Monday, February 1, 2010

A Feminist Reading of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD

(Note: I know very well that The Road was written as a kind of "man's man" story in the tradition of Hemingway: it's tribute to the father-son relationship which McCarthy dedicated to his son, John Francis McCarthy. 

(After reading the book, however, I was left with a distinct WTF? feeling regarding McCarthy's treatment of women throughout the novel.  I did a cursory search on-line and couldn't find a real "feminist" reading of The Road, though numerous blogs reported that McCarthy's mother figures could be problematic.  Therefore, bear with me as I hope to God that McCarthy isn't simply a raging misogynist.

(Also, if anyone out there has any insight, it is MORE than welcome.  I'm struggling here.  Am I reading too much into it?  Not enough?

(Oh, and SPOILER ALERT, obviously.)

Throughout The Road, Cormac McCarthy draws a very heavy line in the sand between giving up and persevering.  Very often, this line in the sand adheres to strict gender lines: while women are shown to "give up" in one form ar another, the father and son who struggle down the post-Apocalyptic road tell themselves, "This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don't give up" (137).  A closer reading of the text, however, reveals that "not giving up" is not always the lesser of two evils.

McCarthy places an emphasis on the mother's body as a vessel of creation, the only form of creation in a world filled with death and destruction: "Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most outlandish events. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end. [...] A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light a drycell lamp."  While she labors to create a child, however, "Her cries meant nothing to [the father]" (59): as a man, he does not identify with this labor-as-creation mindset.  In fact, there doesn't even seem to be a memory of creation once the mother is gone.  When the father and son find the charred remains of a barbequed baby, the boy asks, "Where did they find it?" because, in a male-centric world, they are capable only of scavanging canned goods and old shoes (200).  The idea of someone creating the baby is an alien one to a boy who has grown up only in the ravaged landscape that is now the world.

Throughout the novel, the father closely associates his wife with the world-as-it-was, a green and verdant pre-apocalyptic landscape: "In dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white."  Because she represents a time of happiness, however, not only does the wife and mother have no place in the new world of death and hunger, but even her memory is out of place: "He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death" (18).

For those women who are unfortunate enough to survive on the road, their bodies, once vessels of creation, become possessions: "Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked to each to each" (92).  In order of importance, they hold less value than "goods of war" but more value than "catamites," male sex slaves. 

In fact, when the mother calmly discusses her own suicide, she correctly predicts these occurrences:  "Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. [...] They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it" (56).  In some ways, her brutal acceptance of the world-as-it-has-become is much braver than the father's I'm-sure-everything-will-be-fine-when-we-get-to-the-coast brand of denial.   Her willingness to murder her own child to protect him from one of the cruelest worlds in recent literature stands in direct opposition to the father, who, when finally faced with the decision, says, " I cant hold my son dead in my arms.  I thought I could but I cant" (279).  The mother briefly touches on this difference when she says, "They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all. [...] My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none" (57).  Though she brought her child into the world, she knew the world was no place for either her or him, a fact that the father looks back on with some bitterness.

Despite the father's vicious rememberings of his wife, however, it is eventually revealed that he feels a certain responsibility for her death: "In his dream she was sick and he cared for her. The dream bore the look of sacrifice but he thought differently. He 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" (32). In fact, he even goes so far as to say, "He'd come to see a message in each such late history, a message and a warning, and so this tableau of the slain and the devoured did prove to be" (91).  Only a man who feels a certain level of guilt for the way things have turned out could possibly see a "message and a warning" in a setting such as this.

Perhaps the answer as to how the novel (and perhaps McCarthy) views women in general, then, can be found in one of the most important aspects of the novel: the setting.  The last page of the novel describes the world as "Maps and mazes.  Of a thing which could not be put back.  Not be made right again.  In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery" (287).   If the mother is closely associated with the natural world, the world is rebelling against the men who still struggle across the charred landscape.  How could any woman survive in a novel that so closely aligns her with a dying world?

