The Road

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Dreams and Memory Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Death and Violence Theme Icon
Familial Love Theme Icon
Survival and Perseverance Theme Icon
Faith, Trust, and Doubt Theme Icon
Dreams and Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Road, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dreams and Memory Theme Icon

The present world of The Road is dark and full of death, and the only real color appears in the man’s dreams and memories. When he or the boy have nightmares they are just an extension of the present, where the worst has already happened, but in his good dreams the man returns to his happy memories of the past, and the world of nature and his wife. The boy never experienced the pre-apocalyptic world, so he has no such memories. The man’s dream-memories offer him a kind of escapism that he often avoids, as they seem like a temptation to “give up” or die, but at the same time these memories are one of the reasons the man keeps persevering. For him, part of “carrying the fire” means carrying the memory of a better world.

Part of memory in the novel also involves names, as the characters are conspicuously unnamed. Their anonymity makes the boy and man seem more archetypal, but it also offers another glimpse of how the present world has robbed people of their basic humanity and histories. True names, like birds, and plants, exist only in the past and in dreams. The book ends with a beautiful memory of brook trout, but the man, the only protagonist who could remember such things, is dead by then. This lyrical final scene, then, shows that the remembering of the past has become a separate entity in itself. There is only the dark present of The Road, but part of that present can still involve memories and dreams of peace and life.

Dreams and Memory ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Dreams and Memory appears in each chapter of The Road. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Dreams and Memory Quotes in The Road

Below you will find the important quotes in The Road related to the theme of Dreams and Memory.
Pages 1-29 Quotes

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 death. He slept little and he slept poorly. He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complicated passage, McCarthy describes the Man's vivid dreams. The Man dreams of his wife--who killed herself--and the old world--which is now in ruins.

What function do the Man's dreams have? On one hand, the Man seems to enjoy returning to an idyllic past for a night's sleep. And yet the Man also mistrusts his own memories--he recognizes that focusing too much on the dream-land of memory distracts him from the day-to-day of life in a post-apocalyptic America. The Man, in short, refuses to surrender to the easy nostalgia of memory--which he sees as intimately associated with "giving in" to death. Instead the Man constantly chooses to work hard and be vigilant, so that his child can have a better life for himself.


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Pages 29-60 Quotes

A forest fire was making its way along the tinderbox ridges above them, flaring and shimmering against the overcast like the northern lights. Cold as it was he stood there a long time. The color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember.

Related Characters: The Man
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, McCarthy reinforces the double-nature of happiness. The Man is walking near a forest, which he notices to be on fire. As he watches the flames, it occurs to the Man that fire is the only source of light and color in his life: put another way, the only light in his life comes from sites of destruction, like a forest fire. As we see, the fire inspires the Man to remember his own past: the world of color, his relationship with his wife, etc.

McCarthy implies that the Man's pain is inseparable from his joy: he seems to have loved his wife, yet can't remember her without getting horribly sad. Fire, the symbol of joy, warmth, and affection, is also a symbol of destruction and pain--and thus an apt illustration of the Man's own divided nature.

They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant… We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that?
I dont know.
It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Woman (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, the Man confronts his wife, who is about to kill herself. Darkness has fallen on the United States--all sense of order and humanity has broken down, so that criminals, murderers, and cannibals control everything. Rather than wait to face the inevitable--being raped, murdered, and eaten--the Man's wife decides to kill herself quickly and painlessly.

The Woman's decision is both brave and cowardly. She's smart enough to realize that she'll inevitably be attacked, and won't be able to defend herself. Rather than risk letting her own child witness such a monstrous event, or experiencing it herself, she decides to kill herself quietly, to take her fate into her own hands and use the last bit of "freedom" she still has. And yet the Woman's decision is also the cowardly way out--she'd prefer to surrender to nothingness than take care of the Boy or try to keep "carrying the fire" of survival and hope, as the Man goes on to do. One gets the sense that the Man's knowledge of his wife's suicide is what motivates him to be strong, never giving into the nihilism that ended his wife's life.

The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together a passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope for it with all my heart.

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Man
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In the same flashback scene, the Woman makes a series of arguments that the Man is powerless to disagree with: she points out that they'll be attacked and killed soon enough. And yet the Woman also seems to respect the Man's desire to keep on living, even if she can't agree with it it: she points out that the Man will live to protect his Boy. Indeed, without the Boy, or someone to protect, there's no way the Man will survive--he'll surely give in to despair just like the Woman. In effect, McCarthy suggests that the Woman is basically interested in herself at this point, while the Man is basically interested in his child.

The passage sums up the two approaches to life: living for oneself and living for other people. In the nightmarish world of the novel, it's the former life philosophy that dominates--people eschew all morality and order in favor of pure appetitive destruction (or lonely despair, in the Woman's case). The Man, on the other hand, represents the last bastion of right and wrong, a life lived for the good of his family, not for himself.

