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What was the world like before the apocalypse in The Road? Are there any quotes or sections that explain the pre-apocalyptic world?

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  • Is there anything you've noticed that suggests it's not (as Pat suggested) a fictional future of the actual world?
    – Era
    May 18, 2016 at 20:44

2 Answers 2

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As far as I can remember from the book there are no direct sections on this.

However, from reading it I always assumed that the 'world' before the apocalypse is the same 'world' that we live in now.

That is to say that this is novel that is set our own future (or at least a version of our future).

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The world in which The Road takes place is essentially our world at some point in the near future. There are many passages that implicitly support this idea. Specifically, McCarthy's descriptions of the setting suggest that the story takes place in the Southeastern United States, probably in the Appalachia region.

As Oprah Winfrey's website says, McCarthy often uses the Appalachians as settings for his books, probably because he is quite familiar with the region:

Cormac McCarthy often sets his stories against the landscapes he knows best — the Appalachians near Tennessee and the Southwest.
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Note: All quotes below are taken from The Road unless otherwise noted


Before the apocalypse, you could use coins to buy Coca Cola from vending machines at the supermarket:

On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few old cars in the trash strewn parking lot. They left the cart in the lot and walked the littered aisles. In the produce section in the bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves. The boy followed behind. They pushed out through the rear door. In the alleyway behind the store a few shopping carts, all badly rusted. They went back through the store again looking for another cart but there were none. By the door were two soft drink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a pry bar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.

People celebrated Christmas:

This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy.

There were gas stations and phone books:

The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and buildings by the roadside. He found a telephone directory in a filling station and he wrote the name of the town on their map with a pencil.

The sea was blue:

The boy traced the route to the sea with his finger. How long will it take us to get there? he said.

Two weeks. Three.

Is it blue?

The sea? I don't know. It used to be.

And we occasionally get a secondhand glimpse at the world as it had been before the apocalypse:

There was a lake a mile from his uncle's farm where he and his uncle used to go in the fall for firewood. He sat in the back of the rowboat trailing his hand in the cold wake while his uncle bent to the oars. The old man's feet in their black kid shoes braced against the uprights. His straw hat. His cob pipe in his teeth and a thin drool swinging from the pipebowl. He turned to take a sight on the far shore, cradling the oarhandles, taking the pipe from his mouth to wipe his chin with the back of his hand. The shore was lined with birchtrees that stood bone pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond. The edge of the lake a riprap of twisted stumps, gray and weathered, the windfall trees of a hurricane years past. The trees themselves had long been sawed for firewood and carried away. His uncle turned the boat and shipped the oars and they drifted over the sandy shallows until the transom grated in the sand. A dead perch lolling belly up in the clear water. Yellow leaves. They left their shoes on the warm painted boards and dragged the boat up onto the beach and set out the anchor at the end of its rope. A lard-can poured with concrete with an eyebolt in the center. They walked along the shore while his uncle studied the tree stumps, puffing at his pipe, a manila rope coiled over his shoulder. He picked one out and they turned it over, using the roots for leverage, until they got it half floating in the water. Trousers rolled to the knee but still they got wet. They tied the rope to a cleat at the rear of the boat and rowed back across the lake, jerking the stump slowly behind them. By then it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had spoken a word. This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon.

And...

He thought of his life. So long ago. A gray day in a foreign city where he stood in a window and watched the street below. Behind him on a wooden table a small lamp burned. On the table books and papers. It had begun to rain and a cat at the corner turned and crossed the sidewalk and sat beneath the cafe awning. There was a woman at a table there with her head in her hands.

And...

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional.

The only description we get of the actual apocalypse event suggests that the world was much like ours before that point:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn't answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the light switch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the window glass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?

And they refer to their world as "earth" several times:

What is it? the man said.

Nothing.

No. Tell me.

There could be people alive someplace else.

Whereplace else?

I don't know. Anywhere.

You mean besides on earth?

Yes.

I don't think so. They couldn't live anyplace else.

And:

The old man drank the last of his coffee and set the bowl before him and leaned toward the heat with his hands out. The man watched him. How would you know if you were the last man on earth? he said.

I don't guess you would know it. You'd just be it.

This earth orbits a sun, and is orbited by a moon:

Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.

And...

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sister-world in the ancient dark beyond.

The sun "rises" in the east, just as it does in our world:

Bleak dawn in the east. The alien sun commencing its cold transit.

This earth was once home to birds:

Once in those early years he'd wakened in a barren wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter dark. Their half muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again.

And...

If you were a crow could you fly up high enough to see the sun?

Yes. You could.

The area in which they live was once organized into separate "states", like the present-day US:

We cross a bridge here. It looks to be about eight miles or so. This is the river. Going east. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines on the map. The state roads.

Why are they the state roads?

Because they used to belong to the states. What used to be called the states.

But there's not any more states?

No.

Like the real-life Southeastern United States, the book is set in a place where rhododendron, mayapple, pipsissewa, and ginseng trees, and morel mushrooms are (or were) common:

They walked out through the woods. The light was failing. They followed the flats along the upper river among huge dead trees. A rich southern wood that once held may-apple and pipsissewa. Ginseng. The raw dead limbs of the rhododendron twisted and knotted and black. He stopped. Something in the mulch and ash. He stooped and cleared it away. A small colony of them, shrunken, dried and wrinkled.

He picked one and held it up and sniffed it. He bit a piece from the edge and chewed.

What is it, Papa?

Morels. It's morels.

What's morels?

They're a kind of mushroom.



Word of God:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, McCarthy was asked about what caused the apocalypse, and although he didn't give a concrete answer, all the possibilities he mentioned were phenomena that occur here on earth:

I don't have an opinion. It could be anything – volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people, you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday...
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