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How does Cormac McCarthy use dreams to highlight the transcendence/deterioration of the human spirit in "The Road"?

NBilani By NBilani Published on February 5, 2016

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The research question that was investigated in this extended essay is: How does Cormac McCarthy use Dreams to highlight the transcendence and the deterioration of the human spirit in The Road? It suggests that the imagery in the passages describing the dreams, as well as the reactions of the characters to the dreams, possesses connotations that provide insight into their core personality traits.

To explore this motive, I structured a meticulous examination of the passages containing dream imagery. I studied the dreams of first the father, and then the son, chronologically in order to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of character progression. Relevant literary devices (such as symbols, allusions or emotional undertones) were studied, which involved looking at the diction, the syntax, the tone and the structure of the language describing the dream imagery. Furthermore, I referred to a variety of secondary sources – including websites with imagery allusions, online articles with critic reviews and other works of McCarthy – to understand the literature from multiple perspectives. Finally, I reached a holistic conclusion regarding both protagonists by noting trends in the individual analyses of their dream sequences.

I arrived at the following conclusions: the depiction of the boy portrays the transcendence of the human spirit, for although his dreams reveal a distinct awareness of the evils of the world, he maintains hope and benevolence. I also found that the graphic nature of his dreams intensifies as the novel progresses. Consequently, the man represents the deterioration of the human spirit, because his dreams provide him with sanctuary from the hardships of life. As the novel progresses, the aesthetics of the dream imagery become more unlike his bleak reality. The man does feel guilty about using his dreams as an exodus, but only does so increasingly, which highlights his broken nature.


International critical approbations applaud the realism that can be found in Cormac McCarthy’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic America in The Road. Critic Adam Mars-Jones of The Observer has written that, “The Road isn't a fable, or a prophecy... It's a thought and feeling experiment, bleak, exhilarating.” This is true in the sense that the plot of the novel is somewhat indistinct. We find that instead of driving the story forward, McCarthy focuses on the daily struggles of the primary characters: a father and his son. Despite this, McCarthy manages to inject believable development into his characters by exploring their deepest sentiments. Plot takes a backseat and the characters become the true focus of the novel. The Road succeeds because it calls for the emotional involvement of the readers. This is the context in which McCarthy has used Dreams: as a tool that assists the readers to realize the subconscious beliefs of the protagonists as they struggle to survive.

In the man’s sleep, he visits his deceased wife in an untroubled utopia. The boy’s dreams, however, consist of more sombre occurrences, with implications evidently more sinister in nature. McCarthy himself outlines the relevance of dreams in The Road through the dialogue of the father, elucidating that: “When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up.” Under this premise, it follows that the man’s reluctance to continue enduring the hardships of the world are translated through the positive light of his dreams. As the boy’s dreams contain darkness akin to that of their reality, McCarthy communicates his readiness to confront the challenges that life presents.

The investigative enquiry of this essay is: How does Cormac McCarthy use Dreams to highlight the transcendence and the deterioration of the human spirit in The Road? To comprehensively answer this question, I will explore the possible connotations of the imagery present in these visions, focusing intently on the symbolism and the prophetic nature of the objects, places and people illustrated. Due to the lack of evocative dialogue in the novel, it is difficult to properly comprehend the streams of consciousness of the characters. This is inauspicious because the development of these characters conveys the principal themes of the novel. The reason why this is a topic of significance is because it will allow us to understand the life lessons that McCarthy teaches regarding dealing with significant changes; of positive traits like hopefulness, endurance and acceptance (pertaining to the transcendence of the spirit) as opposed to succumbing to temptation and giving up (relating to the deterioration of the spirit). I will have to build upon my pre-existing knowledge of characterization to realize the roles and significance of the man and the boy. By doing so, I hope to draw conclusions of these moral lessons in The Road through a study of protagonists’ dreams.

