Dharma Bums Summary and Analysis
by Jack Kerouac
In Chapter 31, Ray bids adieu to Christine Monahan and begins yet another long journey, this time to Washington for his fire lookout job. His trip is surprisingly easy, as he meets many people willing to give him rides. At Cloverdale, he buys food for the trip and feels a twinge of nostalgia for Japhy, who was very serious about, of all things, food - unlike the rest of the crazy and dangerous world. A lonesome farmer drives him all the way to Crescent City, talking all the way, where he buys Ray a large and satisfying dinner. He also buys him breakfast in the morning.
Feeling free, Ray begins to walk on the wrong side of the road for no real reason. But this proves to be a wonderful hitchhiking technique, as it somehow increases the number of people willing to give him rides. Ray is picked up by a curious gold miner, a used-car dealer, and finally a garrulous logger boy. He spends the night in Eugene and in the morning notices that he can see the formidable Cascade Range in the distance.
The rest of the trip also goes surprisingly smoothly as Ray bums rides off of a panoply of interesting people. Before he boards the ferry to Seattle, he charitably gives his last driver some of his food. Feeling lyrical, he notes that as he approaches the mountains he can not only "think" them, but "feel" them; he can understand their awesome power in the way that Japhy intended him to. After a brief Goodwill shopping trip he continues onward toward the magnificent and terrifying peaks; soon all of his new drivers are true mountain-dwellers. Between the walls of cliffs, Ray can no longer see the peaks at all, but he is "beginning to feel them more."
In Chapter 32, Ray gets his final ride from a wrangler who roars up to the Ranger Station, almost getting the narrator into trouble for speeding on government property. Suddenly Ray realizes that he is not "free" yet: he has to attend a sort of training camp with other lookouts for a week. While there, though, he meets Burnie Byers, an old man who fondly remembers Japhy and speaks very highly of him. This being his fortieth anniversary in the service, the other rangers give him a leather belt as a gift.
While the others go to local carnivals for beer, Ray sits quietly and admires the powerful, glistening Skagit River and the mountain scenery. He meditates on the peaceful, ever-changing nature around him. Soon, though, it is time for Ray and two others - someone called Happy the muleskinner and the assistant-ranger Wally - to begin the trek to Desolation Peak.
As they drive to Diablo Dam, Ray describes the history of the area as a hotspot for gold-rushers in the 1890s and the scene of a raging blaze in 1919. Meanwhile, Happy the muleskinner, who Ray is actually quite fond of, makes jokes and tells Ray horror stories about his cold and lonely destination. During the trip, he repeatedly asks Ray if he sneaked some extra alcohol in his pack in preparation for the freezing peak. He also comments favorably on Japhy, of whom Ray often thinks.
After taking floats across Ross Lake, the three men begin to climb to the peak, riding horses and using pack-mules to carry supplies. At 5,000 feet reach a meadow racked by wind and rain, which only intensifies as they continue to climb upward. The only thing that prevents Ray from being terrified about the oft-slipping horses is his inability to see anything. When they finally reach the mountaintop - at the dizzying height of 6,500 feet - Ray begins to have second thoughts: his cabin is small, dank, and filthy with rodent-ruined debris. Furthermore, he wonders how he will be able to see fires at all what with all the fog; he can scarcely believe Happy's reassurance that the weather will clear up.
After doing a bit of cleaning and set-up, Happy, Wally and Ray sit down to a good meal with strong coffee before bed. In the morning, Ray is alone and frightened, very aware that he is stranded in this undesirable situation. Over the span of a couple of days, though, the fog slowly begins to clear away, ultimately giving Ray a view of Mount Hozomeen, which looks just as Japhy depicted it in one of his brush-drawings.
Chapter 33 opens as Ray contemplates Desolation Peak, which he realizes is "everything Japhy said it was." He can see land for hundreds of miles in every direction and there are low-level clouds obscuring the world below him. He can identify all of the mountains and creeks that Japhy has taught him about and is struck by the breathtaking realization that he is the only human in the world gazing at this glorious sight.
