Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. 


Throughout the novel, animal imagery paints a picture of a world lost. The man imagines, dreams, or remembers a world full of living things as he walks through a present nearly devoid of life. He describes a falcon and a flight of cranes from his memories, where in the present a lifeless, gray sky obscures the sun. He once saw trout swimming in what is now a gray, ashen pool. To the father, these animal portraits symbolize the world that will never be again. They tell a story of what the world used to be and the man’s visions are a reminder that he and the boy may never see living animals again. Yet animals also represent a spirit of struggle that is mirrored in the man’s struggle to survive. Humans once built a massively complex system in which survival was almost guaranteed and people could spend their time on other things. Animals have always lived a more tenuous existence. But in this new, ruined world, humans have become animals trying to survive in an unforgiving environment. Thus, the man reflects sorrowfully upon, but also draws strength, from visions of animals in the wild.

The Man’s Old House

Early on in the novel, the father guides his son to the house he grew up in. It’s ruined, like every other house along their way, but the man takes his time examining the bones of the house. The house symbolizes the man’s childhood, and a time long gone past. In a sense, he must hold on to his childhood, since there is nothing now but cold, gray ash all over the world. His childhood contrasts with the childhood of his son. Though there is no practical reason to see the old house, the man goes there to attempt to connect with something living and joyful. 

The Pistol

The pistol the man carries has only one bullet left in it after he kills the road agent. This pistol represents safety and mercy, but it also represents something darker. It symbolizes the man’s last resort. He has promised himself he will kill the boy with it if they are ever in danger of being captured by cannibals. He even makes the boy promise to do it himself if the time comes. The pistol, then, represents the boy’s escape from an unbearable life.

The Bunker

The man and boy gain a reprieve from their suffering in a backyard bunker the man discovers under a layer of turf. This bunker symbolizes preparation for disaster. Whether or not disaster strikes, some people are prepared for it. Father and son get much needed rations from the bunker, and are given a second chance at life on the road. This symbol of comfort and safety does not last because the man does not think it is safe. But even temporary safety means everything to the man and boy, and sustains them.

The Sextant

In the overturned boat along the coastline, the man finds a relic of times gone past. He finds a sextant, a tool for navigation by the stars. The object is handcrafted metal, something unique, beautiful, and fragile. He treats the object with reverence because it symbolizes the wonder that was human beings’ control over the natural world. It symbolizes the beauty of human creation. This is a symbol of something that has been lost forever. He treats the object with care and replaces it where he found it. It no longer serves any function, but long ago it served a vital one.