boy begs him to shoot him, as he promised he would rather than make him live in a hellish, cannibalistic dystopia alone. The man refuses, saying he thought he could kill his son, but he can't.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. There are constant references to there only being one bullet left in the gun. The ending implies that the Man intended to use it to kill the Boy, but ultimately he can't and it's never used.
  • Children Are Innocent: The Man tries as hard as he can to preserve the Boy's idealism in this world, telling him stories and urging him to "carry the fire". The questionable actions the Man takes out of pragmatism work against this.
  • Cosy Catastrophe: Heavily averted, the Man and the Boy are always tired, hungry, and can almost never fully relax for fear of other humans looking to cannibalise, rape, or steal from them, although they do have a few moments of respite that are relatively cozy considering the circumstances such as when they spend a few days in the bunker and a farmhouse.
  • Crapsack World: The Road presents a world that's less half-empty and more one that's almost completely drained, featuring the most thoroughly Crapsack World in all of highbrow literature, surpassed only by I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. The entire biosphere is dead–a frozen terrestrial corpse covered in lung-choking ash. Nightmarish cannibal degenerates, their starving prey, and occasional patches of fungus are the remains of life on earth for most of the novel. In a flashback at the outset, two of the main characters debate whether killing themselves is the only moral decision they have left. The conclusion gives a glimmer of hope by revealing small pockets of life and humanity that may allow the biosphere to recover to a degree, but it's also implied that even so, the earth as we knew it is irrevocably lost. Interestingly, McCarthy's vision of "life" amid total ecological ruin has been credited as so harrowing that it makes The Road a uniquely powerful demonstration of how everything we value depends on the environment, and is thus one of the most important environmental works ever written.
  • Creepy Basement: One filled with people that the cannibals have been eating alive, piece by piece, over a long period of time.
  • Death Seeker: Strangely averted by the old man. The Man asks him if he ever wished he could die, only for the old man to reply that in times like these, it is foolish to wish for such "luxuries".
  • Death World: Almost all life on Earth has been exterminated by a mysterious cataclysm that covered the entire planet in a thick layer of ash. There's almost no plant life left whatsoever, and the few remaining humans have largely turned to cannibalism.
  • Desolation Shot: Every description of scenery.
  • Despair Event Horizon: It's arguable whether our heroes are teetering on the edge, or jumped off a long time ago. Either way, the discovery of the cannibal larder hits them both hard.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: The Man does this in particular for the audible effect, even though he knows the pistol is a double action.
  • Driven to Suicide: The mother, and the father still carries a gun with two bullets in case he and his son fail to escape the cannibals or some other Fate Worse than Death. Justified, given the situation.
  • Eats Babies: The cannibals. At one point, the Man and the Boy see three men and a very pregnant woman. Three days after, they pass through a camp that has the remains of a beheaded, roasted infant on a spit.
  • Flare Gun: Used by the Man to take out a person who was attacking him and the Boy with arrows.
  • Happy Flashback: The Man actively tries to discourage these. They just make him want to end it. When he does have one pleasant flashback of himself and his wife before everything went to hell, upon waking up he realizes that his days are numbered.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: The Boy, who is easily the kindest character, hears the barking of a dog on and off throughout the journey. His tearful begging also convinces his father not to capture a dog for food.
  • Hope Spot: The Man finds a still-stocked and untouched bomb shelter, giving them a short time with comfortable beds, food, and even hot baths. Since he knows others will inevitably find it as well, and that the supplies would be better used to sustain them on their ongoing journey, they don't stay more than a few precious days.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Most of the other humans we see are degenerate cannibals, and even the Man himself is capable of vengeful cruelty, as displayed by the incident with the thief.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The only way for most people to eat, now that the biosphere has been reduced to ashes. The Man and the Boy are amongst the few survivors who don't indulge in this. As well as, to all evidence, the family that finds the Boy at the end.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: We see early on that the Man has one, adding an extra layer of urgency to their journey.
  • In the Doldrums: This world might qualify, as there is almost nothing but ruins, ashes, and baked tar to look at.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The Man coldly disregards the well-being of other survivors he passes without any trace of remorse out of necessity for the survival of him and his son. However, it's clear that he cares for his son and values the Boy's life over his own.
  • Kick the Dog: When the Man and the Boy catch up to the thief who stole from them, the Man engages in some Disproportionate Retribution, ordering him to strip naked and throw his belongings in their cart. This, in short, gave him a death sentence by hypothermia.
  • Living Is More than Surviving: The Woman. She is Driven to Suicide by the fact that she, the Man, and the Boy now have nothing to live for but brute survival.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: When the Man and the Boy are starving and have run out of food they come across the remains of a house and a barn, after further investigation the man finds an orchard and makes the miraculous discovery of shriveled but still edible apples that are untouched.
