The road
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“The Road”. Design Chart by Wright, James E. Sociology 1301. 22 November 2012 Professor Cootz, J.

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“The Road”

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The road

“The Road”

Design Chart by Wright, James E.

Sociology 1301. 22 November 2012

Professor Cootz, J


The road

“The Road,” directed by John Hillcoat and based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, is a visually acute window into the psyche of survival. The movie is about a boy and his father trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The Earth is in a nuclear winter. The sun is blotted out by a constant grey haze perpetuated by icy rain and snow and immense rumblings of electrical storms. Earthquakes are seemingly as common as breathing in and breathing out. There is seldom food to eat or clean water to drink. The few people that survive exist as nomadic scavengers. The man and the boy are walking south in search of a warmer climate and a chance for survival and some hope. Along the way they face many perilous hurdles, including starvation, thievery, murder, and even cannibalism. These encounters force the man and his son into making difficult decisions that compromise and obscure the few morals and social norms they cling to in their attempt to keep a semblance of dignified humanity alive.


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The opening scene in the movie has “The Man” dreaming of how things used to be. Dreaming about things that he took for granted. He is dreaming about his “Nuclear family.”


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The man awakens to the harsh reality of he and his boy’s life. The destruction of Government and absence of formal social institutions lead them to form their own “Primary group” which also serves as their “in-Group”. The man and the boy share a strong emotional bond and as a family share a loyalty. They exhibit antagonistic behavior towards other people or “Out-Groups.”


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The boy was born into this world after the apocalypse. He has no recollection of the world as it used to be. They are a “Patriarchal” family. As a patriarchal family his father is the primary contributor to the forming of his morals. His mother chose to commit suicide rather than face living life in this cold world.

-The boy sees that others have chosen to do the same.


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One of the first discussions we see between the boy and his father is about suicide. Under normal circumstances suicide is not viewed as a logical choice. These are not normal circumstances. The man reiterates to the boy that rather than be eaten by cannibals they will kill each other with their last remaining bullets. These are hard times which are cause for establishment of new “normative” behavior.


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“One for you, one for me.”


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The man and the boy take a break on the long journey and sleep in a van on the side of the road. They are surprised by a roving band of marauding cannibals.

They narrowly avoid capture.


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When the man and the boy are discovered by one of the cannibals, the man must make a difficult decision. Because he does not want to murder anyone he struggles with his lingering obedience to higher authority of a hierarchal structure that no longer exists. His antagonist leaves him no other option.


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People learn deviant behavior in different ways. Edwin Sutherland’s theory on “differential association” suggests that people use reference groups to shape which norms they conform to or deviate from. Socializing agents like family and co-workers help shape what norms people accept to violate. People learn from others.

In this scene the cannibal was willing to kill the boy and eat him in order to survive. This behavior is acceptable in his group. It is not acceptable to the boy’s father. The father willingly deviates from his own norms to save his boy, and kills the cannibal.


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The man and the boy are compromised. They flee and are pursued through the night by the cannibals. In the scene here the man is providing a nurturing role for the boy. This could be seen as a “Gender role” for women. The man has to transcend this stereotype with the absence of any female matriarch.


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After escaping death at the hands of the road gang, the man and the boy return to the van in the morning to recover what’s left of their belongings. The man pauses to look at the disemboweled and dismembered remains of the cannibal he killed the night before. He is repulsed with the knowledge that the road gang has eaten their own man.


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Later along the journey south, they investigate a farm house in search of food. What they discover is just how far humans are willing to descend into a hell devoid of morals when survival dictates.

The roving gangs feast on the flesh of captured victims held hostage in the cellar.


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Justification for cannibalism doesn’t seem plausible in any situation. The cannibalism that takes place in “The Road” is shocking to the viewer. This deviance of normative behavior holds a place in our society above and beyond the taboo of murder or thievery. Cannibalism is a main theme in the movie. The constant threat of being eaten by cannibals or having to resort to cannibalism is one of the boy’s greatest fears. The boy and his father have agreed not to cross that line. This group (out-group), however, has chosen to accept cannibalism as a necessary and justified behavior in order to survive.


