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English Studies
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Between Dystopia and Utopia: The

Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac
McCarthy's The Road
Inger-Anne Sfting
Published online: 03 Oct 2013.

To cite this article: Inger-Anne Sfting (2013) Between Dystopia and Utopia: The PostApocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, English Studies, 94:6, 704-713, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2013.815390


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English Studies, 2013

Vol. 94, No. 6, 704713, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2013.815390

Between Dystopia and Utopia: The

Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac
McCarthys The Road

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Inger-Anne Sfting

This article examines the relationship between good and evil and hope and despair in
Cormac McCarthys novel The Road. It is a novel that tells a classical, almost mythical
story and throughout its discourse it touches contrasting yet related opposites: it is the
story of man against the elements, and it is a matter of life or death; not only the life
and death of its individual characters but of humanity as such. The article discusses
how McCarthys novel is playing with opposites as its discourse contains elements of
utopia as well as dystopia. External space, the natural physical world, constitutes a
strong dystopian element, while inner space, the psychological inner life of the
characters, constitutes a utopian element. In other words, the opposition between the
land and the two main characters is the novels discursive centre.

Frosten bur i natta og telen bur i jorda.

Elden bur i menneske og skiftar ikkje bustad.1
[The coldness dwells in the night and the frost in the earth.
The fire dwells in man and is there to stay.]

All through his literary career, Cormac McCarthy has written bleak and rather pessimistic novels with characters who do little to enhance our belief in the inherent goodness of human beings. His settings have been quintessentially American, as have the
literary genres and traditions that frame his works. His first four novels, The
Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973) and Suttree (1979),
are set in the South and are regarded as contributions to the Southern Gothic.2
Blood Meridian (1985) as well as his border trilogy are set in the American West
and could be described as westerns of a kind. With the hard-boiled thriller
Inger-Anne Sfting is afliated with Telemark University, Norway. Email: Inger-Anne.Softing@hit.no
McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper; Outer Dark; Child of God; Suttree.

2013 Taylor & Francis

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Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthys The Road


No Country for Old Men (2005), about drug-related crime set in the Mexican border
country, McCarthy again changed literary turf.3 Whatever genre he has chosen, his
pen has coloured it darker and more violent. For an author who has spent his talent
shedding light on the darker sides of existence it seems like a natural development
that his latest novel could be described as a dystopia, even as an apocalyptic text.
Death and apocalyptic stirrings are very noticeably present in all of his novels, but
nowhere more so than in The Road.
The Road is a deeply bifurcated text; it is both aesthetically and thematically characterized by its juxtaposition of strong contrasts. The setting is more relentlessly bleak
than in any of McCarthys other novels; it is hard to imagine a landscape closer to
hell on earth than the one we meet here. However, The Road is also curiously the
first of McCarthys novels that could be said to display a belief in the possibility that
human beings can be inherently and incorruptibly good. The novels two characters,
a father and his son, are as truly the good guys as the landscape surrounding
them is the bad land. The forceful contrast between the stark brutality of the
setting and the tenderness of the emotions between the two protagonists is the
novels most striking feature, and it is noticeable already in its poetic opening lines:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night hed reach out
to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days
more gray each one than what had gone before.4
In an interview McCarthy has said that good literature deals with issues of life and
death and that literature that does not deal with these huge issues seems strange to
him.5 And The Road is certainly not a novel that deals in petty details. It tells a classical,
almost mythical story and throughout its discourse it touches contrasting yet related
opposites: it is the story of man against the elements; it is the story of good versus
eviland it is a matter of life or death; not only the life and death of its individual characters but of humanity as such. Literarily it is also playing with opposites as its discourse
contains elements of utopia as well as dystopia. External space, the natural physical
world, constitutes a strong dystopian element, while inner space, the psychological
inner life of the characters, constitutes a utopian element. In other words, the opposition between the land and the two main characters is the novels discursive locus geni.
The term utopia was coined by Thomas More6 in his book by the same title from
1516 and it etymologically signified a place which was a non-place. He also invented
another term, which derives from the first, namely eutopia, meaning the good place.
The tension between these two has been the common meaning of utopia ever since;
a place which is a good place but which is also a non-place.7 The term dystopia, or

McCarthy, No Country.
McCarthy, The Road, 1. All further page references for quotations from The Road are given in text and are taken
from the Picador edition, published 2006.
Vieria, 5.

