Cormac McCarthy’s The Road explores the bleak and barren post-apocalyptic world of a father and his son and their journey to find sanctuary. As the father and son travel throughout the novel they travel farther and farther down the road. In this new world cannibalism is among the horrors have become normalized, and life in itself has become a tragedy. The road is the man’s north star that he uses to navigate him and his son south towards salvation. The road keeps them moving forward, surviving the present and forgetting the past. However in sleep, away from the road’s security, dreams run rampant. Ghosts of dead loved ones, such as the man’s dead wife, exist in his dreams and bring the past to reality. Yet dreaming of the past can separate those who survive and those who die. Although presented as memory and nostalgia, the man’s dead wife is an omen of death that haunts his dreams and prevents him and his son from moving forward.
While the father and son face many obstacles in the novel, their greatest adversary is hunger. Hunger is what prevails above all else. The man reflects on their life in the post-apocalyptic world, stating “mostly he worried about… food. Always food” (McCarthy, 17). Food is scarce, a constant necessity and a constant concern. Right after this passage the man experiences his first dream of his wife in the text:
In dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white. She wore a dress of gauze and her dark hair was carried up in combs of ivory, combs of shell. Her smile, her downturned eyes (McCarthy, 18).
After the man says that he is worried about their food situation, he dreams of his wife. She is pictured in a warm and safe environment, dressed erotically, smiling. She is the picture of health and beauty. Even the colours used to describe the dream, such as “green”, “white”, and “ivory” paint an image of purity and solace. The word “green” is never even mentioned outside of dreams. He describes her nipples as “pipeclayed” and her “rib bones painted white”, as if she is manufactured, a tailored image, altered to be the most beautiful and inviting image she could be. Yet self-destruction lies in this invitation. The wife is only a ghost, a reflection of the dead woman who once lived. To join her in the welcoming woods is to join her in death. Her location, her body, and her very existence is desirable. Yet in this desire lies a death sentence. Later the man later says to the boy: “When your dreams are of some world that never was or some worlds that never will be you are happy again then you have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up” (McCarthy, 189). The only world to live in is the real one, no matter how harsh a reality it is. The second the man dwells upon their lack of food, with his wife’s ghost appearing in his sleep as a reminder of what is lost and tempting him to surrender to death. She is a grim reaper dressed in white, a reminder of a past life that appears in moments of weakness. To believe in her is to die.
The man recognizes that the vision of his wife is an untrustworthy image: “the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death… He was learning how to wake himself from such siren worlds” (McCarthy, 18). He sees the harm of indulging in the fantasy of dreams; however, he is only “learning” how to escape from the “siren worlds” they present. He does not know how to escape, he is only “learning”. Thus the dreams still affect him and make him vulnerable, affecting him long after the dream is over:
From day dreams on the road there was no waking… He could remember everything about her save her scent… She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame (McCarthy, 19).
Even when he is awake the woman haunts him. Not only does the memory of her haunt the man, but also the things that he can no longer remember, like her scent. The lack of memory almost adds to her presence, as if it is something he needs to remember, a word on the tip of his tongue. This allows him to further travel into his memories. In his daydreams he is not in the present but in the past. He is “freezing the frame”, living there with her. Time is no longer moving forward, the man and the boy are no longer moving forward. They are frozen. He is not focusing on survival, or his son. He is focusing on dream.
The woman’s haunting does not end there. After a conversation with the boy and more travelling down the road, the man remembers the dream of his wife again: “the dreams so rich in colour. How else would death call you?” (McCarthy, 21). The dream is breaking reality apart. One moment he is in the present, the next moment he is in the past. In remembering his wife he remembers the loss he lives to avoid, evoking feelings of nostalgia. This break in reality between past and present lead the man to his childhood home. The boy voices his reservations about going into a house for no reason, but the man insists, driven by the past and nostalgia. Inside the house he speaks of his memories: “This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy… on a cold winters night…. we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework… We should go, Papa, he said. Yes, the man said. But he didn’t” (McCarthy, 22). He is lost in the past. There is no reason for them to be at the house. It is an unnecessary distraction, and distractions in the new world are what could separate the living and the dead. The man knows this. He knows he should leave; however, his memories keep him there. The past holds him back like a weight on his shoulders.
Finally he reaches his childhood room: “In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imagination, worlds rich or fearful such as much offer themselves but never the one to be” (McCarthy, 22). The idea of “rich” dreams surfaces here once again. They are a child’s dreams, filled with the wonder and horror of a child’s imagination. Superman and the Boogieman alike are manifestations of a child’s mind. They are limitless. These are dreams rich in are colour and substance, aspects of the old world the man is missing in his life. Both dreams are rooted in the past, focusing on what was versus what is to be. The dreams that he had in childhood become tied together with the dream of his wife. Nostalgia becomes contagious, transferring from his wife to his own history, evoking a world of unlimited possibilities. However, the dream is shattered when “he pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Grey as his heart… We shouldn’t have come” (McCarthy, 27). The illusion is destroyed. No longer is he back in his childhood room, but in the post-apocalyptic reality. The colour and substance has been drained from the world. His heart is grey, the only colour it can be. Nostalgia dressed as the woman in white led him down a path he could not follow, and in doing so he endangered himself and his child. He knows he should not have come. Yet still he came, captivated by a dream.
