The Road is a bleak dystopian novel set in the aftermath of a major world event that has just about obliterated both man and nature. In this world there is very little hope and little reason to live; starvation is rampant, man preys on man, and a nuclear winter has spread across the continental United States. Amidst this chaos, one man fights to keep himself and his young son alive, so that they may continue to “carry the fire”—to be a beacon of hope and goodness in a cruel world.
Throughout the plot, the father and his boy encounter many people who would sooner give up hope or give in to depravity than fight for humanity as they would do. It is the simplest path to survival in their very harsh new world. The boy’s mother, for instance, opts to commit suicide rather than struggle to survive. She sees no point in continuing on, as seen in the scene where the man begs her not to leave him:
I can't do it alone.
Then don't. I can't help you. They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I don't dream at all. You say you can't? Then don't do it. That’s all… One thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far.
Further on in the novel, the man and boy witness terrible atrocities that show just how far mankind has fallen. They encounter multiple acts of cannibalism and slavery, and they bear the mistrust of strangers (ex. the moment when they are fired at by the man with the crossbow while passing through an empty town). Even the man reduces himself to taking the clothes from the traveler who tries to rob them in Chapter 12. These events are all indicative of a world in which mankind has collectively given up its humanity, resorting instead to an extreme dog eat dog mentality.
This is precisely the opposite of what it means to “carry the fire.” It is only because of his son that the main character returns the poor traveler’s clothes, even goes so far as to feed him. The man sees the hope of a better future in his boy, and so he selects the difficult but honorable path to survival. He selects to be a symbol of hope and humanity.
Therefore, to “carry the fire” is to carry the symbol of humanity and goodness. Think of it as the bright light the father and son carry with them through a dark and seemingly hopeless world. In the end, the main character’s unfaltering dedication to carry this torch, to not sink to the level of the animals around them, secures his fate. He dies, but the good that he imparts in his son lives on. In fact, the boy even joins up with a family that shares the same values:
Are you carrying the fire?
Am I what?
Carrying the fire.
… Yeah. We are.
Do you have any kids?
The boy may survive, or he may not. The ending is unclear. What we do know is that the man’s hope for the redemption of his kind will live on.
In a way the man’s wife was right: he didn’t survive for himself, but for his son, and for the hope of generations to come.