Rebirthing the Referents:
Nuclear Criticism Seen Through Shifting
Post-Apocalyptic Signifiers in
Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2018, Volume 17, Issue 2


Sheheryar B. Sheikh
University of Saskatchewan



All-out nuclear war as the possible cause for an apocalypse has been conceived since at least 1913 when H.G. Wells coined the term "atomic bomb" in his novel The World Set Free. After the real-world bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, an awareness began to develop about the actual effects of nuclear bombs on a human population. While the relatively localized fallout from the explosions in Japan has been imagined as a deconstructable event by some critics (see John Hersey's Hiroshima as an example), the concept of a global nuclear apocalypse seems unassimilable, especially since Jacques Derrida, as translated by Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, labeled it an impossibly complex and "fabulously textual" event (Derrida 23). Since then, many writers of nuclear criticism have reiterated the Derridean phrase as their only offering on the subject, refusing to imagine a post-nuclear-holocaust situation with survivors. Instead of building criticism that may be informative for such a situation, and might enlighten other post-catastrophe conditions in many ways, the critics in nuclear criticism work with either-or scenarios: either a localized nuclear detonation, like in the case of Hiroshima or Nagasaki or the total and "remainderless destruction of [humanity and] the archive" (Derrida 27). It is left to the writers of fiction (the gamut of them, from pulp fiction writers to literary fiction authors) to imagine the various outcomes of nuclear winters and envision humanity's possible survival past such events. One of these texts, which serves as a discourse on nuclear criticism as well as a literary novel, is Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Essentially a morality tale, but also a post-apocalyptic treatise on human relations, The Road is situated in a post-nuclear-holocaust world. The travel and survival narrative focuses on a father and his pre-pubescent son foraging for food and avoiding dangerous marauders on their long walk south from an inland town to an unspecified coast of the United States. All visible land is covered in ash (McCarthy 6), cannibals roam the desolate countryside (91), and the father refuses to trust any strangers, no matter how innocuous they seem (161). While discussing with the boy their situation at every peaceful interval in the novel, as well as in his own thoughts, the father revises his language and its meanings. The referents of the old world do not exist anymore. Everything has changed after the apocalyptic event. Signifiers are disconnected from what they signified in the pre-apocalyptic world, and the archive of human knowledge must be restarted from ash.

Other than its literary excellence, The Road also offers a wealth of material for writers of nuclear criticism. It fulfills all of David Cratis Williams's injunctions for a politically enabling nuclear criticism: (1) it de-nucleates all ideological discourses from their centers; (2) it operates from within the wasteland; (3) it commits "pyrotechne"—destroying the art of pre-apocalyptic rhetoric and old idioms; (4) it attests to the power of language with linguistic flair; (5) it shows rhetorical force while being publicly accessible; (6) and it creates a new myth of human relations—that humans should treat each other as gods or as the words of God (Williams 201-203). Also, by creating a plausible post-nuclear-holocaust, McCarthy offers in the novel a middle ground between "total and remainderless destruction of the archive" (Derrida 27) on the one hand, and the localized, individualistic bomb-shelter survival myth on the other, through a reimagined landscape, with new referents that are predicated on a return to the elements of bare necessity for the handful of survivors. In order to demonstrate the idea that language has altered its referents, but not lost them, and that it is a condition of the new world rather than only of the story's main characters, I find it useful to understand the idea and usage of language through characters other than the father and son as well. Therefore, I have created a backstory for the only other "good" group, the family that the boy finds at the end of The Road (McCarthy 281). "The Road: Deleted Scenes," which is incorporated in this essay and followed by commentary on the methods used to write it, is a continuation of the themes in The Road, both in terms of the literary narrative and the material it enables in the nuclear critical domain. The story explores the shift of linguistic signifiers in a post-apocalyptic scenario. While the father and the son of The Road are separated by living the majority of their lives on either side of the apocalyptic divide, the family of four in "The Road: Deleted Scenes" has four members, two born before, and two after, the apocalyptic event. In all other aspects, I have mirrored the story events of the novel.


The Apocalypse

Though the popular culture understanding of the word is now primarily associated with colossal disasters, the Merriam-Webster etymology of the word "apocalypse" yields the following root meanings: "uncover, disclose, reveal." In this original sense of the word, post-catastrophe "revealed" elements in The Road can be registered in how the veil is lifted off some inherent binary oppositions: hunger versus satiation (McCarthy 145); danger versus safety (147); good guys versus bad guys (92); those who "carry the fire" versus those who do not (129); and words that mean something, versus words that do not (156). This disclosure, or "lifting of the veil," is an essential understanding of religious apocalypse because a quality of Judgment Day is that the underlying, elemental and fundamental, meaning of all that has passed before it will be revealed (thus, the popular eschatological meaning of the apocalypse is also relevant). The Road enables such an apocalyptic revelation by creating a post-calamity time and space in which the essences of moral and linguistic divides are explored at length. The world of the novel, in that sense, can be considered a secular afterlife for the chosen few who remain to populate it. Also, within this secular post-apocalypse is the possibility to make the world over or at least to understand it in its death throes.

While The Road provides ample fodder for a survivalist nuclear winter narrative, as mentioned, essays produced with the tag "nuclear criticism" have little to offer in terms of a post-nuclear-holocaust revelation. Essay after essay invokes the "fabulously textual" maxim and deserts the exploration of the nuclear apocalypse at the minimalist, simplistic, and reductionist evocation of that utterance. Admittedly, Derrida’s aphoristic phrase encapsulates the perhaps inherent inability of nuclear criticism to portray a post-nuclear-holocaust reality — and in that sense fiction (prose or verse, e.g. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker) may be the only medium through which to explore something that may remain "fabulously textual" but also textually unexplored by nuclear criticism.

