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enotes-road-mccarthy-summary

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enotes-road-mccarthy-summary

  1. 1. Summary ©2014 eNotes.com, Inc. or its Licensors. Please see copyright information at the end of this document. Summary Introduction The Road, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, is Cormac McCarthy’s most accessible novel, one which immediately gained a foothold in book clubs and on school reading lists across America. It also joins All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian as one of McCarthy’s most critically acclaimed novels, though a departure from his usual western settings and themes. In a rare interview, McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey that his four-year-old son John practically cowrote the book: “I suppose it is a love story to my son.” Set sometime in the future after a global catastrophe, The Road chronicles a father and a son—maybe the last of the “good guys”—as they tread along a forsaken patch of highway peopled by marauders and cannibals. The novel can be read in a variety of ways.The Road is perhaps the most chilling commentary of the post-9/11 world.The post-apocalyptic setting plays upon the public’s fear of terrorism, pandemics, genocide, and weapons of mass destruction.Other readers hear the poetic passages of desolation and think of Dante’s descent into hell or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Michael Chabon, in his essay “Dark Adventure,” says the novel is both horror and epic adventure, that McCarthy deftly blends the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner and the extreme naturalism of Jack London. Still others see McCarthy continuing to wrestle with the existence of God, as the character Ely tells the father, “There is no God and we are his prophets.” The novel certainly plays upon a parent’s worst fears, but because its father-son relationship is crafted so tenderly, the overall effect is, ironically, anything but morbid. The Road is McCarthy at the height of his powers. The father and son’s journey to “carry the fire” is not only a testament to McCarthy’s love for his son but his faith in humanity. Overview Cormac McCarthy, winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, has created a story filled with some of the most horrendous acts human beings could ever commit. But it also demonstrates a bond between father and son that not even the near destruction of the world can tear apart. Only death could come close to accomplishing that, and even death fails. In a storytelling style that is stripped as bare as the novel’s setting, McCarthy recounts the journey of an unnamed man and boy, in an undefined location, who search among the debris in the aftermath of some cataclysmic event for morsels of food and warmth. Though their lungs are tortured by the thick ash that discolors and taints the air, and their unshod feet are blistered and almost frozen, they trudge forever forward, always hoping for something better, something similar to the past. They rarely find it. And they dare not linger, because other wanderers, likewise cold and hungry, will inevitably come upon them, fighting for the tidbits that the man and boy have found. In stark contrast to the devastated surroundings stands the man and boy’s unshaken devotion to one another. In a landscape where nothing blooms, their love flourishes and grows deeper, even as they wonder all the 1
  2. 2. while which one of them will die first. They keep three things in mind as they move south toward a dream of warmth: they must find food, they must find clean water, and they must continually hide. There are marauding groups of cannibals who look upon the man and boy as they themselves once looked upon livestock: as meat. The lone bullet in the man’s gun is saved for the boy, who has been instructed on how to kill himself should something happen to the man. This young boy, the only hope in a dismal environment, is all that matters to the man. He promises the boy that he will never leave him, but he cannot keep death at bay. The man finally succumbs. And the boy—still young in years, but aged through his challenging experiences—must find his own way. Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students) An undisclosed cataclysmic event has obliterated all but a few scattered forms of life on Earth. These are largely human predators, who carve a brutal, inhuman existence from the remnants of the old world. A few dogs, mere sacks of bones, remain in the wasted world, but other creatures—birds, insects, and fish—have disappeared entirely. There are scant remnants of fungi, but the landscape for the most part is a vast, cold ruin of dust and ash. About ten years after the cataclysm, a man and his son journey toward the eastern coast, ostensibly in an attempt to escape the oncoming Appalachian winter. The man’s wife— and the boy’s mother—committed suicide soon after the boy’s birth. Only one season, nuclear winter, persists in this postapocalyptic world, and the man and the boy continually struggle against varying intensities of bitter cold throughout their trek. Rain and snow mix with ash and toxic particulates that permanently shroud the sky; the biosphere has changed, and the few remaining people wear masks to reduce the torments of the diseased air they must breathe. Towns, cities, and all manner of human-made structures remain only as heaps of cinders and ashes. The earth’s devastation occurred quickly; the man recalls that the clocks stopped at 1:17 a.m. With the end of human civilization came the end of the earth’s resources. The world is now filled with blood cults and marauders, who exist among the corpses and waste. Most remaining humans are members of roving bands of cannibals, and all manner of goodness and grace have ostensibly come an end. Although the story follows the father and son as they travel the road, the man’s recollections and dream visions are interspersed throughout the narrative. He dreams of an uncle and of his dead wife, and he wonders what place these images have in this bleak and cold world of abominations beyond human imaginings. Humans in this world are so desperate that they procreate to survive: In one scene, the father and son happen upon a charred human infant on a spit. The man has a gun with two bullets, and he instructs his son that, if need be, the boy must use a bullet on himself. The man is protector, nurturer, and caregiver to his son. Indeed, he has survived solely for the boy’s sake. The man shepherds and instructs his son because he knows that within the boy lies the possibility of human goodness, but the man is dying, and along the journey he often coughs up blood. The road is dangerous, and the boy and the man walk, half-starved, pushing an old shopping cart filled with the few bits of food, tools, and clothing they possess. They live in constant peril of encountering other survivors who literally and metaphorically evince the unnatural landscape. The father and son refer to themselves as the “good guys,” and they talk often about a fire that they carry within. The words are like mantras, and the father reminds the boy of them several times after encounters with the remnants of cannibalistic campers along the road. The father also tells the boy that good guys are lucky, and this often proves to be the case: On the road, the two chance upon morel mushrooms, rotten apples, an unopened can of 2
  3. 3. soda, drops of gasoline or water that they siphon, and an undiscovered underground bunker full of boxes of food and drink. Several times, the boy ceases to speak for a while as a result of the horrors he witnesses. Early in the novel, the two encounter a dazed man who has been struck by lightning. Later, they meet another old man who says his name is Ely and who talks to the father about the absence of God. The boy is much friendlier toward the old man than is his father. The boy, and all that he may represent, may be the only hope in this chaotic new world. The man begins to cough more blood. The two travelers set up camp for the last time, and the father tells his son that he must go on alone. The following day, the boy wakens to find his father dead. He sits by the body of his dead father until a man appears on the road. Frightened at first, the boy trusts that the man is a good guy and so goes with him. There are others with the man, a woman and at least two children, and the woman talks to the boy about God. The final lines of the novel speak of brook trout in streams that once were. Extended Summary The novel opens with a father and son sleeping outside in the cold. The father awakens from a dream of him and his child in a cave, facing a huge, nameless creature that eventually runs away into the dark. At dawn, the father (who, along with the son, remains nameless throughout the novel) surveys the landscape, trying to decide where they will travel next. He is unsure of month or day, because "he hadn't kept a calendar for years." The scene before him reveals ash from a post-nuclear holocaust falling from the sky and drifting across the landscape. The father and son are survivors, fighting to live in a world that has been destroyed by nuclear bombs and ravaged by chaos and confusion. The boy wakens and they set off on their journey, following a road through the countryside. A grocery cart and knapsacks contain all of their belongings. There is a pervasive sense of danger, and they are constantly on the alert. Discovering an old, abandoned gas station, they explore the remains, hunting for food or other useful items. They find some motor oil and siphon it off to use in their only lamp. That night, at camp, the father reveals that they are heading south because it will hopefully be warmer there. The boy and his father travel south for "days and weeks to follow," with not much break during the monotonous journey. They suffer from an endless "nuclear winter"—rain, snow, and bitter cold. The father has flashbacks to his childhood home, to fishing with his uncle, and to his wife, who likely killed herself because she could not bear living in such a dreary world. He also dreams, and when the dreams are pleasant, happy ones, he worries, feeling that bad dreams are normal, but happy ones are "the call of...death." He believes that his dreams, if pleasant, are harbingers of death to come. Weak and afflicted with a cough, he worries that if he dies he will leave his son behind to fend for himself. He also worries constantly about shoes, shelter, food, and the unnamed danger, which the reader eventually learns is from packs of barbaric survivors who have turned to cannibalism. The father and son carry a single gun with only three bullets as protection against those who hunt and kill any other survivors for food. Along the road, they scavenge for blankets, canned food, and other useful goods from abandoned houses, grocery stores, barns, and sheds. The father at one point finds a can of Coca-Cola and gives it to the boy to try, who has never tasted the soft drink. They pass the house where the father grew up, and they walk through; however, the son is very afraid of being there. He is worried that there are people living inside that might harm them, and that being there makes them conspicuous targets. They leave and travel to waterfalls the father knew of as a child, and then continue onward along the road. 3
