Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 30, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is classified as a post-apocalyptic novel. It takes place after an undisclosed, major disaster that 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 man likens living in the lack of light 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 of where the ash has come from 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.
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 explore one. There is little of value for them to take. The man 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.