Brook in the Woods near Oosterbeek and The Road

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Matthijs Maris, Brook in the Woods near Oosterbeek, ca. 1860

"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. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery." - Cormac McCarthy, The Road 

A post-apocalyptic world filled with horror and misery around every turn for a father and son. Death and destruction described in practically every scene, and yet, McCarthy leaves the reader with this passage. Gracefully depicting the flow and design of fish swimming in untarnished streams, McCarthy uses this imagery to impart buried wisdom to the readers, wisdom that completely escaped me the first time I read the passage. Class discussion and personal reflection on the novel allowed McCarthy's hidden lesson to float to the surface, and I realized that this passage, in conjunction with the novel, was the most powerful thing I had ever read. The contrast of this passage to the rest of the novel is shocking, as if McCarthy just needed to reach a quota of 287 pages and decided that confusing readers would be fun, but at same time, the novel would be incomplete without this addition.


Mystery lies on each page in the novel, and this final passage explores the power of mystery. McCarthy never explicitly tells the reader the event that altered the Earth, or the names of the two characters the novel follows or what really happens to the boy in the end. But isn't that what we want as readers? We get to shape our own opinion regarding the novel without being handed every minute detail. Suddenly, the boy and father become the reader and the reader's father, hopelessly trekking the barren Earth in search for some sign of hope or faith. The reader begins to imagine the scenes in his head, playing out similar scenarios and seriously contemplating, "What would I do?" And while the boy and father never directly locate their goal, the reader finds a semblance of faith in the last passage. The presence of fish, and life, and flowing, pure water refresh the reader after the dismal novel, suggesting that life may return to the Earth as it once was. However,  McCarthy simultaneously suggests that not everything can be undone. Even the last passage, although it alludes to the power of mystery in the rest of McCarthy's novel, contains mystery in itself. Can the barren land recover what it once lost? Or has man completely unraveled and destroyed nature to an irreversible state?

The final passage of The Road leaves no question answered, but explains why the reader has so many questions. And much like the novel, this painting alludes to that mystery. I may not know where that brook goes or who will swim in it or who or what will eventually tarnish it, but I do know that my imagination will create a multitude of possible endings, something that would be impossible without the presence of mystery.

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