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“Carrying the Fire”

The man and the boy stop and make camp for the night. After the events of the previous days at the farm house, the boy is troubled. What sets them apart from the cannibals? They have a discussion in which the father explains that they are carrying the fire. It is a metaphor. What he means is that it is up to them to uphold the values of good people. They are trying to carry on the “ideal values” of the civilized culture the man believes in, rather than the “real values” of the apocalyptic world they live in. They are the “good guys”.


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There is no social mobility in the world the man and the boy live in. There is no wealth, no power, no prestige. At least not in a traditional sense. Any suffering of the people is not caused by the exploitation of them by the “bourgeoisie” that Karl Marx wrote about. In this world everyone is the “proletariat.” The man and the boy are suffering from “absolute poverty”. They are starving and on their last legs when they stumble upon a discovery that can only be called a miracle. In a field beside an abandoned house they find an underground bunker stocked with food and supplies.


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In a turn of good fortune the man and the boy have their spirits lifted. They stay at the bunker for a few days. They eat and recover their strength. They are afforded the luxury of a bath. They also discover other things foreign to the man and boy for so long: warmth, plenty of food, a cigarette, a little whiskey, and a warm bed. A taste of the “bourgeoisie” lifestyle to break up the monotony!


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  • The comfortable environment and his son’s collection of items he carries trigger long forgotten memories for the man. The memories painfully highlight the contrast between the two realities the man has known. His previous (comfortable) life in a post-modern “civilized” society, and the life he and the boy fight through today, a Hunter-Gatherer society. His boy has only experienced the latter.


The road

Because they struggle to survive the boy hasn’t had the chance to experience life the way a child normally would. His cognitive and developmental process has been affected by his environment. The boy’s father takes a “Nature versus Nurture” approach to raising his son, with an inclination towards the “Nurture” side of the debate. The boy is his “tabula rasa” or “blank slate”, on which the father can instill character traits and morals based on cultural norms from the past.

The boy has no formal social institutions to learn from. The man wears the hats of government, school, and family. He is the boy’s peer group. He is trying to teach the boy social behavior from within his own social context, rather than from the world around him. Even the act of bathing and sitting down together for dinner at a table is an opportunity. It is a profound gesture, as was his earlier discussion about “carrying the fire”.


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  • The man feels feel that it is too dangerous to stay at the bunker. He is eager to continue their journey. They load up all the supplies they can on a garden cart and pull it along behind them as they walk southward once again.


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The man and his boy come upon an old man, diseased and dying.

The boy senses goodness in the old man and wants to let the old man join them, but his father refuses. This upsets the boy and he begins to question his father’s judgment. After some discussion the man relents and allows the boy to show the old man some kindness. The boy gives the man some food and all three spend the night together around the campfire. The boy’s father has begun to adopt traits characteristic of the men he is protecting his boy from. Although he allows the boy to give the old man some food and join them for the night, he insists on sending the old man off to fend for himself the next morning.


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“You can’t keep him”


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“He’s gonna die and you don’t care.”

The man begins to experience “Anomie.” Anomie is a term introduced by sociologist Emile Durkheim. “Anomie” is a state of normlessness that typically occurs during a period of profound social change and disorder. For example: a time of economic collapse. People become more aggressive or depressed, which results in higher rates of violent crime and suicide. Since there is much less agreement on what constitutes proper behavior during times of revolution, sudden prosperity, or economic depression, conformity and obedience become less significant as social forces. Stating exactly what constitutes deviance also becomes more difficult.”

The man is focused on the boys survival above all else.


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The man and the boy continue their journey alone. They eventually reach the ocean.


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  • There isn’t anything at the ocean the manhoped to find. No people, no hope, and no life. The ocean is dead.

The social institution of religion “gives meaning to the divine. Religion also provides an explanation for events that seem difficult to understand.”

The boy and the man set up camp and pause and reflect on the situation. The boy wonders if they could cross to the other side to find salvation from this hell. The man suggests there may be nothing on the other side but a man and a boy sitting on the beach thinking about the other side, just like them. The man apologizes to the boy because the ocean is not blue as he had told him.