Dreams of the Man

A particularly interesting feature pertaining to the dreams of the father is that an omniscient narrator recounts them. From a literary perspective, this may be considered a surprising approach because a first-person account would have allowed McCarthy to provide a more revealing background of the man’s emotional traumas. While explorations into the emotional workings of the man, as well as his dialogue, are stripped, we find that McCarthy has compensated by painting the imagery of the man’s dreams with eminent detail. It is hence palpable that the scenes he designs carry important messages regarding the underlying emotions of the man; messages that need to be deciphered. Thus, McCarthy highlights the sentiments of the man indirectly; somewhat similar to the technique in which emotion is communicated through art.

As the twosome flee southwards from the deathly weather, it becomes increasingly ostensible that the man exploits his dreams, employing them as a means to seek happiness in a fantasy dimension. The opening scenes of the novel contain the very first dream sequence, in which the boy leads his father forth into a dark cave. McCarthy writes that the duo is “swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast” and “in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours of the days of it and the years without cease” . The diction ‘swallowed up’ and ‘lost’ embolden the vastness of the place, while the reference to the ‘minutes’, ‘hours’ and ‘years’ stress the enormity of time. The author has used these litanies because it constructs a cumulative effect – or hyperbole – through which the man’s feelings of helplessness are magnified. The man and the boy then arrive upon a “black and ancient lake” . The lake carries qualities that imply it is a symbol representing the fates of the protagonists. ‘Black’ indicates that it is obscured by darkness, hence unforeseeable, and ‘ancient’ implies that it is pre-defined and thus is inevitable. Across the lake they observe a creature with “eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders” , with “alabaster bones” . The ‘dead white’ and ‘alabaster bones’ establish grim undertones and the simile ‘as the eggs of spiders’ plays upon a common fear to further enforce this impression of impending danger in the unknown. These descriptions depict the creature as exorbitantly monstrous, yet, McCarthy also focuses on “its bowels, its beating heart” and a brain which “pulsed in a dull glass bell” . These statements both instill realism into the creature. The writer then states that the beast “swung its head from side to side” before disappearing soundlessly into the dark. The movement of the creature ‘from side to side’ likens that of a warning. It is reasonable to deduce that like other aspects of the dream, the monster is also symbol. One interpretation is that it underlines the man’s fear of the unknown; a fear that manifests in the form of a terrifying creature that attempts to deter him from venturing forth. However, what is perhaps the most important facet of this vision is that his son leads him forward into the cave even though it appears the man is unwilling to do so. In this way, McCarthy alludes to the devotion of the father towards his son. Above anything, however, he explicates the themes of love and sacrifice. While some may argue that strength is indicated by the man’s determination, it must be noted that it is a blind determination: he continues to struggle solely for the love of his son, but he has lost rationality and faith in his cause, hence, weakness is actually highlighted.

In the father’s second dream sequence McCarthy introduces the man’s wife, whose fate is only later revealed in The Road: after giving birth to her son and deciding their circumstances are too calamitous, she abandons the man and commits suicide. In his sleep, his “pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy.” McCarthy adorns this materialization with “nipples pipeclayed” , “rib bones painted white” and “hair up in combs of ivory, combs of shell” . One may perceive these annotations as cultural insinuations because the imagery conspicuously resembles tribal attire. While this is a personal observation, looking at sample tribal art can corroborate its accuracy. For example, one can refer to the Australian Aborigines, where men and women would smear “clay or natural ochres from the earth onto the skin” , paint white bands “across the chest” and make ornaments out of “strings and shells” . It might be that this is not the premeditated reference by McCarthy; nevertheless, the imagery still presents the woman as a primal figure, intertwined intensely with the elements of nature. These depictions contrast garishly with the environment that the father and son must suffer, empowering the woman and presenting her as a figure of guidance and wisdom. This could indicate that the man might believe his wife was right after all, which suggests self-doubt. McCarthy further illustrates her in “a dress of gauze” , however, the relevance of the ‘gauze’ dress is imprecise. This is a case where the diction’s implication is ambiguous. While gauze fabric is commonly used for clothing, one may question why McCarthy would choose the dress to be so without a raison d'être when connotations can be found in so many other details of the dreams. With respect to this, other insinuations for ‘gauze’ should be explored. One possibility refers to the ‘gauze’ composed of “thin and often transparent fabric” , whose delicacy is meant to contrast with the power of the woman’s representation, thus heightening her beauty. Another possibility would be the ‘gauze’ employed for “surgical bandages” , which draws up images of medical trauma. As the women’s suicide is not revealed until later on in the novel, this is an example of the prophetic role of these images. Although the woman is depicted as an attractive beauty McCarthy also focuses on “her downturned eyes” , hinting at other more serious sentiments between the man and woman: perhaps suggesting that the tragedy of her death still scars the man’s perception of her. When the man wakes up from his dream, he immediately notices the “ice strung along the light wires overhead” . The imagery of an ethereal beauty surrounded by vivacious greenery, when juxtaposed with the author’s representation of a ruinous, frosty civilization in the last line of the passage, is accentuated by the contrast and appears as a vision of ultimate paradise. By doing this, McCarthy conveys the man’s sentiments of detachment from the security that his wife represents. This is also how McCarthy introduces the theme of temptation through fantasy because, although the father knows he must die to reunite with his wife, his subconscious still holds on to her. This nostalgia restrains the man from finding hope, a process that again is associated with the mental deterioration of the father.