19 comments:

Kathmeista said...

Hello! I just found your blog - thanks for following me :) This is really interesting. I read this book but I had my dystopic glasses on so didn't pay as much attention to the feminist critique angle. That said I agree with what you say - the mother is vilified for giving up and accepting reality and I did have a problem with that at the time. What on earth was going to change when they got to the coast? And only good 'guys' carry on? Not good, not gender specific 'people'??

Thanks for this. It was a very good read and has given me new food for thought on this book.

Anonymous said...
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Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Thanks, Kathmeista! I tried really hard to give mcCarthy the benefit of the doubt with this one, but it was pretty difficult for the most part.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading "Suttree" by Cormac McCarthy and was so appalled at his treatment of female characters that I wanted to find if anyone has written up on it--I found your blog as a result. I definitely sense that sexism is a big part of McCarthy's writing, which makes it really complicated for me because I love the way he writes but hate his misogyny. Every woman character I've come across is either a coward (i.e., the wife in the Road abandons her family and kills herself) or a whore, described purely in sexual or grotesque terms. Although I'd still recommend Suttree, there are so many moments when I cringed at the way women were handled. The one almost redeeming character came in the form of this almost shamanistic-type black woman..but then she ended up raping someone. I guess I should have expected this from a book whose premise is an oddball abandoning his wife/family and dating prostitutes, and from a man who always thanks/praises his son in interviews, but never mentions his wife.

Anonymous said...

Hello-
I am a 18 year old male who respectivly disagrees with 90% of what you just said. Cormac McCarthy dedicates this book to his son. Showing a strong father son relationship. He is not trying to demean women in any way shape or form. It is a fact that women are biologically weaker than men, and that fact alone makes it harder for women to survive in a postapocolytic world. He shows people in their lowest form of humanity. men are savage beast and women are, to quote the person before me, "whores". This is in no way a knock on women or men but rather a reality of what McCarthy sees. As respects to the mother statistics show that women have higher rates of depression and righer rates of attempted sucides. McCarthy is a man who does research for his books and i have no doubt in my mind that he did just that for this book. Why would this satistic change for this world. The wife is NOT a coward. She sees the world for what it is and sees no purpose in it which is true. When women write books on a daughter and mom relationship and a abusive father they are not trying to say all men a guilty of domestic violence right? right. So why is it diffrent because McCarthy uses a father son relationship with an abusive world. If you think that women are better "equipped" to survive a world with no rythme or reason then please tell me why? because in savage countries i dont see women in charge(im not saying thats right)It is postapocolyptic world with no stroung morals. The book is that father trying to teach his son morals in this world. he is not trying to teach his son how women are good for nothings.

David said...

mccarthy's novels have been extremely influential for me, but recently i've been thinking a lot about the way he writes women and what a feminist critique of his work might look like—which is how i found your blog.

one thing i would say is that it seems to me that mccarthy's works function almost as parables in the sense that they don't really contain fully-formed characters so much as metaphors that have been temporarily imbued with life so that they can act out whatever drama mccarthy has in mind for them. really, the only real character in mccarthy's books is the world itself (or perhaps god, or the universe, or simply reality itself), which acts in strange, subtle, savage, yet unexpectedly beautiful ways.

but i would agree that his female characters all seem particularly stunted relative to his male ones, which is seems deeply problematic to me.

as for the road in particular, i think it's a book about how, as each generation passes away, they find themselves living in a world that's no longer their own. they're unable to relate to it in crucial ways, unable to recognize it for what it is and instead they retreat into an imagined past. in mccarthy's strange morality, this is a cardinal sin—if not only sin, certainly the most serious.

conversely, the young are born into the world incapable of thinking of it as anything but what it is. in that sense, they truly belong in it, and it truly belongs to them.

so i think by the end of the book, we're supposed to conclude that the man is a deeply flawed character—as much as his wife, if not moreso. they both underestimate the boy and they both put them in danger.