Derrida's contribution to secular eschatology includes the idea that a "remainderless" nuclear war will also be the “destruction of the archive” (27). Of course, to take the Derridean notion of a nuclear apocalypse as the only possible reality of all nuclear wars is a misleading jump to conclusions. There are also other issues involved with nucleating the end-game scenario around only total nuclear war: the archive is threatened not only by nuclear annihilation, but by mass-scale annihilation of any sort; also, the archive is not a stable thing, and it will never be stable — human history shows a series of revelations (or apocalypses), such as the Copernican Revolution and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, to name just two scientific modifiers of the archive that had a profound effect on how history was viewed and progress measured after those enlightening events. Derrida correctly cites the burning of the Library of Alexandria as a small-scale "destruction" of the archive (27), but he fails — or most nuclear critics who write after him fail — to see that destruction is never complete as long as there is the possibility of survivors or the possibility of the evolutionary cycle happening again.

Furthermore, if anything, the destruction of any portion of the archive is a modification of it, and the archive is undergoing constant processes of modification through deletions, accretions, development of nuances, and outright rejections of previous entries. The planet we inhabit is but a speck in the larger archive; a universe cannot be made "remainderless" with the relatively infinitesimal arsenal of nuclear weapons on earth. If life exists — or will exist — out there on some planet, and if it ever finds the nuclear-blasted Earth, our planet's modified "archive" will perhaps not be a "remainderless" one, but rather a purposeful completion of the archive that was always, according to Derrida at least, referring to the nuclear apocalypse in any case (28).

Derridean absolute nuclear apocalypses aside, The Road provides ample textual evidence to showcase the possible shifts in archive in a post-nuclear-holocaust scenario. These modifications are exhibited mostly, and most effectively, by the shift in linguistic referents. When the father and son try to communicate, sometimes they find it hard to bridge the apocalypto-generation gap. What would be taken for granted as universally understood idioms in the old world, or among adults of the father's age, are a new linguistic phenomenon for the boy. The idiomatic and literal usage of "as the crow flies" (156), "long term goals" (160) and "negotiate" (165) causes the father and son to deliberate upon the terms' pre- and post-apocalyptic referents as well as to notice the incongruity between them.

A singularly telling moment of linguistic shift happens near the end of the book. By this time in the narrative, the father is certain to die soon from the lung disease that makes him spit blood. His leg injury from an arrow is healing, but still painful (McCarthy 263). Admiring his father's fortitude, the boy asks, as children would, "What's the bravest thing you ever did?" (272). In a rare, seemingly only departure from the earnest, hopeful, and optimistic words the father says to his son at other times, he breaks down and says, in a likely wry and hoarse voice, while he spits "into the road a bloody phlegm" that the bravest thing he has ever done was "[g]etting up this morning" (272). This utterance would not appear so incongruous in any other text that was not otherwise so elementally stripped of irony and sarcasm. But in the context of this novel, and the palpably earnest way in which the father usually communicates with the boy, this sentence alarms the child enough to ask, "Really?" (272). Given the way language works in the new world, the boy has no choice but to take the man at his word. An understanding of sarcasm requires more sophistication than the stripped-down landscape and the bare-bones linguistic exchanges can allow. The father does not explain to the boy that he is being sarcastic. Instead, he tells the boy, "Don't listen to me" (272). He negates the sarcasm and erases the non-earnest language because it belongs to the pre-apocalyptic world.

Also to the pre-apocalyptic world in The Road belong the old referents to all concepts of divinity. In the new, post-catastrophe gray and barren landscape, the father wrestles with God while praying to him (McCarthy 11-12) and assigns signifiers of the divine to his son. He calls his son the "Word of God" (5), "God's own firedrake" (31), "a god" (172), "a tabernacle" (273), and also "the best guy" (279). At another point, it is easy to mistake the father calling the boy a "chalice" (as many critics have done) when in fact it is the cup-shaped hairdo of the child that the father calls a "Golden Chalice, good to house a god" (75). Along with introducing these new ideas and signifiers of divinity, the novel also pushes away the old ones. An ashen snowflake is called the "last host of Christendom" (17), and Ely (the most Derridean character in the novel) proclaims, "There is no God and we are his prophets" (171) (mirroring the Derridean approach to saying there is no possibility of absolute nuclear war — after which he proceeds to preach what he claims is the "gospel truth" about it).

There are several ways to read The Road’s shift in referents and modification of signifiers regarding divinity. A literal belief in the son as God or the Second Coming of Christ has been put forth by some critics. J.M. Coetzee's novel The Childhood of Jesus (2013) (with its own father and son journey) plays with this notion intertextually, especially with the title. However, the most plausible explanation for the alteration in referents in The Road is the reassignment or reassessment of value. As Geoff Hamilton points out in "'Something to Be Done': The Road, Beckett, and American Autonomy," in the face of the stark post-apocalyptic landscape, the "father and the son of The Road will not be silent, and they do find the resources to forge a new language as they express their unique mutual devotion" (68). Within this language, they pour indicators of how they value each other. What more valuable assignation can someone give a person other than to call that person divine and God-like? That the man so often conceives of his son as a gift of God, or God himself, is the highest linguistic assignation of value that gives expression to what his son is worth to him. And, at the end, the son talks to his deceased father in a form as close to prayer as he can get, giving the role of supplication-listening deity to his actual dad.