In Styles of Extinction Dr. Julian Murphet, director of the Centre for Modernism Studies in Australia, comments on the lack of colour in the disillusionment of the man’s past:
The father returns, against his son’s wishes, to the house where he grew up. When he steps into the doorway of this old bedroom, he starts reminiscing… Gray signals the return to the present– to the now empty room…The gray heart is the heart that must take account of the shattering of the world, the perforating of every scared space and the dimming away of the present after the apocalypse (Murphet, 19).
The gray heart emphasizes the greyness that exists in reality, in contrast to the rich colours of endless dreams. It is the grey heart that must take account, not the heart that tries to live in the past. The separation from past and present becomes clear in this scene. In moments trapped in nostalgia and memory, the man can escape into the past, but in the end they only do harm. Murphet continues this argument by asking:
How, in literary space as restricted as this one, to afford the mnemonic dream-glimpse, however imaginary, of the good life as this will have left some faint negative trace on the burned-out shells of posthumanity? (Murphet, 126).
The remembrance of the good life can destroy the reality of posthumanity. A “mnemotic dream-glimpse”, a dream aided by memory, is the idea of the “good life”. It is where fantasy and reality meet. Yet it is also exactly where self-destruction lies. The dream of the past is the road to self-destruction in the future. It is the woman who directs the man on the path the man must not follow.
The woman does not only lead the man astray, but also the boy. When the man speaks her name in a moment of weakness, the boy hears, and responds by saying:
I wish I was with mom.
He didnt answer… After a while he said: You mean that you wish you were dead.
Yes (McCarthy, 55).
The mother and death are interchangeable. She is his mother, the woman who gave him life, and also the person who could take it all away. The man also thinks this way, as right away he knows what the boy is thinking. Both consider the woman as a sign of death, or as the desire of death. Just the name of his mother compels the boy to express his desire to die. Thus again the mother becomes an omen of death, a sign of self-destruction.
Even when she is alive her presence is a sign of death. The man remembers an argument with his wife during the last conversation they ever had. She states:
We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that?
I dont know.
It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about (McCarthy, 56).
Her presence in the book once again leads to a death – her own. Her own life seems meaningless, facing the bleakness of the new world and the new horrors it holds. She then makes the decision to leave her husband and son and chooses death over life. Whenever the man or the boy is faced with that choice, she appears again. She is an omen of what is to come. Louise Squire, a professor at the University of Surrey, echoes this point:
The intensity of the novel exists in… the father’s apprehension of their situation: his dreams, his memories, his dilemmas with regard to his son and the dangers they face. In particular, the father is acutely aware that he is living with a decision he made, the decision to live, to carry on and to ‘carry the fire’, along with his son and because of his son, while the son’s mother, his wife, took the decision to end her life (Squire, 218)
The wife is a constant reminder of the choice the man and son have to make, the choice they must make every day: to “carry the fire”, to keep life inside of them, or to pick up the pistol and end it all. Is it death or life? Self-destruction or survival? What is worth it, in the end?
The man experiences a similar dream later on in the form of a memory. He is experiencing “rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world… Memory of her crossing the lawn towards the house early in the morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts” (McCarthy, 131). This dream is an echo of the previous dream, evoking a similar green setting and erotic imagery. She is becoming more vivid now, as it is not a fantasy but a memory in the form of a dream. She is becoming clearer, more solid. While she is still just a reflection of the real woman, she is now rooted in reality. She is the real wife, not the fantasy image that he envisioned in the first dream. This dream comes after the man, “was beginning to think that death was finally upon them” (McCarthy, 129). As the reality of death becomes clearer so does the image of the woman. They are entwined together. When the man dies at the end of the novel, it is not his wife he thinks of. However it is his wife that he sees in his dreams, she who calls him towards death. She is the omen of death. She is the ghost that haunts him. While the boy dreams of penguins and his father, it is only the man who sees the wife. It is only the man who dies.
Dreams are not only fantasies, they are also hauntings. They are memories of a world that does not exist anymore. The wife acts as a symbol of this world. She is a ghost who appears in dreams to remind the man of what once was, remembered as a beautiful woman. Yet she is not only a memory, but an omen of death, distracting the man from the road forward. In the first dream in the novel she appears as a woman in white, embodying the feeling of purity and solace. She is a reminder to the man about the past world he no longer lives in, and a reason for him to give up on life. In the post-apocalyptic world that the man and his son now live in, to remember the past is self-destruction. It is to fall into a dream world that no longer exists. The wife is a symbol of this world. The Road debates the reason of life, emphasizing the constant choice that is to live. While the question “is it worth it in the end?” remains unanswered, the real question becomes: “what makes life worth living?” Living in a dream is not to live in reality. To be lost in dream is to be lost in life itself.
McCarthy, Cormac (2006) The Road. New York: Vintage Books.
Murphet J, Steven M. (2012) Styles of Extinction. New York: Continuum.
Squire, Louise (2012) Death and the Anthropocene: Cormac McCarthy’s World of Unliving. Oxford Lit Review; 34(2):211-228.