In the morning the boy feels sick and has a fever. The man tries to comfort him but the man himself is terrified. He holds the boy all day and night, but the next morning is no better. The man whispers that he will not send the boy “into the darkness alone.” He goes through the first-aid kit and gives the boy some expired antibiotics.
The man realizes that despite all his struggling, death is still without reason or pity. The man’s promise means that if the boy dies he will kill himself too, but the “darkness” could also mean the harsh world. Either way he vows that they will never be separated.
The man feels like it is the “last day of the earth.” The boy keeps sleeping feverishly. One night the man goes out to the beach and falls down sobbing angrily. In the morning the boy’s fever has broken, and he is very thirsty. That night the boy drinks some soup and the man watches him lovingly. The boy asks him to stop, but the man doesn’t.
The man rages against God, death, and cruel fate. He has struggled so hard for so long, but despite that it seems that the world is ending all over again. Just like a normal adolescent, the boy starts to feel embarrassed by his father’s intense love.
Two days later they wander up the beach and back, and when they return they see bootprints in the sand and find all their belongings – cart, blankets, tarp, and shoes – have been stolen. The man curses to himself and the boy starts to cry. The man follows the bootprints up to the road and then he sends the boy to look for any trace of sand on the road ahead.
This single mistake, like the boy’s random illness, could be the difference between life and death. Again all their struggle is rewarded only with more suffering and bad luck.
The boy finds some sand and the man hurries ahead, but soon he starts coughing and has to slow down. In the evening they overtake the thief, who turns and wields a butcher knife at them. He is an outcast of a commune and has had the fingers of his right hand cut off. The man threatens to shoot him and the thief lays down his knife and backs away.
The thief has been one of the “bad guys” before, but now he seems like a traveler in a similar situation to the man and the boy. In this last violent encounter the man again skirts the line between being a good guy and a bad guy.
The boy starts crying and begs the man not to kill the thief, but the man tells the thief to take off his clothes and shoes. He makes the thief put them in the cart. The thief protests that he was starving just the same as they were, and the boy pleads with the man, but the man resolves to leave the thief just as the thief left them. The thief stands shivering in the road and the man and the boy leave him, the boy sobbing.
The man is overcome by his anger and fear on behalf of the boy, and he ends up acting in a way that upsets his son. It would have been fair to take back their cart, but making the thief take off his clothes crosses the line into a cruelty that seems antithetical to the boy’s purity and compassion.
After they go a ways the man tells the boy to stop crying, but the boy can’t. The boy begs the man to help the thief, because “he’s so scared.” The man says that he’s scared too, and he’s the one who has to worry about everything, but the boy says he has to worry about everything too. The man relents and they go back, but the thief is gone. They call to him but there’s no answer. They travel on and make camp. The man says he didn’t want to kill the thief, but the boy says that they did kill him.
The man has assumed all the responsibility of surviving, but he doesn’t realize that the boy has also been assuming a great responsibility – that of making sure they act morally and remain as “good guys.” Again the boy is capable of great empathy, seeing a common fear and suffering even in the thief, who would have left them to die.
In the morning the man goes to look at the road and feels an earthquake in the distance. He wonders how old the boy is now. They travel on along the coast for a few days and the man starts searching for some Vitamin D so the boy doesn’t get rickets. They pass through a port town that seems abandoned.
The man’s interaction with the thief seems to have opened up a new rift between the man and the boy. Now the man wonders more abstractly about things like the boy’s age and health (humans get Vitamin D from sunlight, which is now nonexistent).
On the way out of town the man hears something whistle over his head and he throws himself on the boy. He sees a stranger in a window with a bow, and the stranger shoots the man in the leg with an arrow. The man curses and shoots the stranger with the flarepistol. The man hides with the boy as they hear the stranger screaming.
The symbol of the flarepistol now broadens – what was supposed to be a means of communication and salvation is transformed into a weapon to wound other humans. Again random chance and bad luck overcomes all the man’s struggling.
After a while the man leaves the boy hiding and limps into the stranger’s house. He finds a woman holding the stranger in the corner, and she curses at him. The man leaves and gets the boy, and they make camp in a store building. The man examines his leg, which is bleeding badly. He asks for the first-aid kit but the boy doesn’t move, and the man curses at him.
Like the thief, these strangers also seem like less sinister “bad guys” than the cannibal gangs, even though they would have killed the man and boy just the same. This is the first time we see the man get angry at the boy, a sign of new distance between them.
The boy gets the kit and the man disinfects and sews together his wound. The boy watches the whole time. The man apologizes for yelling at the boy. The next morning he goes out to look at the ocean, and notices that his leg seems worse. He offers to tell the boy a story, but the boy says he doesn’t want one because the man’s stories aren’t true – in the stories the man and the boy help people, but in real life they don’t.
The boy is always watching the man, learning survival skills as well as the ethics and optimism that the man verbally reiterates. The boy’s faith in the man is shaken again, and once more he doubts whether they are truly the “good guys.” In the boy’s experience, stories are always happy and used to escape from reality.
The man asks the boy for a story, or to tell him about his dreams. The boy says his dreams are all bad, just like real life. The man says it isn’t so bad as long as they’re alive, but the boy says being alive is just “okay.” Then he asks the man some questions about his cough, crying at night, and whether his leg is getting worse.
The man tries to keep up his optimistic front, but the boy reveals that he knows the man often despairs too. After all the terrible things he has seen at such a young age, the boy starts slipping into that weariness and depression that led his mother to suicide.
Two days later they leave town, the man limping badly. They travel a while along the sandy road and then turn inland the next day. The man sits in the road and cuts the stitches out of his leg, and the boy says he is brave. The man says the bravest thing he’s ever done is “getting up this morning.” The man starts having good dreams again at night, dreams of “human love, the songs of birds, the sun.”