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I.-A. Sfting

anti-utopia, is associated with Mores term utopia through contrast; dystopia is

utopia gone wrong and dystopian spaces are associated with disease and destruction.
Place and the culture of the place have been important in all of McCarthys novels,
and both the South and the Southwest have been formative presences in his texts. It
could be argued that despite the unquestionable grounding of his earlier novels in
specific times and places their discourse tries to break free from this specificity
and reach beyond it. However, in The Road place is for the first time close to actually
being non-specific: the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic desert-like landscape that
appears to transcend both time and place. Its time is neither a distant past nor a
remote future, and it thus breaks with the conventions of most dystopian texts,
which are typically set in the future. Frighteningly, it could well be our own time.
It can be inferred that it is set somewhere in the United States;8 we know that the
characters are travelling towards the south; and that in the end they reach the sea.
But this is all we know about time, place and directionsand all we need to
know. In this post-apocalyptic time, when everything has been laid waste, place is
no longer a vehicle of cultural specificity; there is no diversity, neither in terms of
culture nor in terms of natural variation, to stamp its identity on the landscape;
everywhere is the same. North and south, east and west, once ideologically laden concepts and important cardinal points, have ceased to matter. This underlines the
novels nightmarish quality. The characters desperate wandering is endless and
futile. There can be no escape and no relief as all they meet wherever they go is
more of the same: dead nature, ashes and the relicsthe debrisof modern
western society. There is something absurd as well as symbolic about these two characters struggling their way through a dead wilderness and a dead civilization trundling, of all things, a shopping cart. The shopping cart is one of the few things that
remain of modern American consumer society and it is wholly unsuitable for its
present purpose. The goal they travel towards is the sea, but when they finally get
there, the sea, too, is more of the same; it is like a continuation of the land they
have been travelling through: cold, dead and gray. It offers no relief and, like the
land, the only fruit it holds for them is the driftwood of a bygone civilization, in
the shape of a rusty old shipwreck.
The novels vile setting is quite characteristic for McCarthy. Nature, place and community are rarely benevolent in his novels and do not promise regeneration or nurturance. In Blood Meridian the horizon is evil: before they were even quite out of sight of
the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half
fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.9 One of the last passages of his second novel, Outer Dark, reads
rather strikingly like an anticipation of The Road:

The only indication we have that the story takes place in the United States is the fathers reference to the roads as
state roads: Because they used to belong to the states. What used to be called the states (McCarthy, The Road, 43).
McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 185.

Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthys The Road


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The road went on through a shadeless burn and for miles there were only the
charred shapes of trees in a dead land where nothing moved save windy rifts of
ash that rose dolorous and died again down the blackened corridors. Before
him stretched a spectral waste out of which reared only the naked trees in attitudes
of agony and dimly hominoid figures in a landscape of the damned.10

It is as if the road in Outer Dark continues directly into the road of McCarthys latest
novel. It runs through a sublime landscape, extreme, and characterized by the omnipresence of death. It is important that, although it is reminiscent of the desert, it is not
an actual desert but the world at large covered in ashes, aesthetically stylized and
immovable. It is like a still life, which in Italian is called natura morta, dead nature.
Even a sand desert sustains forms of life, but this ashen world does not. It is a landscape
that brings to the text not only echoes of earlier McCarthy novels but also other intertexts and genres. From westerns we are familiar with ghost towns where the tumbleweed blows down the streets, but here we meet a whole ghost world where dead trees
are falling. The ghost town is a symbol of a failed civilization; nature is encroaching on
civilized space, eventually conquering it. This process could thus be seen as regeneration through nature: what man has attempted to appropriate is gradually returned
to its original state. In The Road, however, it is not nature but nothingness, represented
by the omnipresent ashes, that encroaches on civilized society as well as on nature. The
stylized character of this landscape gives it a filmic quality and, appropriately enough,
the boys mother sees them as the walking dead in a horror film (57). The descriptions of the landscape peopled by the decrepit surviving humans are indeed strongly
reminiscent of horror films: In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees
shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the
side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing
wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering
down the causeways like migrants in a feverland (28). The lack of specificity, the placelessness of the place, renders the landscape mythical and gives the book a universal
dimension that opens it up for numerous other texts. It reminds us of biblical wanderings through deserts and valleys of despair, as well as of modernist wastelands.
The reason behind the present state of things is conspicuously absent from the text.
We are not told what has happened to cause the death of the earth. In fact, the event of
the apocalypse is described rather dispassionately only once in the text: The clocks
stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions (54). It
appears to have been a sudden and unexpected happening, but otherwise in itself an
undramatic event, almost a non-event. It is most puzzling that the characters, too,
appear to be in oblivion about its causes, but, in spite of this, they do not wonder
about it; the boy does not ask his father any questions about what exactly happened
and why, and the man does not ponder it. It is as if reasons do not matter. If we
read it as a present-day novel about ecological collapse, it could perhaps be said to


McCarthy, Outer Dark, 242.

