“The Road” is a 2006 dystopian novel by the American writer Cormac McCarthy. The novel won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. The was well received critically and featured in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. The novel revolves around a father and his son who are only referred to as “The Man” and “The Boy.” The pair are traveling through the American south after an unspecified apocalyptic event has wiped out most of humanity and scorched the earth.
The struggles of the pair are told in detail as they try to find food and dodge the traps of the remaining humans, many of which have become cannibals out of desperation. The Boy’s unfailing goodness inspire his father to keep moving forward and eventually they reach the sea. However, the Man soon becomes ill and passes away, leaving The Boy to go along with a passing family. He promises his father before leaving that he will not forget him.
The novel was adapted into a film of the same name starring Viggo Mortensen in 2009. Which was also well received by critics.
The novel opens with The Man waking and checking on his sleeping son. The Man and The Boy are the two protagonists of “The Road” although neither are named. An apocalyptic event of some type has happened and the two have been on the road for at least a year. The Man and The Boy have to wear face masks even when they sleep. The man has had a dream that he and his son wandered into a cave and saw a blind, translucent creature. When dawn breaks, the two travelers investigate the area and find the land “Barren, silent, godless.” The man searches for signs of other humans but finds none.
The Boy and The Man gather their things in a shopping cart and backpacks and begin walking south. Eventually, they come across and abandoned service station and check to see if it has any supplies. The Man finds a phone and dials his father’s old phone number but no one picks up. They leave the station but return shortly to collect bottles of motor oil from the trash that they can use for their lamps. The Boy is happy because his father will have light to read him a story.
Soon, it begins to rain. The father parks the shopping cart and covers it with a tarp. He and The Boy sit under a rock overhang to stay dry. After looking around for signs of life, they prepare for bed. The Boy is now too tired for a story but he asks that the lamp be left on while he sleeps. The Boy asks his father before falling asleep if they will die and the father replies: “Sometime. Not Now.” He says that if The Boy died he would want to die too so that they could be together. After his son falls asleep, the Man stays awake and listens to the silence of the scorched world.
The next day, they begin walking again and pass through a city. The father keeps his pistol close. They see a corpse and it reminds the father of a peaceful time in his childhood before the devastation. For the next two weeks, the travelers continue to go south. The days grow shorter and the weather colder. One day it snows. They are not able to make a fire on the decayed terrain. Luckily, they discover a garage where they are able to make a fire and repair the wheels on the shopping cart.
The next morning they walk past a barn with three corpses hanging in it. The Boy wants to search the barn but The Man does not allow it. The father has a dream about his dead wife emerging out of a green and leafy canopy. Everyday his dreams grow more and more vivid. He creates a broom on the front of the cart to sweep the road of debris ahead of it and The Boy rides in the cart for a while. It is the first time that The Boy has smiled in a long time.
They come across and old billboard that says Rock City. The reader can now assume that they are in Georgia. They pick up things like bedsheets and other essentials and see many more corpses along the way. One day they make it to the house where The Man grew up. The father goes into the house and memories flood him as he looks over the rooms. The Boy is scared of the house and they soon leave. A few days later they live through an earthquake. They stay for a while in an abandoned house where the father reads old newspapers. The narration reveals that many leftover travelers are on the road like this. The Man and The Boy continue to travel south as winter appears. They see forest fires in the far off mountains.
The Man dreams that his wife is ill, when he wakes he remembers that she died “alone somewhere in the dark.” The narrative says that during the apocalyptic event, people were “sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered.” The Man makes the boy hot cocoa and starts to have only hot water himself before the boy reminds him that he promised that he would not deprive himself like that. He agrees and has hot cocoa himself. The Boy says: “If you break little promises you’ll break big ones.”
One day, they have to navigate around fallen trees by removing all of the items in their cart and carrying them over by hand. The Boy has a nightmare about a wind up penguin that terrorizes their old house. Soon they come across a waterfall and bath in it, even though it is freezing. They find mushrooms in the woods and eat them.
Every morning The Man wakes early and searches the area for other people. The father says that they have to leave the waterfall as it will attract others. He pulls out a map and explains to The Boy that the country used to be divided into states. The Boy was unaware of this, obviously having been born after the apocalypse.
