A man and a boy sleep in the woods, the man comforted by the boy’s presence. Every night is pitch black and the days are gray and sunless. The man dreams about the boy leading him into a cave. In the cave there is a dark underground lake, and on the far shore is a blind, monstrous creature. The man wakes up and goes to look at the road. He thinks it might be October, but “he hadnt kept a calendar for years.” He wants to keep moving south, as they need to be somewhere warmer when winter comes.
The first sentence shows the importance of the man’s relationship with his son, as he is comforted just by being together. Neither of these protagonists will ever be named. The man’s dream also sets a sinister tone, which will continue throughout. Years have passed since whatever nameless disaster occurred.
The morning gets vaguely lighter and the man looks down the road with binoculars. All the trees are dead and colorless, and the wind moves ash across the road’s surface. The man wears goggles and a cotton mask over his face to protect from the ash everywhere. He thinks about the boy as “his warrant” and “the word of God.”
McCarthy begins to illustrate the bleak setting of this post-apocalyptic world. He never explains what happened to destroy civilization, but in the years since everything has been burned and the sun is blotted out. From the start the man recognizes that he is only surviving for the boy’s sake, and he sees something holy in the boy that is worth saving.
The man returns to find the boy still asleep. The man takes out his pistol and their breakfast of cornmeal cakes. He watches the boy until the boy wakes up. The boy calls the man “Papa.” After breakfast the man and boy set out on the road. They both have knapsacks and they push a shopping cart full of all their possessions. On the cart is a motorcycle mirror so the man can watch the road behind them. The pair shuffles along, “each the other’s world entire.”
In this harsh, lonely world the man and boy live with a constant alertness, keeping the pistol on them at all times. Their situation becomes more clear – everything they own is in this cart and knapsacks, and they are traveling south down the road to try and escape the coming winter. The whole landscape is dead and empty, and the man and the boy have only each other.
They come to an abandoned gas station and the man searches it for food or tools but finds nothing. He picks up the phone behind the desk and dials the old number of his father’s house, but nothing happens. They set off down the road but then the man remembers something and makes them go back. He collects all the leftover oil from the gas station, as they can use it to light their lamp during “the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns.” Then they leave again.
McCarthy slowly reveals more details of the post-apocalyptic world – most everything has been looted years ago, there are hardly any humans left alive, and the man and boy have been reduced to an extremely primitive form of existence to survive. The man dials the number of his (presumably dead) father, not expecting anything but only indulging in a memory of a happier past.
They cross a river and pass a burned house and some faded billboards. All the trees are “charred and limbless.” It starts to rain and they cover the cart with a tarp and hide under a ledge of rock, huddling together for warmth. When the rain stops they climb a hill and look for any sign of light or fire, but there’s nothing. They make camp and eat dinner.
Much of the early novel consists of traveling down the road and making stops to explore various abandoned buildings. Some part of the apocalypse has involved fires that even now still sweep through the forest, covering everything in ash. Nothing grows anymore, and the charred trees are only good for firewood.
They try to fall asleep and the boy asks the man questions for reassurance. The man says that they won’t die and that they are going south to be warm. The boy asks what would happen if he died, and the man says he would want to die too, so they could be together. The boy falls asleep and the man lies awake, wishing his “heart were stone.”
Part of being each other’s “world entire” involves an extreme level of trust between the man and the boy, as the boy totally depends on his father for survival. Because of their harsh situation, they are bound together much closer than a normal father and son.
The next morning the man whispers a vague prayer, asking to see God so he can “throttle” and “damn” him. Then they set out on the road and pass through an abandoned city. They see a shriveled corpse in a doorway and the man tells the boy that “the things you put into your head are there forever.”
Religious faith also becomes a recurring theme of the novel, as in such harsh times many people need a God to blame or hope in. The man seems to believe in God, but feels that God has abandoned or cursed the earth.
The man remembers walking with his uncle on his uncle’s farm as a child. They walked through an autumnal forest to a lake and rowed a boat across the lake and back. The whole day passed without the man or his uncle speaking, but the man considers this “the perfect day of his childhood.”
While the boy tries to avoid the permanent memories of his world’s horror, the man has memories of the happier, pre-apocalyptic world. These memories can bring him pleasure but also a special kind of pain, as he can contrast the past with the present.
The man and the boy keep going south for more weeks, passing through a hilly country. Everything is cold, dark, and ashy, and the man thinks about the lonely, abandoned earth. It starts to snow one day and the boy catches a gray snowflake in his hand, watching it melt “like the last host of christendom.”
More religious imagery is associated with the boy, as the man sometimes idealizes his son as a kind of holy figure. McCarthy relates the man and boy’s plight to that of the earth itself, alone and lost in an endless darkness.