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I.-A. Sfting

lose a potentially didactic dimension by not conveying any information about the
events and the situation leading up to the disaster. The aim of the dystopia as a
genre has often been didactic and morality has played a central role: images of the
future are put forward as real possibilities because the utopist wants to frighten the
reader and to make him realize that things may go either right or wrong, depending
on the moral, social and civic responsibility of the citizens.11 In The Road we
cannot blame global warming, political despotism, chemical warfare or any other
easily identifiable factor. Since the situation has no clear cause there is no one and
nothing to blame for it, and also nothing to be done about it. There is no regime
that needs to be overthrown, no moral effort that can save the world and its people.
Threatened humanity is a common theme in dystopian fiction, but often in such literature civilization and humanity as sensual, complex phenomena are threatened by
human despotism in one shape or other. Writing about the key texts of the genre,
Gregory Claeys argues that [t]heir common theme is the quasi-omnipotence of a
monolithic, totalitarian state demanding and normally exacting complete obedience
from its citizens, challenged occasionally but usually ineffectually by vestigal individualism or systemic flaws, and relying upon scientific and technological advances to
ensure social control.12 In The Road human beings are up against something much
larger than themselves, something that neither modern science nor technological innovations can remedy, something that, in a moment, has caused humanity to degenerate
into a primitive state. Centuries of progress, indeed, everything that humanity has preoccupied itself with during its history on this planet, count as nothing. The lack of
specific reasons for the worlds demise, the absence in the text of a pre-apocalyptic
world, gives the text a universal quality and contributes to its atmosphere of timelessness and placelessness. Even though McCarthys novel is not openly didactic and does
not argue a specific case in point, it enacts a horrible vision of what existence can
become if the world for some reason should collapse. To describe it with the words
of Theodor W. Adorno, it could be said to arouse the anxiety that other texts
merely talk about.13
As already implied, when nature dies, so do language, culture and ethics. Concepts
that previously made sense are rendered absurd and dysfunctional. The journey is a
central motif in The Road and with this motif we are likely to associate progress, development and quest. Also, knowing that the story, in spite of its universal elements, is set
in the US, and knowing that American landscapes and their cultures have been placed
centre stage in McCarthys earlier novels, it is difficult not to read it in light of the west
and the western genre. In this context, concepts like freedom and opportunity, progress, conquest and the frontier are inextricably linked to journeys and movements
across the land. However, in The Road such concepts and ideologies are dead; progress


Vieira, 17.
Claeys, 109.
Adorno, 90.

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Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthys The Road


and development no longer seem possible. The frontier was the demarcation line
between wilderness and civilization, and it inferred the possibility that the wilderness
could be civilized, could be appropriated by civilization. In The Road there is no
demarcation line between wilderness and civilization, as there is neither civilization
nor wilderness, at least not wilderness in the sense of untamed nature; both civilized
society and nature are but distant memories. But the concept of the frontier also
reminds us of the way in which the environment makes an impact on human
beings. According to Frederick Jackson Turners frontier thesis,14 humans had to
become a bit like the wilderness in order to survive on the frontier; they had to be
adaptable. The characters of The Road are as if suspended in an eternal encounter
with non-civilization and anti-nature. The dead land is like a nihilist agent seeking
to destroy mankind. And their challenges are far greater than those of the first settlers
who pushed the frontier westwards; these characters struggle to retain and continue the
ideals and ethics of a society that is not merely behind them physically, so to speak, but
which is no more. The ideals of this vanished world now exist as memories only, but as
memories fade so will their referents: The names of things slowly following those
things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names
of things one believed to be true (93). And when that happens humanity is also a
thing of the past, and it will be as if the past never was. The abolition of the past is
an important factor in dystopian fiction, where it can be a way of controlling the
present, like in George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston says Do you
realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has actually been abolished? If it survives
anywhere, its in a few solid objects with no words attached to them. History has
stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present.15 These words find their echo
in The Road: The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is
later (56).
The death of nature has destroyed civilization and it threatens humanity as such. The
dead land is a passive yet relentless destructive force that represents nothingness. This
element of nihilism has been more or less prevalent also in McCarthys earlier books,
and so has the death of civilization and the ephemeral nature of humans, sometimes in
a very concrete manner as in Blood Meridian: The desert wind would salt their ruins
and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing
how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.16 However, the
dead civilization eulogized in this passage is one specific civilization, not civilization as
such, and the vile and hostile landscapes are specific landscapes, which means that we
can infer that there are other places not like this and other roads that do not lead into
the landscape of the damned. In The Road the nihilism of the land, of external space, is
omnipresent and complete.

