Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Certainty of Death in a Dying World

Death plays around the edges of the man and boy’s experiences in the novel. It always nips at their heels, in the form of the biting cold or the road agents or sickness or the lack of food. These are not momentary dangers, but the dangers they will face for the rest of their lives. The planet around them is not just dying, it’s already dead. The man and the boy have been reduced to scavengers, and much has already been scavenged. Not only does hunger threaten them, but they are also always a moment away from attack by road agents and cannibals. The man keeps one bullet in the gun to use on the boy if ever they are caught, to prevent him from suffering needlessly. This bullet represents the reality that death is always around the corner, but it also represents the freedom to die on one’s own terms. It holds the potential for one final act of mercy.

The man coughs blood the entire story and this foreshadows his inevitable demise at some point from disease. No name or cause for the man’s sickness is provided because the cause is irrelevant. Whether his illness has come from dust inhalation or some other poisoning, its immutable result will be the same. This sense of futility pervades the man’s very existence. There is still some hope for the boy, but the man knows his fate. The man pushes for the coast, despite the fact that he doesn’t quite have a plan for when they get there. Like the lone bullet in his gun, the coast symbolizes two things. For the man, it represents his inevitable death and the end of his world. But for the boy, it represents the unknown, and therefore the possibility of a new beginning. Though death is an integral part of this story and surrounds its every movement in a dying world, the end of the novel asks the reader to consider what the new world will bring.

The Complex Roles of Father and Son

The roles of father and son are clear from the outset of the novel, but as time goes on things begin to change. The father’s health worsens. The boy’s desire to give charity to others wins out sometimes. But before these changes, the boy is absolutely loyal to his father’s word. What his father says is pure fact to him, and he holds onto it. However, when the father leads the boy past someone beyond their help, the boy begins to question his father’s insistence on self-sufficiency in the face of others’ suffering. He begins to question the notions of “good guys” and “bad guys,” wondering about their own theft of the bunker supplies. After their encounter with Ely, the father admits that he doesn’t know what the boy believes. This admission suggests a growing rift between father and son.

As the father’s health worsens, the boy takes a more active role in their route and daily routine. In one telling passage, the father asks the boy “What should we do now Papa?” This moment signals the fact that father and son seem to have reversed roles. The boy is looking after the father. This is about continuity over time, an idea the author wants to instill in his readers. The roles of father and son are not mutually exclusive or unchangeable, even in such circumstances as the end of the world. The process by which the son grows up and takes on the role of caretaker is cemented when the boy meets the new man at the end of the story. He asks penetrating questions and gets good answers, which shows the boy is now capable of handling himself without his father. The boy has taken over a role of authority, one that previously held by his father.

The Power of Memory and Nostalgia

Nostalgia plays a powerful role in the life of the father, but not the life of the son. The son has no memories of the world before the disaster, but images from the past are constantly playing in his father’s mind. The man remembers rowing with his uncle on a perfect summer day. He remembers his wife in the morning light. But these memories are not all happy ones. He remembers a group of men lighting a nest of snakes on fire. These memories haunt the man as he tries to remain in the present and keep the boy safe.

The father’s color-filled memories, which often come in dreams, are warning signs to the man. The more vivid the dreams, and the closer he gets to their nostalgic heart, the closer the man is to physical death. Thus, the nostalgic images hold power over him, especially during his sickness. He sees his bride and he sees the house he grew up in. He sees color where there is no color around him. These memories envelope him, and the book ends on a memory of trout running in a river. The powerful presence of nostalgia proves that despite the death of the man’s world, death cannot overtake the memory of what once was.

The Power of Hope

Despite the dark and unforgiving nature of the story, the man and boy struggle onward with a dim hope of survival. Even as all they see are death and destruction, cannibalism and ruthlessness, they still persist onward. The son is constantly asking about the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” The father tells him there must be good guys like them somewhere, either hiding or traveling along the road themselves. Whenever the boy’s spirits wane, the man reminds him that they are “carrying the fire.” “The fire” may represent many things, but it foremost represents hope. The man and the boy carry the fire of hope for humanity and decency in a world of death and cruelty. 

The boy’s small acts of kindness also speak to a kind of hope in this otherwise hopeless story. He wants so badly to save the little boy he sees, and he wants to feed Ely, the old man they meet along the road. The father is amazed that a child raised in such a world would be capable of charity, but to the boy it is only natural. The boy even chastises the man for robbing the robber who would have left them with nothing. The boy’s compassion in the face of cruelty and depravity represents a dim hope in an otherwise hopeless world.