One night the boy wakes up from a bad dream and he won’t tell the man about it. The man tells him that if he tries to escape into a better world of dreams he will have given up, and the man won’t let him give up. They finally set out again, but the man is weak from his sickness and feeling “faint of heart” despite his encouraging speech.
As they go down the road they come to a place where dead bodies are trapped in the melted blacktop, their faces twisted in pain. The boy accepts that “what you put in your head is there forever” with a strange calm. He asks why the people didn’t leave the road when it was melting, and the man says because everything else was on fire too.
The boy again proves himself a product of the post-apocalyptic age, as he straightfacedly accepts the horrors of his surroundings. More vague references are made to the mysterious fires that destroyed everything.
They go further and the man has a bad coughing fit. Then they sit in the road and eat and the boy says he thinks someone is following them. The man agrees, and suggests that they hide and see who they are. They hide the cart and go up a hill to watch. The boy falls asleep and then the man sees four people, three men and a pregnant woman, coming down the road. They cross a bridge and disappear down the road.
The man’s cough gets worse, bringing greater attention to his respiratory ailment and the frailty of his health. Again they must decide whether or not to trust these new strangers. They are seeking “good guys” while still being wary of “bad guys,” so the man usually suggests waiting and watching.
The man studies the map and the boy suggests that they haven’t gone as far as the man thinks they have. The next day they see smoke in the distance and they go investigate it, as the man says they are desperate for food again. When the reach the fire the strangers have fled. The boy is scared but they come closer to see what the strangers were cooking, and they find a human infant roasting over the coals. The boy looks away, traumatized.
They have no real way of knowing where they are, but the boy recognizes the man’s tendency to be over-optimistic in his presence. The cooking infant is perhaps the most horrifying image of the book. These travelers did not seem to be the violent kind of “bad guys,” but they have still sacrificed all humanity and decency for survival’s sake.
The man worries that the boy won’t talk anymore. They make camp and the man checks the map again. They’re still far from the coast, and the man doesn’t know what they’ll find there if they make it. They pass through a mill town and then stop to rest. The boy wishes aloud that they could have saved that baby and taken it with them. They find a creek and the boy goes off to drink from it, running for the first time in a long while.
The memories the boy is creating are all of horror and death. The boy deals with his trauma by again returning to compassion and selflessness – he does indeed seem saintly compared to the rest of humanity. The man worries that the bleak world is crushing “the fire” out of the boy.
They go a few days without food and start getting weaker, sometimes sleeping right in the road. The boy sees a distant, well-camouflaged house and they set off for it. On the way the man finds three arrowheads made of white quartz on the ground. When they come to the house the boy is scared to go in, but the man eventually convinces him.
The boy proves his usefulness again in spotting a house that the man (and most other travelers on the road) overlooked. The arrowheads offer another glimpse of both the beauty and horror of the past world.
They wander through the empty rooms and find some cans of vegetables. The man says they might be poison so they have to cook them very well. They bring wood into the house and start a fire in the fireplace. The man takes off the boy’s shoes and whispers words of comfort to him. The man cooks the food and the boy falls asleep at the dining room table.
This house is the next streak of good luck in the man and boy’s traveling pattern. Just when he is on the verge of breaking down the boy gets this respite, and the man is able to offer some more substantial comfort and love.
The next day the boy insists that they not go upstairs, but the man wants to search for food or blankets. The boy argues but then gives up, accepting that the man will have his way. The man does find more blankets upstairs and they stay in the house for four days. They take baths and the man cuts their hair. It rains the whole time. The man finds a wheelbarrow and some new shoes for them.
The boy experiences more irrational terror (of the upstairs here) because of his traumatic experiences. As in the bunker, the man uses their relative safety and comfort to bathe them and cut their hair – part of “carrying the fire” of basic civilization involves looking the part.
The man thinks about his goal of reaching the coast and realizes that he has no reason to hope the coast is better. He can’t tell but it seems like the world is getting darker every day. They leave the house and go through a small town grocery store, where the boy stares at a mounted deer head for a long time. They spend long days traveling through open, ashy country.
The man realizes that his goals and optimism are basically futile, but at his most essential core he can’t help traveling onward and hoping for something better. The boy has probably never seen a live deer.
One day they catch their first sight of the ocean in the distance. It is gray and lifeless, filled with ash and slag. The boy looks disappointed and the man apologizes that it isn’t blue. They make their way down to the ocean and sit on the lifeless beach. The boy asks if there could be ships out there, or another father and son sitting on the other side of the ocean. The man says it’s possible.
McCarthy describes this anticlimactic encounter in his usual dispassionate voice. The product of all their hardships and endless slogging is just a new landscape of ash and death. Immediately they try to look onward to the next goal or fantasy.
The boy asks if he can go swimming and the man allows it. The boy runs out and plays in the freezing surf, and when he comes back he is crying, but he won’t tell the man why. At night they make a fire on the beach. The man wonders if there are still “deathships” out at sea, or maybe giant squid miles below the ocean’s surface. The man remembers a night long ago, before the disaster, when he cooked crabs on the beach, and watched his sleeping wife, and felt that God had made the world a perfect place.
