An investigation into the nature of Quest Narratives in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and the Screenplay for the 2001 animated film ‘Shrek’.
Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is a post-apocalyptic fiction set in the dystopian remnants of what we presume to be the South-Eastern U.S. which is only ever barely signalled throughout the novel through with bleak references to places such as ‘Rock City’. The novel presents a barren wasteland, through what we presume to be the aftermath of a (possible) nuclear disaster; this is enhanced through the disjointed and sparse writing style, mirroring the landscape and tone of the novel. The writing style also matches the tone of the basis of the story, which is thematically depressing, not to mention the lack of narrative destiny from the characters. The novel is written to represent the Man and the Boy as the ‘Good guys’, and everyone else as the ‘Bad guys’. In doing this, McCarthy places the reader to sympathetically view the Man and the Boy, but viewing everybody else as a threat.
‘Are we still the good guys? He said.
Yes we’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.’
The theme of ‘Good vs Evil’ places the reader into a moral dilemma on how to view the Man, referring to his ideology that the bad guys are the ones who kill, yet then proceeds to murder and steal. This poses conflict for the boy, who acts as symbolic benevolence in their otherwise unjust world and constantly questions the man’s actions. The boy is also cited as the man’s ‘warrant’
‘If he is not the word of God
This emphasizes our placement as the reader to form our perception of who is good and who is bad, alongside the innocence of the Boy, who challenges the man and the readers and forces them to consider this matter.
The novel centres predominantly on the man and the boy on their journey. Equipped with only a trolley to carry a number of basic items, and their survivalist instinct, which acts as their only ally throughout the story, particularly when the two come up against the ‘bad guys’, who can be identified if they rape, or steal, or eat other people. The two desperately search for food, and come across a house harvesting cannibals, a passage cited as the ‘scariest passage in all of literature’ by author Benjamin Percy, not least due to the language but extended by the fact that the Road utilises the idea that this could all be real, a message to figures in power who choose to ignore the warnings we have already been given. The very start of the novel mentions the suicide of the boy’s mother and the man’s wife, an act which sets out the tone of the book, and serves as a constant reminder of the character’s potential escape. Their quest is to eventually reach the sea under the pretence that it may be a place more welcoming to the characters, despite not really having any real reason to go there. Eventually the story reaches its climax when the man dies, which is built up in the way the man talks to the boy, paternally, protectively, to prepare the boy for the future. At the very end of the novel, once the characters reach the sea and the man has passed, the boy meets another family, perhaps this acts as a message that even in the bleakest of times, we must progress, and extends the metaphor of the fire being carried onwards.
The nature of their quest is in meaning, empty, it exists solely in order to give the characters purpose. It is for this reason that I intend to study it against a text which does in fact have a sense of narrative destiny and a clear end sight to the quest. This is why for my non-literary material I have chosen to study the screenplay for DreamWorks animation’s 2001 film Shrek. In Shrek, the main character, an Ogre named Shrek, has to go on a quest if he wishes to reclaim his swamp from a powerful ruler, Lord Farquaad. Whilst these texts lack similarities in terms of intended audience and purpose, the way that they explore the quest narrative is alike. In both texts, the quest loses sight of its purpose and gives light to the double journey that the characters may not realise they are on. These texts may not have a clear relationship on the surface; however, I intend to focus on three passages from each text which I feel expose their similarities in how they demonstrate a quest narrative, concentrating on what literary devices are used to specifically reference the nature of the quest.
A quest is described by the dictionary as ‘a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something’ ; therefore, a quest narrative would best be described as a story which centralises itself around adventure or the journey towards an end goal. Language is a key factor in the presentation of quest narratives, and can paint a sparse background, as in The Road, or more fruitful scenery as in Shrek. In Kenneth K Brandt’s ‘A World Thoroughly Unmade’ (2012) he describes the language used in the Road as ‘organic’, ‘fertile’, and ‘vital’ ‘in striking opposition to the smouldering, depraved world depicted throughout the novel’ . This highlights the ideas surrounding the ways in which language should present a quest narrative, and also foregrounds the importance of setting when narrating a journey. Perhaps the nature of the quest narrative can best be traced back to Homeric epics such as the Odyssey which has served as inspiration for quest narratives and the heroes’ journey since stories begun. This alongside the influential Don Quixote (1605), which evidently provoked considerations into the ways a modern quest narrative should be told evidenced by its direct references in literary works such as The Three Musketeers (1844). Many literary quest narratives include some sort of metaphorical allusion to hope or light, perhaps to send a message to their readers that they should not despair. In The Road, the extended metaphor of the fire conveys the visions of hope and provides a motif for why the characters bother with their journey at all. This is mirrored with other quest narratives and similarly quoted in Mary Terrall’s work on the ‘Heroic Narratives of Quest and Destiny’ (1998) in which she writes ‘The metaphor of light brought with it the language of vision, and discovery was represented as a process of bringing the dark corners of the world out into the light of reason.’ It is also necessary to look at the ways in which language influences how a text is received and written. Through looking at a piece of non-literary material aimed towards a younger audience in comparison to a literary text that deals with more difficult circumstances, I am going to study the ways in which pragmatics, semantics, and discourse may vary between texts and how these will ultimately shape the way readers receive the intended meanings behind material. The social and political messages sent by both texts, whilst dealt with inversely, still retain their ability to comment on a variety of issues, in Lydia R Cooper’s work ‘Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative’, this is magnified ‘fear that the pursuit of political, global ascendancy is in itself an act of violence whose backlash will be both staggering in its magnitude and inexplorable in its execution’. When analysing ‘The poetics of gray in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’ in Chris Danta’s piece ‘The cold illucid world’(2012), he mentions the Road’s lack of ‘narrative destiny’ often associated with standard quests, contrary to Shrek in which the quest is clearly laid out, relating to the purpose which is at its core, to entertain a younger intended audience. In order to focus on each texts sense of narrative destiny, I will study the ways in which language creates intended meanings, fixing my attention on syntax, modality, and the typical nature of the quest narrative.
