It is perilous to attempt to analyse too specifically what any author gains from those who have gone before but I can't help but wonder whether light cannot be shed on the final enigmatic paragraph in Cormac McCarthy's The Road through reading one of Hemingway's fine short stories. [Incidentally, for more on (what I've written about) Hemingway click here and here.]
Many have commented on The Road's unexpected ending:
"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 be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
But few have compared it with the opening of Hemingway's 'Big Two-Hearted River' which also deals with a dead landscape and trout that live on in the streams:
"The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man has pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that has lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground."
So far so apocalyptic, one might think. But the story continues:
"Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled against the log piles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, coloured from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time."
There are plenty of differences between the two stories, of course. Nick is a solitary character whereas The Road is a novel about relationships; Hemingway's trout survive the fire storm: McCarthy's are only a memory. But I don't think it's too fanciful to see in McCarthy's novel a trace of the Hemingway story.
So what reason could there be for this literary recollection? One possibility, I think, can be found a few paragraphs on in Hemingway's story. "Seney was burned," the narrator tells us, "the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned."
As I've argued before, The Road is a strangely hopeful novel but it is an open-ended one. Does the boy survive? Is the destruction total? What the final paragraph in its literary context may suggest is that the answers to those two questions are 'Yes' and 'No'. There is a place where the fire has not burned. Survival is possible. And with survival may come love, the deep mystery that hums at the heart of this great novel.