  • Meaningful Echo: The Man and the Boy tell each other throughout that they're "still the good guys". As he dies he tells the Boy, "You're the best guy. You always were."
  • Missing Mom: The mother gave up hope and left the family to kill herself when the Boy was still an infant.
  • Morality Pet: Were it not for the Boy, the Man would be no better than any of the other subhuman marauders wandering the land.
  • Nameless Narrative: No characters or even locations are named throughout the novel. Double subverted with an old tramp the Man and the Boy meet at one point, who claims his name is Ely, before revealing it isn't, and that he doesn't want to tell them his real name. Neither the Man nor the Boy care enough to press him on the issue.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Dates are never given, but there's no mention of technology that doesn't exist in the real world.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: After the Man kills one of the cannibals to save the Boy, he returns some time later to find the remains of the bandit, only a pile of inedible organs, skin, and boiled bones. Considering the depths they've been reduced to, it makes sense they wouldn't let anything go to waste, not even the flesh of a fallen teammate.
  • One Bullet Left: Two at first. With how ammo is hard to come by, the Man and the Boy go through tremendous lengths to save them only as a last resort.
  • Only Sane Man: Some see the Woman as this, since she preferred to die rather than slowly starve in the ruined world.
  • Papa Wolf: The Man, full stop.
    You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
  • Pet the Dog:
    • After meeting the old man, the Boy insists on leaving him some food, even after the old man admits that if their positions were reversed, he wouldn't give them any food.
    • A couple from the scavengers who pick up the boy at the end of the book, showing that they're safe and trustworthy people to be around. They cover the Man with a blanket like they'd promised, and insist the Boy keeps his gun when he tries to give it to them.
  • Plot Device All Along: Although not a technological example, the barking dog that only the Boy can hear. The Man believes it's an Imagine Spot as the Boy loves dogs. At the end of the book, it turns out that the dog belonged to the group who were following the Man and Boy to see if they were trustworthy.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Traffic Jam: While the cause of the disaster which led to the post-apocalyptic world is never explained, there was apparently some fore-warning (or maybe human civilization had a last gasp afterwards), as the highways out of the cities are described as containing "a long line of charred and rusting cars."
  • Protagonist-Centred Morality: Justified. It's a dog-eat-dog world and everyone is doing what they can to survive - but we follow the Man and the Boy.
  • Purple Prose: In some sections, usually during dream sequences or between settings, the narrator tends to wander off and wax philosophically for a page or two before snapping back to the plot at hand.
  • Rape as Drama: Alluded to as one of the many perils on the road (one of the nomadic groups keeps a pack of teenaged sex-slaves on dog collars)—not least because it's often the precursor to something worse.
  • Real Is Gray: Justified in that ash has blotted out the sun for years and almost all of Earth's flora and fauna are dead.
  • Red Herring: The final bullet is ultimately never used.
  • Road Trip Plot: A decidedly grim one, traveling through the ashes After the End.
  • Scavenger World: A kingdom for proper boots.
  • Scenery Gorn: So very much. In this world, ashes fall like snow.
  • Schmuck Bait: When the Man finds a jar of preserved fruit in an abandoned house. It looks very nice, but "other people hadn't trusted it, and in the end, neither did he."
  • Shoot the Hostage Taker: The Man does this to a baddie who holds the Boy hostage in the woods.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: There's a whole cottage industry that's sprung up around debating this question. As noted in the description, there's a group that believes the book is mind-shatteringly depressing. There's another group that believes The Road is, through all the death and misery, a chronicle of the strength and beauty of the human spirit.
  • Sorry That I'm Dying: The Man to the Boy at the end.
  • Stopped Clock:
    The clocks stopped at 1:17. There was a long sheer of bright light, then a series of low concussions.
  • Survivalist Stash: Our heroes benefit from several of these. The most spectacular example is detailed in Hope Spot, above.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: The Boy loses his father, his only source of joy, comfort, peace of mind, and protection. Just as the story sets him up to travel the world as The Aloner, some scavengers who have been following them and claim to "carry the fire" appear... and by all the available evidence, they're trustworthy. The two kids in their group look healthy, and best of all, not gnawed-upon..
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: What happened to the world and how it happened is only mentioned in bits and pieces, not enough to come to a conclusion. The novel is more about the eventual fate of its two characters more so than the mystery of the past.
  • Virtuous Vegetarianism: The Man and and Boy and the family at the end are essentially this world’s version of vegetarians, which just translates to non-cannibalism, but they are the most virtues characters in the story.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The Man forces the thief who stole their gear to strip at gunpoint, then leaves him helpless beside the road. He will almost assuredly die painfully as a result. The Boy calls him on this.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: See Hope Spot, above. Also, they eventually reach the coast. There's nothing for them there.