Imagistic language is used for different purpose and effect in the Road and the screenplay for Shrek. For example, in the Road, imagistic language may be used to provide setting, or to describe a place or person, whereas in the screenplay for Shrek, the writers have the benefit of using visual mode in order to represent these characteristics. Therefore the syntax to describe the Dragon’s keep in Shrek has a different level of language to the syntax used to describe the House harvesting the cannibals in the Road. The construction of sentences to shape meaning in the Road is more important than in Shrek. For example
‘The House was tall and stately with white doric columns across the front. A gravel drive that curved up through a field of dead grass. The windows were oddly intact.’
McCarthy uses different lexical techniques in order to paint a filmic image of the house for readers, creating an enigmatic image of a place that is pragmatically out of place in the previously raw landscape. This still standing manmade structure is described like a stronghold; the archaic premodifier ‘Doric’ harks back to ancient Greece creating a semantic field of ruin and stone, the imagery created here is that of the once wealth of the landscape, destroyed by the natural world yet standing as a monument for all to behold. Similarly, in Shrek, the ‘dilapidated castle, burned and blackened’ sets the scene for a similar tone of ruin and anticipated fear for the characters involved in the quest. Both texts employ a semantic field of devastation in describing their settings, which figuratively creates a sense of unease and leads us to relate imagery used in these sections to the parts of the book previously read, linking the destruction of their world to physical harm, as with the Road rat. For example, in writing ‘tall and stately’, McCarthy uses the pragmatics of placing positive descriptive language in a negative setting. This compared to the usage of ‘dilapidated’ in Shrek, which would be a communication to animators of how to visualise the location. The language is not out of place here, since there is a shared understanding between viewers and writers that the characters are headed to a potentially bleak location. Therefore, each description serves a different narrative function, but lexically, serves to give description to the locations. This also furthers our imagery of the places, more prominently in the Road, which has to use language for an almost cinematic effect, in contrast to Shrek, which has the benefit of the intended format visualising the scene for audiences.
Both texts use a varied range of speech patterns in order to emulate conversation, yet neither ever manages to fully capture the essence of what we would consider to be normal speech. In the Road, this is down to the bleak nature of the text, in which conversation is meant to mirror the scape and situation. Whereas in the screenplay for Shrek, it is down to the caricature types alongside the intended audience. The road employs a blunt and to the point conversational style between the man and the boy, relying on clipped adjacency pairs to reflect the desolation of the novel. This compared to the chatty and lighter hearted speech of the Shrek screenplay, which is intended to entertain, whilst demonstrating a different dynamic between the characters. The dynamic between the man and the boy is completely different to that of Shrek and Donkey; this is reflected in their speech. For example, status is ignored between the characters as they understand their necessity for each other, thus meaning that in Shrek, Grice’s conversational maxims are frequently violated but the relationship still stands. Donkey violates Grice’s maxims of quality and quantity when the two characters ‘walk through the sunflower field’. In this section, we see the two characters begin to further their friendship as they converse in dissimilar types of adjacency pairs, with Donkey’s blathering and Shrek’s clear discontempt, their discourse demonstrates a clear pattern: whilst Donkey talks a lot, Shrek ultimately is okay with the company, albeit possibly more for the status Donkey gives him. In the Road, the language echoes the Man’s acceptance of fate. The Boy is curious about other characters ‘They’re going to eat them, aren’t they? Yes’. The Man’s blunt response ‘Yes’ goes against the co-operative principle suggested in conversation, yet also seems to semantically imply a greater meaning than just an agreement. In using ‘Yes’, and repeating it in the succeeding three questions from the Boy, the Man demonstrates his objection to converge to the Boy’s curiosity, but also seems to demonstrate so much with just this word. In terms of pragmatics, ‘Yes’ here has a different meaning to answering the question ‘Can you read that?’. In this context, ‘Yes’ may mean a number of things, perhaps implying the man’s acceptance and disapproval above all. ‘Yes’ demonstrates McCarthy’s ability to create a semantic field with just one word, matching the mature nature of the book, something which could not be achieved in Shrek, which relies on more juvenile language techniques for accessibility ‘Ogres are like onions’. A simile which becomes the basis for an analogy, yet still remains simple to be understood by a younger audience.