  4. 4. Throughout their travels, the father continues to have flashbacks to the first bombs, to his wife and her struggles to survive as the "walking dead in a horror film," and to his childhood life. Readers learn that his wife had the baby after the bombs, and so the boy has grown up his entire life in this post-nuclear world. The father tries to describe the world before the bombs, and the boy enjoys listening to the tales, asking many questions. They do not speak often of the boy's mother, but occasionally reference her when speaking of death. When the boy at one point mentions that he "wants to join her," the father chastises him, telling the boy to never say that again. On their journey, the father and son have several encounters with dangerous groups of cannibals. The first incident comes as they are sleeping near the road; they see a crowd of people coming, armed with clubs and pipes. They try to run, but one barbarian walks right into them. The father is forced to shoot the man, and although they manage to escape, they have to abandon the cart, which is then ransacked, leaving the father and son without any supplies. Later in the novel, they see another gang of cannibals passing on the road; they have slaves and many supplies; the father and son manage to hide and not be seen. Another encounter with these dangerous people occurs as the father and boy come up to a house that they think is abandoned; however, they quickly realize that it is occupied by the cannibals. In the basement are prisoners, chained and partially maimed, as the cannibals have taken body parts to eat. They again quickly leave without being seen. In another horrifying instance, they encounter a few people, including a pregnant woman, only to come across their empty camp the following day, with the remains of a newborn infant charred over the fire. These brief encounters make deep impressions on the young boy; he is often afraid, has nightmares, and is wary of buildings and other people. They do run across the occasional nonbarbaric survivor just trying to survive, struggling to find normal food like they are, and each time, the boy is moved to help. They meet one man who is shuffling along at a slow pace. The father guesses he has "been struck by lightning." The boy wants to stop and help, but the father insists that there is nothing that they can do for the man and that he will die. The boy is distressed and upset at this, and they both speak of it for days to come, the father trying to convince him that it was okay to leave the man, that there was nothing to be done. Another time they come across a ninety-year-old man, whom they travel with for a few days. They give him food and ask him questions; the man's responses are guarded and ambiguous. He hints that there are other "good" survivors out there, and that groups of them have fed him and taken care of him before. The father questions him about this, but the old man takes back what he has said, refusing to give out any more information. The father and son argue for days about what to do with the old man, whether to keep him as their companion traveler, or to leave him behind. The son has an innate desire to reach out and group together, to help others survive. The father discourages this, explaining that taking on people will slow them down, make them more vulnerable to attack, and deplete their food reserves. They end up leaving the old man behind, to the boy's dismay, and the father struggles to convince him that it is for their own good, for their own survival that they must do so. At one point they find an underground bunker filled with food and supplies. They stay there for a few days, eating and sleeping, but unfortunately they cannot stay because it is too dangerous. If they were discovered, their lives would be at risk. They eventually make it to their destination—the ocean, in the south—only to discover that it is no warmer than anywhere else, with no more shelter or food. They scavenge a shipwrecked ocean liner, but as they were doing so, they discover that someone has ransacked their cart and all of their supplies; they follow the culprit's tracks in the ash and confront him. The father, using his gun as a threat, takes back all of their belongings and leaves the man, naked, standing alone. Later, the father sees a man in the distance, shooting an arrow at them. He ducks for cover with his son, but is hit in the leg. Eventually, they move on, going along the coast, scavenging as they can. The father becomes afflicted with a cough that gets progressively worse, and eventually he is overwhelmed by the illness. The boy takes over hunting for food, and tries to revive his father, to no avail. The father perishes during the night. 4
  5. 5. The boy is now left on his own. He tries to gather his things and formulate a plan, but as he does so, he is approached by a man who turns out to be kind, one of the "good guys." He is the father of a family that is living in hiding. The man helps the boy leave his father's body, takes the boy into his own family, and readers are left assuming that he will continue his quest for survival with them. Summary and Analysis Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis Summary Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is classified as a post-apocalyptic novel. It takes place after an undisclosed, major disaster that has caused a total breakdown of society. At the opening of the novel, the narrator refers to a man only by naming him through pronouns, such as he and him. This man has awakened in the woods. He is with a young child. And it is cold and extremely dark. Even the days lack sunshine, as the skies are heavy with ash. The lack of light the man likens to a mythical, dreamlike journey through the insides of some beast. The man’s clothes stink, and the only shelter the man and boy have is a plastic tarpaulin. They have been on the move for years. The man rises and leaves the sleeping boy to walk a short distance to the road. The road is leading them south. The man knows that their only hope of survival is to find warmth. He hopes the sun is stronger in the south, like it used to be. But there is no guarantee. The man believes it is October, but he is not sure. The landscape that the man spies with his binoculars is barren. The trees are dead. The wind pushes small clouds of ash along the top of the road. He scans the sterile fields around him and beyond, looking for signs of life—something with color or columns of smoke that would signify other humans. The man squats down and waits for the sun to rise. He thinks about the boy and acknowledges to himself that the boy is all that remains for him. For him, the boy is the only sign left that God still exists. Everything else around him, this implies, has died or become desolate. If it were not for the boy, the man might completely lose his faith in goodness. The man walks back to where the boy is still sleeping. He lays out the meager supplies of their breakfast, putting down a plastic covering that will serve as a table, placing some corncakes on plates, and pulling out a bottle of syrup. All that they own is either wrapped around their bodies to keep them warm or stored in a shopping cart. When the skimpy breakfast is prepared, the man sits again and watches the boy sleep. The man has a gun in his hand. Safety is his main concern. They are too close to the road, the man fears. As the day lightens, someone passing by might see them. The boy awakens and calls out to his father. His father assures him that he is nearby. The boy sounds confident, knowing that his father is watching over him. After they have eaten, they pack up their things and move on. The father pushes the grocery cart before them. The rest of their possessions, the most important items, the man and the boy carry on their backs in knapsacks. They never know when or how danger will appear, and they must be ready to run, abandon the cart if they must. Though most times they are the only people that make up their world, they are ever vigilant. The man has even rigged an old, side mirror to the cart so that he can quickly see if anyone is following them. The road is empty as far as the man can see, but he is forever wary. The author continues to paint the scene in hues of black and grey, signifying a depressing landscape that represents death. Rivers in the distance have no hint of blue. The water shows no movement. Ash has fallen everywhere. There is no explanation from where the ash has come or what has caused it. Enough is implied through the description of what the man and boy are seeing, how they are living, how they are struggling to stay alive to allow readers to come to their own conclusions of what might have happened. Also, not knowing all the precise details of the past creates a tension in the story. Readers will find that they want to know more 5
  6. 6. and so will keep turning the pages to learn about the back story, what happened to make the world these two characters find themselves in so unlivable. The weather gets colder. One night it snows. But the snow falls like gray flakes. They see only burned buildings when they walk through ghost towns. Doors are left open to stores, and they check explore one. There is little of value for them to take. He drains some oilcans at a deserted gas station. They can use the fuel to light their lamp. But most nights, he is too afraid of using the lamp or of making a fire. He does not want anyone to find them. They walk through the town where his uncle used to live. He remembers the summer days of his youth, fishing with his uncle. Everything is gone now. He does not say or think about what happened to his family. He suggests to the boy that he not take in all the things to see, such as a corpse lying in the street. He says that people tend to remember what they do not want to remember and forget what they wish they could keep. He uses the terms “bloodcults,” “road-agents,” and “marauders,” but he does not explain these words. It is obvious he is concerned about them. He hopes they have done one another in and will not bother him and the boy. In another town, they enter an old barn in search of food. They find three bodies hanging from the rafters. The boy wants to continue to search for kernels of corn. But the man tells him that they must move on. In a smokehouse, they find the remains of a ham. It is dried but edible. They have a feast. He coughs badly in the night and curses the sickness that is finding a home in his chest. He sleeps poorly, but he does have dreams. They catch him off guard. He dreams of colorful landscapes and his wife. He does not understand why his dreams run so contrary to what he is experiencing when he is awake. He and the boy come to another small town. He enters a clapboard house that sits behind what was once a row of hedges. Inside the kitchen, he finds dishes still in the cupboards, a piano in the living room, blankets on the beds, toys in a child’s bedroom. He takes the blankets, and they are back on the road again. The next morning they reach the city they have seen in the distance for many days. It is the city in which the man grew up. There are dead bodies everywhere. The man and boy walk into an abandoned supermarket. The man finds a soda in an old vending machine. Someone has tipped the machine over. Coins cover the floor. They take none of it, as it is useless. The man encourages the boy to drink the soda. It is the first that the boy has ever tasted. As he drinks it, the boy realizes it may also be his last. Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis Summary Memories are stirred as the man rummages through the house he had lived in as a boy. Though the roof has caved in over parts of the house, the man sees it as it once was. The boy, however, feels uncomfortable in the house, as if he could feel the ghosts that his father was seeing. They find the remnants of a small animal, now a neat pile of bones. The man thinks the animal might have been a cat, possibly someone’s pet at one time. The narrator insinuates that a human must have eaten it. The backyard behind the house is a dead zone. Only skeletons of bushes and trees remain. The man and the boy look through all the rooms but find nothing they can use. They do not stay there long. They travel for three days through the nearby mountains. They cannot find a safe place to build a fire, a place far enough from the road so that no one will see the flames. Instead they huddle together under the blankets that they had recently confiscated from one of the houses that they rummaged through. The man worries about the boy. He thinks of death. He remembers a woman (readers are not told who this woman is). The woman tells him that the only thing between him and death is his son. 6