Ray's life consists largely of eating, sleeping, and standing on his head, examining the world upside-down. The scenery also changes slightly: when the clouds clear he can see tiny boaters on Ross Lake, and in the evenings he has the pleasure of witnessing splendid sunsets. He experiences fog, stiflingly still heat-waves, drizzling rain and enveloping darkness. He thoroughly enjoys his meals, his free lifestyle, his daily naps, his hand-rolled cigarettes, and the deer and insects that quickly become familiar to him.
While on the mountain, and particularly while standing on his head, Ray truly feels the strange, eternal emptiness of the world and feels that he knows something very valuable that goes unnoticed by the millions of people below him.
The last chapter in The Dharma Bums fittingly corresponds to Ray's last days on Desolation Peak. It begins with a long description of bleak, stormy weather that Ray can see from every direction: a veritable "void." Standing alone with his oil lamp "burning in infinity," Ray realizes that nothing matters and suddenly feels very free. At one point, a rainbow falls right outside of the shack, inspiring him.
Ray describes his time on the mountaintop very rapidly as morning passes to night, until at last Burnie Beyers speaks on the radio and tells his lookouts that the time has come to leave their mountains. He looks reverently at his personal world and its animal inhabitants once more and sees a vision of Japhy - the Chinese bum "Japhy of his dreams" - standing in the fog. He feels enormous gratitude and connection toward the man despite their distance, and feels that they share an understanding of something extraordinarily powerful. He also thanks God and prays for everyone. As he sets off down the trail and back to the world at last, Ray thanks the shack, finishing his earnest prayer with a grin and a seemingly out-of-place utterance - "Blah" - believing that the mountain and the shack will "understand what that means."
The final chapters of the book describe the time Ray spends on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains. His stay is relatively lonely and uneventful but also highly rewarding. In fact, it is no coincidence that Ray reaches the "height" of his understanding of Buddhism - which, as the first chapter explains, eventually fades - while atop a high mountain. Because of his successful climb to Desolation Peak, Ray also manages to fulfill his goal of reaching the peak of a mountain, which he was unable to do successfully when the trio of men climbed to Matterhorn.
Before Ray actually ascends Desolation Peak, he must hitchhike all the way to Washington. This time, though, his journey is relatively smooth. For once, he is rewarded for his non-conformity - that is, refusing to walk on the proper side of the street. Ray's smooth journey is fitting for the end of the novel as it corresponds with his ever-growing comprehension of Buddhism and his acceptance of life as it is. Furthermore, Ray has the opportunity to do what he did in the very first chapter: that is, give food to a hungry fellow traveler. This time, notably, Ray is completely neutral about providing provisions; he does not "pity" his companion but seems to give, as Japhy has taught him, for the joy of giving.
Ray in fact took his job as a fire lookout because Japhy suggested it, and his friend - though thousands of miles away - is omnipresent in Ray's memory and in the memories of the friends he made in the service. Japhy is perpetually on Ray's mind as he contemplates the world around him: "And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he'd said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging." As Ray approaches the Cascade Range, he realizes that he cannot "see" the mountains, but can "feel" them to a heightened degree. The same is true of his fond companion, Japhy, who is omnipresent in his absence. It is fitting that at the very end of the novel, Ray sees a "dream" version of Japhy that is "truer than life."
During his time on Desolation Peak, Ray begins to finally get a better understanding of the Void and of compassion. Put briefly, he begins to more deeply comprehend that the world is empty, meaningless, and beautiful. Ray's dwelling is, after all, an unseen cabin in the void, surrounded by swirling weather patterns and ever-changing troops of animals. Kerouac's writing in the last two chapters is appropriately frenetic as he imitates the cycling patterns of nature that surround Ray in his little cabin. Appropriately, plot wanes and becomes secondary as Ray merely lives with no particular goal in mind.
Considering his fuller comprehension of "the void," it is appropriate that Ray often stands on his head. Although it is true that the protagonist is trying to improve circulation, this gesture is also throwback to the arthritic "Buddha" he met on a train. By this point it has come to symbolize what is one of the book's ultimate themes: that life is not to be taken too seriously. In this context of simple silliness and absurdity, Ray's final monosyllabic cry - "Blah," said with a smile-makes perfect sense.
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