The concept of the quest narrative is one which comes through in both texts, with each demonstrating the character’s desire to achieve a goal: in Shrek, retrieving his Swamp, and in the Road, reaching the sea. However, both stories lose focus of their intended goals and become more about emotional principles rather than physical ones. In Shrek, the character of Princess Fiona creates change when she is introduced to the story as a potential love interest to the insensitive Shrek. Her character is added to the story in and is used to transform their quest into a double journey, with the sentiment that Shrek may become a more warm and kind character through meeting her. Therefore, when the Swamp is regained, it is not the focus. ‘Shrek and Fiona are kissing, this time at their own wedding in Shrek’s swamp.’ This sentence demonstrates the shift from the physical journey into an emotional one, as the swamp, which served as a warrant for the story is now pushed to the background, and the relationship between Shrek and Fiona is centralised. Due to the purpose of this screenplay (for actors and animators to have an understanding of what to visualise), the sentence is in the present tense, since when it is animated, it will be viewed live on the screen, and uses high frequency vocabulary in order to communicate a basic understanding of what should be on screen. ‘Shrek and Fiona are kissing’ emphasises that factors considered in the road such as phonology are ignored whereas syntax must be considered for the screenplay to function. This further backs up the differences between the format of a screenplay when compared to a novel (the Road). Modality is important in demonstrating the double journey of the Road, when the man and the boy reach the sea, it is uncertain where they will go from that point, and so, this point of the story serves as a reflection on their world, whilst expanding the boy’s spirit of enquiry ‘There must be something. Maybe there’s a father and his little boy and they’re sitting on the beach.’ The deontic modality from the boy ‘must’, succeeded by the epistemic mode used by the man ‘Maybe’ creates a type of bathos which relates to the nature of going on a double journey and the uncertainty it entails. It shows the man’s rejection of an idea which would, in a real world context, be perfectly plausible, yet in their world seems like an outlandish concept. This expands on the reader’s ideas of the quest narrative and in comparison to the screenplay for Shrek, whilst focusing on different language levels, conceptualises the notion that most journeys at some point become focused on the ideas behind a double journey.
I have tried to make it evident in my study that whilst my two texts adopt a different approach towards the presentation of a quest narrative, there are connections between the two that can be clearly identified in levels of language and semantics, alongside the implications and messages of each text, whether they are a warning or an allegory to the younger generation. It is clear that both texts use similar devices in order to explore setting, with the Road using imagistic language to create a raw and cinematic atmosphere utilising the conventions of its decided narrative landscape to form a brutal set and further the harrowing poetics of grey so often mentioned. In comparison to this, the screenplay for Shrek uses a more basic grammatical style since the imagistic language is less necessary down to the eventual product of the screenplay becoming an animated film in which landscapes can be visualised rather than imagined. In terms of studying a screenplay against a novel, there are of course those who would argue that if a play can be seen as a piece of literary text, then why shouldn’t a screenplay? To me, this is because a play has to be performed whereas a screenplay, particularly for an animated movie, cannot be literary since the finished result is envisioned so differently to how it is read on paper that the two products are completely separate. This means that the speech patterns and modality employed in a screenplay reveal to those who read it a different perception on the storyline to those who only look at a film for its base level. This is also true of close textual/word analysis in a novel such as the Road. In studying the two in conjunction with one another, I have tried to reveal the parallels and expose their differences, particularly relying on their comparative aspects to enhance the concept that quest narratives will always use similar methods to tell their story. I feel that despite their inherent differences, these texts expose the others flaws and counteract this by highlighting their similarities which ultimately provides a greater understanding to the depth of the journeys that the text sends the reader on. The ideas surrounding the search for hope raised in the review become salient features of both texts, and are expanded by each texts unforeseen circumstances, these features also enhance the reader’s perception of narrative destiny and provide gravitas to the situations which the characters end up in, which in the end, proves to both the characters and the readers, that even when the quest goes beyond the characters’ control, there will still be imminent good in their world.
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