Turner, The signicance of the Frontier in American History.

Orwell, 137.
McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 174.

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It is in this all-encompassing post-apocalyptic wasteland we meet the novels

only two characters, a father and his son, who struggle to stay alive, and not least, to
stay human, in a world that is dead. Early on it becomes clear to us that these two characters are atypical for the survivors on the planet, and indeed atypical in McCarthys
universe as flight from fatherhood is a frequent theme in his books.17 The people
they meet on the road have mostly turned scavengers and cannibals; humanity has
degenerated into bestiality, and existence is a grotesque survival of the fittest.
Human beings are killed, gutted and eaten. However, the father and his son are exceptions, they are presented to us as the good guys. Because the boy repeatedly asks his
father whether they still are the good guys, the novel pushes to the fore central ethical
questions: what does it mean to be good? Can you kill and still be good? Does the end
justify the means, or is the deed morally autonomous? The boy keeps asking, wanting,
needing to be assured that they are still the good guys even though they do inhuman
thingslike refusing to help dying people because doing so will jeopardize their own
situation, even killing, when the situation requires it. The father assures his son that
this is indeed the case, that they are still good. And this also seems to be the texts
opinion of them: they do not eat people and they do not kill, except in self-defence.
Even in the face of these direst of circumstances they have retained their conscience
and moral sense and have not been reduced to bestiality. Like most of McCarthys
other novels, The Road is as much a probing into the limits and nature of humanity
as it is the story of a collapsing world. It is as if humanity has been placed under the
hardest possible duress to be tested. The father, in particular, is forced to confront
his limits as a human being as he tries to stay ready to kill, out of love and responsibility, the only thing that is good in his world, namely his son. He wonders to himself:
Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of
which you know nothing? (120). A human being could hardly be more painfully
As the land has been universalized through lack of specificity, so have the characters;
they have no names, belong nowhere and are going nowhere. They are uprooted in an
absolute and dramatic way, and their mythical overtones are strong in the text. They are
like pilgrims, but without a promised land and without progress. The boy could clearly
be seen as a Messianic figure, as representing hope for the future. The mother was pregnant with him when the apocalypse happened and he has never experienced pre-apocalyptic society. He has never seen green grass or flowers or animals or known any other
kindness than that bestowed on him by his parents. The world as it was for him was
not even a memory (55). Yet he has a very strong sense of what is right and what is
wrong, and he seems almost more preoccupied with morality than with finding something to eat. His father sees his son as a gift from God and he sees himself as appointed
by God to take care of him. Possibly this is a story that the father is inventing in order to
give themselves, and especially the boy, something to believe in. There is nothing in the


Ellis, 264.

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Post-Apocalyptic Discourse of Cormac McCarthys The Road


world surrounding them to provide them with hope so if they are to discern a meaning
with their life it has to be of an otherworldly quality. It is quite remarkable that neither
the boy nor his father has degenerated into a state of bestiality, like most other people.
As the father puts it, they are survivors. They are carrying the fire, especially the boy,
who is carrying the fire inside himself. His father tells him: Its inside you. It was
always there. I can see it (298). And it could well be that the father is right and that
this is how we are meant to see these two remarkable characters; as people chosen by
God to carry the light on through the darkness, to preserve humanity within themselves
as examples, and that this is the reason why they seem somehow predestined to avoid
moral degeneration. Such ideas are not uncommon in an American context. If we juxtapose the death of the land and the remarkable survival of the novels central characters
we see dystopian as well as utopian elements, and we are brought back to the beginnings
of modern American historyboth through contrast and parallel. Mores Utopia was
not a very specific place, but it was located somewhere in the new world and,
through its perfection, it formed a contrast to the old world. The Puritans, too, saw
the American continent as a promised land where they could make a new start free
from the restraints and immorality of the old world they left behind. The land in
The Road evokes these ideas through contrast; the novels ashen landscape seems an
absolute antithesis to what Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby calls the fresh green
breast of the new world.18 The city upon a hill has become a ghost town.
However, just as the Puritans saw themselves as Gods chosen people placed in an
exceptional situation, so does, perhaps, McCarthys novel present its survivors in a
similar way: incorruptible and with a manifest destiny to build a new civilization.
Whether we feel that the dystopian or the utopian aspect dominates, depends very
much on how we read the novels ending.
The ending of The Road is profoundly and confoundedly ambiguous. The Road is
simultaneously McCarthys most desolate and most humane novel. Perhaps it could
be argued that the master of anti-sentimentality and of the gruesome has gone soft
in his latest novel. There is still the relentless violence that so characteristically has
punctuated his earlier texts and there are grotesquely mutilated human bodies,
suggesting that humanity is reducible to mere matter. But in contrast to many of
McCarthys other novels, there is also something unequivocally good for us to seek
comfort in, as the relationship between father and son shines like a beacon of light
in the all-encompassing desert of the novel. And it is a rather astonishing fact that
the boy is still alive at the end of the book, especially considering the authors
earlier texts. It is as if the author, like the boys father, cannot kill him in the end
after all. The father has been carrying with him a gun with two bullets, one intended
for himself, the other for the boy, because he wanted them to go at the same time. He is
his sons keeper and so he has seen it as his responsibility to kill him instead of leaving