    Tropes exclusively provided by the film adaptation 
  • Actor Allusion: The Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook on Viggo Mortensen's bookshelf may be reference to The Film of the Book The Lord of the Rings.
  • Arc Words: "Why are you following us?" or some variant thereof by various characters.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: When the Man and the Boy are surprised by the return of the cannibals and hide in the bathroom upstairs, the Man, upon hearing one of them climbing the stairs, puts his gun against the Boy's forehead and prepares to use his last bullet to spare him the horror of being captured and eaten. Ultimately averted thanks to the prisoners breaking out, which distracts the cannibals long enough to allow the duo to make their escape.
  • Blood from the Mouth: One of the first signs that the Man is dying.
  • Body Horror: The Man and the Boy are both horrifically emaciated from starvation.
  • Demoted to Extra: Woman had a slightly larger role in the book, but it's smaller in the film.
  • Desaturation: The colors are bleached to give a bleak, desolate, post-apocalyptic scenery.
  • Dream Intro: The film opens with the protagonist's dream of tender moments with his wife before the apocalypse.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first few scenes show very clearly that the Man is dedicated to protecting the Boy. In the first flashback, immediately after the first sign of trouble, the Man begins filling the sinks and bathtubs with water, a very real tactic for handling emergencies, showing how he's the kind of man with the right stuff to survive in this setting.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Woman is shown in flashbacks to before the world fell apart with short hair that's also dyed blonde. Flashbacks to further along in the timeline show her hair has grown out and returned to its brown colour.
  • Fan Disservice: Both the Man and a random thief appear naked at certain points. Neither of which are particularly attractive as well as the fact that the thief is being forced to strip at gunpoint.
  • Flashback: How Charlize Theron is able to be in this movie.
  • Hand-or-Object Underwear: The thief covers his crotch with his hands after the Man forces him to strip.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: The Boy's character is defined by his kindness, optimism and innocence and he has light blue eyes.
  • Intimate Haircut: Non romantic example. Man and the Boy have a cute moment when they get to wash in the house, and the latter gets a trim.
  • Kiddie Kid: While the Boy's exact age is never stated, he was portrayed by an actor who was 11 at the time (and looks it), but he acts much younger throughout the film. He carries his teddy bear everywhere, his father still bathes him, and he gets frightened very easily. In fairness to the Boy, he never knew civilization, only a now-dead world where every day is a struggle against starvation and murder.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Despite her name being prominently listed, Charlize Theron only appears in flashbacks.
  • Nothing but Skin and Bones: Due to living in a destroyed world where they're constantly starving, both the Man and the Boy have painfully emaciated-looking bodies. The Boy, when looking at a mirror, actually seems shocked at how skinny they both are.
    The Boy: We look skinny.
    The Man: We are skinny.
  • Pet the Dog: Just like in the book, the Man forces the thief to strip naked and plans to leave him behind like that, essentially dooming him. However, due to the Boy's pleas, they go back to where they left him to return his clothes. Although he's gone when they get there, they leave behind the clothes and a can of food.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Thoroughly averted.
    • The only intact bunker the pair find also happens to have the only functioning lights they come across... for a few seconds.
    • Since it's about 10 years (more or less) After the End, a lot of stuff has long since broken down.
    • The house in the flashbacks, if you notice closely, gradually decays as time passes, from more-or-less pristine to a dilapidated shell of its former self. It also helps that some form of EMP shut down just about everything electronic from day one.
  • Real Is Brown: Combined with relentless Scenery Gorn like woah. Much of the movie was filmed in an abandoned strip-mine, which is about as close as you can get to a Real Life post-apocalyptic wasteland. The very last scene, however, shows a subtle splash of color on the Boy's face.
  • Scary Black Man: Very much averted with the thief. Yeah, he holds a knife to the Boy, but he's in such a miserable state that he's more pitiful than scary.
  • Screaming Birth: When the Woman goes into labor.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: The Boy.
  • Shout-Out: The Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook. Australia and New Zealand are set up as possible safe havens in numerous post-apocalyptic works, including On The Beach and The Chrysalids. In addition, The Film of the Book The Lord of the Rings was filmed there.
  • Spiteful Spit: The thief spits on the cart of belongings to the Man and Boy at first when he refuses to give them up. He later ends up naked to die in the cold after giving up the Man's stuff and having his clothes taken from him.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Ye Gods.
  • Universal Ammunition: Brutally defied. The Man does come across various ammo boxes and shells over the course of the film, only to find that none are of the same caliber as his gun.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When the Boy gets sick.
  • Would Hurt a Child: As to be expected for the setting there are several people who would have no problem with hurting the Boy if given the chance. Thankfully, the film at least left out the scene where some cannibals roast a newborn baby...