I should begin by saying that I love Cormac McCarthy so passionately that this post will undoubtedly be more biased than usual. That said, until The Road came along, I never imagined that I would find myself using one of McCarthy’s texts in class.
What I love the most about The Road (as far as classroom use) is its accessibility, its honesty, and its hopefulness. While many students and readers of The Road would argue that it is fatalistic or hopeless, I maintain that while it is bleak (traveling alone to an unknown destination long after the almost complete annihilation of humanity is a bit grim), it is a story full of hope. As the father says to the boy, “You have to carry the fire…It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
To carry on as the man and the boy do in a world where nothing is left is both exquisitely human and excruciatingly beautiful. “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
One of the great aspects of this novel for teachers is that it functions on many levels. It is relatively easy to read and moves quickly, but its profundity enables meaningful explorations and discussions.
Another aspect I love about teaching this novel is the research project I have had the students do with it. Focusing on the following question, they research and present their arguments to the class: What happened prior to the beginning of the novel, and what would drive humans to make the choices that they do in the text?
This project encompasses several goals at once. The research is authentic and driven by a clear purpose, but it caters to students’ beliefs about the world and their unique interests rather than focusing narrowly on literary analysis. It also forces them to grapple with the more gruesome aspects of humanity such as cannibalism. The groups must persuade their classmates that they have the most convincing argument. McCarthy provides hints of aftermath within the novel (which they must utilize and incorporate into their presentations), but he leaves the issue ultimately undisclosed.
To be fair, to the characters in the novel, it doesn’t make any difference at all what happened. No knowledge of the previous events would alter the devastating reality of their present world, and I doubt McCarthy cares much what readers believe about what happened. However, like any good open-ended question, it is worthy of pursuit, and it gives students a chance to demonstrate how creativity, thorough research, and the power of persuasion can all fit together to serve their purpose.
Have you had success with other activities for The Road or similar texts? Do you have other research project ideas? Please post them in the comments section! If you’d like the materials that go with the research project for The Road, please email me and I will send them directly to you.
“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up, I won’t let you.”