Summary: Section 11

“He’d come down with a fever and they lay in the woods . . .”

The father lies ill for four days, and his son worries he is dying. When they set out again, the father can feel how much weaker he has become, and he senses a change in his son’s attitude. At a crossroads, abandoned possessions, including melted, blackened suitcases and bags, litter the road. A little further on, they see some travelers standing in postures of agony, half melted into the blacktop. The father wants to protect his son from the gruesome sight, but the son calmly asks why the people didn’t leave the molten road. The father explains that everything was on fire and they simply couldn’t escape. The son feels guilt for not caring enough about the travelers’ painful deaths. Later, the father senses the presence of other travelers, and they hide to observe three men and a full-term pregnant woman passing on the road. In the morning, the father and son see the smoke from a campfire and go to investigate. They scare off the group, who leave their food cooking on the fire: a headless human infant roasting on the spit. The son imagines saving the little baby and wonders where the travelers found the infant. The father doesn’t respond.

Analysis: Section 11

The father’s illness pulls him further into vivid dreams and memories of his world before it turned to ash, a thematic warning sign of coming death. He remembers being around the age of the boy when some older men lit a nest of snakes on fire, a symbolic event to show the evil men did even before the catastrophe. The man finally recovers, and when the boy falls to morbid dreams of his own, the man pleads with him to never surrender to a world that “never was” or “never will be.” The man takes these comforting dreams as a sure surrender to death, and he tries his best to instill a strong survival instinct in his son. Despite these severe teachings, the man also dreams in nostalgic colors, and his own will to survive degrades more and more.

The major dilemma at the heart of McCarthy’s novel is the question of whether or not life is worth living in this world. The novel’s characters face an environment that is ruthless, barren, and violent. Cannibalism, murder, and slavery are all in plain view, and food is always running out. When the boy expresses his wish to join his mother in death, the man tries to pull the idea from his son’s mind. But this idea is irrepressible, and Ely lays the groundwork for this line of thought in the previous section. In moments of despair, it is quite clear that “carrying the fire” is a useless endeavor. The man, who pleads with his son to continue to survive, does not truly believe that he or the boy will be redeemed or saved. As if to prove this point, the author sends more “bad guys” into the family’s path. Another horrifying instance of cannibalism reveals the pure senselessness and violence of their world. Each horrible scene challenges the lesson the man has been trying to teach the boy. He wants to convince the boy that life is worth living, but in a world that allows such unspeakable horrors, it might not be.