Study Guide

The Road Summary

By Cormac McCarthy

The Road Summary

The Road opens after some unknown apocalyptic event has struck. The first few pages of the novel situate us in the landscape: ash, isolation, and a long road to travel. You could say the novel alternates between two settings: the road and excursions away from the road into houses or other possible food mother lodes. Although The Boy and The Man suffer from exposure to cold and from a lack of food, they don't encounter too much danger early on.

That changes about a quarter of the way into the book. A group of "bad guys" (basically, people out on the road who steal and rape and eat other people) wakes up The Man one morning. The Man tries to get The Boy and himself out of view but they run into one of these "bad guys" who has wandered off from the main group. The "bad guy" tries to take The Boy hostage (or kill him) but The Man, in a sequence straight out of an action movie, shoots the "bad guy" in the forehead. They escape unharmed, but a little rattled.

Another really frightening event happens soon after. The Boy and The Man have run out of food and need to find some supplies. They start poking around the kind of house they normally wouldn't explore – there are too many telltale signs of occupation. And they end up seeing something horrifying: a basement full of human captives being held as livestock. Whoever is living in this house is eating their way through a store of human beings locked up in the cellar. The Man and The Boy hightail it out of there and almost get caught by the gang that lives in the house.

Then our heroes have a string of good luck. Granted, their good luck is punctuated by near-starvation and sickness, but at least they don't have any run-ins with evil people. Right when they're both on the verge of starvation, The Man finds an apple orchard and a well, which keep them fed and watered for a little bit.

As seems to always happen, though, their food stores run out soon enough and they find themselves hungry once again. This leads to their major discovery: a bomb shelter full of canned goods and supplies. They spend a couple days here eating to their hearts' content. But because they're sitting ducks if anyone happens along, they leave the shelter.

The food lasts for a while until, once again, they're starving. The Man gets really sick and feverish. The Boy spots a house off in the distance – another big find. They stay there for a bit and then leave.

All along, our heroes have been traveling south and east. The Man thinks if they can just reach the coast, they'll be all right. (They also want to get to a warmer climate.) It's no small feat, since they have to cross the mountains (see "Setting" for more). When they do get to the coast, it's a big disappointment. However, The Man spies a wrecked ship a few hundred yards out. It's full of food and useful stuff, like a flare gun and batteries. They eat well for a while.

Then their luck turns bad again. The Boy gets sick. The Man is beside himself trying to keep The Boy alive. He finally recovers, but then more bad stuff happens. Someone tries to run off with their cart and supplies. They have to chase the thief down. They get their food back, but it's a big scare, and The Boy isn't too happy with how The Man treats the thief.

They head farther south through a coastal city, and more bad luck strikes. Someone shoots an arrow from a window and hits The Man in the leg. It's a nasty wound.

They travel inland. Finally, in a pine forest, The Man can't go any farther. We're not sure if he dies from the arrow wound or the respiratory illness he's had all along, but he dies with The Boy beside him. Much of the book has been leading up to this event, and The Man's interactions with The Boy can be seen as an attempt to prepare The Boy to live in the world on his own.

Almost immediately, though, another family appears on the road, and they take in The Boy. This is a little surprising, because nowhere else in the novel do our heroes meet any good, upstanding travelers. The novel ends on a note of hope: perhaps these small enclaves of compassionate people can survive and eventually rebuild a tolerable world.