Summary: Section 12

“They slept more and more.”

The food runs out. Exhausted, father and son frequently drop and sleep on the road instead of making camp. One morning, the son sees a house on the horizon through the ashen mist, far across a field. They hide their cart and walk across the plowed field and, at dusk, gingerly enter the elegant plantation home. In the butler’s pantry, the father finds dozens of quarts of canned vegetables—tomatoes, corn, potatoes, okra. They build a fire in the living room fireplace and make a nest using the sheets covering the furniture. The food in the jars remains unspoiled, and they eat at the dining table by candlelight. The father and son stay at the house for four days eating, sleeping, bathing, tailoring the clothes they find to fit, and making new masks from the furniture sheets. They use a wheelbarrow to transport new blankets, clothes, and jars of canned goods to their cart on the road and continue on their way to the coast. They eat full meals. The son has begun studying the map, memorizing the names of towns and rivers, and charting their progress daily. One night, the father’s cough wakes him, and he lies in the dark thinking he’s in a grave.

Analysis: Section 12

As if to soften the trauma of the explicit cannibalism of the previous section, the setting provides the man and the boy another reprieve from the horrors of the road. Like the well-stocked bunker, the plantation house gives them a measure of comfort, food to fill their starving bodies, and time to ponder their situation. But like every merciful setting in the novel, their time in the house is short. The man knows that there is no permanent safety to be found since these hidden places, the bunker and the plantation house, will not remain hidden from the pervading, dangerous wider world. A temporary relief, the plantation house keeps the family alive a bit longer, but it cannot provide them lasting safety.

During this rest period, the characters of both man and boy are deepened and their relationship continues to change. The boy’s new fixation becomes the map and the names of towns along their planned route. The father’s fixation, now more than ever, is death. He wakes coughing, thinking he’s in the grave already. Father and son grow further apart as the boy more intentionally inhabits his world and his future as the man only prepares for death. Now themes of death and mercy intermingle. The father, dreaming or hallucinating, sees strange creatures waiting at the edge of the firelight. These creatures, in the man’s degrading mind, will judge all humanity by his own coming actions, looking for something that “even death cannot undo.” It seems that the man is preparing to die in service to the boy’s survival. At the same time, the boy shows less distress at the sight of dead bodies and grows to accept the world as it is. Where once the father dictated the boy’s world, now the boy studies the map and plans for the future.