The Road

The Road Summary and Analysis of Section 2

Section 2 covers pages 25 to 59.

The father and son continue traveling south as winter descends. They expect to travel across mountains, and the father hopes they have enough food. They travel in snow but make campfires at night to keep warm. In the distance, they can see forest fires raging in the mountains. One night, as they make camp, the father watches his son stoke the fire, "God's own firedrake" (26).

In the morning, the fire in the mountains is still visible, but the weather grows colder. They continue south. The father dreams that his wife is sick and he cares for her. Though the dream seems sacrificial, the father remembers that "she died alone somewhere in the dark" (27).

The narrative switches briefly into a flashback to describe what occurred apocalyptically on earth, though not explaining why. "People 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" (28).

The father, who is familiar with this part of the land, expects to reach a summit soon. Finally, he recognizes the location he seeks. They stop to rest, and the father makes his son hot cocoa, while he drinks only hot water himself. The boy reminds his father that he promised not to limit himself like that, so the father splits the hot cocoa among them both. The son tells him, "If you break little promises you'll break big ones" (29).

They plod onward. When the road is obstructed by fallen trees, they must unpack their cart, carry their belongings to the other side, then repack it. At night, the boy has a nightmare about a wind-up penguin that haunts the house they used to live in, moving without being wound up.

It takes four days for them to travel out of the snow. They discover a river with a waterfall. They bathe in the waterfall, despite the cold. In the woods, they find morels (a kind of mushroom), then settle down for the night, satisfied with their makeshift camp.

In the morning, the father checks for other people and once again finds none. After staying at this camp for an undisclosed amount of time, at least several days, the father decides they must leave because the waterfall will attract others. They consult an old, dismembered map and plan their route. The man tells the boy that the area used to be divided into states. The boy, having been born and become aware of the world after whatever the catastrophe was, does not know about the states and wonders what happened to them. The father cannot answer him.

They make their way to a bridge that crosses the river, but a jack-knifed tractor trailer blocks the way. The father must maneuver their cart of belongings underneath the truck. They sleep there that night, then investigate the trailer the next morning. The father climbs into the trailer, only to discover "bodies. Sprawled in every attitude" (40).

The man and the boy camp that night in the woods. The boy is frightened by brief lightning. The next morning, the father notices a fire in the horizon. They continue to walk and see a set of footprints in the burned and cooling tar. Eventually, the man and the boy catch up with the footprint-maker and follow him. The man looks burnt because he has been struck by lightning. The boy wishes to help the man, but his father refuses, thus upsetting the boy. Eventually, the burnt man collapses "and at that distance you couldnt even tell what it was" (43).

One day, the father empties his wallet of money, old credit cards, his driver's license, and a photograph of his deceased wife. He throws away the wallet, then lays his wife's picture on the road and leaves. Later, he reminds his son that they could not have helped the burnt man in any way. Their exchange indicates that the son has been upset with his father for some time and has not spoken with him--but this episode is over. That night, the father dreams that he is called by a group of figures on the far shore of a river.

In a few very short flashback sequences, the fate of the man's wife and the boy's mother is revealed. The first flashback describes a time when the woman was pregnant with the boy. All of the clocks stopped at 1:17, the power went out, and through the window, the father saw a "dull rose glow" (45). Most likely to collect water in the event they would run out of water as well as power, the father stopped the bathtub and ran both taps on high. Another memory of the man involves hearing birds overhead. "He never heard them again" (45).

As they travel, the man tries to teach his son card games he has long forgotten. The father thinks about his wife's picture, abandoned on the road, and wishes he could keep her with them in some way. He awakens one day, coughing up blood, and wakes up his son. The boy wants his mother, and his father replies, "You mean you wish that you were dead.... You musnt say that" (47).

The next flashback involves a conversation between the man and his wife after the boy has been born. At this point, the family has struggled to survive, like "the walking dead in a horror film" (47), for some time. They are survivors, and the man entreats his wife not to commit suicide. She wishes to die by her own hand, however, in order to escape what she believes is her inevitable rape and her family’s inevitable murder. She wishes that their pistol had three bullets, not only two, so that she could spare her entire family from their gruesome fate. Throughout the conversation, the man continues to beg her to reconsider her decision, or at least to wait until the morning to say goodbye to their son. She refuses and leaves. The man knows that she commits suicide by sharpening a flake of obsidian, "[s]harper than steel. The edge an atom thick" (49). In the morning after her death, the man and the boy pack up their camp, and the boy only says, "She's gone isn't she?" (50).

In yet another flashback, the boy's birth is described: "in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing" (50).

One day, the father awakens alert, pistol in hand. He sees people approaching, "wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe" (51). Farther down the road comes the noise of a truck. The father quickly hides their belongings and runs away with the boy. The men in the truck pass them, but the truck sputters to a stop. The men in the truck dismount in order to push it past the slope. The father sees a man from the truck standing only twenty feet away.

The father pulls the pistol on the man and tells him to approach them, warning him not to call to the others or else be shot. The man was in the process of sharpening his knife on his belt. The father questions the man about where he and his crew are going, whether their weapons have ammunition, and so on. The man does not believe the father will shoot him because of the boy's presence. He correctly guesses that the father has only one or two bullets (he has two). The father does not like the way the man looks at his son. The man attempts to cajole the father and son into joining them with promises of food.