Pages 124-156 Quotes

Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.

Related Characters: The Man, The Boy
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, the Man continues to dream about the past. Every time he dreams, the memory changes a little bit. For example, here he remembers his beautiful wife when she was still alive--the Man fears that he is idealizing or changing things in his memory, like a game of "telephone" at a party. He seems to believe in a kind of Platonic "form" of memory--that there is a reality of truth (and true recollection) that exists somewhere, whether "known or not." Thus he wants to retain the truest, most precious memories possible, and that paradoxically means trying not to think of them often (because thinking of them means altering them).

The passage also provides more evidence for the way that memory can be a distraction from one's duty--for instance, the Man's duty to take care of his child at all times. And it is also perfectly clear that memory is a vital of part of being a human being--it's only because the Man remembers a time when he was happy that he has the courage and optimism to strive on behalf of his Boy; he wants to give his Boy the kind of life he himself used to enjoy.

Pages 156-189 Quotes

The men poured gasoline on them and burned them alive, having no remedy for evil but only for the image of it as they conceived it to be. The burning snakes twisted horribly and some crawled burning across the floor of the grotto to illuminate its darker recesses.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 186-187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this eerie scene, the Man remembers an episode from his childhood in which he witnessed a group of men killing a swarm of snakes by burning the snakes with gasoline. McCarthy notes that the men were burning the "image" of evil, not evil itself. (Snakes are a traditional symbol of evil in Judeo-Christian morality.) We're left to wonder if the men who think they're fighting evil by killing the snakes are themselves evil--they're clearly capable of remorseless destruction of innocent creatures. True evil, sure enough, doesn't come from a snake--it comes from the depths of the human soul.

The passage helps us understand the Man's moral struggle in the novel. In trying to defend his child from evil, the Man is forced to confront his own capacity for evil--his innate capacity to murder, lie, and steal.

Pages 189-246 Quotes

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. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Boy
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man teaches his son a valuable lesson: don't dream. To dream about better times and places, the Man argues, is to give up on the present-day. Thus, if the Boy spends too much of his time dreaming of fantasy-lands, then he won't take care of himself in the real world, and he'll die.

The Man's lesson might seem callous--what kind of father doesn't let his son enjoy his own dreams?--but there's a serious point here. When life itself is painful and frightening, there's a great temptation to give into one's natural instinct to escape. But of course, in this environment such an instinct is suicidal--by resorting to fantasy, the Boy would be wife did).

When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man and the Boy have arrived on the beach--a dreary, depressing place that's nothing like what the Man and Boy hoped it could be. Bitterly, the Man remembers an episode from his life long before the world plunged into chaos: he was sitting with his wife, and thanked God for making the world be so "perfect."

The contrast between the man's memories and the present day couldn't be clearer: the Man now curses God for making his life miserable and hard, and for letting the world dissolve into such horror. And yet the memory has one thing in common with his present situation: a loved one. Even before the harsh post-apocalyptic world of The Road, the Man was already drawing all his strength and meaning from his almost worshipful love for his family. At this point, the Boy is the Man's sole reminder of a better time, when he wasn't so bitter or pained. By caring for his child, then, the Man protects his family and protects the past, too.

Inside was a brass sextant, possibly a hundred years old. He lifted it from the fitted case and held it in his hand. Struck by the beauty of it… He held it to his eye and turned the wheel. It was the first thing he’d seen in a long time that stirred him.

Related Characters: The Man
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, McCarthy describes a mysterious object that partly redeems the Man and Boy's quest to the ocean, and yet also reinforces how senseless the quest has always been. The Man discovers a sextant, an old navigational device that uses the position of the stars to guide ships across the oceans. The Man is wowed by the sextant because it's a symbol of the civilization that used to exist in America--a civilization that celebrated order, mathematical precision, and cooperation. Furthermore, it's simply a beautiful, complex object in a world of horror and ugliness.

The sextant is both inspiring and depressing, then: like the Man's dreams, it's a reminder of how miserable the world has become (there aren't even any more stars to chart with the sextant), and yet a sign that the world could conceivably return to its former glory.

Pages 246-287 Quotes

They went on. In the nights sometimes now he’d wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun.

Related Characters: The Man
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel nears a close, the Man is gravely wounded. Walking on becomes a burden to him--a stranger shot him in the leg, making it difficult for the Man to move. A sure sign of the Man's declining health comes in this passage: McCarthy notes that the Man is now having vivid dreams of his wife, birds, and the sun. Throughout the novel, the narrator has associated dreaming with dying: to give in to one's dreams is to turn one's back on the real world. Here, at the end of the novel, the Man is finally breaking his own rule. He seems to be "giving in" to the sheer seductive power of the dreams--he senses that his life is at an end, and doesn't have as much strength to resist the seduction of fantasy and memory.