They’re like conquerors without a wilderness to claim, cowboys with no cattle to brand.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road doesn’t seem like a particularly easy novel to identify with. On one hand, it has themes that everyone can relate to: escapism, self-discovery, and personal growth. On the other hand, Kerouac wrote something very reactionary to what his surroundings were at the time; this novel is seen as a representation of the Beat Generation, an era where youths yearned for a non-conformist counterculture and an escape from the oppression of authority. Yet, in the end, it is those underlying themes that resonate through to the reader, easily identifiable no matter what generation they are from.
The book is an autobiographical account of the road trips that Kerouac and his friends took around the late forties. Spontaneously, his fictional doppelganger Sal Paradise decides to experience the world, inspired by his cultured friend Dean Moriarty. While Dean is intelligent, he doesn’t appreciate school for its installation of boring tediousness in students. Sal realizes that school can only teach you so much, and so he embarks on a journey to fulfill himself and to discover the world.
What makes the novel so great is the inperfectness and relatibility of its characters. Sal is intelligent, thoughtful and a good person, but he is lazy, unfocused, and rejects commitment. He is so much more relatable to readers with his flaws intact, and in turn it is much easier to believe his desire to break free from the binds of society.
Dean is much less relatable, but his strength as a character lies in his rejection of the commonplace. He strives constantly for adventure, not so much to find himself like Sal, but just for the sake if having one. Dean actually works better as a cariacture of the eccentric, rebellious travler, because his entire essence is built upon his opposoiton to reality. As Kerouac wrote, his type of person is “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn burn burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.
But the strong current through the book is one of restlessness and needing to move on, something I understand to its core. It seems they were looking for an experience beyond what they had known, which was part of why they kept going back and forth across the country. I’m not sure if it was my own experience affecting my reading there, but it certainly seemed that as soon as they went south as opposed to west or east, and crossed the border into Mexico, they found something of a peace for their restless souls – here was wonder and discovery, and a truly new land. The new becomes something of a promised land in itself. They’ve spent the previous journeys ‘digging’ anything unusual or just the way people do things, but now, they’re so ‘into’ what they’re seeing and experiencing, including the jungle on an almost unbearably hot night, that they’re beyond ‘digging’ it.
I should say that in the midst of the wandering, semi-random, and the statement of straight action, Kerouac has some beautiful passages describing what Sal sees. Nestled into aimless action are gems of revelation. And if that doesn’t truly describe the experience of life, I don’t know what does.
1. Majors just two days away and I should be studying.
2. But I still got two days to do so..
3. guys please sign up on goodreads, it is an awesome site.