  7. 7. One night, as they are sleeping, the man and boy are stirred. They hear a loud noise rumbling toward them. As it passes, the man feels the energy under the ground. The boy is scared and asks what it is. The man replies that it is an earthquake. The boy returns to sleep, but the man stays awake remembering what the first years on the road were like. There were more people then, most of them sitting in rags along the sides of the streets, staring out at nothing. He thinks about how the things he used to worry about, before this catastrophe, had suddenly disappeared. In comparison to the trauma that he was now experiencing, those earlier worries became insignificant. The weather in the mountains grows worse. Snow is falling. There is at least two inches on the ground. Pushing the grocery cart becomes more difficult. If the snow gets thicker, the man thinks, they will have to leave the cart behind. But the snow helps them, too. The snow marks tracks, so they can tell if anything or anyone is near them. There are no tracks to be found. So each night, they build a fire to keep themselves warm and to cook their food. The man worries that they might not have enough food to get out of the mountains. But then, the cold could kill them too. One night, the man doubles over in a coughing fit. He leaves blood splattered on the gray snow. The man has a dream of a woman. She is sick, but he takes care of her. He senses, in the dream, that he does not really take care of her, because he knows that she died while he was not with her. He also has another memory of the past, those years immediately following the catastrophe. He evokes visions of people impaled on stakes and the cries of those who are murdered. He does not know their crimes. Many people also committed suicide. The man and the boy finally reach the summit of the mountain they are crossing. The man recognizes the gap that his father had once taken him through when he was a boy. There are six inches of snow on the ground now. Pushing the cart takes all the man’s energy. At times the snow is so deep, the man pulls the cart behind him, creating a path through the snow with his feet. One night, the man fixes the boy the last of the hot cocoa mix. He fixes himself just a cup of hot water. The boy reminds his father that he had promised not to do that any more. The father gives in and shares the hot chocolate with his son. When the boy’s feet get cold, the father places them under his shirt. The boy’s feet are warmed against his father’s bare stomach. They come to a river that is not entirely weighed down by ash and soot. A tall waterfall blasts the air around it with a rumble. Though the water and the air are cold, the man and the boy cannot resist taking off their clothes and plunging into the river. The man, upon seeing his son unclothed, is shocked at how thin he is. Dried and fully dressed once again, the man searches the woods for food. He finds mushrooms. He tastes one and tells his son to eat them. They are safe. The man’s knowledge of the woods is apparent. He and his father used to hike the countryside. The boy wants to stay in this place close to the river. But the father knows the weather will eventually be getting colder. He knows they must spend the winter farther south. He stares into the river, once again remembering his past. He and his father used to fish from this river. They used to catch trout. The trout are all gone now. When the man tosses a white rock into the river, which was once transparent, the rock disappears as soon as it sinks below the surface. When the boy asks why they cannot follow the river, the father says it is not safe. The river flows east to west, and they must go south. The boy wants to know how his father knows this. So the man pulls out an old map, shows the boy the line that represents the river. He also shows the boy the dark lines that outline the roads. The man mentions that some of the roads are called state roads. The boy wants to know what state means. The man explains. Then he tells the boy that states no longer exist. There are no remnants of organized society, no government, no laws. They continue along the road until they come to an old truck that has jackknifed itself across the width of a bridge they must use to cross the river. The man climbs into the cab of the truck but finds nothing they can use. He is curious what might be in the trailer. So he makes his way to the top of the trailer, hoping to find a 7
  8. 8. hole. He cannot imagine that no one else has explored it, so he does not expect to find anything of value inside. But his curiosity is stronger than his rational thoughts. Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis Summary When the man climbs onto the roof of the jackknifed trailer truck, he finds a hole. It is too dark to see inside the trailer, so he wads pages of a magazine he has in his back pocket. He sets the pages on fire and drops them to the floor of the trailer. In the dim light, he sees bodies, dead and dried, sprawled on the floor. Later, as they walk along the road, the man looks out at the landscape. There are fires burning in the woods in the distance. When the man and boy get closer to the fires, they smell the smoke. They feel the heat. In places, the road is so hot it is melting, and they cannot progress. They duck into the woods and wait for the road to cool. The next day they see footprints in the now cooled road. Farther ahead, they see a man. He looks as if he has been burned. His clothes are blackened, as is his face and hair. They walk behind the man for a while but eventually must pass him because the stranger is walking too slowly. When they pass him, the boy cries. He asks his father to help the burned man. He also asks what is wrong with him. The father tells the boy that the man has been struck by lightning. There is nothing that they can do for him. They have nothing to spare. The boy accepts this reluctantly. He continues to look back and to tug on his father’s hand. Eventually, the boy stops crying and does not turn around again. When they stop for the night, the boy has not talked to his father. So the father explains again that the burned man was dying. He tells his son they did not have enough food to share. If they had shared what they had with the man, they too would die. The boy says he understands. The father asks if the boy will now talk to him again. The boy responds that that is what he is doing. Later, when he takes a break from walking, the man empties his wallet and flings the old, worn leather into the woods. He looks at the credit cards, his driver’s license, and a photograph of his wife. He leaves all these things on the road. He has no more use of them. Later, he wishes that he had kept the photograph. He thinks he should keep something of the boy’s mother. He does not know what to tell the boy about his mother. He thinks he could make up stories, but he decides not to. The man has a memory of the beginning of the catastrophe. He is standing at the window of his house. His wife is standing nearby, cradling her belly. This image insinuates that the wife is pregnant. In the distance, there are explosions and bursts of red light. The lights in the house go out. The man instinctively turns on the faucets in the bathtub and captures as much water as is left. He does not explain what he is doing. His wife thinks he is about to take a bath. Readers can deduce that the man is saving water for drinking. The man senses that, like the electricity, the water will also be cut off. They will need water to survive. He also remembers hearing a flock of geese in those early days. The geese were migrating. It was the last flock that the man ever heard or saw again. One morning the boy awakens to his father’s coughing. The boy tells his father that he wishes he were with his mother. The father asks if the boy means that he wishes he were dead. The boy answers in the affirmative. The father tells him that he should not think like that. When the boy asks how he can stop thinking these thoughts, his father has no answer for him. The man reflects on his past. He remembers the night his wife committed suicide. She tells him she cannot go on. She is afraid that one day people will meet up with them and will rape and kill her. She is also fearful of the same acts done to her son. She tells the man that she would kill her son if she could so he would not suffer. The man begs her to stay. She tells him she cannot. She reminds him that he has only two bullets left in his gun. The insinuation is that those bullets are to be used to kill himself and his son should they be overtaken by people on the road, people who come to kill and eat them. 8
  9. 9. Back in the present moment, one morning as the man and boy awaken, they hear a noise, the sound of an old truck coming down the road. They are quiet. The boy is terrified. The man pushes the grocery cart into some underbrush and turns it on its side to better hide it. A stranger, a large-built man, enters the woods and passes by very closely to them. The father pulls the pistol out from under his belt and makes the man stop. The father has seen the truck. There were many other men standing in the back of it. The father asks where the truck is going and what the men are doing. The stranger claims not to know. But he tells the father and his son that they should join them. The stranger continues looking at the son. The father is caught of guard when the stranger drops the belt he was holding. In a quick flash, the stranger has grabbed the son and holds a knife to the boy’s throat. The father shoots one bullet, and it meets its mark in the middle of the stranger’s forehead. Without thinking, the father grabs his son and places him on his shoulders and starts running as fast as he can. The man runs until he cannot run any longer. He is coughing violently. Blood smears his face. He catches his breath and tells the boy that they must continue. They still hear noises from the men. They move on until night. The boy is shivering by the time they stop. They have only one blanket now. The man wraps the boy in the blanket, then opens his jacket and snuggles the boy close to him. The boy is so cold that his body is jerking. The man cannot see because it is now night. The darkness is thick around him. He holds the boy’s hand and tells him he must move to keep warm. They continue until the boy collapses. When light returns, the man sits and listens for sounds. They hear the truck but no footsteps can be heard in the woods. The man goes out to the road and sees the tire tracks. He has no idea how far ahead of them the truck is. If they continue, they could walk right into an ambush. The man stops and feeds the boy as he tries to figure out what to do next. Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis Summary The man could tell by the tracks and the other imprints on the road that the men in the truck have spent the night there. He walked back to where they first encountered the strangers. The man made the boy hide in the woods as he searched for the grocery cart he had left there. When he found it, he discovered that the cart had been emptied except for some ragged clothes and a worn-out pair of shoes. The scant remains of the boy’s toys were there too. Everything else was gone. In the dim light he also saw dried blood. In a corner was a pile of skin and bones. From the clues that remained, the man figured out that they must have boiled the man he had killed. From this description, readers can conclude that the strangers ate the dead man. Food is so scarce that cannibalism has set in as a survival mode. The boy is very frightened, hungry, and cold as more snow falls and their provisions diminish. The man insists on washing the boy in the cold river. There is blood in the boy’s hair from his father having shot the stranger in the head. Parts of the stranger’s brain are also splattered on the boy’s head. They have only one blanket now and must also worry about the strangers in the truck. However, they find shelter under a bridge and are able to build a fire. The boy falls asleep from exhaustion after eating a meager meal. The man stays up most of the night, gathering wood to keep the small fire going. In a vision he sees his brother. Not much is said about this vision. It might rather have been used to show the deterioration of the man’s mind. The next night, they eat the contents of the last tin of food—pork and beans, the boy’s favorite. The man had been saving it. He wishes he had been more careful with their remaining food. He is sorry that he lost it. He reminds the boy that he had wanted to see what the bad guys looked like. Now that is done. The boy is concerned and asks if they, the father and the son, are still the good guys. His father confirms that they are. The boy accepts this with another question, wondering if this will always be true. His father assures him that they will always be the good guys. 9
