They stop to eat lunch and the boy asks where they are. The man says he thinks they are about two hundred miles from the coast “as the crow flies.” The boy asks about crows, and whether any are left alive, or whether they could have escaped by flying to Mars. The boy asks if people could escape to Mars, but the man says there isn’t any food there either. The boy accepts that there aren’t any more crows except in books, but he asks the man if someone could see the sun if they flew high enough. The man says yes, and then he asks what happened to the boy’s flute. The boy says he threw it away.
The boy still has the curiosity and imagination of a child, but for him even the sun is an impossible fantasy. With his questions the boy seems to answer himself, as he briefly indulges in speculation and fantasy but then accepts his situation as it is. It is perhaps for a similar reason that he threw away the flute – music was something for the old world, a false hope that he cannot indulge in or connect with.
They cross a river and reach a black, abandoned city. They stop on a hill and the boy asks about their “long term goals,” a phrase he heard the man use long ago. The man says he still doesn’t know. They turn a corner and see an old man shuffling along the road ahead of them. They catch up to him and he warily says he doesn’t have anything to steal. Then he sinks to the ground. The boy asks the man if they can help the old man. The man is suspicious but he agrees.
The man only seems to make short term goals like traveling to the coast, as his only “long term goal” is to keep on surviving and going down the road – hoping for something better without imagining what it might be. The man indulges the child’s compassion, recognizing that this is part of the “fire” he is fighting so hard to carry on.
The man opens a can of fruit and the boy gives it to the old man. The old man eats all of it, and then the boy suggests they stop for the night and eat more food with him. The man agrees, but flatly refuses to take the old man with them in the morning. They help the old man up and he acts confused by their presence. He can’t see well, and he asks if the boy is a “little boy.” The old man says his name is Ely.
Ely is the first (and only) named character of the book. It is mysterious how such an old and confused man has survived so long. As with every character they encounter on the road, the man must decide whether or not to trust Ely, but this time he gives him the benefit of the doubt.
They make camp and light a fire. Ely says he has always been on the road, and that he knew some kind of apocalypse was coming. The man asks if he wished he was dead, and Ely says he wishes he had died, but as long as he’s alive he is going to live. He says “nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.” He says no one cares if you live or die, as “there is no God and we are his prophets.”
Ely articulates some of the man’s struggle, as he fights so hard to survive even in the face of such an unhappy existence. Ely also offers another view on religious faith – he rejects any kind of God that would allow such a hellish world. Like the woman, he hopes for the peace of “eternal nothingness.”
The man asks Ely about how he eats and stays alive, but Ely only answers vaguely. He admits that Ely isn’t his real name, as he doesn’t want people talking about him “in times like these.” Ely says he has lived “like an animal,” and he hasn’t seen a fire or a little boy in a long time. The man suggests that the boy is an angel or a god, but Ely says if men can’t survive then gods won’t either. He says it will be better when everyone is dead, as even death himself will die too then.
Even Ely, the only proper name McCarthy gives, is not the old man’s real name. This confirms the idea that names give a kind of power over the thing named, as Ely doesn’t trust anyone else with his name. The man voices his ideas about the boy’s “alien” holiness, but Ely still chooses to accept death’s dominion instead of clinging to hope.
In the morning the man relents to the boy and gives Ely a few more cans of food. Ely doesn’t thank the boy, but the man says the boy isn’t kind so he can be thanked – he isn’t even sure why the boy is kind at all. Ely suggests that the boy might believe in God, but the man says he doesn’t know what the boy believes in. Ely doesn’t wish them luck, as he wouldn’t even know what luck meant anymore in such a world. They part ways and the boy doesn’t look back.
The man seems strangely unconcerned with the boy’s religious beliefs, but the man’s religious beliefs basically revolve around the boy himself. The boy is often naïve, but he also has a compassion beyond his years, doing good without asking for thanks in return. Ely implies that it might be better luck just to die.
The boy is sad that they left Ely but he accepts that the old man will probably die. That night the man wakes up coughing and feels like he is going to die, and he asks aloud “Tell me how I am to do that.” The next night they discover that the gas tank is empty, as the boy forgot to turn off both valves, so they can’t have a fire. They keep traveling on, “thin and filthy as street addicts.”
The boy continues to struggle with his own ideals, again accepting that he cannot offer all the help he wants to because of their own desperate situation. The man (and the reader) begins to recognize that his cough is getting worse and is another incarnation of ever-present death.
They come to a coastal plain and some marshy land. One morning the man wakes up and the boy isn’t there, but the boy soon appears and says there’s a train in the woods. They go investigate it and find a diesel train stopped on some tracks. The man looks inside but finds nothing. Then they go up to the controls and the man pretends to operate it, but the train noises he makes mean nothing to the boy. Both of them know that “no train would ever run again.”
The man tries to play a pretending game with the boy, but again he realizes that he is like an “alien” trying to summon up a lost world. They both accept that the world cannot return to the way it was (as represented by the train), but they still keep “carrying the fire” and persevering on, even without any real, practical hope.
They go on and start to see small cairns and old messages scrawled by the side of the road. These were left by people leaving the cities after the food ran out. Soon after this the world was overrun by “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes” and looters who lived in the tunnels of cities. The pilgrims on the road died off, and the earth kept circling the sun like any other unknown planet.
The cairns echo those of many ancient cultures, as the world devolved into a primitive state after the disaster. McCarthy offers more vague hints about the nature of the apocalypse – after the food ran out, the brutal and violent took control, leading to the current state of distrust and fear.
The man realizes that they will run out of food before they reach the coast, as all the houses in this region were looted years ago. He shows the boy the map and the boy asks if the sea will be blue when they reach it. The man says he doesn’t know. The boy keeps looking at the map, finding his place in an orderly world. That night the boy wakes up from a bad dream but he won’t tell the man about it, except that in it he was crying and the man wouldn’t wake up.
The boy now starts to pin his hopes on the blue ocean, on seeing some light and color in the world when they reach their goal. They need some more good luck if they are to survive the journey to the coast. The boy has probably dreamed about the man dying.
They sleep in a shed, listening to the rain, and the boy asks the man if there are other “good guys.” The man says that there are, but that they’re all hiding from each other. He is afraid the boy doesn’t believe him sometimes, but the boy says he always believes the man – he has to.
The man recognizes that his dogged optimism is often unrealistic, but at the same time the boy knows that he totally depends on the man for survival. The trust between father and son is a matter of life and death as well as love.
The next day they enter a small town and are confronted by three men holding lengths of pipe. The man raises the pistol, trying to look tough, and the men slink away. The man and the boy keep going and eventually they make camp. The man is feverish when he wakes up the next morning, and the boy worries that he will die. The man has fever dreams about his dead family members, a cat, and books. The fever lasts for four days, and then the man wakes up and goes out to a hill and looks into the empty blackness.
The sickness is yet another reminder of how close to death the protagonists are at all times. In his illness the man cannot resist his memories, and he returns to the world of the past. These vivid fever dreams are then contrasted with the total darkness and emptiness of the present, where there is not even a single fire from a fellow human.
The man remembers when he was a child standing with a group of men digging a hole to expose a huge nest of serpents. The men poured gasoline on the snakes and burned them, “having no remedy for evil but only for the image of it as they conceived it to be.” After the snakes writhed silently to death the men dispersed without speaking.
This potent memory becomes another sign that the evil and brutality of the post-apocalyptic world has been lurking in human nature the whole time. We can only destroy the “image” of evil, not evil itself, as evil does not come as external serpents, but from within ourselves.