In Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” Sal Paradise, an intelligent and romantic idealist narrates his journeys across America in a conversational and frenetic style; one that reflects the impulsive ideology that he and his “beat” friends lived by.
He journies with his best friend, Dean Moriarty, “a young jailkid shrouded in mystery”, who arguably epitomises the ‘beat generation’ with his perpetual desire to keep moving, mimetic to the breath-taking rapidity at which the plot moves. Dean arrives in the opening of the novel like a “manic angel” to rescue the narrator from depression and boredom with the promise of a journey. Furthermore, as is the case for much of the rest of the novel, the powerful bond between Sal and Dean drives the story and ultimately becomes the foundation for their aimless ‘ping-ponging’ across America . The journey is also a search for Sal’s self-identity which is arguably fulfilled at the end of the novel after he leaves Dean.You could argue that Dean and Sal’s journey is hedonistic.
The purpose of the journey is to achieve true happiness rather that enlightenment or spirituality, whether that be through intoxication or genuine ‘pure’ thrills. An example of this manner of ‘pure’ pleasure can be seen when Sal is travelling to Cheyenne where they are seemingly addicted to the intoxicating environment of being “On the Road”. The journey is very quick and Sal feels “like an arrow that could shoot all the way”; “We [Sal and the rest of the hobos] zoomed through another crossroads and returned to the tremendous darkness”.
The dynamic verbs, “shoot” and “zoomed” convey a restless, constant enthusiasm, creating a momentum similar to the impatient movement of the constantly travelling “beat” characters of the book. This is a pure example of the energy and joy of movement at the heart of the novel.Through the thrill of the ride and the camaraderie and narratives of his fellow travellers Sal achieves a sense of joy and selfhood, feeling close to ‘the American Dream’. In the end of the novel, it is revealed that Sal and Dean’s idea of the Promised Land is Mexico because there, they could enjoy cheap alcohol, sex and tobacco, “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed of the extent of the magic”. This shallow and materialistic attitude shows that ultimately, their only way to achieve happiness is to give in to their addictions. Moreover this is exactly what they had been doing before, but far cheaper, making their journey both pointless and bathetic.
However, this manic and frenetic journeying means that they do not truly experience America. Sal and Dean travel at a fast pace, “rushing through the world without a chance to see it”, demonstrating the true difference between seeing something and truly living and experiencing it. This is also reflected in the manic and the destructive way that Dean drives, “He took the wheel and flew the rest of the way across the state of Texas, about five hundred miles, arriving at dusk and not stopping”.This aimless travelling could suggest that the journey is just a means to escape from their problems. During their travelling, there is a distinct lack of any aims or goals; they meet many interesting characters but no actual deep relationships.
On the bus to LA, Sal meets Terry, a young beautiful Mexican-American woman, and they fall in love. However, he refuses this happiness and leaves for New York by himself, “Terry was supposed to drive to New York in a month with her brother. But we both knew that she wouldn’t make it”. This also highlights Sal’s desire to break the boundaries of modern society, representative of the entire ‘beat generation’.
It is therefore interesting that Sal and Dean, who “had four little ones and not a cent” decided not to go to Italy, as it shows a level of maturity unseen in the novel. They have learnt that they cannot keep running from their problems and this arguably shows that the journey is just a means to learn, both physically and mentally; gaining a higher state of consciousness.‘On the Road’ could be interpreted as a ‘Zen novel’ and the journey’s purpose could be to achieve this heightened state of consciousness, or the word that Jack Kerouac has coined, “it”. “It” is mentioned a number of times in the book, but most notably in the chapter “Jazz Nights in San Francisco”. In this chapter we again see the longing of Dean and Sal to get back to a purer America; they go looking for “it” in the expressive San Francisco Jazz clubs. The vivid and dynamic verbs in this chapter, such as “blasting” and “bawling” create a dynamic scene and are archetypal to Jack Kerouac’s writing style. By ‘ping-ponging’ across America in their endless journey Sal and Dean are searching for “it”, even though they don’t know what “it” is.“On the Road” is a criticism of the American dream.
It depicts Sal’s disillusionment of the consumerist society which he lives in, so much so that he feels entirely “beat”, “feeling everything was dead”. However, despite this disillusionment, Sal retains a nostalgic wanderlust for a traditional America, and his travels could be interpreted as a misguided belief that a nobler, wilder America still exists. Sal demonstrates this by saying, “Ain’t no place to go but Cheyenne and ain’t nothing in Cheyenne”. The conversational style here is typical of Sal’s narration and adds to the realism of the novel. He reveals that “he often dreamed of going west”, with “west” symbolising the unexplored and hope and adventure. This imagery appears again in his description of Dean as a “sideburned hero of the snowy west”. This contrasts hugely with Sal’s otherwise conversational and unsentimental narration, which is full of both colloquial language and hyperbolic descriptions, symbolic of the bursting enthusiasm with which Dean approaches life.
“On the Road” is an unconventional novel, written in the post-modernism era. This was an interpretation of both the Victorian conventions of what was thought a novel should be, and the modernist views that it was no longer necessary for a novel to have a plot. In this novel Jack Kerouac skilfully weaves a combination of the two, creating an enthralling and beautifully descriptive book in which ‘not much happens’. The journey does not necessarily have to have a point, except purely to enjoy the ride. Sal and Dean set out on this journey for the stories that they could tell afterwards and although during the book Sal has difficulty to write, symbolic of the years Kerouac took to publish “On the Road”, in the end he finishes his book, which is full of the travels that he had with his companion Dean Moriarty.