A level unseen: Dystopia (OCR)

This unseen is based on a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The passage is beneath the unseen.  This was 55 minutes writing…

My response might read thus: using the SCASI structure as a basis for the writing.

McCarthy’s 2006 novel  is part of the post-apocalyptic dystopian novel group which has appeared since the end of World War 2. It seems that the after-effects of the atom bomb focused thought towards the possible fate for the human race following a disaster of some kind. Novels from the 1950s seem to be focused on the idea of warfare or ‘alien’ interaction, possibly reflecting the anti-communist sentiments of the era – Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids would be an example, whereas the late 20th Century saw in increase in plots derived from the potential danger of medical disasters. A good example might be Stephen King’s The Stand, in which a strain of flu has wiped out civilization or idshiguro’s Never Let Me  Go which focuses on the idea of cloning of humans. McCarthy’s disaster is not clear. The landscape “Barren. Silent. Godless.” resembles that of King’s novel, but there is no hint here of the cause of the disintegration of mankind. In that sense the passage reflects Hoban’s Riddley Walker which, although written in a phonetic language, carries no clear explanation of the actual disaster which has plunged England back into an Iron Age, though in this novel elements of the past civilization are clear to see, just as in The Road, the ‘soft ash’ blew over the ‘blacktop’. The existence of the tarmac suggesting that the disaster was still relatively recent.

The passage presents a double setting to the reader: one the location of the two travellers -the anonymous ‘he’ and ‘the boy’, the second being the nightmarish landscape of the dream. The passage opens with an atmosphere of threat – the woods are ‘dark and cold’ and McCarthy repeats and intensifies the ‘darkness’ in the opening sentences, possibly developing a symbolic Hell on Earth by use of the idea of sin. Even the daytime is tainted: it is ‘more grey’ and the simile likening the day time to ‘some cold glaucoma’ suggests not only a gradually reducing level of light, but also enhances the sense that the planet is suffering from a withering illness, one which is reducing the effectiveness of the eye of the sun.This idea of a ‘sick planet’ is a regular device in Dystopia, recalling the worlds of The Day of the Triffids or Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. The setting does not relent and there is reference to ‘soft ash’  in the ‘ashen daylight’ with image created being one not only of the after effect of fire and destruction but also the pallid ‘ashen’ appearance of a face when struck by horror or fear. In a tricolon group of monosyllabic sentences, McCarthy presents the Earth as ‘Barren. Silent. Goddless. The anaphora builds towards the depiction of a planet devoid of hope, and lacking a humane presence and also uses language suggestive of female infertility: mother Earth is truly dying.

In the Dream sequence, rather than seeing an image of hope – a trope often seen in Dystopia when characters escape form the harsh reality of their lives in a dream, such as in Orwell’s 1984, the landscape takes on imagery and tone resembling that of descriptions of the Rapture or of Milton’s Hell.  Though horrific, the landscape is enormous and awe-inspiring.Sound imagery is used to add to the feeling of grandeur. Thus water ‘dripped and sang’ and the this sound is described as a’tolling’, heightening the link between this hideous underworld and death. Within the confines of this underworld lurks a creature. described in a triplet which focuses first on ‘its bowels’ before moving upward to ‘the brain that pulsed in a glass bell’. The creature is translucent and the whole world has a darkness illumined only by the ‘light’ which is ‘playing over the .. walls’. It is affected by the light so that it ‘loped off’. The verb has a relaxed tone, possibly suggesting that the evil has been turned away for now, but knows that it will return again.