There is a flash of lightening the next day that startles The Boy. As they continue to walk through the woods, they see a fire in the distance. They walk toward it and find a set of footprints in the cooling tar. The travelers catch up with a man and find out that he has been struck by lightening. The Boy wants to go help the man but the father refuses and eventually the man collapses. The father pulls everything out of his wallet including a picture of his wife. He lays his wife’s picture on the road and leaves. He reminds the son that there was nothing they could do to help the man after the son has been upset with him for several days.
That night, the father has a dream that he is being called to by a group of people on the shore of a river. A short flashback reveals that when The Man’s wife was pregnant with The Boy, the clocks stopped at 1:17 and the power went out one day. The Man looked out the window and saw a “dull rose glow.”
One day, the father wakes coughing up blood. The Boy wishes for his mother and the father tells him that means he wishes that he was dead and he should never do that. There is another flashback after The Boy was born. The Man urges his wife not to commit suicide as they have been struggling to survive for a long time. She feels that her family will eventually be killed and that she will be raped and wishes to die. She wants to kill her husband and son as well but doesn’t have enough bullets. The Man begs her not to but she refuses and leaves. The morning after her death, The Boy asks “She’s gone, isn’t she?”
One morning, the father wakes suddenly and sees people in bio-hazard suits approaching. The father moves quickly, hiding their things and running away with The Boy. All except one of the men get into a truck. The father pulls his pistol on the other man and tells questions him about where the other men were going. The man tries to convince them to come with him. Suddenly, he dives for The Boy and holds a knife to his throat. The father shoots him in the head and grabs his son, running away.
This means that the father only has one bullet left. The Boy is in shock and refuses to talk to his father. The father is not sure whether the other men in the truck have left. He finds their campsite and finds his shopping cart which has been plundered and discarded. The truck crew left behind boiled human bones on the campfire, meaning that they are cannibals.
The Man and Boy make a new camp and The Man bathes the boy to get the blood out of his hair. The Man says that he should have been more careful and that those are the “bad guys” and they are the “good guys.” The father carves a flute for his son to cheer him up.
For the next few days, The Man feels like they are being watched but sees no one. One day, The Boy sees another little boy looking at him from a house across the street and runs over to him. The other little boy runs away. The Boy wishes to help the other child but the father forbids him. The Boy becomes upset and says that he doesn’t care if he dies and The Man tells him not to say such a thing. As they continue on, The Boy remains disturbed by the incident and asks his father if the other boy had an adult to take care of him. This makes the father recall and incident when his wife was still alive. His family came across a stray dog and The Boy begged him not to kill it.
One day, the travelers see a group of people passing by on the road, all carrying deadly weapons. The Man and The Boy manage to escape being noticed. The snow soon gets so deep that they have to leave behind their cart. The Boy struggles to continue on and The Man is too weak to carry him. After five days with no food, they stumble on a large house. The Boy is afraid to go into the house but he and the father investigate it, finding piles of clothes and old sleeping bags from other travelers.
The father sees a pantry that is locked with a padlock and breaks it open, desperate for food. Inside, he finds countless naked people who are still alive and have parts of their bodies amputated. They beg The Man for help. The Man drops his lighter and rushes out of the house with The Boy. As they run out of the house, they see six people approaching from across a field. The Man and Boy rush to hide. The father hands the son his pistol and tells him that if they are captured he has to commit suicide. They hide until night time and hear screams coming from inside the house. The Man realizes that the house is a trap where travelers are ambushed by cannibals and kept in the padlocked room for food.
That night, the Man and Boy use the darkness as a cover to run into the woods and manage to escape. Soon they come across a barn and an apple orchard and eat the apples, also filling jars with water from the barn. But the night is cold and they cannot make a fire because The Man dropped his lighter. The Boy asks his father if the people in the house with the Little Boy were going to eat them, realizing why he and his father couldn’t help them.
The Man and The Boy continue their travels. Soon, they come upon a door in the ground that leads to a bunker full of food. The Man and The Boy have a good meal of non-perishable food and fall asleep in the bunker. They spend several days in the bunker while the father whittles bullets out of wood to make his pistol appear to be loaded.