They keep moving and the man notices the lack of marauders on the road. He hopes the “bloodcults” have all killed each other off. The man fixes a loose wheel on their cart and the boy watches silently. They come to a barn and find three bodies hanging from the rafters. In a smokehouse they find a shriveled old ham. They fry it and eat it.
The plight of civilization becomes more clear – not only are most humans dead, but murder (and worse, as we will see) is rampant among the survivors. The man and boy’s desperation for food is also clarified. As there is no sun, nothing can grow, and so no new food can be produced.
The man dreams of his wife emerging as a bride from green leaves. Sometimes he also dreams of walking through a “flowering wood” with the boy, surrounded by birds and blue sky. The man doesn’t trust these good dreams, though, as he thinks of them as “the call of languor and death.” He worries about the old world fading from his memory, but he still tries to wake himself up from the good dreams.
The man has a complex relationship with his memories of the old world. He often tries to avoid them because he sees indulging in them as a sign of “giving up,” but they can give him some relief from the harsh present, and they also are a vital part of the humanity he is trying so hard to preserve – the memory of a better world which could someday return.
They continue down the road and the man thinks about his wife, remembering her smell. He finds two brooms and attaches them to the cart to clear the road ahead of it. Then he pushes the cart down the hills like a sled, and the boy smiles for the first time in a long time. They pass a gray lake and the boy asks about the lake and the dam that made it. The man says there is nothing in the lake, not even fish. The man remembers being by this same lake long ago, watching a hawk and some cranes.
Little is ever revealed of the man’s past, but he seems to have been happily married before the disaster. It appears that no animals remain alive, as they have all been eaten or died out from lack of food. Part of the tragedy of the novel is seeing the boy try to grow up as a normal child despite his harsh, desperate situation.
It starts to rain one day but they keep walking, holding the tarp over themselves. The man has more color-drenched dreams, and thinks of them as death calling him. The man and the boy eventually reach a wide valley and an abandoned farm. They see an old billboard saying “See Rock City.” The man leaves the pistol with the boy and he goes to explore. He enters a house and finds various artifacts covered with ash, but nothing is useful to him except some extra blankets.
This billboard places the characters somewhere in the Southeastern United States (Rock City is in Georgia), and it seems that the mountain range they are approaching is the Appalachians. McCarthy effectively drains the present world of color and light, only allowing it to appear in dreams and memories.
They reach the outskirts of a city and explore a wrecked and looted supermarket. The man searches through a fallen soda machine and finds one last Coca Cola. He gives it to the boy to drink as a treat. He makes the boy sit down and enjoy all of it at once, as it might be the last time he ever drinks a soda again.
This last Coca Cola seems almost surreal, a splash of color, sweetness, and capitalism in a sea of darkness and collapsed civilization. In this the Coke takes on the quality of a dream or memory, and a gift of the past given from father to son.
The next day they reach the city and explore it. There are dead bodies everywhere, all of them with their shoes stolen. The next day they leave the city and come to the house where the man grew up. It is abandoned and decayed like all the other houses. The man wants to go in, but the boy is suddenly scared of it.
The collapse of civilization seems to have been gradual (following the initial, mysterious disaster), and for years now bodies have been left unburied to be looted by survivors.
The man goes into the house and the boy comes with him, holding his hand. The man reminisces over the ruins of his childhood. The boy asks to leave, saying he is “really scared,” but the man lingers, looking at his old bedroom. He remembers his dreams as a child, how he never dreamed of the way that the world would actually turn out. Finally they leave and return to the road.
It is never explained where or how the man and boy have been living the last few years, but the pre-apocalypse past is still fresh in the man’s mind. The boy says he is “really scared” many times throughout the book, even in unreasonable circumstances, showing how his childhood is defined by a constant fear of death and violence.
Three nights later they are asleep when the ground starts to shake. Something seems to pass beneath them like an “underground train.” The boy is terrified but the man comforts him, saying that it was an earthquake. The man remembers the first years after the unnamed disaster, when the road was filled with refugees wearing masks and goggles.
The earthquake seems another subtle connection to the earlier apocalypse, as if an aftershock of a nuclear blast or meteor strike. McCarthy never fully explains the situation, but only gives hints like these through the man’s memory. The ash has been present for years.
One day they stay in an abandoned house and the man reads old newspapers while the boy sleeps. The man wonders if he will be able to kill the boy “when the time comes.” Later they eat rice and beans squatting in the road, and then sleep huddled together for warmth. The man recognizes that “the boy was all that stood between him and death.”
The true threat of violence has not been explained yet, so the man’s musings seem overblown – it seems that he and the boy are alone in this ashy world. The man has always recognized that he is living only for the boy, as otherwise he would give in to despair.