As with the binaries mentioned earlier, there is something primal and fundamental about reassigning the values associated with the divine. McCarthy is able to do this precisely by excluding all traces of duality — irony, sarcasm, double entendres and the like — from the language he employs for the communication between father and son. This earnestness of language in a postmodern text compels critic John Cant to remark on "the author's willingness to address fundamental philosophical questions in a manner generally out of fashion in a culture that has lost faith in the very notion of the grand narrative" (266). In this sense, The Road is a very modern text in the postmodern era: perhaps the binaries possible in modernity offer more fundamental truth than the lack of cohesion and explosion of meanings inherent in the postmodern condition.


A Creative Exploration

An obvious and necessary question must be asked about the methodology and purpose of this essay: what does a creative exploration of The Road add that mere critical analysis of the text cannot? It is not as if The Road appears to be an incomplete text in any way.  The ambiguities that are left unresolved are done so in an intended manner. So why add anything to a complete text?

The first way to address this query is to examine what critical engagement can offer just by analysis, deconstruction, and examination through a theoretical lens. These approaches can offer the examination of what is already there in the text, argue for certain themes being dominant, and offer insight into diverse matters, including the ways of naming, gender roles, morality, etc. Enough evidence exists within the text to support multiple argument, as exemplified by the many critical chapters and articles written about it. However, it is worth asking what the close examination of the text does not offer. This is where the idea of a creative extension of the text comes into play.

A creative exploration of The Road demonstrates the fact that the shift in linguistic referents is an inherent condition in the new world. The novel's narrative voice stays intimately attached to the man's perspective, and the state of the post-apocalyptic world is seen through his point of view. This essay's creative exploration shifts perspectives to another surviving group and thus examines the state of the post-apocalyptic landscape through that group's eyes, a technique that also provides the opportunity to explore the world through the perspective of a gendered "other," an opportunityThe Road does not allow as the text is male-centric.

One of the most interesting things about the ending of The Road is that the man on the beach who finds the boy says "We have a little boy" who is a little older than the protagonist boy, "and we have a little girl" (McCarthy 285); since the man mentions the girl second, it is likely she is younger than both the boys in the novel. In the film version of The Road, the girl is shown to be a few years younger than the protagonist boy, which means that she was probably conceived after the apocalypse. The significance here lies in the indication that, even after the apocalypse, the little girl's mother chooses motherhood and an opportunity to nurture children — in stark contrast to the boy's own mother encountered in the novel, who, likely suffering from post-partum depression, as well as the post-apocalyptic existential condition, decides to end her own life (58). The positive, life-affirming choice of the new mother to give birth after the apocalyptic event begs exploration, and I have opted to explore it with creative license. The creative section begins below and ends with the word Fin.


The Road: Deleted Scenes

Pawing through the shell of mud and dust matted on the can she shushed the boy who had tripped over something ironlike in sound at the back of what had once been a grocery store. She looked at the can in her hand. Gold, this mix of chickpeas. Expired only three years ago. The man had a harder time working the years out and he would not have stooped this far down into the packing crate to look for something so old locked in tin under soot and caged in splintered wood. He would be wary of getting cuts for which he would need to lather a paste of defunct antibiotics. That is why he waited outside with the girl and the dog keeping watch.

Mama, the boy called.

What? She whispered.

Mama come look.

What is it?

She left the can and walked toward him. On the way back, she gripped the hammer hard in her stronger left hand. He was her boy, hers to protect. The hammer's grip and her own hand's form around it staked the boy's life to what sinews she could truss up from her unfed body.

Come Mama, the boy hissed.

I'm coming. She passed a window glazed with ash and soot out of which she could see the gray world and her little girl and the dog. Turning the corner she saw the bee carcasses and the remnants of what must have been their hive next to the boy's foot. They lay scattered out of a turned box. The wax was thinner than the bleakest paper and cells of it flaked off from the larger parchment of itself.

Is that a beehive?

Yes. This is good. She picked up a bee with her right hand and tested it. It had heft for such a small thing. It was a corpse with half a wing left, and she had no qualm about biting into the head. It was granite hard and tasted like gut. She would devour mud for remnants of nutrients. But there was no guarantee that the mud wasnt dead too.

She looked in the box and found fewer morsels than she had hoped. She cupped back the fallen bees into the box and picked it up and asked the boy to keep looking for more things as she labored across the other room with their meal for the night.


When she dreamed up the old days they seemed like segments of film shucked of sound and shape. The still camera of her mind's eye saw remarkable explosions in the white halls where she had once worked. So white and made whiter by the fires. As if compounds distilled into separate vessels no longer needed thought and work to yield sparks.

A dream could last a whole night's worth of sleep. But even in those long and tiring nights when the man wouldn't let her stay awake for too long to keep watch over them she couldnt conjure again the end as it had happened. The host of fires reaching skyward in the aftermath on the horizon, fire that chewed through the very walls of their house. Smothered her in light. Her boy was only a year and some months born. And after the fire the whole world seemed reparticled, a mass of grist to step on that would granulate something that had once truly lived.

She dreamed often of the clean lab like the one where she had worked but the shelves stocked with the order of things in their places never lasted the night. Bottles crashed and fires broke out and the heat seared open her eyelids to find herself and the man she loved ghostlit by a fire where their boy and girl and the dog lay in the dark of some vacant lot in the crust of ash upon ash.

Once from the couch of her childhood living room on one of the days of a summer heatwave she had woken from a dream of such a land and it had seemed not as harsh as the living of it.