They find a new shopping cart in the town nearby and fill it with food from the bunker before leaving. Soon they stop on a hill and see the remains of a burnt city. The Boy asks his father about their goal and he does not know what it is. They come across an old man shambling along the road. Wary of another ambush, The Man does not want to help him but The Boy convinces him to give the man something to eat and camp the night with him.
The old man tells them is name is Ely, though he admits later that that is not his real name. Ely and The Man have a long conversation about the state of the world and God. Ely says: “When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out on the road with nothing to do and nobody to do it.”
The next morning The Man and The Boy say goodbye to Ely and part ways. As they continue forward, the man’s cough grows worse. They discover an abandoned train which they explore. The father consults his map and realizes that they are only a two or three week journey from the ocean. They are stopped by three men with lead pipes who ask them what they have in their cart but the father threatens them with the pistol and they leave.
The father soon develops a fever and they have to stay in place for several days until he recovers. They continue their journey toward the sea even though The Man grows increasingly weak. They come across a section of the road where corpses lay half mired in tar, having died in a great fire.
Soon, they think they are being followed and decide to leave less trash behind so the followers will not know that they have food. The father sees three men and a pregnant woman pass by in the night. They come across a camp site the next day and are horrified to discover a charred infant on a spit. They stay in another abandoned house for a few days where they scavenge for new clothes. Upon leaving they take a wheelbarrow, filling it with their blankets and canned food. Finally, the reach the sea. The ocean is not blue and this disappoints The Boy. The Boy swims in the ocean and then cries but does not tell his father why. Later that night they make camp.
Off the beach they find and abandoned boat that yields some supplies. The Man finds a flare pistol and a first aid kit. Though there is no one to signal, The Man keeps the flare pistol to use as a weapon. The Boy wonders if the people that own the ship are alive and his father says that they might be alive. This bothers The Boy as he doesn’t want to steal from the living. The Man agrees that they are most likely dead.
That night they shoot off a flare and The Boy wonders if God will see it. The Boy soon becomes ill and takes days to recover. They continue to explore the beach only to return to their campsite one day to find that it has been ransacked. They manage to find the thief and The Man points the pistol at him. The Boy begs his father not to kill the thief as he is only scavenging. The Man leaves the thief on the side of the road, naked.
The Boy cries and eventually The Man returns to find the thief. He has left but they leave his clothes and shoes on the side of the road. The Man tells The Boy that he did not intend to kill the thief but The Boy says that they did kill him.
Continuing on their journey, they are attacked by a man in a building shooting arrows. The father manages to shoot the building with the flare pistol after being hit in the leg. He tells The Boy to hide while he goes into the building. Inside, a woman holds the arrow man and curses the father. The Man searches the house for supplies but finds nothing. He and The Boy make camp in an abandoned store and he treats his leg with the first aid kit. Since they abandoned the thief, The Boy has been quiet and The Man tries to talk to him. The Man tries to tell him that their survival story is pretty good but The Boy insists that it is only “okay”. He asks if The Man killed the arrow man and his father says that he did not.
Two days later they leave the town. The Man removes the stitches from his leg. He grows sicker as his vivid dreams continue. Two days later they arrive at an impassable river with a collapsed bridge. Delirious from his illness, The Man asks “What are we going to do, Papa?” The Boy replies,”Well, what are we?”
They make camp and walk inland the next day, reaching the woods. When they camp again the man realizes that he can go no further and that he is going to die. He refuses to eat and does not want to be covered by the tent. The Boy saves his portion of the food for the next day. The Man begs The Boy to leave him and continue the journey with the pistol. The Boy refuses to leave his father. The Man assures him that he can still talk to him after he is gone in his head.
The Boy asks if The Man remembers the little boy that they saw and his father assures him that good things will come to the boy. Overnight, The Boy holds his father and when he wakes the next morning The Man is dead. The Boy weeps and remains by his father’s side for three days. He goes on the road when he sees people approaching. A man with a shotgun approaches and asks about The Boy’s father. The Boy answers that he has died. The man with the shotgun says that he and his group have been watching The Boy for some time and have been wondering if they should check on him. The Boy asks if he is one of the good guys and the man with the shotgun says that he is .
The Boy decides to go with the man. The man with the shotgun tells him to wait by the road while he checks on his father’s body and retrieves his belongings. However, The Boy follows him and covers his father’s body with a blanket. He tries to give the man with the shotgun the pistol but the man tells him to keep it. Before leaving, The Boy says goodbye to his father and promises that he will talk to him everyday and that he won’t forget him.
When The Boy and the man with the shotgun make it back to his camp, the man’s wife hugs The Boy. He says that the woman tries to talk to him about God but he finds it difficult to talk to anyone but his father. “The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” The book ends with a paragraph describing trout swimming in a stream in a distant time.
The Man – also referred to as “the father.” The Man is the adult protagonist of the novel. He travels the road with his son, struggling to survive after an apocalyptic event of some kind has taken place. The Man lost his wife an unspecified amount of time before the novel when she committed suicide after being unable to cope with the harsh living conditions they must deal with.
The Man is clever, resourceful and naturally suspicious. He often works out the danger in an action ahead of time and manages to shield his son from it. He is reluctant to approach other travelers as many of the remaining humans have become violent in desperation and turned to cannibalism. It is revealed halfway through the novel that The Man has no end goal in the journey south and that he has no plan for where to stop traveling.
The Man experiences vivid, lifelike dreams throughout the novel that he seems to believe are sent by either God or his dead wife to communicate with him. These dreams grow increasingly vivid as he gets more and more ill and the novel continues on. It is obvious that The Man is ill from early on in the novel after he begins coughing up blood. He continues on as he grows sicker, knowing that he has to protect his son for as long as he can. When The Man finally passes away, he begs his son to continue on without him and assures him that he will still be able to talk to him in his mind.
The Boy – also called the son or the child. The Boy is the child protagonist of the novel. Having been born after the apocalyptic event, The Boy does not remember the world before it was scorched and has only ever know humanities worst side.
He travels the road with his father after his mother commits suicide. The Boy believes that he and his father are the “good guys” and objects to any type of violence on their part. He also believes that they should be helping the others that they come across. The Boy is fundamentally scarred by the sight of a small child in an abandoned house who runs away before he can reach him. He continues to wonder about the other boy for the rest of the novel and wonder why they could not help him.
The Boy has an unimpeachable trust in humanity and goodness that persists throughout the novel. He continues to beg his father to help other travelers despite their constant brushes with violence and murder. The Boy cares for his father when he is ill and refuses to leave him even though doing so may save his life. After his father dies, he promises him that he will never forget him and that he will continue to talk to him in his head. He leaves with the new family that happens to stumble across him.
Cormac McCarthy Biography
Cormac McCarthy was born Charles McCarthy on July 20th, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island. One of six children, he and his family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee when he was only four years old so that his father could begin a new job as a lawyer. McCarthy attended a Catholic high school and was an alter boy at his family’s church. He went on to attend the University of Tennessee but never fully graduated. It was while he was in college that he was published for the first time. Two of his short stories were published in a magazine called ‘The Phoenix’ and he was given the Ingram Merrill Award for his writing in 1959 and 1960.
It was during this time that he decided to change his name to Cormac for his writing career to avoid association with ventriloquist Edgar Bergan’s famous dummy Charlie MacCarthy. In 1961, he married another student named Lee Holleman and the two had a son together the next year. That year, Cormac asked Lee to get a job so that he could focus on his writing and she was so upset with him that she left him, filing for divorce. Cormac has since married two more times and had one more son.
In 1965, he published his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper” which received good reviews. The following year he received a Rockefeller grant which he then used to travel around Europe. In Ibiza, he wrote his second novel. ‘Outer Dark’ was published in 1968 after which he returned to America. In 1969, Cormac moved to a barn in Louisville, Tennessee which he then began renovating himself. It was here that he wrote his third book, “Child of God” (1973).
After separating from his second wife, Cormac moved to Texas and finally published a novel that he had been working on for the past 20 years called “Suttree” (1979). In 1981, he received another grant and wrote his next novel. Cormac did not receive widespread literary recognition until 1992 with the publishing of his novel “All The Pretty Horses” which won the National Book Award.
In the early 2000’s, Cormac published two of his most well known novels. “No Country For Old Men” (2005) and “The Road” (2006) were both very well received critically and later adapted into successful films, “No Country” receiving several Academy Awards. Cormac is currently working on three new novels at his home near Santa Fe, New Mexico.