These sections are divided using the Picador edition (2006). Section 1 extends from the beginning of the novel to the end of page 24.
The Road opens with the man, one of the novel's two central, unnamed protagonists, awakening at night to check on his sleeping son. Even in sleep, the man and the boy wear facemasks. The man has been dreaming about wandering in a flowstone cave, led by his son, "Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast" (3). In the dream, the man and his son arrive at a "black and ancient lake" across from a blind creature (3). The creature is translucent, and its innards are vaguely visible. The creature turns away from the man and the boy.
At dawn, the man leaves his makeshift bed with the boy to investigate the land, "Barren, silent, godless" (4). He does not know what month it is, though he guesses the season is autumn. The reader understands that the man and his son have been on the move for at least a year. The man uses binoculars to search for any signs of life, but he finds none.
When the boy awakens, his father is already by his side with food ready. The father believes their location is unsafe during the daytime because they are visible from the road. With their shopping cart and backpacks, which carry their most necessary belongings, the boy and his father travel the dead land, heading south.
They come across an abandoned gas station, and the father decides to check if it still bears any useful objects or tools. He finds nothing of use. The description of the gas station, as well as of the overall landscape, reeks of bleak desolation and abandonment. The father picks up the phone and dials what used to be his own father’s phone number. They leave the station, but the father quickly returns and removes all of the oil bottles from the trash in order to collect as much motor oil as possible. They will use the oil for their lamp. The boy says that his father will now be able to read him a story.
As they continue to travel, the landscape remains charred, dead, abandoned. "[T]he shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see" (7). It starts to rain, so the father leaves the shopping cart in a gully, protected by a tarp, and he sits underneath a rock overhang with his son to stay dry. After the rain stops, they retrieve their cart and make camp. They survey the city below from the top of a hill to check for signs of fire or light, but they see none. They prepare for bed. The son is too tired to have his father read to him, but he asks to keep the lamp on until he falls asleep.
Before falling asleep, the boy asks his father whether they will die, to which his father replies, "Sometime. Not now" (9). He adds that if his son were to die, he would also wish to die so that they could be together. After his son falls asleep, the father remains awake listening to the nothingness of the world.
Again, the father wakes before dawn and before his son. He looks to the sky, perhaps futilely questioning God. "Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?" (10).
They pass through the city, the father holding their pistol close by. They see a corpse. The father remembers an idyllic day from his childhood with his uncle.
For weeks, the two continue south as the weather grows colder and the nights grow longer. The terrain is particularly brutal and barren; they cannot make fire. One day, it begins to snow. They discover a roadside garage in which they are able to make a fire and repair one of the shopping cart wheels. They continue in the morning, and as they pass a barn, they discover three bodies hanging inside. The boy wishes to scavenge for items they might need, but his father does not allow him.
They continue their journey. The father dreams of his dead wife, "out of a green and leafy canopy" (15), in stark contrast to the black and gray ashes which surround them in the daytime. He does not trust his dreams, believing that they are "the call of languor and of death" (15). But even when awake, he continues to think of his wife.
The father constructs sweeps to add to the cart, to clear the road before it. He uses the cart with his son sitting inside like a bobsled, and finally his son smiles. They come across a dam and a lake, and the father tells his son there are no fish in the lake. As their journey continues, day after day, the father's dreams grow more vivid. From an old billboard they see for Rock City, the reader can assume that they are near what used to be the state of Georgia.
They stop at a farmhouse, where the father takes bedsheets and blankets. At an abandoned supermarket, the father finds a Coca Cola can, which he gives his son as a treat. In yet another city, they encounter countless more corpses.
One day, they arrive at the house where the father grew up. The boy is frightened and does not want to enter the house, but his father does. The rooms in the house are empty, but they are still as the father remembers them. He can imagine the way Christmas used to be, and how he spent time with his sisters. He shows the boy his bedroom. The experience deeply frightens the son, and they leave.
Three nights later, they experience an earthquake. The description here reveals that during this time, many refugees traveled through the barren land as do the father and his son.
The two of them settle in an abandoned house, where the boy sleeps and the father reads old newspapers from a lost time.
From the very first page of The Road, McCarthy's distinct writing style fits the world he describes. Most obviously, his punctuation is extremely sparse. McCarthy does not use apostrophes to indicate contractions (for example, he uses "dont" instead of "don't"), and he does not use quotation marks to set apart dialogue from exposition. The conventions of writing hardly matter in this post-apocalyptic world. Moreover, the dialogue is usually set apart from exposition as a new indented line, but occasionally, some dialogue runs into the exposition as well. For example: "His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said" (9).
Further, in the above quotation, one can also see that McCarthy's prose often includes sentence fragments. In other cases, a lack of commas and other punctuation creates run-on sentences: "He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds" (15). McCarthy's stark prose style here reflects the barrenness of the landscape. The relentless consistency of this writing style helps create and sustain the mood of the book and its world, which is discussed in further detail below.
The reader spends the first section only with the man (called "Papa") and his son, the boy. Thus far, they are the only live characters in the book; the various antagonists they will encounter have not yet appeared. But the father hints at the others’ presence, making sure that their pistol is within reach and that they are not followed or seen by others. "He kept constant watch behind him in the mirror" (21).
The initial and most obvious conflict the protagonists face is the struggle to survive in a destroyed and destructive landscape. It is the conflict of man versus nature, with the old civilization providing tools. The father and son must scavenge for food and other vital supplies. In this section, the environment itself is the antagonist. They must battle against the harsh fall and winter, the rain and snow. The dry and ashen land, seemingly bereft of any other life, maybe even plants, makes their journey even more difficult.
The opening section of The Road thus quickly captures the dark mood of the novel. The novel’s second sentence already indicates the bleakness of the world these protagonists inhabit: "Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before" (3). Throughout the novel, additional details of the landscape reinforce this bleak image of the protagonists' environment. "The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable.... No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees" (13). The general mood that quickly permeates the book is one of death and desolation, and the plot bears this out.
To punctuate this mood, the father and his son are also preoccupied with death. The reader cannot avoid the worry. The son asks his father whether they will die; the father believes his dreams are the lure of death. Interestingly, this perception of his dreams is paradoxical, as only in these dreams or reminiscences so far does McCarthy allow for any "life" in his descriptions. The dreams are made vivid and lifelike, in stark contrast to the deathly environment. "He dreamt of a flowering wood where birds flew before them..." (15), or "he'd watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain [with its] blowsy plumage in the still autumn air." The birds and falcons, the colors, are now gone. Moreover, the father believes they are symbols of death: "How else would death call you?" (18).
The father also appears to treat his child as a redemptive figure: "[The father] knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke" (4). This statement alludes to the man's religious hope; his love for his son seems to come from a divine commandment within him. Indeed, much of the plot revolves around the father’s paternal, hopeful efforts to keep his son alive despite everything.