The confrontation comes to a nasty climax when the man dives for the boy, "holding him against his chest with the knife at his throat" (56). The father shoots the man in the head, then grabs his son, puts him on his shoulders, and runs away. They continue on their journey, freezing cold, the man coughing. "They neither spoke nor called to each other, the more sinister for that" (57).

They continue to stumble through the woods. The father worries that they only have one bullet left. The boy's hair is streaked with the man's blood, and he refuses to talk to his father. After more walking, they come across the road they were on, which yields the tire tracks of the truck. It presumably has continued on its way without the man who was shot.


McCarthy offers further clues regarding the novel’s setting in the middle of this section, making an allusion to "the states" (36). Readers will infer that this wasteland was once the United States of America, a governmental system that presumably dissolved in the apocalyptic disaster. The man cannot explain to the boy why the states were dissolved, but the roads remain.

The man's act of leaving his wife's photograph on the road is richly symbolic. His wife chose to commit suicide rather than travel the road with her family in search of safety and survival, but the man deposits her picture on the road instead of dumping it somewhere else. Thus the man acknowledges that she was on the road with them in his mind and in some way is still on the road, but he finally is leaving her behind. She may be on some other path toward her own salvation; they indeed have parted ways. She chose to die, and he chose to live. Yet, when he leaves the photograph behind along with his wallet and his contents, he is admitting a kind of defeat for the old world. He had been keeping these elements of the old world together with him, but now that he has failed to help the burned man, he realizes that he can no longer keep up the idea that there is an old world to hope for. He lost some part of his humanity by not even trying to help, and so now he leaves behind the symbols of his old life, even the photograph of his wife.

McCarthy intersperses flashback sequences in this section to describe fragments of the man's life before the catastrophe and to explain what happened to the man's wife. These flashbacks disrupt the story's normal chronology, which generally follows the little boy and the man in the present, and returns the narration to the past. By employing flashbacks, McCarthy does more than offer background information to help us understand the tragedy and the man’s present thought and emotions. Since the flashbacks are not clearly separated from the rest of the narration, they intentionally obscure the story's linearity and reflect the man’s shifting between memory and reality. Just as the flashbacks make the novel's present more difficult for the reader to grasp in some ways, the man drifts in and out of dreams and memories. This disjointed narration technique helps sustain the novel’s mood of confusion and isolation.

This section also features various literary devices in McCarthy's descriptions of nature. For example, he writes about the "fireblackened boulders like the shapes of bears..." (25) and "the banished sun, "which "circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp" (28). These similes render the descriptions more vivid and poignant. Likewise, trout are described as "[r]eflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave" (35). These negative comparisons further perpetuate the negative tone of the story. In addition, an example of hyperbole occurs in the line, " it was so quiet they could all but hear their hearts" (29), emphasizing not only the desolation of the scene but also the desolating effect on their hearts, their humanity.

The boy's dream about a wind-up penguin gone out of control may be an allegory for the catastrophe that has struck the earth. In the dream, the boy is frightened by a wind-up penguin that is able to stalk their own home of its own accord, without being wound up by the father. Originally, the penguin only runs after the father winds it up. This toy perhaps symbolizes man's creations, at first under man's control but soon taking on their own agency and getting out of control (its "winder wasnt turning," 31). In other words, man's creations became a destructive, uncontrollable force. This dream thus could refer to whatever event caused the earth’s tragedy—the disaster was in some sense of man’s own making, perhaps a reference to the religious fanaticism that comes when people make up their own gods and then are willing to kill one another on behalf of them, or some similar way that human technology and artificial desires got out of control and led to war.

The primary conflict in this section occurs between the man from the truck and the protagonists. Initially, the danger presented by the man from the truck is ambiguous. Though the father is deeply suspicious of the man's intentions, the man acts conciliatory, offering to let the father and the son join his band. However, the sincerity of his offer is questionable, and the father’s suspicions are vindicated when that man pulls a knife on the boy. The exchange reaches its violent climax when the father feels forced to protect his son by shooting the man in the head to kill him. For the father, the moral choice is unpalatable but easy: it is acceptable to kill his son’s attacker in order to save his son. His son, perhaps too naive, is not so sure, which creates a new level of moral conflict between the father and the son.

In this section we also see the father’s illness coming up, to the point that he coughs up blood and wakes his son. This is an element of foreshadowing of the father’s ultimate death from the illness. For now, however, the father will persevere. Staying put will probably do no good, after all.

Given that the son was not born before the tragedy began, it must have occurred years ago, yet there are still corpses and destruction everywhere, with roads and buildings still standing, and with supplies to some degree still available. It seems that even to this day, people are killing one another and leaving corpses, which explains why the father is so clearly justified in being wary of anyone they meet. Also, it seems as though the world might have been suspended for some time, with people emerging only after a time in order to start picking up the pieces. This suggests some sort of nuclear holocaust, with the survivors somehow hiding and then finally emerging when they thought the radiation levels were low enough. Such a speculative idea is supported by the recollection of “[p]eople sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes,” although other vehicles of war could have the same effect. But we do not know what really happened; we simply find the characters now in this new, awful world.