Summary: Section 3

“By dusk of the day following they were at the city.”

At an intersection of interstate highways, the father and son enter a city. Everywhere, the mummified dead lie where they fell. All had been stripped of their shoes. The father takes the son on a tour of his childhood home despite the son’s terror of being ambushed in the rooms. Three nights later, they are awakened by an earthquake. The father remembers the first years of civilization’s breakdown, when people lived on the roads in their masks and ragged clothing, towing their belongings. The father wonders if he will have the courage to terminate his and his son’s lives rather than become prey for others. They approach the mountains, and the father hopes they have enough food and sufficient ability to withstand the cold before they reach the coast. They sleep with campfires burning all night and wrap their feet to walk through the snow. The father’s chronic cough doubles him over, and he coughs up blood. He flashes back to the first morning after the catastrophe: Some people sat on the sidewalks, half burned, while others tried to help. Just a year later, there were murderous cults imposing grim justice, the dead impaled on spikes along the road. The father and son reach the mountain pass where the road begins to descend south.

Summary: Section 4

“In the morning they pressed on.”

The father and son trudge through deep snow by day and dry their clothes and footwear after dark by a fire. With their food stores dwindling, the father gives more to his son, and the son reprimands him for breaking their rule of sharing equally. They walk for four days before descending below the snow line. They camp and eat edible mushrooms fried with pork and beans, and afterward the father tells stories of heroes. The son wants to stay, but the father says the location isn’t safe. On the map, the father points out the state roads they need to take. The father and son come upon an old tractor trailer jackknifed across the bridge spanning the river. Inside the trailer, the father finds dried-up human corpses in rotted clothing; the people seem to have died during the crash. Later, the father and son encounter a man who had been struck by lightning. The sight of the injured man moves the son to tears. The father explains that they can do nothing to fix the man’s situation. Later, the father empties his wallet and lays out the money, the credit cards, and his driver’s license on the road like playing cards. He ponders a picture of his wife and then adds the photo to the other artifacts. The father throws the wallet into the woods, and they move on.

Analysis: Sections 3–4

As McCarthy chronicles the deepening struggle of father and son, the feelings and motivations of both characters are incrementally detailed through their fixations and obsessions. The father, for example, obsessively searches for shoes, far and away the most valuable gear to salvage. As he tends the all-night fires of the mountain pass, the father obsesses over death. He knows he might have to kill the boy and himself, but wonders if he’ll be able to take the life of the boy he holds so precious. The man’s violent coughing fits persist in the night, and foreshadow greater difficulties ahead. When another person, the burned man, finally enters the narrative, it is only for a moment, and sparks a burgeoning obsession in the boy for helping others. The boy fixates on the burned man well after he’s been left behind and expresses a desire to help the man. The boy’s tendency toward mercy is strongly contrasted with his father’s grim pragmatism in the face of their dire situation. While the boy’s mercy is ultimately helpless in nature, the man’s memories of violent times directly after the catastrophe can spur him to merciless action.

Guiding his boy to the man’s childhood home, the man’s nostalgia for what has been lost recurs as a motif apart from his dreams of the past. As before, when he unthinkingly dials the number of his childhood home on a broken telephone, the man almost unconsciously wishes to return to the world as he knew it. The man remembers the living world nostalgically in dreams, but animal imagery from the past creeps even into his waking life when sight of turbid waters reminds him of fishing for trout. The man’s nostalgic drive is countered by the boy, born after the catastrophe and lacking any nostalgic impulses. The boy is afraid of the house and wants to leave, but the man lingers despite knowing the truth of his boy’s desire to keep moving. He brings the boy to this place, perhaps trying to rebuild the world, or as much of it as he can, from memory into waking life. But the boy rejects this nostalgic view, embodying his father’s own harsh pragmatism in a momentary reversal. The man laments the lost, sweet dreaming of innocent children, but the boy tugs at his arm, pulling him back into the impossible present. In what seems to be a final act of letting go, the man leaves the contents of his wallet spread across the unfeeling road and leaves them behind. Nostalgia still nips at the man’s heels, but his survival depends on ignoring or pushing away the feelings of loss and regret.