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The man swims out to search a shipwreck for supplies. While he’s away the boy awakens to find they have been robbed. Now without food and shelter their survival is jeopardized.


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Robbery and Murder

Another example of deviance and the violation of what used to be “formal law”, but now is reduced to the category of a “more” at best. The majority of people that survive this post-apocalyptic world survive by stealing from others. The absence of a sustainable source of food has driven some to easily compromise normative behavior.

The man, to this point, has resisted crossing some lines of deviant behavior. He has yet to commit murder for reasons other than self defense and only in immediately life threatening situations. Out of sheer desperation, the man flies into a rage and chases down the would-be thief with murderous intent.


The road

Murder is a violation of normative laws. It isn’t easy to justify a decision to murder another human. The lone exception is the event that you are left with no option. There is an earlier scene in the movie where the father of the boy is forced to kill a man because all other options are exhausted. In this scene, although he comes close, he chooses not to violate the normative behavior and formal law of murder. At the urging of his terrified boy, he lets the man live. Instead of murdering the thief, he has him strip completely naked and leaves him to die. He has begun to unravel.


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Conflicting morals

“Conflict theorists point out that people with power protect their own interests and define deviance to suit their own needs.” The man comes close to losing control of his power. The boy is the voice of reason and in spite of all that is evil surrounding them holds on to the morality his father has taught him. He is still one of the good guys and reminds his father.

They return to the location they left the thief abandoned and naked. He is gone. The boy places the thief’s clothes on the ground and leaves him some food as a gesture of kindness. The man is ashamed of his own behavior.


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Hope is restored. The man returns to providing the boy a positive role model through his own behavior. The boy’s social institutions are back.

The journey south to a better climate is continued with a renewed vigor, until…


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The man’s attempt to keep a semblance of dignified humanity alive is tested yet again.

He and his boy are attacked by a man and woman hiding out on the second floor of an abandoned home

The man takes an arrow to his leg and scrambles for cover with the boy.

He manages to fire his flare gun through the window the attackers are firing arrows from. In the moment he reacts in self-defense. There are no boundaries.


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In a surge of rage and frustration the man storms the home, arrow sticking out of his leg, so he can eliminate the threat.


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In the house he finds his attackers. The flare gun killed the man.

He shouts, enraged at the woman:“Why are you following us?”

She weeps for her partner and states they thought they were being followed by the man and the boy.

The harsh existence fosters an environment where the man finds himself having trouble maintaining and adhering to the social construct of the world as it was before the apocalypse. He can’t afford the luxury of complex social structure.


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The man and boy leave the site of the ambush. The wound the man sustained as well as his poor health has weakened him to the point he can’t continue the journey. He knows he is about to die.

The man has a final conversation with his son. He reassures and instructs the boy. It is a sad scene but a noble one. The man is passing the responsibility of maintaining humanity to his son. The boy takes on the role his father has expected of him. He is ready.


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“Good dreams are the ones you should worry about.”

As he lay dying, the man dreams of his wife and the love they shared.


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  • The man passes away. The boy is devastated. He has lost his social institutions .

  • Before he dies he reminds the boy that it is now up to the him to “Carry the Fire.” The task is a monumental one, but without this sense of purpose, he would have little reason to contribute to the survival of his father’s society. From the view of a Functionalist, it is now his duty to preserve their society.

The boy must now:

Replace personnel (find survivors like himself who retain traits like honesty and compassion).

Teach new recruits (Educate new generations).

Produce and distribute goods and services (Provide food, share in the distribution of labor and tasks necessary to survive).

Preserve order (Enforce law, encourage adherence to his Mores, protect his culture).

Provide and maintain a sense of purpose (Motivate the members of his society to fulfill the first four requirements).


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“You have to find the good guys”

  • “I won’t forget, no matter what. No matter what Papa.”


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The boy meets a stranger after saying goodbye to his father. The stranger and his family have been following the boy and his “Papa.” The boy joins the family after he knows they too, “Carry the Fire.”


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“The Road”

Original book written by Cormac McCarthy

Film directed by John Hillcoat

Design Chart by Wright, J.

Sociology 1301 Cootz, J.


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