Dharma Bums Summary and Analysis
by Jack Kerouac
Japhy, who is living in a shack behind Sean Monahan's house, is preparing to go to Japan where he will study under a Master in a monastery. But "in the meantime," he has written a letter to Ray enticing him to visit for a night of wine, women and sensory revelry. Thus begins another of Ray's incredible cross-country journeys, which is more difficult now after such a peaceful and sedentary spring. He gets lost in Greenville, South Carolina, and is forced to stay in a hotel in Georgia because the police are so suspicious of him. After hitching a harrowing ride with a drunken Southerner, the narrator resigns to take a bus out west in frustration.
When Ray reaches El Paso, Texas, he climbs up an arroyo - a dried riverbed - and feels enormously free, solitary, and contented. He has everything he needs, with a beautiful view of Mexico as a bonus. He resolves to come back to this blissful place the next night after visiting the Mexican city of JuÃ rez. Although the day starts out tamely enough, he ultimately ends up getting very drunk and going back to the dwelling place of a group of rowdy Mexican Apaches. One of them is a homosexual man who desperately wants to accompany Ray to California. Ultimately, the protagonist gets tried and manages to drag himself away, back to the quiet comfort of his arroyo, letting his uncomfortable night fade like a bad dream. There, he feels the true peace of impenetrable silence.
In Chapter 23, Ray hitches a ride to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he rests contentedly for a while under a tree before a man offers him two dollars an hour to help him move furniture; Ray obliges and uses the money to buy himself dinner. Then a very fortunate thing happens: a brash, talkative Texan, with a young Mexican couple and their infant in tow, offers the narrator a ride all the way to Los Angeles in exchange for the little money that has. The poor Mexican couple are heart-wrenchingly hopeful when Ray talks about Buddhism; it seems to them a wonderful thing to be able to "come back and try again" at life. Ray secretly thinks that the driver, whose stories are so tremendously aggressive that they must be lies, should definitely live his life over.
In L.A. at last, Ray stops for a cheap breakfast before making his way to the railroad yards, where he - a former brakeman himself - chats amiably with the workers. Unfortunately, though, a policeman shoes him away, where he waits angrily until he can catch a freight train (thoroughly befuddling the officer when he climbs on!) Ultimately, Ray catches the Midnight Ghost to San Francisco, sleeping as he always does in a remarkably precarious position. As he drifts into and out of sleep, he recognizes how "ghostly" the trip actually is. By the time he wakes up, he finds himself is in San Francisco.
The narrator begins Chapter 24 by claiming that if the Dharma Bums ever become "domesticated," they will be like Sean Monahan. Ray describes Monahan's lifestyle with admiration. He is a carpenter who lives a thrifty lifestyle with his free-spirited and resourceful housewife, Christine, and their two daughters. His house - which, like Japhy's, is filled with Oriental objects - is often the location of big communal potluck dinners followed by fireside folksong serenades.
While Ray waits for Japhy to come home from his job in Sausalito, he visits the shack in which he will be living behind Monahan's house. Excited by the beautiful trees and flowers around him, Ray climbs the steep hill to Japhy's little hovel and again marvels at the tasteful efficiency and simplicity of his lifestyle. His room is wallpapered in burlap, stocked with simple foods, decorated with handpicked flowers, silk paintings and his own handwritten poems, and furnished with straw mats and orange crates.
Eventually, Ray buys some beans and cooks them in preparation for his friend's return. The sky darkens and he admires the view from the top of the hill, which overlooks "a roaring sea of trees." Japhy, weary from work, is extremely appreciative of the dinner and soon begins to reminisce about his exciting, solitary adventures as a fire lookout, assuring Ray that he will love the job. He tells animatedly of conversing with other lookouts on a radio, learning navigation by the night sky, and spotting various animals. The several anecdotes he tells - about, among other things, ladybug infestations, bear encounters, and dangerous lightning storms - portray Desolation Peak as thrillingly untamed.
Now, Ray chimes in with what he has learned during his meditations; he has been itching for Japhy's understanding and support for many weeks. It seems, though, that Ray's companion has changed in more ways than one; not only does he look, in the narrator's opinion, more serious and sadder, but encouraging words only depress him. Japhy even admits that he might be tired of being an impoverished bachelor. Upset and exhausted, he retreats to sleep as Ray settles down outside, praying for Japhy before bed. In the morning, though, Japhy is as cheerful as ever, banging on a frying pan and calling Ray in for pancakes. He has renewed his faith in the Dharma Bum lifestyle.
In Chapter 25, after they eat Japhy's pancakes, the duo go off together to work on Japhy's woodcutting job, as decided in Chapter 24. Japhy teaches Ray the mechanics of axe-wielding; and he finds that he has a knack for it and finds it satisfying.