  10. 10. In the light of day, the man scans the landscape ahead, looking for signs of life. Unfortunately, a sign of life could be good or bad for them. It is hard to tell from a distance. But he sees nothing moving. The boy asks to look through the binoculars. When he does, he sees some smoke. The boy points it out to his father. The man had missed it. He decides they need to take the risk of getting closer to examine the circumstances better. They need food. If the place shows signs of being a commune (which is not defined yet), they will move on. However, if the place looks like it houses a group of refugees, like themselves, they might find something to eat. They move closer. They come to a town and rummage through stores and the trash cans behind them. But they find nothing they can use—no food, no vitamins, no shoes. The boy is very tired, but the father says they must keep looking. He comes across dead bodies in a walk-in freezer. Later they hunt through vacant houses. He removes a blanket from a corpse. Out on the street, they hear a sound. At first they cannot identify it. Then the man recognizes the sound. It is a dog barking. They wonder how it has survived. Though the boy is hungry, he does not want to harm the animal. He asks his father if he will kill it. The father hears the empathy in his son’s voice. He promises that they will leave the dog alone. At night, they find an abandoned car. The father had come across some new suits in a department store. The material was dusty but usable. He piles the coats on top of his son and tries to sleep. During the night, he notices flickering lights coming from some of the buildings in the city. The boy awakens and also sees the lights. He wants to know who might be living there. The father tells him that he has no idea. Then the boy asks the father if they are going to be all right. The father tries to calm the boy’s fear. He promises that they will make it. The boy says that they will make it because they carry the light. This expression is not explained. It might be something that the father had once mentioned to the boy. It might also be religious terminology. Since the father told his son that they represent the good, this might be a reference to that concept. The next day, the man finds an old container of cornmeal. He must sift out rat excrement from the meal before they can eat it. The man makes some simple corncakes, which they eat. The snow has changed to a cold rain. While his father is scavenging, the boy sits at the back of an empty house. When he looks up, he sees a boy, about his same age, across the street. The boy jumps up and follows the other boy, who disappears from view. He calls out to him, but the other boy does not return. He yells that he will not hurt him. His father comes running back and shouts at the boy, afraid that someone might have heard him. The boy starts crying. The father tells him that now they have to get out of there. The boy does not want to leave. He just wants to see the boy again. The father, out of anger, asks the boy if he wants to die. The boy says he does not care. This makes the father stop. He kneels down to the boy’s height and looks at him. Then he apologizes. He tells the boy never to say that. As they continue walking, the boy talks about the little boy he had seen. He begs his father to go back. Maybe that boy is hungry. He tells his father that he would share half of his food with the other boy. Then he asks his father to go back for the dog. He believes the dog would hunt for food and share it with them. They do not go back. They come across skulls mounted and painted at an abandoned farm. Dried blood is on the grass. While they look around for food, they hear a noise. The father makes the boy lie down. He lies over him and tells the boy not to look. In the distance the father sees a parade of men, mean looking, with steel pipes in their hands. Some of the pipes are wrapped in chain. The men are ragged. They pass by on the road, no more than 200 feet away from where the man and boy are hiding. After the men comes a wagon of goods for war. The wagon is pulled by men harnessed together. The man believes those who pull the wagon are slaves. Behind the wagon are women, some of them pregnant. The last group of people, the most haggard-looking, have dog collars 10
  11. 11. around their necks. After they pass, the boy asks his father if those are the bad people. The father confirms the boy’s thoughts. Then he takes out his map and searches for another route. He thinks it is a bad sign to see so many of these people on the move. Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis Summary The weather is getting worse. Snow is constantly falling. The man and the boy have no food to eat. Their clothing is wet, and they are constantly cold. The boy is always shivering. The man looks at his son and barely recognizes him. The boy is so thin that his eyes are sunken in their sockets. They both are exhausted. But they must move on. Their footprints are too obvious in the snow, making them easy to track. The man makes small fires each night. The wood is so dry, the fires do not last long. So he must spend most of the night collecting limbs to burn. Their shoes are not keeping their feet dry, so the man makes coverings for their feet by tearing pieces from the suit coats that he found earlier. He cuts the plastic tarp that they have used as a shelter at night and wraps part of the plastic tarp around their feet; he then ties the bundles with strips of material from the suit coats’ linings. After he makes these self-fashioned snow shoes for the boy, the boy insists that the father make some for himself. The boy is aware of the sacrifices that his father makes for him, so he feels he must remind the father to also take care of himself. The snow is up to the man’s knees. This makes it impossible for the man to push the cart through the snow. So he empties the cart and puts as much as will fit inside his backpack, then he carries everything. But he does not have enough energy to carry the boy. The boy lags behind him as they walk along the road. The man must stop several times to encourage the boy to keep moving. Their lack of energy as well as the high drifts of snow slow their progress. The man guesses that they might be walking only three miles a day. The author’s language is sparse throughout this novel, but in particular McCarthy uses very few words to evoke the emotions both the man and the boy are experiencing. The limited verbiage fits the stark landscape as well as the waning scraps of food and lack of warmth that the characters are facing. Thus readers sense the dire experience as if they were there, as hungry and as desperate as the characters. The boy feels so desperate that he asks his father if they are going to die. The father, at first, tells the boy no. So the boy asks his father if this is true. The father tells the boy he does not know for sure. The boy wants to know how long they can last without food. Again the father tells him that he does not know. He diverts the boy’s attention by pointing out that they still have water. Water can keep them alive a little longer. Their plight does not improve. More snow falls. The man fears they will not make it, but he does not tell the boy. He knows they must keep moving to keep warm and to keep from being found. But he also knows that they have barely enough energy to keep themselves alive. He sees tire tracks in the snow. He believes it is a wagon being pulled. He knows that people are nearby. However, this does not keep him from searching abandoned homes. His need of food is more pressing than his concern for safety. One night he hears noises nearby. At first he cannot tell where they are coming from. Then he realizes that the dead trees are falling under the weight of the snow. He wakes the boy in the middle of the night and tells him they must once again move. They are camped under trees. The man now knows the campsite they have chosen is dangerous. After days of pushing themselves through the snow, they come to a large, once-magnificent old house. Though the boy pleads that his father not go near it, the man insists. He continues to remind the boy that they need food. In the yard, he finds an empty wagon, but his mind is so focused on food, he does not connect this wagon with the tracks he had seen earlier. He enters the house. He finds piles of clothes and sleeping bags. Still he is not alarmed. His mind is numb to everything but hunger. The man’s mind registers objects without 11
  12. 12. reasoning them out. His thoughts are focused on food. He searches pantries and cupboards. He glances out at the yard. Everything is still, so he goes on. Then he sees a trap door on the floor in one of the large rooms. The door is bolted with a lock. He tells the boy he must find a tool to break the lock. Again the boy pleads with his father to leave the house. The boy is trembling with fear. The father insists that there is a reason for the lock. He believes something valuable must be hidden there. He must find a crowbar or some other strong tool. He pulls the boy with him when he goes into the yard; he then pulls him back into the house and begins to hack away at the trap door. Eventually he destroys the door and finds it leads to a staircase. He descends, pulling the boy behind him. He creates a flame with his lighter and becomes so disgusted with what he sees, he drops the lighter and flees. In the basement are men in chains. Some have no legs. All of them begged the man to free them. The man runs out of the house completely horrified. The impression is that these people have become a source of food. They are being eaten piece by piece. As the man runs away, he tries to hide the boy’s eyes. He hopes the boy has seen none of this. When they reach the upper floor, they both see a group of men and women, walking up the drive. The man and boy run out another door and race toward the woods. The man knows they have only seconds before they are seen. He pushes the gun into the boy’s hands and asks him if he remembers what to do. The boy is hesitant, but says that he knows. The father reminds him that he needs to stick the gun in his mouth and pull the trigger if anything should happen to him or if he does not return. Then the father takes back the gun. He senses that the boy is not strong enough to kill himself. The father had wished that the boy could commit suicide in order not to be taken by these cannibals. He was planning on running in the opposite direction, trying to pull the people off the trail of the boy. But when he realizes that the boy will not kill himself before he is caught, the man decides to stay with the boy and take his chances that the people have not seen them. After all that running, the man has to fight the urge to cough. If they make a sound, the people are near enough to hear them. The man and the boy crunch down in the snow and the dry leaves, awaiting their fate. Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis Summary The man and the boy remain as still as if frozen stiff. The people at the house did not see them, but they are afraid to move. While they wait for dark to fall, the man questions himself, asking if he would be strong enough to kill the boy should the people find them. Could he pull the trigger, he wonders. If the gun should fail, could he crush his son’s skull, kill him so the people would not torture him? The man cannot answer. His thoughts are too dull. His body is too tired. He does not want to think about the death of his son, though the thought has been haunting him for a long time. When night does come, the man finds that he is too tired to run. He pulls their single blanket out of his knapsack and covers the boy. The boy finally falls asleep. The father cannot fall asleep. He must remain vigilant. When he hears blood-curdling shrieks coming from the house, the man covers his son’s ears. The boy does not stir. The man notices a small building like a tool house. Inside, the man imagines, is a man standing on guard outside the house. The guard is watching the road, waiting for anything to move. The man suspects that there is some kind of warning system with which the guard can warn the people inside the big house. The man and the boy must wait until all fires inside the house are put out. When the time comes, the man wakes the boy. They must move on. The boy totters on his feet. He can barely speak. He asks the man to carry him. The man does, but he must put the boy down every fifty feet. The man has so little energy to carry his own weight. But he knows if they do not move, they will be discovered. They trudge on, weary from lack of sleep and no food. Days later, the man sees another house in the distance. He is concerned about making another mistake, but they still must find food. The boy is sound asleep. The man does not want to wake him, so he remains undecided. He also does not want to put the boy in any danger and take him with him as he had done at the other house that they just barely escaped. He decides that going 12