The boy’s mysterious tears could be joy at experiencing the sublime in the ocean, or disappointment that the thing he longed for is so lifeless and cold. The man’s memory illustrates how much his inner life has changed. Years before in a moment of joy, he had felt that the world was perfect, but now he curses God for the state of the world and his own life.
The next morning they search the beach and the man calls them “beachcombers.” They come to a rock jetty and see a large sailboat on its side a little ways offshore. The man makes them wait and watch for a while, and then they walk further along the beach, among the “senseless” tideline of fish bones and rubble.
The man decides to explore the boat. He gives the boy the pistol and tells him to wait on the beach, and the man strips and swims through the icy water. He reaches the boat, which is called “Pájaro de Esperanza” (“Bird of Hope”), and climbs aboard. He finds the boat looted only by the waves and “some terrible force” that swept everything away. He expects something horrible but there is nothing. The man finds some new seaworthy clothes and puts them on.
The man has associated birds with hope and the past before, and the boat’s name then becomes the ultimate tragic irony. This boat is unique in that it seems untouched by looters, and it also contains no dead bodies. The “terrible force” is probably a storm at sea, but it might also relate to the disaster itself.
He finds some books and papers written in Spanish, and then a waterproof bag that he fills with odds and ends. He regularly checks on the boy, who sits huddled on the beach and eventually falls asleep. In a locker the man finds a heavy box and inside is an old brass sextant. It is in perfect condition, complex and beautiful, and it is “the first thing he’d seen in a long time that stirred him.” He puts the sextant back in the locker.
The man has experienced great depths of horror, fear, and despair in the past years, to the point that he is “stirred” by the sextant like nothing else. The tragic beauty lies in its complexity, its purity, its status as a tool of civilization, as well as the fact that it has been untouched by any post-apocalyptic horror – it is a device for charting your course based on stars that are no longer visible.
The man gathers up some rope and examines the galley. There are lots of cans of food, but only a few seem unspoiled. He notices that he is being especially practical about this “windfall,” but at the same time he isn’t sure that it’s good luck at all, as “there were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.”
This is the next lucky find for the man and the boy, but with each new extension of their lives the man feels some regret as well – part of him is still filled with the weariness and despair that took his wife.
The man swims ashore and greets the boy with his finds. He tells the boy that they have to find shelter, as it smells like rain is coming. They travel a while and then realize that the boy left the pistol on the beach. The boy sobs and apologizes, but the man comforts him. They turn back for the pistol, eventually find it, and then get caught by the darkness on their way back to the cart.
The boy makes another childlike blunder, but they manage to survive despite this. The man feels naked without the pistol, which was their means of quickly escaping into death should disaster strike.
They stumble forward in the blackness, which is occasionally lit by flashes of lightning. It starts to rain, and eventually the man hears the rain against the tarp, and they find the cart. They fall asleep under the tarp, and when they wake up there is a corpse washed up by the waves. They spend the morning offloading the ship, with the boy staying on the beach and dragging the seabag in by the rope.
They have made it to the coast, but their lives have not improved from the hardships of the road. Much of the plot continues to involve the constant struggle to survive against the unfriendly elements.
Afterward the man has a coughing fit and tastes blood. He recognizes that he is dying. Later he decides to make one last trip out to the boat, even though the boy says he’s scared. The man explores the boat again, and after some careful searching he finds a first-aid kit, a flarepistol, and some flares.
The man’s realization forecasts his ultimate fate. We already knew that the protagonists are living in an incredibly dangerous situation, but the man’s respiratory illness now seems terminal.
The man swims back to shore and tells the boy about his finds. The boy asks if the flarepistol is to shoot someone, and the man says that it might set them on fire. The boy realizes that there is no one to signal for, but the man offers to shoot it off that night “like a celebration.” The boy asks about the people on the boat, and whether they are dead. The man says they are probably dead, as he knows the boy worries about taking things from living people.
The flarepistol becomes a symbol of the man and boy’s existential abandonment and desperate situation on earth. A flare should be a tool of communication and salvation, but they can only use it as a personal spectacle or as a weapon against other humans.
The boy asks about how many people there are in the world, and the man says he doesn’t think there are very many. The boy asks if humans could be alive somewhere other than on earth. The man says probably not. After a while he assures the boy that there are other people, and that they will find them. While the man makes dinner the boy builds a town in the sand. The boy asks if they could write a message for the “good guys,” but the man says the “bad guys” might see it too, which makes the boy sad.
The boy is constantly asking questions, but there are certain subjects he seems to avoid until important moments like this. They finally get down to some of the hard truths of their current situation – the world might be empty of all humans except for murderous cannibals. The boy’s sand-town is like his examination of the map, a chance to step outside of his own world and find order.
That night the man loads the flarepistol and fires it over the ocean. It explodes like a firecracker in the darkness. The boy says it would be hard for anybody to see it from far away, and the man realizes that by “anybody” the boy means both the good guys and God.
This is the ultimate image of the man and boy’s existential loneliness, as they fire the flare over the ocean without any hope of it being seen by any friendly eyes. They have been abandoned by both God and people.