Summary: Section 1

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

A father and his son live in the outdoors, on the move, scavenging for food as they head south to the coast for warmer conditions. They constantly wear masks to filter the air they breathe, as a cloud of ash surrounds Earth, blotting out the stars and moon by night and the sun by day. All vegetation and animal life ceased to exist years prior in a catastrophic event. The man views his son as his reason to live, his sacred mission. Everything they need they carry in backpacks and in a shopping cart they push along the road. Among their collection are books that the father reads to his son when they stop to rest. The father uses binoculars to survey the communities they enter for possible threats. They enter a town and see a corpse. They stop to search a roadside gas station, and the father uses the desk phone to call the number of his childhood home. The son asks about what happens if he should die, and the father makes a pact with his son, promising that should the son die, he will die too to be with him. The father has a respiratory condition that causes fits of coughing. He prays, expressing his anger with God and requesting mercy.

Summary: Section 2

“They bore on south in the days and weeks to follow.”

The father and son walk along a mountain pass road no one else travels in order to avoid the road agents and blood cults who prey on other humans to eat. Coming into a town to forage for food and necessities like shoes, the father finds tools to repair the shopping cart at a roadside garage. The son wants to search a barn for corn, but the father rejects the plan when he sees three desiccated corpses hanging from the rafters. In an outdoor shed used for curing meats, they find a ham and eat it with a tin of beans over their fire. The father dreams of his wife as she was when they were newly married, but he reminds himself that dwelling on the past only weakens the will to fight for survival. The father and son come into a river valley town, where they find blankets in a farmhouse and a soda in a broken soft drink machine. The son observes that this soda may be the last one he will ever drink.

Analysis: Sections 1–2

Cormac McCarthy opens his elegy to a dying world in medias res, or, in the middle of the action. The reader is thus plummeted into the harsh landscape of the story in an intense and immediate style. Notably, there are no characters other than man and boy, providing a sense of intimacy with the main characters since they may be, or at least represent, the last survivors on Earth. The lack of outside context reveals the man’s fervent dedication to keeping his boy alive. Other than this immediate focus on survival, the author only reveals that the world has turned to ashes. McCarthy sets the stage for his novel by placing the reader in intimate contact with its main characters and, for now, disregarding the greater context of a post-apocalyptic world. 

The father wakes from a dream at the very start of the novel, and dreams will become a major theme in the otherwise bleak landscape of the work. Colorful, vivid dreams contrast with the ashen gray of the real world. The father dreams of his wife, his “pale bride,” now dead. In his dreams, the world he knew is full of rich color and life, but the man feels strongly that dreams are dangerous because he believes that rich, beautiful dreams come right before death. Thus, the man sees great danger in nostalgic dreams because for him they foretell him giving up on his quest to survive. The strange creature in the father’s opening dream may therefore represent death itself, and haunting creatures linger at the edges of the man’s nostalgic dreams, demonstrating his tenuous hold on life as he struggles to survive day to day. 

The world’s death is symbolized through dream images of the living world and a scavenged can of Coca-Cola. Animal imagery, painted in vivid colors with descriptive language, represents elements of the living, natural world that have been lost. For example, the falcon dives in the man’s memory, set against “the long blue wall of the mountain.” The can of Coca-Cola similarly represents a world that has been lost, though in this case, it is the world of humanity. The boy reflects that this may be the only can of cola he will ever drink, and the man can hardly contradict him. These symbolic elements pervade the dead world of the story, reminding both man and boy of what has been lost, never to be regained.