She dreamed also of a clean world where the eating of flesh didnt mean what it meant in the world left to her. A world taken to this habit was the snake swallowing itself. Would it not soon realize what it was doing? Would it not stop before disappearing inside itself? Something human about starving to death was more favorable than the likes of what she saw in the remains. Despair she could understand. Everyone despairs when faced with the truth of their lot.

She taught her boy and the girl to talk themselves hoarse when the darkness began to fold up inside them. She allowed them to question everything. It was their world now. However radiated and sucked out of breath.

She told the man all her dreams except the ones she knew he would not want to hear for getting heartsick. She also kept to her own self the image of a flying dolphin rising out of the ashes that she had visioned on the border of a sleep under the ashen sky. It was a grace given to her to keep alive what had been and what was to come.


On the road they sometimes found the prints made by the boy and the man. Sometimes the boy's prints disappeared even though the man's went on. Often, for days they would find no sign of the two who were leading them to the coast. What would they say if they happened on them? We are a man and wife with a boy and girl and we have followed you forever on this road. Forever and a few months. The boy's prints appeared again, and she held in her breath as penance for what she could have thought about the man.

The man's prints were shuffles of oval without form or shape, and they lay in the ash like nothing else. At night when her own boy and girl were asleep, the man said the other man and his boy were only three or four days ahead of them. He said he could read it in the ash by now, the age of prints and things to track.

Everything dead and gray was forsworn from the world and tethered to the past. Here only the ghost of a world floated about in scraps and fragments.

The boy they were following was not a child to her like her own boy. That other boy was the lead act in the last play of life in the world. She saw goodness in him even though she hadnt laid eyes on him. That boy more than her own boy or girl was the woman's warrant. It was not love to feel this way but something other, a hope that gnarled at the fears.

Footprints and emptied cans and bits of plastic from their feet and emptied bottles with traces of the smell of oil or water. These signs she saw as a herald of God even though she had been warned off God by all she saw.


Her son asked her questions about Ely, the old blind man who stopped with them at the underground shelter they'd found some months ago. She made up the answers she felt Ely would say.

Was he really blind?

Yes, he was going blind.

Did he talk?

Yes, he talked. He talked a lot.

What did he say?

She felt about her memory of Ely's words for traces of hope and faith. She interpreted for her son rather than repeating verbatim what the old man had said.

He talked about the future and the past. He said there was a lot more about life that we understand now that it is so rare to see in the world.

The boy lowered his eyes to the fire and looked at his sister who was asleep in the man's arms. His father looked at the fire and didnt add anything.

Why did he leave?

The same question. She wondered what to answer this time. As the boy grew older the question would be one he would answer for himself in perhaps as many different ways as she had done for him. The mystery layered out in the years rolling back and forward. The middle of the scroll being the here and now shorn of any meaning but the promise and link it held between both ends of time.

He didnt want to stay in a shelter, she said of Ely. And she wondered how much more she and the man could have insisted.

Will we see him again?

The woman didnt answer. She looked at the sleeping form of the girl who was born in that shelter only weeks after Ely left.

If he's on this road we'll see him again, the man said not moving his eyes from the fire.

Okay. The boy played with a twig before he broke it into small pieces and threw them one by one in the fire. Okay, the boy said again as if making a resolve the referent of which the woman could not guess.

The thought came to her that this could be a campsite in the old world, and a family on vacation. Ely the itinerant grandfather of her children. His words both a comfort and a disease she would carry through the gray of every waking moment.


What to plan was taken away from the world, only to be resettled in a distant future. The learning was now how to live and she was given the man and the boy and girl among whom she had the task and the release to learn how to live for the generations to come. A new motherhood, this. A millennial task.

Her husband's hard goodness was something she leaned on when the darkness overwhelmed her in the early days before she braced herself to become equal to the task. He had promised first his toes and then fingers to the boy and girl if it should come to that. But he made sure it never came to that. The odd animal in its deep burrow and the worms and dead insects and seeds and the forgotten and then overlooked bottles of pickled sundries and the cans from the old world stayed them from the deeper end of starvation.

Any food was first brought to the woman to check for safety and if it passed that a portion first went to the girl. The boy shared his portions with his sister too. At least he tried when able to keep himself from swallowing everything at once. Then the woman and the man shared what was left. The dog got the dregs and the girl would let it lick her fingers. They were never more than a few days or hours from running out of food.

If the man left them he went to hunt with his shotgun and he left her a small gun for protection. Often he hid them when others were passing. Once in the early days after leaving the shelter she had hunkered with the girl who was then a baby on the edge of the woods and not fifty meters away a caravan of the dirtiest people had rumbled past. The girl had started to whimper and the woman had stopped trying to muffle her cries when she found that the racket of wheels and shuffling masses on the road was enough to mask all other sounds that disturbed the quiet of the dead land.

Among those she had sighted on the bed of a cart pulled by chained boys was a woman her own age or younger with her legs in chains and her hands fed through loops of rope. The image never left her after all these years and the boy had seen it too.

The man had killed for the woman and the children. He had killed without bringing food after twin blasts of the shotgun. She had seen blood on him. She knew his goodness and his cleaving with whatever remained of God because he did not lie and bring the wrong meat to her and to the boy and the girl.


She woke to find her daughter pawing at her hair and the fire down to coals and orange rumors of fire.

Mia, she said.

Mama you’re awake?

Yes. What are you doing?

I thought you were dead. I was burying you.

What to make of the girl's game of putting dirt in her hair and on her cheek. She's a child, the woman reminded herself as she sat up and cleaned her face with the back of her hand and raked her hair clean of the clods of mud.

