About the Book

Book Protagonist: The Man, The Boy
Publication Date: 2006
Genre: Dystopian, Science Fiction

Plot Summary

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy is a harrowing novel of survival that follows two unnamed characters through the wastelands of what used to be the United States. 

This novel is McCarthy’s best-known. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2006 and has since been made into a well-known award-winning film.

The Road Summary 

‘Spoiler Free’ The Road Summary 

The Road follows a man and a boy, who go unnamed throughout the novel. The two travel south through what used to be the United States in an effort to reach the coast. Together, they attempt to remain “good” and “carry the fire” while also surviving in a harsh and deadly world. Throughout the novel, they encounter “roadagents,” or groups of men who kill and eat human beings, as well as other travelers as desperate as they are. 

The Road Summary 

Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.

The story begins with the two characters, the man and the boy, traveling in the woods. The boy is asleep, and the man is thinking about a dream he recently had of a creature with dead eyes. His dreams feature later in the novel as well. The man believes that good dreams are to be feared by bad dreams are reassuring as they show that the dreamer is still fighting. 

The boy is the man’s primary concern. He is doing everything he can to protect the child. He carries a pistol with two bullets that may, the reader assumes, be used for defense or, if their situation because incredibly desperate, for suicide. The two travel the road, as they do throughout most of the novel. They’re attempting to make it to the south coast, where they hope to find a better life. But, there is little real hope. 

As they travel, they come upon absconded towns, houses, and cities. They’re nothing more than remnants of what they once were. Often, the man remembers the past, including his wife, who readers never meet. But, the story alludes to the possibility that she killed herself in order to escape their dire situation. 

The two find a single can of coke in a vending machine. The man gives it to the boy in an effort to show him a little of what the world used to be. This is one more example of how unselfish the man is throughout the novel. 

The boy and man come to the house the man grew up in, and the boy is scared to go inside. This is due to the fact that he’s become used to the dangers that other human beings pose. There could be anyone or anything inside the house. Roadagents, for example, or cannibals. 

The two swim in a waterfall together and the reader is treated to a moment that almost feels normal. The man teaches the boy how to float on his back in the water. This is one of a few more tender scenes in the novel. 

One of the refrains that are seen throughout the novel involves “carrying the fire.” This is something that the boy is very concerned with. If they are “carrying the fire,” it means they’re still on the side of good, not on the side of those who eat people and harm others in any way. The man does what he can to encourage the boy to remain hopeful about the future; this includes telling him stories of the past. 

The man also has flashbacks of times earlier on in their journey. These are mainly confined to the time after his wife left him and the boy. He does remember when the boy was born and how he delivered the child himself. 

In a darker moment, the Roadagents find the man and the boy as they attempt to hide in the woods. The boy is grabbed but the man shoots the would-be-kidnapper in the head, using one of his two bullets. The boy is worried that since his father killed someone they’re no longer the good guys, but the man assures him that they are. 

As the novel progresses, the man and boy find a large home. They’re suspicious of it and the piles of supplies attached to a string. The man breaks into the floor of the pantry that was once locked. The boy is immediately terrified but the man goes in. He finds a group of naked men and women who are being kept alive so that they can be eaten later. They run, only just escaping before the roadagents return. 

Later, the man finds an old apple orchard and some dried-out fruit. They eat and drink and have a happier moment together. But, it doesn’t last for long. The boy asks his father about the people in the basement. He knows that they’re going to be eaten but also knows that there is nothing that he and his father can do to save them. They’re still the good guys, he knows. 

The two are nearing death though and the man becomes more and more absorbed in his thoughts and memories. As the man seems to be accepting their deaths, he finds a bunker filled with good cots to sleep on and water. There is also a chemical toilet. The two spend a few days in the bunker, eating and sleeping. 

The man loads up supplies from the bunker and gives himself and the boy haircuts. They briefly encounter another traveler, Ely, who they give supplies and spend several hours. The boy becomes upset, knowing that Ely is going to die. The man continues to weaken throughout the following pages and it becomes clear that he isn’t going to survive.

They encounter a group of three men and a pregnant woman. They hide and later discover the baby’s body, skewered over a fire. 

Eventually, the two arrive at the coast but it’s anti-climactic. It’s dark, grey, and very much like the rest of the world. They camp on the beach and walk down the shore. But, when they come back, all of their belongings have been stolen. They catch the thief, and the man makes him take off all his clothes, leaving him dead. But, the boy guilts him into giving him his clothes back, knowing if he doesn’t know that the thief is going to die. 

The man gets shot in the leg with an arrow and the man retaliates by shooting a flare through a window. He tells the boy that the shooter lived, but it’s unclear whether or not that’s true. The man’s wound is bad, and he is left with a limp. One night, the man is in such bad shape, that he cannot get up. He tells the boy to travel south and to keep “carrying the fire.” He dies that night. 

The boy spends time with his father’s body before encountering a group of “good guys,” which includes a man, a woman, and a little boy and girl. The boy trusts them and they invite him to join their family. The novel ends with the memory of a mountain stream. 


What are the main themes of The Road?

The main themes of The Road is father/son relationships and survival. These two things are tied together as the story unfolds. McCarthy makes sure to emphasize how one survives as much as if one is able to. 

What is the message of The Road by Cormac McCarthy?

The main message of The Road is that family and morality are as important as survival. 

What event caused The Road?

The world was changed in The Road by a meteor strike, according to Cormac McCarthy’s website. 

Emma Baldwin
About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.
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