i think it might be useful to compare the mother in 'the road' to carla jean moss, llewelyn's wife, in 'no country for old men'. carla jean ends up face-to-face with anton chigurh who is, essentially, a walking apocalypse and, like the mother, she accepts death. yet in the context of the book, carla jean emerges victorious because even though she dies, she perceives the world more clearly than even chigurh whose kill-or-be-killed, red-in-tooth-and-claw, hunter-killer philosophy may be closer to reality than any of the other characters. and yet carla jean finds the one artificial, human-made delusion chigurh clings to: the idea that his coin flips somehow reflect the will of the universe. chigurh still kills her, but as he leaves her house, he is now the hunted. he's driven before some unspeakable, implacable killing force just as llewelyn was driven before him.

anyway, i'm definitely curious what you think. thanks for your great blog!

Leah Thomas said...

Thank you so much for this article. I'm doing an essay about the traditional roles in The Road and this has helped me a lot when looking at the female roles. You make some brilliant points.

Anonymous said...

Quote"Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked to each to each" (92). In order of importance, they hold less value than "goods of war" but more value than "catamites," male sex slaves. "

The (male) slaves' function is to pull the cart whereas the women and catamites are not. So I think the order they mentioned the captives/ possessions made logical sense.

-slave men out in the front dragging everything forward
-followed by the cart- dragged by the men
-followed by the women and catamites who are not meant to drag the spoils forward but are meant to carry their own wait.

IMO, The fact that the order of slaves, spoils, women, and catamite doesn't indicate the order of importance.

Chloe said...

I agree that McCarthy's female characters are treated with less compassion than the male characters in his works. However, I think McCarthy is simply saying it as it is - he's portraying women as they are in reality.

To say that McCarthy's portrayal of women is evidence of his own misogyny is absurd - it's like accusing Nabokov of pedophilia in light of 'Lolita'. A foolish mistake to make, to take fiction as a definite reflection of the author's own life. Leave the psychoanalysing to the psychologists.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think the reason McCarthy chose to not have the mother in the story is because he is a father himself, and could have felt that he would have been unable to correctly write a woman's feelings toward a child.

Anonymous said...

Why are you posting a feminist review on a fictional novel work?
This book was written from the mind of a man and dedicated to an experience with his son.

Anonymous said...

Wow this is so fucking obnoxious, belittling such a great work of fiction to a petty dispute/competition between sexes

Anonymous said...

You can't judge a man's character based on a fictional work about a boy and his father, which is a personal dedication to the writers relationship with his own son.

You shouldn't judge one's character on their fictional works AT ALL, regardless of context.

A man could write a book from a misogynist, sexist point of view simply because the main character is a misogynist... When reality the man may be a feminist supporter. (Not at all implying that this is the case with McCarthy.)

Further to that... Why on earth does it matter is McCarthy is sexist, the book is a brilliant work of fiction and should be commended on it's BRILLIANT representation of a stripped back, survivalist, post apocalyptic world. It's a clever and perhaps (PERHAPS) personal outlook on humanity, from the point of view of McCarthy.

The book is not intended, IN NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM, to convey a message about women being the weaker sex, as objects, or villains. It is simply a representation of human beings in a different context to our own.

I believe all human beings are equal, so it should not matter my gender, but as a side-note i am a female... And an avid appreciator of good literature.

Jamie Utphall said...

Have you seen the film adaption of "The Road"? Do you feel the film treatment and portrayal of mother/female role acts differently (perhaps more fairly) than McCarthy's literary text?

Personally, can't help but feel the mother's choice is somewhat heroic, and perhaps a foil of the father's "good guy" integrity. Perhaps McCarthy is complicating the rules of survival by portraying the mother's (seemingly logical?) solution.

What do you make of the female-mother character at the very end of the novel that comforts the boy afterwards? I think the novel's shift towards hope here, shepherded by a mother-figure's comfort, cannot be overlooked in our feminist critique. Does it entirely redeem McCarthy's portrayal of women throughout his literary career? Certainly not, but in the case of "The Road," I agree with the posts above that the novel acts more as a stark and pure parable of human's race against death, rather than a fully developed dystopian drama.