  13. 13. to the house alone is the best thing he can do. So he lays the pistol at the boy’s side. Then he moves forward alone toward this new place, hoping for food. The man searches the barn at the back of the house first. He finds bales of hay up in a loft and prods out several seeds and chews them, believing they must contain some nutrients. Then he walks through an old apple orchard. The trees are dead, but his foot steps on a lump and he looks down. A dried-out apple is lying on the ground. He eats the whole tasteless fruit, core and all. Then he searches the rest of the orchard. In the end, his pockets are full, so he fills the hood of his parka. There are too many apples to carry back with him. Next, the man notices a drainpipe running into a square of concrete. He investigates, cleaning off the cover, removing debris and some screening. Finally he lifts an interior tray of charcoal and beneath it he discovers a cistern of sweet, clear water. This is the best water he has ever tasted. He drinks his fill and feels refreshed. He hurries as fast as he can back to the boy, who appears not to have awakened in the man’s absence. When the boy opens his eyes, the two of them have a feast of dried apples. The man had filled several jars with the clear water. In the kitchen of the old house, the man had found a sugary, grape flavored powder. He mixes some of it into one of the jars of water to provide a new treat for his son. Then they move on. They cannot stop. The rains come again. The boy shivers in his wet clothes. They have no fire because the man has lost his lighter. He promises to find some flint with which he can make sparks. When the rains stop, the man has the boy undress. He wraps him in the blanket while he wrings out the water from their drenched clothing. The man stares at his son. He finds that the boy looks like an alien with all but translucent skin and bulging eyes. The boy’s hunger has taken something out of him that the father fears he may never be able to put back. They come to towns that have signs painted at the outskirts, telling others to keep out. The man feels that the land around them has been scoured of every morsel of food. He begins to think they should just find a place to die. They rummage through almost every house they encounter. At one house they cross in front of a mirror. The man reaches for his gun to point at the images. The boy shouts out that the figures the man sees is them. Some distance from the town, they come across another house and barn. The boy is scared. He does not want his father to search unfamiliar places any longer. The man knows that he cannot stop. He tells the boy that this is what good people do. They do not stop trying. They keep searching for what they need. They do not give up. The man finds some old gasoline and concocts a lamp with the fuel, an old rag, and a bottle. He wanders across the property. While crossing the lawn, his foot steps on top of something that sounds and feels different from the rest of the dead grass. He prods the dirt with his shoe. Then he returns to the barn and brings back a shovel. After scraping away the dirt, the shovel touches wood. The wood turns out to be a door. They boy does not want the man to open it. The door reminds him too much of the other door in that big house, the door that led to the people in chains. No matter how hungry they get, the boy says to the father, they would never eat anyone, would they? The father tells him they would never do that no matter what. Before the man opens the door, he looks over at his son. He asks if the boy is all right. The boy nods quietly. Then the man pulls away the door and throws it on the dead grass. There is a set of roughly hewed wooden stairs, man-made. The steps lead downward into the darkness. Before moving his foot onto the first step, the man looks back at his son, stops, and kisses him. Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis Summary The man explores the bunker he has uncovered. It is made of concrete blocks with a concrete floor covered in 13
  14. 14. kitchen tile. Inside are cots with mattresses and blankets. The man cannot believe what he sees. He encourages the boy to descend the stairs. As he waits for the boy, the man continues to look around. There are shelves filled with boxes of canned food. The man finds vegetables, fruits, and canned meat. Plastic bags are filled with blankets and warm clothing such as sweaters and socks. The boy is hesitant. When he finally comes down, his mind can barely comprehend what they have found. It is as if they have uncovered items from another world, a world that no longer exists for them. The boy questions his father, asking him who might have created this place. The man explains that some people must have planned for a future disaster, but they never got the chance to use what they had built. The boy feels bad that they are enjoying what those people were not able to. He asks his father if the people had died. His father assumes that they did. The boy wants to know if it is all right that they are eating someone else’s food. The father assures the boy that the people would have wanted them to, just as they would have wanted those people to use things they might have left behind had the circumstances been reversed. The boy asks if these people had been good. The father answers in the affirmative. He says they were good, just as the father and son are good. After eating, the man discovers batteries and flashlights, lanterns, and a chemical toilet. They eat cans of fruit for dinner, being cautious not to overeat so they do not get sick. Their stomachs are not used to digesting since it has been so long since they have eaten anything. Then the man puts the boy to bed, covering him in blankets. He truly sees how filthy they both have become. The man finds soap and sponges, toothbrushes and toothpaste. In a side cabinet, he finds a heater and fuel. He also uncovers bullets, but no guns. The bullets, unfortunately, do not fit the man’s pistol. Then the man goes to sleep after eating a chocolate candy bar. When the man awakens, he looks outside, slightly disoriented by where he finds himself. He sees a faint light in the sky, but when he positions himself correctly, it looks like the sun is rising in the west. Then he realizes that he and the boy have slept through the night plus the next day. The sun is actually setting. He sits and meditates about where they have been and where they are now. He remembers that he had been ready to die, but now they are going to live. And this new feeling of life makes him more cautious once again. If anyone came by, they would see the trap door to the bunker. The man and the boy could easily be found out. He would have to find some way to camouflage the doorway. In the meantime, he returns to the bunker and fixes a big breakfast. They eat ham and eggs and biscuits. The man fixes coffee and offers the boy a cupful. Before eating, the boy feels that they should give thanks to the people who created the bunker. He thanks them and tells them how sorry he is that they were not able to enjoy the bounty. Later, the man and the boy carry the heater and some pans to the main house where they locate a bathroom tub. The man heats water, and he and the boy scrub themselves clean. The man also washes their clothes. They return to the bunker, where the man cuts the boy’s hair. The man shaves, noticing how strange his thin face looks. After eating another meal and playing a game of checkers, the boy asks his father how long they can stay. The father reminds him that it is not really safe there. They could easily be discovered. They can stay only a couple days. The boy is scared again, asking his father if he thinks they will be found out. The father tries to take away the boy’s fears. He tells him that no one will come, but they still must move on. During the night, the man returns to the main house and drags out some chairs and an old mattress. He covers the trap door with the mattress. He believes this will hide the door, at least for the time being. While the boy sleeps, the man carves out wooden bullets that fit his pistol. He rubs ash on the wood to make it look like metal. He fits the fake bullets into his gun, making it look like his gun is fully loaded, hoping to scare anyone who might intrude. 14
  15. 15. The next day, the man and the boy wander into a nearby town that is deserted. They find a grocery store and take one of the carts. The boy tells his father that they should take two carts. He could push one of them. His father insists that one will do. Besides, he needs his son to act as lookout, he says. They then enter a conversation about being on the look out. The boy wants to know if his father is afraid someone will find them. They father says it is always smart to be cautious. It rains quite heavily that night. The man lifts the door to look out. The mattress is heavy with water. But the man believes that the bunker is tightly sealed and will not flood even though the yard around the trap door is filled with puddles of rain. The next day it rains more. So the man decides that they can afford to stay an extra day. He suspects there will not be anyone on the road in a storm like this. They have stored the grocery cart in the barn. They spend the next day filling it with new supplies. The next morning they will leave. The next day, the cart is so heavy and the earth so soggy, they have to stay on the road in order to travel. They continue moving south. The man suspects that they are about 200 miles from the coastline that he is trying to reach. He has no proof of this, but he estimates the distance. The man makes a reference to an old saying, “as the crow flies,” indicating that the 200 miles he has estimated is a straight line from where they are to the coast, not necessarily how far they will have to walk. The boy then launches into a series of questions, asking his father that if crows wanted to get away from earth, could they also fly to another planet. This represents the boy imagining an escape from the world that they are living in. The father tells the boy that the birds were not strong enough to fly that far away. They stop at the side of the road for the night. Before falling asleep, the boy asks his father what his future goals are for them. The father answers that he does not know. Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis Summary The boy signals for his father to stop. The boy had been walking in front of the grocery cart. The man and the boy are on the road again. The boy points to a figure up the road. The man cannot make out what it is at first. It looks not much more than a pile of rags. The boy asks what they should do. The father looks around. He sees only the lone figure. It could be a trap. They walk slowly, but the figure ahead walks even slower. Eventually they come up to it and pass it. The man looks back. It is an old man, bent over, and holding a cane that he taps along the road as he shuffles his feet. When they pass, the old man tells them that he has nothing. He has a rag wrapped around his head as if he might have a toothache. He is even dirtier than the father and the son. And he stinks worse than anyone else they have encountered. The old man eventually squats down at the side of the road. The boy approaches him and puts his hand on the old man’s shoulder. The old man is shaking. The boy tells his father that the old man is scared. The father tells the son that they cannot stop. They have to continue on their way. He also tells the boy that he should not touch the old man. The boy wants to give the old man something to eat. The father is reluctant, but he gives in. He hands the old man an opened tin of fruit. The old man looks as if he does not know what to do with it. The boy gestures with his hand, pretending that he is holding a can, which he lifts to his lips. The old man mimics him. Fruit juice soaks his already filthy beard. Before the boy has time to ask, the father tells him that they cannot take the old man with them. So the boy wants to at least give the old man something more to eat. The father asks what the boy wants to give the old man. The boy does not know. So the boy, in turn, asks the father what he wants to give. The father says he wants to give the old man nothing. The boy persists, asking the father if they could fix the old man a warm dinner. The father gives in. They invite the old man to camp the night with them. The father fixes a warm dinner and talks to the old man. 15
  16. 16. He says his name is Ely and that he is 90 years old. Later, Ely denies that is his name or age. He admits that he wants no one to know anything about him. The less people know of him the safer he feels. "What people?" the father asks. Are there more people around? The man says there are, but he does not provide any more details. Then the old man says he does not know if there is anyone. The old man is full of contradictions. He uses this tactic to not give away any experience he has had. He tells the man one thing and then denies it. In this way, the old man keeps his anonymity intact. He trusts no one, though he will eat food that is offered to him. He says he is little more than an animal now. They could be the last people on earth, the old man says. And they would never know it. When the father puts the boy to bed, he tells him that there will be no negotiations in the morning. They cannot keep the old man. They cannot afford to feed or to take care of him. The boy says he understands. Later, the two men talk about God. Neither of them is still sure that there is one. The old man says that when he first saw the boy, he thought he had died. The father asks if the old man thought the boy was an angel. The old man says that he does not know what he thought. He had never expected to see another child again. Most of the people that he has come across were all men. The father asks what the man would think if he told him the boy was a god. The old man says that he does not even think in those terms any more. Without good men left on earth, what good are gods, he wants to know. He adds that he believes when all humans are wiped off the earth, things will be better. When everyone is dead, everyone will feel better. He says even death will have to leave this world when everything on earth is already dead. There will be no more work for death, so even death’s days are limited. In the morning as they prepare to return to the road, the father tells the old man that he should thank the boy. If it had not been for the boy, the father would not have fed the old man. The old man ponders this for a second but does not agree with the father. The old man says that had circumstances been reversed, he would not have shared his food with the boy. Then he leaves without saying anything to the boy. As they part ways, the boy does not turn around to look back at the old man. After they stop to eat a cold lunch, the boy asks if the old man is going to die. The father tells him that he most likely will. Later that night, the father has a coughing fit. He cannot suppress it. He gets out of bed and walks away from their camp so that the boy will not hear him. The father realizes that he, too, is going to die. When the father and son stop the next night, they realize that the camping stove, which they had found at the bunker that had all the stored food, is out of fuel. The boy sees the father try to start the stove without success. The boy says it is his fault. He must have forgotten to turn off the valve. The father does not allow the boy to take the blame. He tells the boy that he should have double-checked the burners. The father gets little sleep in the weeks that follow. One morning he awakens and the boy is gone. He stands and looks around him. Finally he sees the boy running toward him. The boy has found an abandoned train. No one is on it. They explore the ransacked old cars. The boy pretends he is the engineer as he sits in the train. The boy asks how far they are from the coast. The father tells him two to three weeks more of walking. At the end of this section, the father comes down with a fever. Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis Summary The man is very sick. He attempts to hide his illness from the boy. He sleeps for three days straight. When he awakens, he is weaker still. But he knows they must go on. As the man grows weaker, the boy appears to gather strength. Though the man has lost some of his desire to continue, the boy urges him on. They pass an area of newly burned landscape. They find boxes and suitcases now charred. In the distance, they come across burned bodies. What is left of the faces reflect the torment of their death. Their jaws are 16
  17. 17. twisted in agony. Their remains have partially melted into the heat of the asphalt. The boy wants to know why they did not leave the road if it was so hot that it burned them. The father explains that everything, including the forests that surrounded the road, were on fire. As they trudge forward, the man coughs with every step. The father is well aware that the boy is constantly watching him. They stop for a quick lunch. The boy asks what his father is thinking about. The father finally admits that he thinks someone has been following them. The boy says that that is what he thought too. The father tells the boy to hide their trash very carefully so whoever is following them will not think they have food. The boy wants to know if whoever it is behind them will kill them. The father tells him, no. The father suggests that they hide themselves in the weeds alongside the road and wait and see who these people are. They hide the grocery cart, then hide themselves not far from a bridge. They promise to take turns watching, but the boy falls asleep. The man almost gives in to sleep, too, but suddenly, they are there. Four people stand on top of a ridge in the road. As they come nearer, the man wishes he and his son had hidden themselves farther from the road. When the strangers get closer, the father distinguishes three men and a pregnant woman. They look more haggard than he had expected. If they camp by the bridge, the man will not be able to build a fire. However, the group of four people crosses the bridge. Then they disappear in the distance. As the man and the boy are walking the next day, they notice a plume of smoke in the distance. The father wants to explore the campfire. The boy does not. The boy is again terrified. But the father insists. He would rather know who these people are and what they are doing rather then just sneak away. They creep closer to where a small fire has been left burning. All signs of the people are gone, except for some food that is burnt black on a spit. The father wants to get closer. He senses that these people noticed the father’s gun and took off fast to get away from him. But the father is also wary that the campsite might be a trap. So he is looking all around him as they draw nearer the fire. When they are close enough to see what the people were cooking, the boy hides his face in his father’s pants. He does not want to look any more. The father asks the boy what he has seen, then he looks toward the fire. On the spit is the form of a baby, which has been beheaded and gutted. The father worries that his son might never speak again. The vision of the baby skewed on the spit is one of the worst they have seen. Even the boy seems to be aware of this. He tells his father that the bodies they had seen melted into the road were not as bad as he had first thought. It is obvious that the burned baby was more horrific. The boy says that if they had found the baby first, it might still be alive. They could have taken care of it. He asks his father where he thinks the baby came from. The father does not answer. Readers can assume that the pregnant woman must have given birth. The man and the boy walk two more days without anything to eat. The man senses that they still have many days left before they reach the coast. The skeletons from the once-thriving vegetation indicate that they have reached the southern states. In their threadbare clothing, however, the man and the boy still experience nights that are very cold. The rain continues to fall. They sleep longer now; their hunger and fatigue make them more lethargic. At one point, they wake up and find they have fallen asleep in the middle of the road, as if they were the victims of some car accident. The narrator describes their condition as the sleep that death brings. They pass through more towns but find nothing to eat. In the distance through the sooty air, the boy sees a house. At this point, the man cannot walk without leaning heavily on the metal frame of the grocery cart. Before approaching the house, which the man insists that they do, they must hide the cart. The man is not sure if he will have enough energy to come back to it. But he knows their only hope is to find some morsel of food in that house. The boy begs his father not to go, but the father pushes on. He tells his son they have no choice. They have not eaten in days. The boy tries to convince his father that he is not hungry. The father tells him that he feels no hunger because he is starving. 17
  18. 18. As they cross the field that once held crops, the man stumbles upon an ancient arrowhead. He shows it to the boy. He tells the boy to keep his eyes on the ground. There are bound to be more. And there are. The man also finds an old Spanish coin, an artifact that once would have been worth something. He picks up the coin and cleans it with his fingernails, then he realizes the folly of it. The coin is worthless to them now. It would buy them nothing. When they are standing at the front of the house, the boy asks if they can wait before they enter it. The father agrees. They stand listening for any sound that would suggest movement. They watch as darkness falls around them. Finally the father tells the boy that he is convinced there is no one there. He reaffirms to his son that everything is all right. Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis Summary The man and his son approach the old house and climb the steps to the porch. The door has been jammed open as if people were moving out. The boy does not want to go in, does not want his father to move. What if there are people inside, he wants to know. His father tells him that everything is okay. Slowly they move inside, holding one another’s hands. The house was once grand, with an imported chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the front room. Furniture is covered in sheets. Marks cling to the walls where pictures once hung. In the kitchen, they find jars of canned food—corn, okra, potatoes. The man is not sure they should eat the food. It could be contaminated. He asks the boy what he thinks. Should they take the chance, the father wants to know. The boy repeats what his father had said earlier. They have no choice. So the father builds a fire in the living room fireplace and cooks the food, hoping the heat will purify the vegetables. They eat, then sleep in front of the fire. They stay there several days and wait out the storms that are lashing outside. They eat, sleep, and clean themselves. They find new clothes and cut their hair. They eat at a large wooden dining table, spooning their food out of expensive china bowls. At the side of them sits a grand piano. The boy wonders why there is so much food there. He wants to know why no one else found it. The man reminds the boy that the house sits far off the road. No one else has seen it. Even the father did not see it. Were it not for the boy’s astute attention to the landscape, they too would have missed it. Over the course of those few days, the man and the boy rebuild their strength and renew their supplies. They collect new blankets and shoes. They refurbish an old wheelbarrow, which they will add to the grocery cart, giving them a greater capacity of carrying warm bedding and greater amounts of the food that they have found. When they return to the road, they are still a long distance from the coastline. The man’s hopes are heightened but he does not know why. Why should the beach offer them any more than any of the other landscapes they have traveled through. Though they are farther south than before, the weather is still cold. Their days are long. The air still gray with ash. The boy reads the map his father has carried for years. The map is falling apart, but the boy has learned to read it. He has memorized the names of the rivers and the towns. He pinpoints where they are each night, measuring the distance yet to go. As they draw near, the smell of the wind changes. The father recognizes it as the smell of the salty sea. With most of their food gone, they finally reach the beach. The man and the boy look out. The ocean is as gray as the sky and all the land they have encountered so far. Ash lays thickly on everything. The man looks down at the boy and sees the disappointment on his son’s face. The father had told the boy what the ocean used to look like. He had talked about the color of the sky and the surf. The beach looks nothing like the sea of his memories. The boy wants to convince his father that it does not matter. His father does not believe him and is saddened. Not only is the water all but black, there is also no life to be seen on the beach. The wind blows cold. The father and son take shelter behind a huge driftwood log. They see bones scattered along the beach. The man thinks they might be the skeletons of cattle. 18
  19. 19. The boy asks if the father thinks there might be ships out on the ocean. The father does not think so. The air is so thick with ash, no one could see well enough to steer the big boats, he tells his son. The boy asks if the father thinks there is life on the other side of the ocean. The father suggests that maybe another father and son are sitting on a distant beach, just as they are. He asks if that father and son would also be carrying the fire. This is another mention of the light or the fire that the two of them carry inside of them. There is no explanation again. Readers might assume this to be a religious or spiritual implication, a suggestion of goodness or holiness or purity. The father says that there is no way for them to tell if there are other people in the world. And even if they did know, they could not be sure that they were good people. So they must continue to be vigilant. The boy asks how long they can stay there at the beach. The father says he does not know. This is when the boy decides that it might be a good idea to go for a swim. The father warns him that the water and the wind will make him feel very cold, maybe colder than he has ever been. The boy says he does not care. If the father allows him, he would like to go for a swim. The father watches his son undress. Then his eyes follow the boy down the beach. The boy is not only skinnier than his father imagined, his skin is also very white. The boy frolics in the surf. When he comes out of the water, the boy’s lips are blue and he is shaking with cold. The man wraps him in a blanket and then notices that the boy is crying. The father asks why, but the boy does not answer. When the boy is dried and warmed, they take a walk down the beach. They see an overturned sailboat, masts broken, swaying in the water about 100 feet from shore. The man must investigate, he tells his son, though the boy is scared as he watches his father leave his side. The man swims out and climbs aboard. He sees no footprints in the ash on the boat and cautiously searches the interior of the boat. He finds canned food and rain gear. He dons a sweater he finds, as well as some boots and waterproof pants and jacket. He goes back up to the deck and waves to his son who is sitting on the beach. The boy stands up and stares as if startled. There is enough distance between them in the ash-polluted air that the boy cannot make out the figure of his father in the new clothes. The father sees that the boy is startled. He calls out to the boy, but the boy cannot hear him. So the man once again goes back down in search of more things they might be able to use. Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis Summary The man checks for the boy to make sure the child is standing on the beach. Then the man returns to his search of the interior cabins of the sailboat. He looks through all the cabinets, all the drawers. He finds food, more clothing, and tools. He also discovers a waterproof bag and loads it. He must swim back to shore, once again naked. He is cold and wet when he greets the boy. The man makes several trips back and forth. At one time, he looks for the boy on the shore but does not find him in the usual place. The man panics. Then he locates his son walking down the beach. He sees that the boy is carrying the pistol in his hand. When the man returns to shore, the boy is standing there to greet him. However, the pistol is gone. The boy is worried about having made a grave mistake. The father is gentle with him. They retrace the boy’s steps and find the gun where the boy had left it. The father takes the gun apart and cleans out the particles of sand. He tells the boy everything is all right. They carry the supplies the man has brought off the boat back to their campsite that is higher up on the beach. But they have waited too long. They lose the light of day. Then there are flashes of lightening and finally rain. The man puts his hand out in front of him as if trying to push the darkness away. They cannot see where they are walking. The man uses the wind and the sound of the crashing surf to direct his feet. With each strike of lightening, the man tries to mark their bearings. The rain drenches their clothing. Both the man and the boy 19
  20. 20. are exhausted, cold, and hungry. In the distance the man hears a pattering sound. The boy is concerned. He wonders what it is. The man recognizes it. It is the sound of rain hitting the tarpaulin they had used to cover their grocery cart. They have made it back. The next day, the man returns to the sailboat. The storm has shifted the boat’s position but not by much. He can still swim out to it. He makes several trips, hauling out more food, more clothing. On one of his last trips, he finds a flare gun. When he returns to the shore, he shows the boy all the things he has taken. He has a first-aid kit, some gasoline, and parts of a small stove. The boy is most fascinated by the gun. The boy wants to know how it works and what it is for. The man tells him that the gun can send a big flare up into the sky. The flare is used to send a signal. The boy wonders who might see it. He wants to know if his father thinks anyone else is still alive. His father cannot answer his questions. The boy asks if they could shoot a flare. The father says they will do so that night in celebration of their findings. They take everything back to their camp and eat a great meal. When darkness falls, they shoot the flare, which lights up the dark sky. The boy wants to know if the gun could also kill someone. The man tells his son that the gun cannot kill, but if shot directly at someone, the gun might set the person on fire. With all the work that the man has done in unloading the boat and carrying the supplies back to their more secure campsite, the man has worn himself out. The swimming in the cold ocean to get on and off the boat has chilled him. These conditions have worsened his cough. At night, he tastes blood in his mouth and knows he is dying. He thinks about what kind of life he is living. He acknowledges to himself that every day seems like a lie. He continues trying to convince his boy that everything is all right. Then he realizes that not everything is a lie. His inevitable death is true. The boy thinks of death, too. He asks his father about the people who once owned the sailboat. He wants to know if his father thinks they are dead. His father tells his son that the people might be still alive somewhere else. Then the father realizes why the boy has asked this question. So the father alters his answer, telling the boy that the chances of these people being dead are very great. The boy raises this question because he feels badly about taking the food and the clothes from the boat. The boy then presses his father with more questions. He wants to know if his father thinks people might have escaped to another planet. Could there be people alive somewhere else? The father says that people could not live on another planet. The boy ponders this information and then he makes a statement that troubles his father. The boy says that he does not understand what he and his father are doing. Readers can interpret this to mean that the boy is beginning to think that their lives are meaningless. Their struggle to stay alive is useless. Another interpretation could be that the boy thinks that if everyone else in the world is dead, then their own deaths will probably come soon. After fully comprehending his son’s thoughts, the father attempts to raise the boy’s spirits. He does not want the boy to lose all hope of survival. So he tells the boy that there are people somewhere in the world. Not only are there people but one day he and his son are going to find them. The boy plays in the warm sand as his father fixes their dinner. This is the first time that the story includes a scene in which the boy acts like a child. The boy is not struggling for his own survival, nor is he consumed by fear. Instead, the boy is building a town in the sand. However, when the father comes over to inspect his son’s creation, the boy tells his father that he knows the ocean will take the town away when the tide comes in. So even though the boy is enjoying a moment of play, he is still very much aware of death. The next morning, the boy wakes up sick. He is running a very high fever and has trouble swallowing. The man wraps him in blankets and cools his forehead with a wet rag. He feeds the boy aspirin from the first-aid kit, but that is the only medicine he can offer. Although the man is exhausted, he stays up all night watching his son, feeling for his heartbeat to make sure the boy does not die. While the boy sleeps, the man takes the boy’s clothes to the ocean and washes them. The father gathers wood and keeps the fire going all day and 20
  21. 21. night. This further exhausts the man. His cough continues to worsen. After getting his son to drink some of the juice from a can of fruit and putting his son back to bed, the man walks down to the surf and falls on his knees, trying to release his rage. Then he returns to his son’s side and finally falls into a deep sleep. Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis Summary The boy wakes up the next day and is thirsty. The father takes this as a good sign. His son is on the mend. The father asks the boy about his dreams. But the boy does not want to tell him. All the boy says is that the dreams were weird. While the boy eats, the father is so thankful for his son’s recovery that he cannot take his eyes off him. The boy asks his father to stop staring at him. The father tells the boy he will stop, but he cannot. Two days later, the father and son are once again walking on the beach. As they head back, the father sees boot prints in the sand. This frightens him, and he starts running as hard as he can, which is not very fast. When they get back to their camp, everything is gone—their tarp, the grocery cart, and all their food and clothes. The man follows the boot prints. It is difficult to tell if the thief is a solitary figure or if there is a group of them. The father takes off in a haste and tells his son to stay close to him. They see the wheel tracks of the cart in the sand, but once they get to the road, the wind has blown away all the ash and sand, so the man cannot find any tracks. He tells the boy to go in one direction and he goes in the opposite way. It is the boy who finds the first sign that the grocery cart has passed along the road. The father joins him, and they rush along the asphalt. The man tries to jog, but he is soon out of breath. As they progress down the road, the boy begins to cry. He wants to know if his father is going to kill anyone. The father can only say that he does not know. Finally they come upon a lone figure, a ragged old man. The thief turns around and pulls out a butcher knife when he sees them coming. The father notices that all the fingers on one of the thief’s hands are missing. He deduces that the man has been kicked out of a commune. There is no explanation about how he comes to this conclusion. The father pulls out his pistol and tells the thief that if he does not put the knife on top of the items in the grocery cart, he will shoot out his brains. The thief complies. Then the father tells the man to take off his shoes and clothes. The boy starts to cry. He begs his father not to make the thief do this. The boy senses that although his father will not shoot the thief, the thief, nonetheless, will die from exposure and hunger. The boy wants the father to be kinder to the stranger. The father, however, knows that kindness no longer works in the world in which they live. If he feeds the man and leaves him his clothing, the thief will hunt them down and steal from them again. There is also the possibility that the thief will kill them. The father tells his son that he does not understand. He also adds that he is the one who has to worry about everything. The boy counters his father by telling him that he is wrong. It is he, the young boy, who has to worry about everything. This is a reference to the boy feeling that he must remind his father to be nice to others. The father decides to turn around. They go back to the spot where they left the naked thief, but he is gone. When the father calls out to him, there is no answer. The boy tells him that the thief is afraid to answer. So before they leave, the father piles the man’s shoes and clothes on the side of the road. That night before falling asleep, the boy voices a thought. He tells his father that even though they did not shoot the man, they did kill him. The man and boy come to another small town. As they walk along the back streets, the man hears something whiz past his head. He knocks the boy down and covers him with his body. Then another sound and a hot pain pierces his leg. He looks down and sees a crude arrow sticking out from his leg. He looks up the side of one of the buildings and sees a man holding a bow. The father pulls out the flare gun and shoots it at the figure in the window. Then he hides the boy and climbs up the back stairs of the building. He finds a woman who is holding the wounded man in her arms. She claims there is no one else there. 21
  22. 22. The father and son spend the night in a vacant store building at the edge of town. The man uses the materials in the first-aid kit to clean and then suture his leg wound. When he is finished stitching the three-inch cut, the boy asks if his father is in pain. The father answers, yes. In the morning, the man re-dresses his wound. His pant-leg is soaked in blood. They spend another day there. To pass the time, the father asks his son if he wants him to tell a story. The boy does not want to hear any more of his father’s stories. The boy says that the stories his father tells are not true. The father emphasizes that that is what stories are like. They are meant to be untrue. So the father asks the boy to tell him a story. But the boy tells his father that stories are supposed to be happy. He does not have any happy stories to tell. The things he thinks about or dreams about are like real life, which is very sad. The boy adds that he would actually prefer some quiet time. He does not want to talk about anything. He then tells his father that he knows his cough is getting worse. He knows that his father tries to walk away from where the boy sleeps at night. But the boy still hears his father coughing. He also tells his father that sometimes he hears him cry. Two days later, the father and son move on. The man cannot walk without limping. The road they are now on is more cluttered with debris, corpses, and tangles of wires. It becomes increasingly difficult to push the cart down the road. So they lighten the load and carry as much as they can, leaving the cart on the side of the road. The man’s health continues to deteriorate. He is constantly spitting blood. It is now winter, the man guesses. The wind is cold, even there in the south. At one point the man stops and looks at his son. The boy is carrying a suitcase. The image the man sees of his son is that of an orphan. This is a foreshadowing of the father’s impending death. Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis Summary The man and the boy continue to walk along the shore. Once again, they are running out of food. They see a half-submerged boat. It promises nothing for them so they leave it. There is no good place to camp, so they sleep in the sand dunes with a fire of driftwood. The boy falls asleep first while the father watches him. In the morning, they pull away from the shore. They come across some of the first live plants they have seen in a long time. There are wild orchards, ferns, and hydrangeas. The narrator does not dwell on this discovery. The man seems unsurprised by the flourishing plants, and the boy is not curious. The living plants are mentioned only briefly as the man and the boy brush past them. This could be read as their having lost hope. They are drained of all energy, so much so that the phenomenon of living plants does not catch their interest. The man’s cough continues to worsen. Their traveling becomes more difficult as they traverse the boggy countryside. It takes two days to go ten miles. They see a storm building in the distance. When they finally stop, the man knows that he can go no farther. He knows that this is the place where he will die. The boy kneels down next to his father, knowing that his father has reached the end of the road. When the man starts coughing, the boy fetches him some water. When he gets cold, the boy wraps his father in a blanket. The boy also searches for a way to protect his father from the oncoming rain. He finds a sheet of rotting plywood and creates a crude lean-to. The boy then opens the last tin of peaches. He offers to feed his father, but the man says he cannot eat. The boy says he will save the other half of the peaches for his father. The man tells the boy to save them for himself. The boy will need the food tomorrow. The father tells his son that he must continue on. He must head south and do all the things that he has learned about survival. He must search for food. He must be cautious about strangers. He must forever be on the lookout for potential trouble. He tells the boy that he cannot go with him. He also reminds the boy how lucky they have been. He tells the boy that he will continue to be lucky. He will find food. He will stay alive. 22
  23. 23. The boy says that he cannot go on without his father. He pleads with the man to take him with him. The man says he cannot: he cannot kill his son. He cannot see his dead son in his arms. The boy must be strong. He reminds the boy that he must continue to carry the light. The boy is afraid that he will not remember how to do anything. The father tells him that he can still talk to him. The father explains that he will talk inside the boy’s head. The boy must practice listening. The boy wants to know if the light, the fire they carry within them, is real. The father confirms that the fire is indeed real. The boy wants to know specifically where the fire is. The father says that he can see the fire inside the boy. The boy reminds the father that he had promised he would never leave him. The father apologizes, but he gives the boy no hope that they can remain together. The father has to stop talking. He says that if he continues to talk, he will start coughing again. The boy tells him that it is all right for his father to remain silent. The father closes his eyes, and the boy practices talking to his father without using words. He tries to hear his father’s voice inside his head. But he cannot. The father sleeps, while the boy tends the fire. In this scene, the roles of the father and son have been reversed. Before this, the father was the one who stayed awake to make sure the fire did not go out. Now it is the boy’s turn. The tide has turned. When his father opens his eyes, the boy asks him if he remembers the young boy they once saw in a distant town that they walked through. The father confirms that he does remember the young boy. The son wants to know if the father thinks the boy was lost. He asks if the father thinks the young boy is okay. The father tries to help his son find some confidence and courage. He tells his son that he is sure that other young boy is okay. The son says he is scared that that other young boy was lost. He asks his father what might have happened to the other boy if he were lost. The father says that he is sure the child was not lost. The boy continues. If he were lost, the son asks, who would find him. The man answers that goodness would take care of him. This dialogue represents the boy’s apprehension of being on his own. He is afraid of what will happen to him when his father is gone. What if he should get lost? Who would find him? His father senses this, and tries to reassure his son. The son sleeps next to his father that night. In the morning when he awakens, his father’s hand is cold. His body is stiff. The boy knows that his father is gone. The boy stays next to his father for three days. When he gets up the courage, he walks out to the road. He sees someone coming. It is a man carrying a shotgun over his shoulder. There is no explanation of where this man came from, but when he approaches the boy, he asks him what happened to the man he was with. There was no hint given in the earlier narration that the father had sensed someone was following them. The boy does not recognize the stranger. This man just suddenly appears. The boy tells the stranger that his father has died. He shows where his father’s body is laying. The stranger leaves the body wrapped in one of the blankets then tells the boy to gather his things. He also asks if the boy knows how to use the pistol that he is holding. The boy tells him, yes. The boy starts to give the pistol to the stranger, but the man refuses it. He tells the boy to keep it, but not to point it at him. The boy asks the man if he is one of the good people. He also asks the man if he is carrying the fire. The man does not understand this question, but in the end, the man answers, yes. He is carrying the fire. The man wants the boy to come with him. The boy wants to know if he has any children. The man tells him he has a son and a daughter. Before they start walking, the boy asks if the man eats children. The man says, no. The story jumps to a scene in which the boy meets the man’s wife. She tells him how glad she is to see him. She tries to teach the boy to talk to God. But the boy does not know God. So instead, he talks to his father. 23
  24. 24. Source: eNotes Publishing, ©2014 eNotes.com, Inc.. All Rights Reserved. Full copyright. Source: Critical Survey of Literature for Students, ©2010 eNotes.com, Inc.. All Rights Reserved. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this work covered by the copyright hereon may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, Web distribution or information storage retrieval systems without the written permission of the publisher. For complete copyright information, please see the online version of this work. 24

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