Study Guide

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

The Road Summary

Introduction

The Road

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.

The Road 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 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.

The Road 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 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.

The Road 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.

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...

(The entire section is 1442 words.)

The Road 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 entire section is 1210 words.)

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.

...

(The entire section is 1121 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1201 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1230 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

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 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 entire section is 1118 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1250 words.)

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,...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1269 words.)