The Road

The Road Summary and Analysis of Section 6

Section 6 extends from page 136 to page 158.

Ahead of them, the protagonists see a man slowly shuffling down the road. They follow him to determine whether he is a decoy for an ambush. Eventually, they overtake the old man. He is unkempt, filthy. “He looked like a pile of rags fallen off a cart” (137). The boy convinces his father to give the old man something to eat. The father allows the boy to give a tin of fruit to the old man. He tells his son they cannot keep the old man, but the child convinces his father to let them camp the night with the old man and give him a proper dinner.

The old man claims his name is Ely, though he later says this is not his true name. He claims to be ninety years old in order to protect himself from the bad guys--a tactic Ely admits does not always work. Ely has an extensive conversation with the man about the state of the world. “Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave…. There is no God and we are his prophets” (143).

Ely does not consider people like themselves to be survivors, and he admits that he was surprised when he saw the little boy. The man replies, “What if I said that he’s a god?” (145). Ely rejects this idea and insists that it will be better when all humans are dead. “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 in the road with nothing to do and nobody to do it to” (145-146). The next morning, the man and the boy--after some argument--give Ely some food and part ways with him.

The man’s cough worsens as they continue to travel. He discovers that their tank with oil has leaked, since the boy forgot to turn both valves shut. The boy realizes this mistake, though the father pretends it is his own fault. For weeks, they travel as the landscape remains unrelentingly brutal. One day, the boy discovers an abandoned train, which they explore. At one stop, the man examines his maps and determines that they are approximately two to three weeks away from reaching the sea.

One night, the boy has a bad dream and wakes up his father. He has dreamt that he was crying and the man would not wake up. The man misunderstands and thinks his son is speaking of the present. The man and the child have a conversation about whether his son believes what he says.

Later, they encounter three men, armed with pipes, who ask them what they have in their cart. The father brandishes his pistol, attempting to look like an experienced killer, and continues on his way with the boy.

The father becomes ill with a bad fever, which frightens the boy greatly. They remain in one place for several days as the father waits out his sickness. He dreams of his previous life before the world’s destruction. Finally, the man is able to rise and survey their surroundings from the top of the hill. He sees no signs of smoke.


The man finally succumbs to the boy’s goodhearted desire to help others. Perhaps because Ely looks too old and weak to be a threat, the father lets down his guard and even lets Ely camp with them for the night. The father seems to be feeling relatively rich with resources, quite the opposite of the way he felt when he was losing hope. He has the leisure and plenty to share. While the boy wants to help everyone, the father, hardened by reality, needs a greater measure of security before opening himself to helping others. Even then, his son must work hard to persuade him to trust Ely enough to help him.

Various clues point to the conclusion that the character of Ely, the only named figure in The Road (though he claims this is not his true name), is an allusion to Elijah the prophet. In biblical references, Elijah signifies the coming of the Messiah, the savior who will bring people out of their suffering. In the novel, this figure could be the boy, although Ely denies that the boy could be a god. Maybe Ely chose the name because of its similarity to “Elijah.” Also, Elijah is first introduced in the Bible in 1 Kings 17:1. In The Road, when some part or the major part of the catastrophe occurs, the man notices that all of the clocks have stopped at 1:17. Perhaps this is another allusion to the Bible and the figure of Elijah, letting us entertain the interpretation of the mysterious Ely on the road as a prophet, much like other traditional prophet-like old men.

In Ely's conversation with the man, however, he personifies death. He 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 in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be" (146). If he is a prophet, he is a prophet only of the final act of destruction, not of some good on the other side of it. He describes death as a person, a figure who will presumably meet his own demise when his work on earth is complete. If he is a prophet of death, he is hardly needed, unless it is to extinguish the last hope of the so-called survivors.

In another passage from this section, McCarthy evokes religious imagery when describing the harsh weather the boy and the man face. He describes how the "secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could," with "the noon sky black as the cellars of hell" (149). While "secular" refers to the state of being separated from religion, and thus this is a reference to their brutal indifference to their effects on people, the noon sky is compared to hell as though the relevant religious imagery is all on the negative side.

The abandoned train could be a symbol for the futility of man's efforts and technology in the face of nature's (and the universe's) indifference. "If [the man and the boy] saw different worlds what they knew was the same. That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again" (152). Despite the differing experiences of and the gaps in knowledge between the father and his son, both understand that the train is a representation of man's wasted efforts. The existence of man is fleeting and anachronistic compared with the eternal sweep of the universe’s history; humankind will be outlasted by the timelessness of nature and its insensible violence.

The boy also describes a nightmare in which "I was dreaming. But you didnt wake up" (154). This dream foreshadows the circumstances in which the man will pass on at the end of the novel. The scene of the man's death is described later as follows: "He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stuff. He sat there a long time weeping..." (236). The similarity between the dream and the actual circumstances of his father's death is clear. However, when the boy describes the dream, the father does not realize he is talking about a dream which foreshadows his own death, but he believes that the boy is talking about what just happened in the present.