Some time later, Christine Monahan calls the men in for a large, satisfying lunch, complete with red wine and homemade biscuits. As they flip through Sean's collection of books, Japhy tells Ray a series of Buddhist anecdotes, all of which involve a very paradoxical or even silly result that is counterintuitive to expectation. In one story, for example, a disciple, hoping to answer a tough riddle he has been working on, returns to his Master - who then knocks him into a puddle of mud! The disciple laughs and seems to understand that, as Japhy puts it, "'twasn't by words he was enlightened, but by that great healthy push off the porch." Japhy also talks about a particular Chinese cartoon in which an ambitious young man goes off to search for a bull, only to realize that he is happier abandoning it. After this discussion Ray comments that while he is happiest being still and inactive, Japhy is most satisfied when he is always moving; they are "two strange dissimilar monks on the same path."
Later that night there is a big party at Sean Monahan's, during which three of the couples strip completely and then dance, tamely, around the parlor. Ray and his new acquaintance, the serious and likable Bud Diefendorf, sit and watch them, suppressing their lust, until everyone goes to sleep. The next morning, even more people show up - among them Princess, Alvah, and Warren Coughlin - and everyone eats hamburgers together. According to the protagonist, these parties seem wild but area actually quite demure. During them, Ray always sneaks off alone and has wonderful, if crazy, thoughts and visions - personifying tree leaves and dreaming of the deceased Rosie. He becomes "acquainted" with a hummingbird, ants, and flowers, unashamed of his lazy nature. The socialite Japhy, on the other hand, has a few lovers; his favorite is Psyche, a beautiful girl who he brings on a beach trip along with Ray and Sean. Although she does not seem to have a particularly affinity for Buddhist thought, Japhy does not care.
Ray buys an exorbitant amount of food with some of his leftover money and they use it to feed a group of hungry friends. In fact, the protagonist is quite the hospitable figure, always serving food to others as he befuddles them with his perplexing talk. When asked why the sky is blue, for example, Ray replies, "The sky is blue because you wanta know why the sky is blue." In the last scene, Ray scares a band of young children who have been throwing rocks at the shack, thinking it is abandoned, by pretending he is a "ghost."
It is possible to look at Chapters 22-25 in the context of Ray's growing understanding of Buddhism and his deeper conception of the world as a meaningless void. Having spent months meditating, Ray has emerged from North Carolina even more firmly convinced in the "nothingness" of the material world.
One of Kerouac's major tropes in this section of the book is his focus on transience and dreams. Stylistically, Ray's adventures - be they bumming rides or partying - continue to bleed together into long strings of trivial events. But the focus on the "dreaminess" of existence also becomes more real for the protagonist. Ray returns to his arroyo after a night of party-overkill in Mexicali and convinces himself that his undesirable experiences were nothing more than bad dreams. He uses similar diction to describe his trip on the Midnight Ghost: "The whole trip had been as swift and enlightening as a dream." In Ray's mind, figures and events seem to appear and fall away like visions. In this sense, the narrator seems to have a more mature understanding of transience and absurdity in comparison to the first part of the book.
That is why it is particularly strange that Japhy - once Ray's Buddhist idol, filled with wisdom during their trip to Matterhorn - suddenly seems weary and beaten. Disillusioned with his beliefs, he refuses to listen to Ray's conception of the void and even admits that "I ain't a happy little sage no mo' and I'm tired." Japhy nearly decides to submit to the Dharma Bums' ultimate "enemy," conformity - to settle down with a house and a wife. But in this case, Japhy's depression is nothing more than a fickle phrase, just as Ray's bouts of frustration and sadness were during the mountain-climbing expedition. He is back to himself the very next morning after Ray meets him.
Both Japhy and Ray seem to understand the concept of the absurd void, and the importance of silliness, as evidenced not only by their frequent partying but by their Chapter 25 discussion of various Buddhist teachings. In all of the stories that Japhy relates to Ray, a seemingly serious question is (surprisingly) answered with preposterous nonsense. From the story of a man who experienced Enlightenment after hearing that Buddha was a "turd" to the Ten Oxherding pictures ("the Bulls") that laud revelry over ambition, these parables coincide directly with Ray's understanding of the void as something full of humor because it is preposterous and meaninglessness.
Ray continues to marvel at the abstemious lifestyles of Japhy and Sean. Japhy takes up only one room of Sean's little three-room shack and Ray admires it as lavish although it is frugal. He find that Japhy's way of living is "beautifully simple...neat, sensible, [and] strangely rich without a cent having been spent on decoration." Ray also glorifies Sean, who requires guests to bring food money to his potluck parties and saves his money by living inexpensively, in the same way.
The protagonist takes seriously this believe in the pointlessness of indulging in "immaterial" fleshly pleasures. He and Bud Diefendorf sit chastely in the corner together as his friends enjoy the company of party girls. They compare Sean, Japhy, and Whitey Jones to "young monks...still full of fire and evil [who] still have a lot to learn." And yet Ray is not completely able to distance himself from the cares of his world and the desires of his body. His diction betrays him as he refers to Psyche's "tender little body and face" and the "well stacked nymphs" who dance before him.
Dharma Bums Essays and Related Content
- Dharma Bums: Major Themes
- Dharma Bums: Essays
- Dharma Bums: Questions
- Dharma Bums: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Jack Kerouac: Biography
- Dharma Bums Summary
- About Dharma Bums
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-21
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 22-25
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 26-30
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-34
- The Beat Generation
- Related Links on Dharma Bums
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources