The Past, Present, and Future in The Road



by Keeley Seale

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LA1, Prof. Gavin Paul)


The past can be a dangerous thing. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, affects one’s future in innumerable ways, molding itself into fear and sadness, leaving one trapped at the bottom of the past’s well, the rope unreachable. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the past plays a contrasting role to the role it plays in PTSD; the past is something to desire, something to strive for, something that awaits after death. In the post-apocalyptic world of the novel, the past is an unreachable ideal that reality cannot provide. It is the father’s dreams of flying, singing birds, and the unavoidable memories of his wife. The past is the closest thing to heaven for the father, encouraging a certain languidness that results in him giving in to death after realizing survival is pointless and leads to nothing but despair. The man’s wife, who observes “[w]e’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead.” (55), yearns for an easier, more comforting world, the coloured world of her memories; the past world. As survivors, the man and his wife are waiting for death, for release from the ashen planet. The child, though, does not know anything except the charred world. This is the world he grows to care for, wishing for its improvement and understanding humanity’s worth among the ruins he calls home. The past world means nothing to him; he wants a future. Throughout The Road, reminiscing about the past, either through dreams or memories, endangers the father’s survival by making him desire death; on the other hand, the boy, born into a destroyed world, learns to care for it, making him want to survive, which is a mindset that a person with knowledge of the past world can never hope to achieve.

Dreams are a determining factor during a survival situation. They either crack one’s morale by imposing an unachievable, idealistic past world, or keep one grounded in reality and wary of the future by pertaining to current or foreseeable dangers. The man, while dreaming about his “pale bride” (18), his dead wife who only lives in the past, recognizes the “call of languor and of death” (18) emanating from this “siren [world]” (18). He “[learns] how to wake himself” (18) from these dreams, in order to escape the anesthetic claws of reminiscence, which beckon him toward the technicolour, yet-to-be destroyed world, as if such a world lies on the other side of death. Upon waking to an apocalyptic reality, the contrast between “a flowering wood where birds flew… and the sky was aching blue” (18), which are distinct markers of a world that “never will be” (189) again, and the “gullied and eroded and barren” land survivors are now subjected to, becomes immeasurable. That past world transforms into a reference for heaven, and most people believe that “you’re safe in heaven” (146), so succumbing to a struggleless death becomes the only way to reverse time and potentially achieve the comfort of an otherwise irretrievable past life. “Dreams so rich in colour” (21) is the most effective way “death call[s] you” (21) into denouncing the effort of surviving, since those dreams destroy any hope for an enjoyable life upon you waking up and seeing the world you once had, that now exists in dreams, “turned to ash” (21). This stark realization that the world ripped away from you “could not be put back. Not be made right again” (287) makes one escape into dreams of the past, living only to sleep, and thus forgetting to live in the moment, to survive. Once “you are happy again” (189) because you know the world you yearn for is “[w]aiting. Waiting” (218) for you underneath closed eyes, “you will have given up” (189). Surviving means nothing at this point, for you readily welcome the day when your eyes close eternally.

The father’s theory of dreams, as well as his reflections upon the state of his heart, exemplify just how dangerous idealistic dreams of the past world and one’s past life can be for one’s survival. The father knows his dreams of his pale bride and a “phantom orchard” (18) are slowly dissolving his resolve to continue defying death. This knowledge makes him wish his “heart were stone” (11), untainted by thoughts of the past. While wishing for a stronger morale, he “listen[ed] to the water drip in the woods” (11), a situation that is mirrored at the end of the novel, where he could hear the “[d]rip of water” (280) as he laid down to die. The difference is, the second instance of dripping involves remnants of a dream invading reality, proving that “[o]ld dreams encroached upon the [man’s] waking world” (280) the moment he refused to continue traveling, or even eat: “[t]hey had for food a single tin of peaches but he made the boy eat it and he would not take any” (277). The man gave up, realizing he was becoming more and “more faint of heart” (190) as his “dreams brightened” (187) and “[t]he vanished world returned” (187). Even against the man’s will, his dreams of the past world overtook him, tempting him into releasing his grip on, and desire for, reality, since his dreams promised a “softly colored [world] of human love, the songs of birds, the sun” (272) that the real world could never provide him as long as he lived. His connection to the boy, which reflects the need for support during a survival situation, is the only thing that keeps him “[g]etting up [in the] morning” (272), which is the “bravest thing [he] ever did” (272). Amidst flowery dreams that threaten to pull him under into endless sleep, the occasional dream of “the boy… laid out upon a coolingboard” (130) is reality’s warning, a glimpse into a plausible future if the father abandoned his son for the heavenly dreamscape of the past. Protecting his son, ensuring his safety, is “[the man’s] job” (74) as a father, and this duty is reinforced in these dreams that remind the father of the current and future dangers dangling over his son, who is the one thing that makes the man’s life worth living. Thus, these ominous dreams irregularly strengthen his resolve to survive, even as they introduce the anesthetic effects of past world seduction.

Inseparable from dreams, but also distinct in the danger they pose to survival, are memories. At one point referred to as “daydreams” (18), memories are a dream “there was no waking” (18) from; in a situation where the future “[s]hift[s] in and out of the curtain of soot… uncertain[ly]” (202), where outcomes are usually hidden and never promised, the only certain direction is behind you, a past that forces you to “look back” (64) for comfort when no future presents itself for the taking. Travelling on a seemingly endless road, there is “nothing to see” (188), nothing to look forward to, except improbable, fabricated hopes that “[t]here are people and we’ll find them” (244) in amongst the “imponderable… dark” (261). These hopes crumble, though, against the inevitable memories that resurface when the dark offers you nothing to focus on. Thus, the father finds himself remembering the “feel [of] the tops of [his wife’s] stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress” (19) as he “plodded on” (18), wishing he could “[f]reeze this frame” (19) of his memory and “call down your dark and your cold and be damned” (19). Humans naturally drift off into thought when there is nothing, no tangible goal, to focus on; memories create an elaborate train of thought that provides happiness when surrounded by inexhaustible desolation. However, such happiness is fleeting and soon followed by despair, exemplified when the man realizes that the life he is remembering exist strictly in the past. Going hand in hand with dreams giving the father hope for a personal revival of the past world after death, memories make him loathe his current life. The father had already reached the peak of his existence in his memories, achieved the limit of his potential and love for life, and now all that is left to do is “burn and writhe and blacken in just such silence” (189), like the snakes roasted alive by the group of men he stood with in his memory. The picturesque outing with his uncle on a rowboat is an example of the “perfect day” (13) for the man, the “day to shape the days upon” (13). That kind of luxury, though, the privilege to mold a day to perfection, would never be achieved again while survival requires every ounce of energy. Nobody in this apocalyptic setting possesses the ability to do what they want with the people they love, as those opportunities, and those people, are now gone; being alive has lost every shred of romance. Memories are a trap that make one realize the pointlessness of survival after the apocalypse, and that is why one “ha[s] to keep moving” (42) into the uncertain future, mindlessly, in order to escape memories’ innate hopelessness.

Memories and dreams are what separate the father and the son. The father originates from a now-destroyed world, unable to let go of what he once had, while the son “look[s] back at him from some unimaginable future” (273). The father is a twisted, marred remnant from the past who understands how dangerous it is, for one’s survival, to constantly reminisce about the past world. Thus, the father is compelled to tell the boy “[d]ont look back” (61) at him, since he is a representation of the past. The boy’s world, the one he was born into, is one of destruction and constant survival, so he has nothing better to imagine; his dreams are “more like real life” (268), compared to the fantastical dreams of a past reality the father details. The boy does not “have good dreams… [t]hey’re always about something bad happening” (269). He is constantly, unconsciously preparing for the future through dreams, always concerned about safety and wellbeing, not just his and his father’s, but everybody else’s they encounter. He mulls over potential and realistic dangers and outcomes of situations, “worry[ing] about everything” (259) in the present and future, since he knows no other world to desire. He needs to maintain the current world, raise its values, “[help] people” (268) for no benefit other than to preserve morality, because this world and the people in it are the only things he cares for, whereas the father knows what has been lost, and that includes all the people, save for the boy, and the things the father cared for, the things that shaped him. The current world means nothing to him, which becomes apparent when he “look[s] at the sky out of old habit but there [is] nothing to see” (103). There is no reason for him to care for a world that only views him as a parasite from the old order. He is stuck under a blue sky and an old justice, a mindset that proves detrimental to the current world and those living in it, as seen when he “leave[s] [the thief] the way [he] left [them]” (257), condemning the thief to death with no food or clothes, if only to enact old world justice and revenge, which are concepts the boy despises. The boy develops a sense of forgiveness as the novel progresses, ensuring mutual survival for everybody, no matter the situation, since he wants his world to thrive.

The father, on the other hand, only wants a re-emergence of his past world. He initially tries to achieve this by telling the child stories of the world he grew up in, but realizes the danger for the child in this:

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 [the creatures had] come to warn him. Of what? That he could not            enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own… [s]ome part of him always wished for it to be over. (154)

The father eventually learns that, in order to guarantee the boy’s survival, he needs to let him have “his own fantasies. How things would be in the south. Other children” (54), which are hopeful prospects that would be torn down by instilling in the boy stories of an idealistic past world. If the boy ever understood the brightness of the vanished world and that it is lost forever, he would only be driven into that same longing for death the father feels. The father learns, instead of leading the boy into the past so the past can live on in the boy, to let the boy “[lead] him by the hand” (3) into the future. This allows the man to temporarily assist his son until the man inevitably leaves him, giving his son the proper foundation to find his own “place” (182) and become “[j]ustified in the world” (182). The son’s role in the world, as a survivor, is solidified only if he wishes to survive and understands humanity as something to preserve and care for. The man, at one point, adopts the child’s ability to view the present as a gift, when “[e]verything was alight” (31) by a “forest fire” (31) and “the color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember” (31). The man only has these fleeting moments of appreciation for the world, since the current world rarely amounts to anything as beautiful as his past world, but the child has to remember every moment to survive and one day thrive. The current world molds the child’s sense of beauty; telling him the ocean is blue only leads to “disappointment in his face” (215), whereas letting him explore the glittering pieces of “white quartz” (203) scattered on the ground gives the boy the resolve to survive and create beauty out of nothing with the people who are left.

The past is a mistress of death in an apocalyptic world. It draws the father in, promising a re-appearance, if only he would accept his inevitable demise. Memories and dreams lure him into denying survival as something that contains hope, making him believe that the charred world could never offer the same beauty, happiness and love of a civilized, pre-apocalyptic world. Yet, the boy, somebody who knows nothing except an ashen planet, knows its potential; he understands the possibility of the survival of morals and values, and even beauty, if humanity retains the drive to survive and the resolve to create again. He “carr[ies] the fire” (83) within him, the hope for a future, a future humanity can be proud of.


Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage Books, 2006.