Apparitions of the woman continue to plague the father to the extent that he becomes infatuated with his dreams as a form of escape. In the next dream, McCarthy explores the appearance of the wife by means of a sensual approach, stating that the man could “remember everything about her save her scent.” The scent of the woman, or rather its absence, symbolizes her spouse’s struggle to savour her memory. Whilst she can still dwell in the mind of the man, this imperfection provokes him to realize that she is nothing but a reflection of the woman he was actually in love with. Despite this flaw, the man still prefers to imagine himself “seated in the theater with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music.” The only other reference to ‘music’ in The Road crops up later on in the text, when the man fashions a flute to give to his son. The boy is content with the instrument at first, but upon slowly realizing the dire circumstances they are in, decides that it is worthless to him and accordingly discards it. The music can therefore be interpreted as a symbol of leisure and artistic expression; unattainable luxuries for the survivors in The Road. Through this depiction, McCarthy displays the necessity of creative expression in the human process. Due to the fact that the man feels these aspects are lost, he becomes apathetic when it comes to the aesthetics. This representation minimizes him to a simple organism that must survive. The theatre they sit in is embellished with “gold scrollwork and sconces and the tall columnar folds of the drapes at either side of the stage.” The ‘gold’, ‘sconces’ and ‘drapes’ adorn the scene with a feeling of grandeur; once again emphasizing a sophistication that the man desperately clings to. McCarthy further elaborates that the man “could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress.” In our first view of the woman, she was portrayed as an otherworldly beauty, however, the absence of her scent and the stockings the man notices under her dress infuse imperfection into her illustration. It could be that the stockings allude to secrets beneath the surface; that the man is subconsciously aware that his wife had been deceiving him. However, it seems that while he acknowledges her flaws, he also accepts them. McCarthy then states, “Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned.” By addressing the man in the second person, the writer is able to call upon the empathy of the reader. It also indicates that the man is aware that his dreams are debilitating, for although he wishes to remain with his wife and ‘freeze this frame’, he knows that when he must wake up to care for his son, he is calling down the ‘dark’ and the ‘cold’ and dooming himself to repeatedly experiencing the loss of his wife. Reference to being ‘damned’ also reveals that the man possesses resentment for having survived the catastrophe and being forced to sacrifice either his wife or his son. The diction and syntax of the narrator also create an imperious tone, communicates the man’s sentiments of entrapment.

The penultimate occasion the father visits his wife in his sleep, she was “sick and he cared for her.” In this description, a sudden fracture occurs as the narrator then states that the father “did not take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark and there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no other tale to tell.” The syntax of this statement is important because the use of the conjunction ‘and’ to join three potential statements gives the text a very frank tone: almost as though they are a litany of criticisms. Its sudden transition from another version of the truth – that ‘she was sick and he cared for her’ – is a technique that gives McCarthy the opportunity to display the mental disarray of the man. Both these techniques emphasize the sentiments of guilt the father experiences. The final dream where the man is reunited with his wife occurs much later in the novel and so McCarthy, by revisiting a common subject, is capable of addressing evolvement in the father. Whilst the man still perceives his wife as a figure of elegance, he believes that “each thought, each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins” likening it to “a party game” where words slowly mutate after being passed from ear to ear. The ‘violence’ McCarthy speaks of relates to the conflicting emotions the man possesses regarding his past. Although the woman is still portrayed as a subject of natural beauty in her “rose dress” (the colouring establishing the recurring serenity associated with the woman), the man does not wish to look at her and turns away. Thus, McCarthy is conveying how the father has moved passed the death of his spouse and his only concern is the survival of his son.