The man coughs up more blood and has to stop and rest more often than before. The boy watches him, and the man realizes that the boy is old enough that in another world he would be becoming independent and willful now. More long days pass, and they travel past lines of cars filled with burned bodies. The man coughs and spits blood constantly. The boy watches him, “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.”
As the man prepares to die he starts to examine the boy as someone who could live independently, someone who is holy and worth protecting but also could potentially survive on his own – despite the man’s promise that they would be together in death. Perhaps also the man is simply unable to find it within himself to kill his son.
Their pace slows and winter starts to descend. They come to a tidal river where the bridge has collapsed, and they make camp there in the rain. The next day they pass through a place where burned flowers and plants have been preserved from the wind. More days pass, and one night the man lies down and knows that he will not get up again.
It is unclear whether it is the man’s wound or his respiratory disease (or a combination of the two) that finally overcomes him. The area of burned flowers is like a graveyard of mummified beauty from the old world.
The boy tries to split a can of peaches with the man but the man makes the boy save his half “until tomorrow.” The boy wants to make a tent but the man doesn’t want anything over him, as he wants to be able to see everything around him before he dies. The boy gathers wood and makes a leanto.
The man is still showing his love in whatever small ways he can, sacrificing any last meal for the boy’s future. The boy takes over the business of surviving and making camp, becoming more of “the man.”
The man tells the boy that the boy needs to keep going down the road, to keep surviving and moving on, as he might find some more luck somewhere. He tells the boy to keep going south, to keep the pistol with him, and to look for the “good guys” but not take chances. The boy refuses, saying he wants to stay with the man, but the man says the boy has to keep “carrying the fire.”
This deathbed scene is the culmination of the themes of the book, as the man passes on his last wisdom to the boy, telling him to keep traveling down the road and hoping for something better, and “carrying the fire” of decency and humanity. The going on itself has become reason enough to go on, and the persistence of hope reason enough to keep hoping.
The boy asks the man to take him with him, but the man refuses. He had thought he could kill his son so they would die together, but now he realizes he can’t. He tells the boy to keep talking to him even after he’s gone. The next day the boy asks the man about the little boy he saw back in the far-off town, and the man says that “goodness will find the little boy. It always has.” When the boy wakes up the next morning the man is dead, and the boy says his name over and over, crying and holding his hand.
Even as he finally succumbs to death, the man’s hope seems only strengthened. He sees the goodness in his bleak world and passes it on to his son. The boy wants to do the easy thing and die with the man, but he also has too much of the man in him – so he too will struggle against death and fight to remain a “good guy” in the midst of a brutal world.
The narrative shifts to follow the boy. The boy stays with his father for three days and then sets off on the road. Immediately he sees someone following him and he waits with the pistol. A man carrying a shotgun appears, a scarred “veteran of old skirmishes.” The scarred man smiles and tells the boy he’s sorry about his father, and he offers to take the boy along with him. The boy asks if the scarred man is one of the “good guys,” and the scarred man says he is.
That the boy stays with his dead father for three days links him in a way with Jesus, who rises from the dead after three days. In this case, of course, the man does not return to life, but after three days the boy takes on the inheritance of “carrying the fire” that the man has passed down to him. The man, in a sense, is resurrected in the boy. And the novel does end on a relatively hopeful note as the boy immediately finds some of the “good guys” they have been searching for for so long. The boy has gone from being on the man’s pedestal to becoming the protagonist of the novel and the new carrier of “the fire.”
The scarred man asks about what the boy has, and the boy says he only has some blankets, but they’re still wrapped around his father. The man tells the boy that he can either stay with his father and die, or come with him and his companions and “be all right.” He says he can’t prove that he’s a “good guy,” but the boy will have to trust him. The boy asks if the man is “carrying the fire,” and the man is confused at first but then affirms that he is. He says they have a little boy and a little girl in their group, and that they don’t eat people. The boy agrees to go along.
The boy has always been more trusting than the man, but now it seems that his intuition is correct. The new man probably isn’t used to the phrase “carrying the fire,” but he can decipher its basic meaning. The fact that he is traveling with a little boy and a little girl is another sign of his trustworthiness, and fulfills the boy’s desire to find companions of the same age.
The scarred man tells the boy to go out in the road and wait for him to fetch the blankets. The boy requests that they leave his father wrapped in one blanket, as he doesn’t want people to see him. The man agrees and he soon appears with the blankets and the boy’s suitcase. The man offers to wait while the boy says goodbye, and the boy goes back to his father’s body. He cries for a long time and then promises to talk to his father every day.
The boy offers a symbolic sacrifice of a blanket – something useful for his survival – to honor his father’s death, just as his father sacrificed so much for the boy. The new “good guy” seems like a similar character to the boy’s father, a protector of children and morality who is also a “veteran” of violence and death.
The boy goes out to the road and a woman embraces him. Later she talks to him about God, and he tries to pray but finds it easier to talk to his father instead. The woman accepts this as another way of talking to God. The book ends with a description of the brook trout that once lived in the mountain streams. They were beautiful and delicate, and of a mysterious place “older than man.”
The boy’s implicit trust in his father transforms into a kind of religious faith, as he finds it easier to “pray” to the man than to a God who seems distant. The achingly beautiful trout scene closes the book on a more hopeful note, but it also raises a question – the man, the only one capable of remembering such trout, is dead, so it is unknown who is remembering these trout. It may be the narrator taking a more forward role, implying that life will always find a way despite humanity’s interference, or possibly a comment on how the man’s memory of beauty and nature (one aspect of “the fire”) has taken on a life of its own and perhaps been passed along to the son. Remembering the past has become a part of the present.