This idea of a light emanating from the pair, but not carried by them is an indicator of a character which is created with reference to ‘the boy’. He is the elder man’s guide to this underworld, possibly, therefore, the source of the light. Given that light in the context of a hellish setting symbolizes godliness and goodness, the final sentences of the passage take on great weight. Here, the man is clear: the child represents the ‘word of God’ as surely as anything and the reader gathers the impression that hope for the future resides in this child. In the passage he is fragile – wrapped in his ‘plastic tarpaulin’ suggesting the utilisation of the detritus of the previous world – a theme common in Riddley Walker- and also being protected by the older man. His dress- ‘blankets and robes’ possibly suggest the dress of some form of Old Testament prophet who may be protecting the boy through the ‘real’ world yet being guided by him in a dream world. It is the older man who scans the horizon, ‘glassing’ the horizon until the daylight ‘congeals over the land’.  This is a particularly unsettling metaphor, suggesting the pair being trapped under some form of tangible cover, possibly reinforcing the idea that there would be ‘no surviving a winter here’. This landscape and fear for the future, coupled with a need to stay on the move recalls the refugees in The Stand, moving to find food and shelter whilst under threat from the hostile armies which are seizing control of the land, or the revlation found by Todd in Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy once he is able to use Viola’s binoculars ot gain a clearer view of his chasers.

McCarthy’s narrative is clear and generally favours short sentences which precipitate the action except when he is describing the hellish cavern. The language here takes on a richness with similes helping to raise the intensity of the image. The pair are described as ‘pilgrims’ reinforcing their inherent goodness, yet the cavern itself is a metaphorical ‘granitic beast’ -the very earth is personified and made terrible. There is a semantic field suggesting the vast history of the place – ‘without cease’ ‘fable’,’ ancient lake’ all of which help, to create a sense of enormity and by doing so to indicate the fragility of the human forms in the story.

At times the language has resonances of Biblical text as in the simplicity of the phrase ‘he rose and left the boy sleeping’ or the ‘but there was none’ was searching for light in the east -the dawn of a new day. This ties well with McCormack’s vision. As with many Dystopian novels, the hope must be found among the ‘normal’ people and among the innocents – the children. In this passage the hope is the child- ‘his warrant’. The use of this word to mean his justification for his actions – pursuing the search for a better world as they head South – suggests the purpose of the passage  -that hope lies in the innocent in a corrupted world.

An extract from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a  novel set in a post-apocalyptic world, date and place unnamed , though the reader can assume it’s somewhere in what was the United States. It begins with a man and boy in the woods.( he believes the boy is given to him by God to take care of) The boy is asleep.  The two of them are making their journey along the road. Neither the man nor the boy is given a name; this anonymity adds to the novel’s tone that this could be happening anywhere, to anyone.

 

When he woke up in the woods in the dark and cold of the night, he reached out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights are dark beyond darkness and the days, more grey, each one that what had gone before, like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.  His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.  He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.  In the dream from which he’d awaken, he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand.  Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls, like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast.  Deep stones sleep where the water dripped and sang.  Tolling in the silence, the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease, until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black an ancient lake.  And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool, stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.  It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see.    Crouching there pale and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it; its bowels, its beating heart; the brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell.  It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

With the first grey light, he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south.  Barren.  Silent.  Godless.   He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure.  He hadn’t kept a calendar for years.  They were moving south.  There would be no surviving a winter here.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars, he glassed the valley below.  Everything was paling away into the murk.  The soft ash was blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.  He studied what he could see:  The segments of road down there among the dead trees; looking for anything of colour.  Any movement.  Any trace of standing smoke.  He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.  Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land.  He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said:  If he is not the word of God; God never spoke.

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5 Comments

Filed under OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, prose, teacher training

5 responses to “A level unseen: Dystopia (OCR)

  1. Annie

    Thank you for being so generous with your resources in these uncertain times of a new spec! I was just writing to enquire what structure you are advising using (e.g. SCASI?). My pupils are struggling…as am I! Thank you so much for your time.

    • I generally advocate scasi- the most recent one on here had little evident setting which threw the boys, as you hear in the recording…. I taught IBDP for several years and scasi seems the best way in to ensure that there’s something to write!

  2. Pingback: UNSEEN for discussion: The Time Machine. OCR A level | English teaching resources

  3. Annie

    Thank you again for these resources. I am getting my class to select a passage each from different texts. I will pass them on when I have them.

    Annie

  4. Pingback: More Dystopian Extracts for OCR A level | English teaching resources

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