Conflict ~ The Essence of Plot (in The Road)

The essence of plot is conflict, and a story always has a central conflict, it can be apparent, or it can be hidden under layers of metaphors, and themes. Cormac McCarthy makes the conflict blatant yet with layers of debt to it in the novel, “The Road”. Before I begin describing the conflict and how it develops the plot, let’s take a step back to understand the basic premise of the novel. The storyline takes place in post apocalyptic America, where all living things have died off. It isn’t clear how everything died, but McCarthy hints that there was fire and ash involved in the crumble of American society. When reading this novel, the reader can immediately tell that the main characters, “The Man”, and “The Boy”, are fighting for survival, but it’s what they’re fighting against that is not quite stated. McCarthy presents the four major types of conflict: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself, man vs. (in this case, lack of) society.


Man vs. Nature:

The setting of the novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic America, where the only living beings are humans. Now, rationally speaking, if there was absolutely nothing alive except for us humans, there’s probably a great chance that we’d eat ourselves out of house and home, quite literally. “The Road” definitely displays this idea, as the Man and The Boy scour the barren land for leftovers of preserved/processed food, which is the only thing that is left for consumption (except for other humans…). This depletion of resources has the man and the boy searching for ways to make it through to the next day, as they ration their food.

In addition to this, the boy and the man face the brutal weather, and conditions that are presented by nature. You’d think that if everything was dead, that Mother Nature would probably let up a bit, the only thing it is torturing are humans, and honestly, they have enough problems as it is in this book. Nevertheless, the man and the boy continuously have to move south (because if climate patterns haven’t changed then why should migration for warmth?) to make it through the harsh winter, with what resources they have, and can find.


Man vs. Lack of Society?

The fourth form of conflict is man vs. society, but I think in this case the fact that there is no society is a conflict in itself. The cause of the lack of society is obviously shown through the conflict of nature, but it is the fact that there is no society, no form of regrouping and no way to rebuild that causes this eternal chaos that is presented in the form of thievery and cannibalism. The lack of society promotes natural selection, and pushes this idea that without society man is left to fend for himself.

The lack of society also presents paternal issues between the man and the boy, the man continues to long for the way life was with society. The fact that the boy was born post apocalypse causes the two to have a major cultural barrier between them. Their relationship becomes strained as the novel progresses, as the man tries to show the boy bits and pieces of his old life through objects they find as they scavenge for resources. These cultural barriers puts both boy and man at an emotional distance, as they struggle to find ways to survive, without much comfort


Man vs. Man:

Now, there are probably a lot of people out there cringing and being disgusted by the idea of cannibalism, some may even believe that it’s only a theory and not an actual practice done since the beginning of humans. Is it horrible? Yes. Immoral? Possibly. But is it completely possible that when there is nothing left to eat, and there is no hope for man kind, would people actually turn to this practice? The answer is yes. There are many arguments as to why and why not people would and should not become cannibals, but the fact of the matter is that in the book McCarthy shows that people can sometimes be desperate to survive, even though death is an impending doom. As the Man and the boy move towards the south they encounter multiple bands of cannibals, and they are labeled as evil by the man and the boy. McCarthy presents Darwin’s law of natural selection, and it is completely applicable to this novel, as both the man and the boy struggle to not be hunted down by the cannibals, while finding ways to survive on their own without eating human flesh. It’s killed or be killed in this novel, and the man makes difficult decisions regarding his and the boy’s safety when they face these people.


Man vs. Self

This last form of conflict is shown in multiple ways through the characterization of the man. The man’s main goal is to make sure the boy survives, it’s the only thing that is driving him to keep going. However, there are moments in the novel where the man has to make some tough decisions, sometimes they go unapproved by the boy such as stealing from other people, and killing those out to kill them or harm them.

But though these actions may sometimes weigh on his or the boy’s conscious, McCarthy presents another form of internal conflict, that has the reader questioning whether surviving is living, and whether one can live where there is no hope and no motivation. A flash is shown back of the man and his wife, just after the apocalypse. The boy had been born, and the wife is telling the man how he should have just put them all out of their misery with the bullets in their lone pistol. This pivotal moment causes the audience to realize that the man has another decision other than to survive. We see the man wrestle with this idea, especially during moments when it looks like either the man or the boy are close to death. The man always wonders whether it is better for them to be dead than have their lives at the hands of others. It’s a battle for control over one’s life, in a setting where there is no more control. As the story progresses, McCarthy prompts the reader to question whether the man is simply surviving, and question whether there is anything left to live for in a barren world.


Tying in of Climax, and Resolution with Conflict

The conflict never really dies out in the novel, the climax can be argued takes place when the man dies, leaving the boy to fend for himself, no longer having someone to look after him, and guide him, but having the option to think for himself. However, this does not change the fact that the conflict of survival still remains, until the resolution where the boy meets a family who ask him to come with them, to somehow survive together. The ending is ambiguous, the song still remains the same, the essence of survival is still embedded within the open ending.


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