Dreams of the Boy

Although McCarthy allots a greater amount of time explicitly describing the dreams of the father, those of the son still carry much symbolic significance. Unlike as with the father, the boy himself describes his dreams posthumously to experiencing and reflecting upon them. Inevitably, this limits the amount of detail McCarthy can embellish the imagery of the dreams with, as the dialogue of the boy lacks evocative depth. As previously stated, the content of these visions, also contrasts quite starkly with that of the father’s dreams. In a conversation between the pair, the boy explains that his visions are “more like real life” , which, although backs the claim that he is not tempted by the exodus of dreams, also conveys his lack of hope for a better future. This is supported by the fact that on multiple occasions the boy expresses his ambivalence towards living, often stating that he wishes to join his mother. In the first reference to a dream sequence the boy speaks to his father of a nightmare he had. He explains that it occurred “in that house” that they used to reside in before the cataclysm, which is a setting that should represent a place of sanctuary to the boy (because it was a place of security and childhood affairs). He then explains that one of his toy penguins “came around the corner but nobody wound it up and it was really scary.” A preliminary judgment may attribute the content of this nightmare to nonsensical childish fears; however, further investigation into this dream reveals a consciousness previously not exposed by the author. McCarthy has addressed similar concepts in his other novels that carry the same theme, which is of evils that sustain themselves. In his novel, Blood Meridian, a hermit describes an evil machine “that can run itself a thousand years” , thus, the penguin, which the child is afraid of and so associates with evil, is an everlasting menace because it continues to live even though unwound. McCarthy has therefore been able to highlight the helplessness of the boy, but more notably, the theme of transcendence from the innocence of childhood. This is the first indication of mental strength in the boy because it is the first time we see him truly confronting reality. On the other hand, the manner in which McCarthy describes the penguin - “it would waddle and flap its flippers” - does not exactly corroborate this perception of the penguin as a force of great evil. Personally, I believe it gives the reader the impression that the penguin is harmless because of the connotations of the diction ‘waddle’ and ‘flap’. To ‘waddle’ can be defined as “to move clumsily’ , and thus suggests that the penguin is not malevolent but disoriented or adrift. Taking the boy’s reaction to this dream into account, it is reasonable to assume that perhaps what the boy fears most is not having a sense of purpose, which is symbolized in the penguin’s actions. He even asks the father later onwards what their “long-term goals” are, and when a response is not provided, appears despondent. McCarthy has thus communicated the boy’s acceptance of the challenges that lie ahead through these sullen fantasies. Similarly to the mindset of his mother, this dream prefigures the walking dead who must keep moving, yet unlike his mother, the boy (with his father’s guidance) possesses the strength to walk onwards.

The final dream sequences of the boy are actually only referred to in single lines. The first occurs in a scene after the man is awoken from his sleep by the wails of his son. The boy addresses his father with: “I was crying but you didn’t wake up” , later explaining that he “meant in the dream.” This is quite an obvious allusion that McCarthy makes to the death of the man. It entails that the son is aware of the frail condition of his father and that he possesses fear of being left alone. The boy thus starts to realize that he must learn to be independent because his father will not always be able to take care of him. Once again, the boy acknowledges the gravity of the situation he is in and the responsibilities that he will soon have when his father is gone. The final reference to dreams in the novel occurs after the death of the man. The boy, like in the very first dream of the father, finds himself in a cave. It has previously been explained that the cave may be a representation of the journeys of the protagonists and so it becomes clear that the boy must continue onwards towards his fate without the aid of his father. McCarthy also describes that “the light was a candle which the boy bore in a ringstick of beaten copper” and this is another reference in the novel to “carrying the fire.” Throughout the novel, when the boy asks his father why they must continue struggling, the man would say that they needed to ‘carry the fire’ and prevent it from dying out. The ‘fire’ is a symbol of goodness and morality, which now the boy must carry alone. The imagery suggests that, like a torch, the fire guides the boy forth: as a moral compass. Critic Benjamin Whitner surmised this moral when he said that The Road teaches us to live life “as if there is a line separating the good guys from the bad guys” . Utilizing common environments in the dreams, and having the boy revisit them after time, accentuates the development of the character: portraying how he has gained his independence while maintaining the goodness and purity of his childhood.


