Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the death of Dialogue Tags

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road is an intensely bleak vision of the apocalypse. The narrative follows two characters only ever referred to as”Man” and “boy” as they limp across a grey and hellish landscape full of cannibals, rotting houses, and precious canned food in aquest to reach the ocean. McCarthy raises very uncomfortable questions about what happens to human identity in a state of endless crisis. The Darkness of the novel is of such an extreme; I occasionally found myself wondering if the kindest option for both characters would be suicide.

However, what strikes me about the novel from a technical standpoint, aside from its beautiful use of imagery and simple but effective language, is the way McCarthy frames dialogue, both to build character and scene.

When nobody is speaking, The Road is a silent film on the page. It’s hard to imagine any sound – even things as simple and primal as that of a footstep or wind through trees – cutting through the oppressive quiet of McCarthy’s world. McCarthy’s America is a kind of Afterlife, a purgatory with flashes of hell that crop up violently and fade away after bloody confrontation. However, always there is a deep sense of death over the landscape, and it is easy to imagine that soon after the book’s narrative comes to a close, there won’t be any life left on earth at all.

So every occurrence of dialogue is a kind of shock; sudden and startling. Even McCarthy’s “script-like” arrangement of dialogue on the page, never with quotation marks, indented via dashes, often existing without tags or connection to the form of the narrative helps to elevate this sense of shock. Exchanges of dialogue in The Road are like islands on the page floating between the shores of texts above and below.

This was an approach to presenting dialogue that I first encountered not in McCarthy but Michael Ondaatje’s 1987 novel In the Skin of A Lion. However, I’m choosing to highlight this method with McCarthy because I think his use of this style elevates the kind of story The Road tells.

McCarthy’s stylistic choices also allow the complexity of straightforward dialogue to shine through. I especially admire the fashion in which McCarthy can highlight the exhaustion of The Man through select but effective use of echoing:

  • Maybe there’s a father and his little boy, and they’re sitting on the beach
  • that would be okay
  • Yes. That would be okay.
  • And they could be carrying the fire too?
  • They could be. Yes.
  • But, We don’t know.
  • We Don’t know.
  • So we have to be vigilant
  • We have to be vigilant. Yes.[i]

The above exchange between the two central characters on what happens after death might have taken pages in the hands of a less skilled writer, but McCarthy boils it down to its barest form. He doesn’t overdo the echo effect to the point of a gimmick, but when it does appear, the closeness of the echoed line to the original highlights a sense of emotional exhaustion and tragedy within the speaker.

Like my previous review of Tom King’s Vision, repetition allows the dialogue to take on new meanings, though unlike King’s use of repetition to begin/bookend scenes, McCarthy’s echoed dialogue is more effective because of how close together the recurrences appear. Each of the Boy’s lines, full of optimism and endearing innocence, takes on shades of a mature kind of sorrow and defeat in The Man’s mouth. McCarthy shows how dialogue and form can work together to elevate a scene.

[writers note: The posting system for WordPress seems to have been redesigned this week. if anyone sees anything off about my posts, please let me know!]

Work Cited:


McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. 1st ed., Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.