Where's your dada? she asked the girl as she raised her onto her lap.

The girl shrugged her shoulders. You werent breathing said the girl. In the faint light she saw crusted salttracks on the girl's face. She'd been crying a while. The clods of mud werent play. They were ritual. Where had her daughter learned to bury the dead?

I know. We breathe less when we sleep. She kissed the girl and wrapped her arms around her bones. Hardly any flesh. She felt a heartbeat inside the large airpocket of the girl's hoodie. She remembered waking her own mother up on a Sunday in bed with breakfast and receiving the gift of such an animal clasp. She remembered violet and pink flowers and eggs she laid on that breakfast tray. The girl had gathered twigs and ashes and put them on her chest. She brushed them aside.

She rocked the girl and looked at the fire. Her son and her husband were close by and she could feel them but not see them in the darkness. A lapse of judgment from the exhaustion of walking a whole day without food. Four days since the man and she had eaten anything more than a few seeds. The boy and girl had eaten a pickle each and a handful of bee carcasses a day ago.

It's okay darling. She put some of the gathered wood on the dying fire. She blew out her breath and created light. Mama's okay.

I dont want you to be dead.

I know. It's okay. Her eyes adjusted and she saw what at first looked to her like corpses rotting at the edge of the fire. The man lay mouth wide open on his back so if any ash fell it would rain straight down to the core of him. She could not see her son's face as he was turned away and the back of his head was as gray as an old man's. The blanket's amorphous hold on the boy looked warm and that gave her comfort as she held the girl. She could not see the dog.

Mama, the girl said as she pulled away from the embrace but continued to sit on the woman's lap.


You know the color green?


I saw it in my sleep.

You dreamed the color green?

Yes. I was going to tell you about it. But then you were dead.

Where was the green color?

It was everywhere.


In the sky and on the ground and on the people.

The woman looked in her mind's eye to all that the girl had seen since being born. Had she seen a forest in a leftover picture? No. It was hard to imagine the gray world turning green again. But maybe one lifetime was not enough of a span to measure change by. God's eye could surely see under the rubble to all that could yet bloom. The woman didnt know what to say as her eyes welled so she smiled at the girl and waited. But that was all the girl said.


The sun was still there even when they couldnt see it and that was all the world needed to begin again from the roots of its past. Somehow the ash would fall and keep falling and then be done falling. That's what the woman had told herself and that's what she kept telling herself. It was the way to keep the story of the world going and from being shunted over the edge without any more stories to tell.

She no longer remembered the birth of her girl as a decision to make. It had been an inevitable thing without need of referral to have a child in the dead and ashen world. She had not asked the man to join her and make new life but he must have known that is what she wanted. They had wished to have a daughter before and they had wanted a daughter after. As if the girl had been prefigured and they were merely predicates of her prophesied birth.

What she remembered is naming her daughter Mia. The girl cleaved forth from her body and became her own thing by purring in the cavern of that underground room. As if agreeing that the world was okay or would be okay somehow. She would make do with what was left. The catlike purr and then the name Mia. A name with the chantings of which to ford oceans and sprawls of darkness. The only name other than the name Ely she could bear to say aloud. Even the boy's name was left behind in the old world because that is where he had been born.

Festering in the back of her mind always was the thought that everything would die. But she would not take that as a given for the girl even if it meant severing ties with that God who lay forth a child and a man whose footsteps they kept following. The wake of whose passage to the shore was the only road the woman knew to be the one laid with goodness.


Methodology of Writing
"The Road: Deleted Scenes"

The title is a play upon the movie tradition of providing filmed but excised scenes as bonus material on DVDs after theatrical release. In other words, the title is an attempt to integrate the story within the narrative of the novel rather than have it appear as "fan fiction," which is within the universe but not part of the original narrative.

In addition to shaping the story as "bonus material," I decided to name the girl child because she is the only character conceived and born after the apocalypse, and likely by choice rather than by force (as in the case of rapist marauders impregnating their slave women). The original father of the novel never calls his son by any name, or even "boy," because the addressee of his spoken words is always (unless a third party is present), implicitly and inherently, his own son. In contrast, the woman at the end has two children, but she finds it easier and more suitable to call the girl by her name because she is born entirely of the new world. The girl's name, Mia, is both a standalone name and short for Maria, which has obvious biblical connotations. The Latin and Italian name Mia means "mine," while Hebrew meanings of the full name Maria are "uncertain" and "maybe bitter;" other meanings include "rebelliousness," "overthrow," "wished-for child," and "pregnant."

The question of whether to name a character in the creative exploration was settled after I read Ashley Kunsa's essay "Maps of the World in Its Becoming: Post-Apocalyptic Naming in Cormac McCarthy's The Road." Kunsa states that "names of the pre-apocalyptic world have become obsolete...this is not to say that meaning has gone out of the world. The point here is that the nature of meaning has changed: the method of naming McCarthy uses offers a refiguring of meaning in the language of the new, post-apocalyptic world" (Kunsa 63). Since the nature of meaning is being reimagined in this landscape, and because the new mother has a child by rebelling against the world left behind, it is important to give meaning to that choice by the volition of naming the girl. The name Mia seems very appropriate because it marks the girl as a "wished-for" birth as well as a rebel against the post-apocalyptic desolation. She is herself a sign of hope.