It is clear that McCarthy has intended to portray strength and hope through the dreams of the boy in the novel. He does this through an emphasis of the transition and development in the dreams. At first, they focus on the childish fears of the boy, blatantly portrayed as such by the simple, plain diction McCarthy uses when exploring these dream scenarios. However, it becomes clear that these fantasies imply that the boy is aware of the dangers that surround him. We find that his dreams possess symbols – such as the waddling penguin or his sleeping father – that emphasize the character’s different fears. This also highlights his transcendence from the innocence and naivety of childhood. McCarthy has employed the use of dark, sombre imagery in order to communicate the boy’s readiness to confront reality on his own. This is all supported by the fact that in all the boy’s dreams, we find he is either always accompanied by or looking for his father, but in the final dream, he ventures forth into the darkness of the cave on his own; ready to define his own path.

Contrasting with the growth of the boy is mental and physical deterioration of the father. Although the man knows that his wife abandoned him, he visits her memory in his fantasies and is engrossed by her beauty and grace, as highlighted by the light imagery of his dreams. The diction does not only communicate beauty, but an ethereal grace, due to the hyperbole of the descriptions. McCarthy shows how the man prefers to be deceived by this mirage of his wife because it provides him with comfort. Yet, the development of the dreams is also significant. The essay has led us to the conclusion that, at first, the man used these visions as a means of escaping the hardships of reality, but later he decides to simply ignore the tempts of his wife and focus on saving his son. In conclusion, these dreams have shown that the man has lost hope, the will to seek new happiness and the purpose to live. Critic Ron Charles explicates that the father faces the “metaphysical challenge of sustaining his son's innate goodness while forcing him to witness the corruption of all moral behavior.” Regardless of the fact that the man has no more passion for life, he must teach his son to be resilient. This loss of self is how McCarthy depicts the man’s demise.

While these conclusions are supported by the text, and a variety of secondary sources, it must be noted that much of the interpretation is personal. The study of language is delicate because it is composed of the complex web of the diction, the syntax and the structure of prose: each with the power to alter the connotation or definition of a text as a whole. It is near impossible to take everything into consideration. For these reasons, the analyses constructed in this essay may not represent the exact intentions McCarthy had for The Road. The beauty of literature, however, is that one can always find relevance in the words sprawled across the pages.


Primary Source:

• Cormac McCarthy, 2006, The Road, Vintage Books, United States of America

Secondary Sources

• Cormac McCarthy, 1985, Blood Meridian, Random House, United States of America

• Marckwardt, A., Cassidy, F., McMillan, J. 1992. Webster Comprehensive Dictionary, J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company, United States of America

• Vicki Nichols, Kathleen Flickinger, Cindy Carter, Marsha Tischner, 1991, Webster’s Dictionary, Nickel Press, United States of America

• Adam Mars-Jones, 26/11/2006, ‘Life After Armageddon’, The Observer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/nov/26/fiction.features

• Benjamin Whitmer, 23/10/2006, ‘Review by Benjamin Whitmer’, The Modern World, http://www.themodernword.com/reviews/mccarthy_road.html

• Ron Charles, 1/10/2006, ‘Apocalypse Now’, The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/28/AR2006092801460.html

• ‘Body Painting’, n.d., Aboriginal Art Online, http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/art/body.php

• Dictionary.com, n.d., http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gauze

Medical student intent on pursuing Oncology, writer and reader. B.S. Biology - American University of Beirut (2012-2015) M.D. - American University of Beirut (ongoing)

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