Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on July 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172
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.
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.