Another objective of this exercise has been to keep all the original elements of McCarthy's prose intact. There is no claim that "The Road: Deleted Scenes" is as masterful as McCarthy's novel, but keeping certain aspects of the language helps to generate a similar voice to the original author's. Lindsey Banco's essay "Contractions in Cormac McCarthy's The Road" provides insight as to the stylistic elements. Banco points out that in the novel "[p]aragraphs are short; chapter breaks and quotation marks around dialogue are absent; punctuation is rare; and [McCarthy's] tiny cast of almost entirely nameless characters speaks in bare monosyllables" (Banco 276). The text maintains what Banco calls "McCarthy's use of contractions (which are themselves the syntactical cancellation of letters), and especially how he uses apostrophes in contractions" (276). Banco notes that the missing apostrophes in negative contractions — such as “dont” instead of “don’t” — "underscore a broken, fragmented, and ultimately empty world" (276). The text keeps the apostrophes that denote creation and optimism, such as “that's” and “it's,” and all of the ones indicating possession by a character; Banco points out, optimistically reading them, that these denote "creative possibilities of human beings" as an indication of hope in a "blighted world" (278).

Ultimately, very few principles of punctuation are required to maintain an essentially stripped-down writing style such as that of McCarthy's in The Road. The narrative is about fundamental elements rather than complicated uses of language — taking away is much easier. What requires more work are the narrative choices that lead to the development of character. In the novel, the only direct words of the new mother to the boy are "I am so glad to see you" (McCarthy 286) which, when added to the man asking "Where's the man you were with?" (282), show that they have been expecting to run into the man and boy. This sense of expectation has been built into the woman's perspective, and carried over from the novel is the idea that the boy is embodied with a sense of divine grace for all the potentially "good" characters he encounters, not just for his own father.

Another element that has been kept — and more to the point of this article — is the sense of language breaking down, but it has been imbued with a sense of renewal. The girl, Mia, who is herself a sign of regeneration in the birth cycle, sees the color green in her dream, which provides a sense of regrowth in the offing. At the same time, referents to goodness and God are shaken up, and it is difficult, from the mother's perspective, to find solace about divinity until she finds the boy. Another important instance of linkage is when the father in The Road rails at God by asking, "Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?," but then immediately breaks down in his following words: "Oh God, he whispered. Oh God" (McCarthy 11-12). In "The Road: Deleted Scenes," the sentence that links to this kind of thinking is rendered more hopeful, but still ambiguously directed against the pre-apocalyptic version of God: "These signs she saw as a herald of God even though she had been warned off God by all she saw."

Both the novel and the creative exploration build a new concept of referents to divinity. The story's mother keeps her hope alive by believing in the "goodness" of the protagonist child "even though she hadnt laid eyes on him." The father's reassignment of symbols and signifiers of divinity to the child in The Road has already been examined and established earlier in this article. For the new mother in the story, and the father in the novel, the child of the novel remains their "warrant," their charge, and their reason to hope (McCarthy 5). The new mother in the story gives more significance to her daughter both by naming her and by saying she would not take death "as a given for the girl even if it meant severing ties with...God." With this thought, she prefigures a post-apocalyptic revival of the human race through The Road's boy and her own daughter but also stakes her daughter's life against that of the novel's boy, complicating the depth of hope and fear she has for the possibilities of survival for each of them. This deliberate ambiguity is an attempt to mirror the one found at the end of the novel. The unspoken but implied connection she feels between the novel's boy and Mia is that these young people will form the next generation of those who "carry the fire."


"Politically Enabling" Nuclear Criticism
Other than linguistic style, the creation of "The Road: Deleted Scenes" has been informed by what David Cratis Williams calls "politically enabling" nuclear criticism, which is found in abundance throughout McCarthy's novel. Though Williams does not note that Derrida's essay is potentially limiting, he does take the argument further than Derrida acolytes by prescribing six injunctions that can, when adhered to, produce powerful nuclear criticism, which is "inspirited with affirmation and life, not nihilism and death" (195), and which destabilizes "habituated ways of writing" (196).

I listed the injunctions at the outset of this article, but it may be useful to repeat them in light of the evidence brought forth from The Road. Williams writes that nuclear criticism:

  • "must 'de-nucleate' our habituated ways of thinking; it must 'split the nucleus' of centered structures of meaning" (200-1).

  • "must operate from within the structure of nuclearism, in particular, and ideology, in general" (201).

  • "may commit 'pyrotechne,' the destruction of the art of rhetoric...[it] explodes the nucleus, and our traditional conceptions of rhetorical techne must be consumed in the flames" (201).

  • "needs to attest to its affirmative stance; it needs to emphasize its liberating quality" (202).

  • "must be rhetorically forceful and publicly accessible. It must be assertive, not consumed by its own de-substantiation, yet it must retain its rhetorical force without replicating the structures of opposition which culminate in nuclearism" (202).

  • "must work to generate a new 'myth' of human relations and national interactions...[it must] dismantle the language of nuclearism [and] also search through the wreckage for the materials with which to construct a new myth of peace" (202-3).