Anonymous said...

Y'all have too much time on your hands. I can tell a story about a fish and a rock and somehow you will find it repulsive and an attack to all women.

Anonymous said...

Feminist Author of this article, This is a story where civilization has all but disintegrated and degenerated into survivors and ragtag groups of slave masters, the police and the courts won't be there to protect your feminist fantasy of being independent and strong. you must realise that you can only be strong and independent whilst those in power protect you, in a world of action over words your big boy attitude wouldn't count for shit.

wasbornready said...

what various anonymous's have already posted, this is not a knock on women nor is it meant to view them as weak.
women figure into the story in various forms, for example as two of the cannibals (as equals, supposedly), the wife at the end of the story (again, supposedly as a equal), the woman with the man with the bow and arrow (again, supposedly as a equal), and also one of four survivors along the road (again, supposedly as a equal). We receive very little info as a reader that informs us of anything else, so how can we assume in this case?

the assumption that women ought to be strong and independent and survive alone without the assistance of others sounds great in our modern times with police and enforced laws in place.

however, quick examination of any modern day war or disaster zones where a similar "survival of the fittest situation" exists, it is rare to find such a high modern standard in place with respect of women just because they are women. Modern examples would be anywhere in the Middle East, South or Central America, or Central or South East Asia where hunger and crime persist.

It would be unrealistic to think that in the modern day USA, where the story takes place, that all crime and criminals would cease to exist AFTER such an apocalypse. If experience has taught us anything, it's that the weak, law-abiding and honest people are the first to either leave or fall victim to those who are not so averse to hurting or stealing from others.
further, when examining the "last survivors of the last days of mankind (if you may please pardon the expression) in terms of who is around in such a post-apocalyptic situation, it would be a stretch to assume that it would be anything different as to what we have already seen during other times of emergency in recent times in the USA. For example, the various LA riots in the pre-2000 era, the Occupy/anti-Wall Street demos in recent years, and now the Ferguson problems. This has demonstrated that society as we know it will not survive intact without the necessary physical control by police and state laws.

As to how women survive in such a situation is realistic, as partners of others in such a situation. The book could easily have been written with a woman in the lead role and the man having been killed off by an infection, disease, or something else reasonable that would fit the story.

think... end of the world scenario... and people's rights are out of the window, and the only thing keeping you out of the stomachs of the cannibals is a gun or a weapon and force? and we somehow think that women should be first and foremost playing a central role?
in modern day western societies, we have Germany, Canada, and New Zealand, Australia, England, all with experience with women leaders. Would these leaders be able to also lead in such a dog eat dog world of post-apocalyptic hell?

i think not....

dmord said...

This is the most obnoxious, out of context blog on a great master work I've ever heard. Do us a favor and stick to ideas that aren't made up in your entitled mind.

Anonymous said...

I am a proud feminist and the fact that anyone would read this amazing novel and then put it down and think "Huh. Cormac McCarthy must be a raging misogynist." frankly pisses me off.

Even though rape and other forms of violence and mistreatment to women AND men occurs in the book, this is used to create contrast between one end of the spectrum of humanity--evil--and the opposite end--good. Which is what our main characters strive to hold onto. McCarthy and the main characters never once advocate for any of this violence. They fight against it!

This book is about humanity and a man and his son struggling to hold onto their own. If McCarthy were to censor out the shitty parts of humanity-- such as rape, enslavement, murder, cannibalism, etc, it wouldn't be a correct representation humanity, now would it? And I suppose it wouldn't be a correct representation of a realistic post-apocalyptic setting, now would it? And it probably wouldn't have the same contrast of basic conflicts such as good and evil, now would it? And, just a wild suggestion, it probably wouldn't win the FUCKING PULITZER PRIZE, now would it?

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