Fitzgerald, 171. Although in this context, however, the valley of ashes, as a symbol of the wasteland of modern
civilization, seems like a mild foreshadowing of the landscape of The Road.

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I.-A. Sfting

him behind. However, as he is himself dying he realizes that he cannot hold his son
dead in his arms after all. If this had been the McCarthy of Blood Meridian it is
highly unlikely that the boy would have survived, and it is also highly unlikely that
their death would have been shrouded in anything resembling sentimentality. So,
potentially, this could be described as a happy ending. Had the father used his last
bullet on his son that would have been, symbolically, the burial of humanity. By not
killing him he sets his son free; the boy is no longer his fathers custodian, he is his
own keeper and his own destiny. He is an orphan and as such it could be said that
his ties to the past have been severed and that his direction is the future. This is
strengthened by the fact that he is a post-apocalyptic child born after the death of
nature; he is a child of this condition, who has never known anything else. It is also
hopeful that there are other good people left in the world who will take the boy in
and that these people are a family containing women. In order to intimate the possibility for future procreation the presence of female characters is important; the sole
presence of a father and his son as the characters to carry the world on is surely in a
very literal sense a dead end. The presence of a family accentuates the novels
element of predestination. Plotwise their appearance at the very time that the boys
father is dying contains an element of deus ex machina, and the woman appears to
have been waiting for him, anticipating his arrival: The woman when she saw him
put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, Im so glad to see you (306).
The penultimate paragraph also seems to suggest that the boy stays with them for
some time. It says that the woman would talk to him sometimes about God. He
tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to
him and he didnt forget (306). We do not know how much time has passed but it
is at least clear that the boy lives with this family for a while.
However, despite the fact that the boy is still alive when the book ends, it is difficult to
see any real hope in the end. In another famous American novel there is hope at the end
when the orphaned boy Huck, whose father has just died, decides to light out for the
Territory19 after his encounters with a corrupt and hypocritical civilization have disenchanted him. But that is because the word territory holds promises of opportunity
and possibility, of freedom; concepts that make little sense in the wasteland of The
Road. The only thing that would have brought any real hope for the future into
McCarthys text would have been some sign that nature was returning to life. As it
is, there are no promises of regeneration in or through nature, only the possibility
that there may still be a few more rusted tins of food left. The novels last paragraph
describes the trout in the streams of the past and how they had maps on their backs,
maps of things that could not be made right again (307). Kenneth Lincoln draws
a parallel to Hemingways Big Two-Hearted River by suggesting that Its a big
two-hearted fable of brook trout swimming in re-generative stream currents.20 For


Twain, 296.
Lincoln, 173.

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Nick Adams trout fishing represented recuperation and healing, in McCarthys novel it
is more likely but another memory from a past soon to be forgotten as there will be no
one left to remember it. The text then continues, In the deep glens where they lived all
things were older than man and they hummed of mystery (307), but the words of the
judge from Blood Meridian form an intertextual correction: Your hearts desire is to be
told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.21 In this light it is perhaps
doubly sad that the boy survives because his survival is nothing but a postponement of
his death and an extension of his suffering. Humanity could not have been more
severely tested than this, its conditions could not have been bleaker. Yet the father
and his son have proven that humans are indeed capable of resisting corruption and
moral degradation; that they are worthy of a city upon a hill. Despite this, there is no
future as humanity is not self-sustainable. The road goes on at the end of McCarthys
latest novel, but it is difficult to see that it has a hopeful destination.

Adorno, Theodor W. Notes to Literature. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.
Claeys, Gregory. The Origins of Dystopia: Wells, Huxley and Orwell. In The Cambridge Companion
to Utopian Literature, edited by Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Ellis, Jay. No Place for Home. Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac
McCarthy. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Cormac McCarthy. American Canticles. New York: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2009.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
. Child of God. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.
. The Orchard Keeper. London: Picador, 1994.
. Outer Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
. The Road. London: Picador, 2006.
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