This last point is important — especially when comparing the language of The Road to what may be called "nuclear speak," which is practiced by the men (indeed, mostly men) in charge of decisions about nuclear warheads. In her essay "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals," Carol Cohn describes in vivid detail the sexist, and reality-eschewing language that men in charge of "nuclear strategic doctrine" speak (687). The discourse she examines fascinates even as it disturbs, and Cohn's position as insider-outsider (as embedded journalist among defense intellectuals) provides her the perfect position from which to critique the language. She states at the outset how the "abstraction and removal from...reality" in the professional discourse of "nuclear speak" works (688), but she is soon lured into the trap of learning the language and forgetting "reality" — her "own thinking was changing" (688) — as she became more adept at speaking with the professionals around her. She describes how their jargon-filled, euphemistic "language has enormous destructive power, but without...the emotional fallout that would result if it were clear one was talking about plans for mass murder, mangled bodies, and unspeakable human suffering" (691). Examples of troubling uses of language that she quotes are (other than the usual, pervasive, and sickeningly meaningless "collateral damage") as follows: "clean bombs" (691), bombs that can be "patted" (695), acronyms for retaliatory protocols such as "PAL (permissive action links)" and "BAMBI (Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept)" (698), the sexualization and gender-association of procedures, personel and missiles (699-702), and so on. Cohn worries that the "more subtle, but perhaps more important, element of learning the language is that, when you speak it, you feel in control" and that "the process of learning the language is itself a part of what removes you from the reality of nuclear war" (704).

The contingency plans that defense intellectuals have to work on are far removed from the everyday reality of most citizens of any country — this is a given fact. The "nuclear speak" is mostly centered around hypotheticals and abstracts as Cohn points out. But a pertinent question arises out of her article: can the professionals in charge of nuclear warheads actually face the reality of nuclear fallout, given the lack of linguistic range of meanings possible to convey in their professional jargon? Cohn would argue no. At the end, as a remedy, she asserts, echoing Williams's injunctions: "Our reconstructive task is a task of creating compelling alternative visions of a possible future, a task of recognizing and developing alternative conceptions of rationality, a task of creating rich and imaginative alternative voices — diverse voices whose conversations with each other will invent those futures" (Cohn 718).

This exhortation by Cohn, as well as Williams's directives, should cause nuclear critics to herald The Road as one of the many answers to its calls. The novel fulfills, with linguistic and formal experiments, as well as with the removal of sarcasm, euphemism, and irony, the deceptions that language can allow within communication. The Road is realism in the vein of Hemingway and modernism in the vein of the most earnest modernists such as Faulkner. It seeks to enlighten, and it does so most of all by proposing the conception of a new kind of relationship between human beings (again, see Williams's injunction 6, above): for the father, his son is God's word, or the divine being himself; and for the post-nuclear child, all those who potentially carry the fire are his guests and equally deserving of the material (food or otherwise) he has with him. Nothing less than these relations, and linguistic reference to them with earnestness rather than self-defeating irony, The Road's narrator posits, suffices as goodness.


Revelatory and Problematic Interpretations
Not all critics of McCarthy's novel agree with my interpretation of it. But even those who disagree yield a few interesting ideas that are worth examining. Marcel DeCoste's reading in "'A Thing That Even Death Cannot Undo': The Operation of the Theological Virtues in Cormac McCarthy's The Road" comes closest to this essay's exegesis. DeCoste argues that the novel "is a pair's struggle for survival, not just of the body, but of the ways of relating, of being human" (68). He asserts that the "framework of a Christian sensibility and iconography...hold a central position in McCarthy's tale precisely as they serve as the enabling lexicon for the ethical, not just physical, survival [the] father and son represent" (71). DeCoste could go further and note that the concept of divinity has been reattributed and reinstitutionalized by the father to his own son rather than to the one in the Christian Trinity. Also, the ethics of the Old Testament have been invoked, but adjusted according to this shift in divine attribution.

Reading the novel also through a lens of Christian theology, Matthew L. Potts, in "'There Is No God and We Are His Prophets': Cormac McCarthy and Christian Faith," is right to deride another critic for "writing that Christian belief functions in American literature as 'something between a dead language and a hangover'" (489). However, Potts veers into misinterpretation when he states, "Doctrine fails spectacularly in The Road. Meaning as an intellectual endeavor has been almost entirely abandoned...The ineluctable weight of this nothingness recurs over and again in the book, undermining and undoing meaning at every turn" (490, 491), which is not at all the case. As Kunsa points out, meaning has been reattributed, not annihilated. Less material becomes more meaningful while items not essential for survival have begun to reveal different sets of meanings. A different meaning, or variance of pre-and post-apocalyptic scale in the meaning of things, does not necessarilypoint to the absence of meaning. Potts counld have exerted more interpretive pressure on this issue, especially as he is the only critic to point out a rather interesting fact, that "carrying the fire must be a biblical reference because the book of Genesis tells us that when Abraham ascended Mount Moriah to slay Isaac, he carried the fire for the sacrifice while Isaac carried the kindling" (494) — and The Road places a crucial reattribution of those iconic roles onto the father and the son.

Along with the roles that they take up, the father and son in the novel also have to shoulder responsibility for such reattribution. In "Hospitality in Cormac McCarthy's The Road," Phillip Snyder mentions that "no one by the father and son speaks or acts with the divine rituals of hospitality which had defined the pre-apocalyptic world" (78). Worth mentioning is that the boy even says grace before the bounty of the underground bunker, a "prayer of thanks” directed toward those who have left the food (79). This point echoes Matthew Fledderjohann's idea, in "How to Continue: Sustaining Existence through Beckettian Ritual in McCarthy's The Road," that since, at the end, the "boy has difficulty directing his prayers to God...he turns to his father — his primary example of the sustaining properties of recursive practices" (54), which exhibits another example of how the usual role of prayer's recipient (divinity) is attributed to his own father, a human.

Unfortunately, several critics miss the deeper meaning of The Road. In "Uses of the End of the World: Apocalypse and Postapocalypse as Narrative Modes," Connor Pitetti should have been more careful than to summarize The Road as a novel about "the survivors of a global pandemic frittering away their final hours in boredom and petty cruelties" (443); also, rather nihilistically, like Derrida, Pitetti invokes the author Teresa Hefernan by stating that "[f]aith in a radically new world has failed to be compelling" (447). In a similarly dismal analysis, Oliver Völker, in "'Hang on to the Words': The Scarcity of Language in McCarthy's The Road and Atwood's Oryx and Crake," states that The Road's "text offers little or no evidence that any living creature would be able to survive on planet Earth in the long run" (75). Especially given ample evidence of ambiguity, if not outright hope — right at the last, emphatic, end of the book, which mentions both the woman talking to the boy of God, the boy talking to his father, and the trout, on whose "backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming" (McCarthy 286-287), how can Völker and Pitetti read the novel as such a nihilistic text? Völker’s analysis contains outright flaws, especially when he asserts that the "narrator is not capable, so it seems, of disconnecting the different sense impressions and ascribing any meaning to them" (76-77). McCarthy's narrator uses short list-making sentences in order to show how elemental the post-apocalyptic understanding of things can be. Items are understood for how they serve the purpose of survival; they are not meditated upon simply for the luxury of meditation, which is not a condition allowed in near-starvation states; a thing is itself, and if it serves no immediate purpose, it is sewn into a series that lists things without pausing to deliberate upon them. But Völker refuses to stop there. He insists that in the "case of The Road, [the] traditional meaning" of the orchard "is disturbingly inverted" because it offers no nourishment (77) — but the man does indeed find sustenance from that orchard.

Ciarán Dowd, in "The Hum of Mystery: Parataxis, Analepsis, and Geophysiology in 'The Road,'" also mistakes the language of the novel as a "series of sentences, many of which are grammatically incomplete fragments, laid out horizontally without any subordinating conjunctive tissue to establish syntactical hierarchy or causal relationship… [creating] a levelling of distinctions between the assembled sentences or clauses, suggesting [a] non-anthropocentric worldview" (26). Just because the man glosses over the non-essentials, thus listing and dismissing them, while he gropes in the ash-layered world for more nourishment for himself and his son, does not mean that he has not been chosen as the center of the novel's worldview by the author and the narrator.



The Road
serves as an ur-text for the post-apocalyptic canon, despite it having been published so recently (2006). That it does so while not naming the type of its apocalypse makes it possible for a range of possible apocalyptic events to be attributed to the condition of its created world. An ambiguity exists between hope and despair for the trajectory of the real world found in the novel, which begs exploration. This article has tried to investigate this ambiguity in a critical-creative writing exercise.

By exploring the text with a hybrid writing medium, I have examined the text and the themes analytically as well as in an emulative fashion. Through the process of critical analysis, I analyzed the post-nuclear-holocaust breakdown of language. Within the creative process, I built upon that analysis by exemplifying the conditions for which this essay argues.
Given the novel's applicability to nuclear criticism, we must remain positive about its earnest tone and commitment to renewal — of language and of human relationships. The destruction of meaning that jargon employs, through euphemisms, ironic acronyms, and nonsensical words, never enters the arena of discourse that McCarthy employs. Indeed, the fact that "okay" repeats eighty-one times in The Road indicates things will be okay as long as we begin to treat each other with renewed, even biblically charged, reverence. The novel's effort at repairing human relationships points to the spiritual feeling of "Kumbaya" — Lord, come by here — without the irony that renders some fiction so easily into kitsch. The key is communication with earnest and literal meaning — communication using language that hides nothing.


Works Cited

Banco, Lindsey. "Contractions in Cormac McCarthy's The Road." The Explicator, vol. 68, no. 4, 2010, pp. 276-279.

Cant, John. Cormac McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism. Routledge, 2008.

DeCoste, Marcel. "'A Thing That Even Death Cannot Undo': The Operation of the Theological Virtues in Cormac McCarthy's The Road." Religion & Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, 2012, pp. 67–91.

Derrida, Jacques. "No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)." Diacritics, vol.  14, no. 2, 1984, pp. 20-31.

Dowd, Ciarán. "The Hum of Mystery: Parataxis, Analepsis, and Geophysiology in 'The Road.'" The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, pp. 23-43.

Fledderjohann, Matthew. "How to Continue: Sustaining Existence through Beckettian Ritual in McCarthy's The Road." The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, pp. 44-58.

Hamilton, Geoff. "Something to Be Done: The Road, Beckett, and American Autonomy." Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 47, no. 1, 2017, pp. 54-75.

Kunsa, Ashley. "'Maps of the World in Its Becoming': Post-Apocalyptic Naming in Cormac McCarthy's The Road." Journal of Modern Literature, vol.  33, no. 1, 2009, pp. 57-74.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage, 2006.

Pitetti, Connor. "Uses of the End of the World: Apocalypse and Postapocalypse as Narrative Modes." Science Fiction Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, 2017, pp. 437-454.

Potts, Matthew L. "'There Is No God and We Are His Prophets': Cormac McCarthy and Christian Faith." Christianity and Literature, vol. 63, no. 4, 2014, pp. 489-501.

Snyder, Phillip A. “Hospitality in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 6, Special Issue: The Road, 2008, pp. 69-86.

Völker, Oliver. "'Hang on to the Words': The Scarcity of Language in McCarthy's The Road and Atwood's Oryx and Crake." RCC Perspectives, no. 2, 2015, pp. 75-82.

Williams, David Cratis. "Nuclear Criticism: In Pursuit of a 'Politically Enabling' Deconstructive Voice." Journal of the American Forensic Association, vol. 24, no. 3, 1988, pp. 193-205.

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