The Beat Generation counterculture was, by definition, a movement that contrasted with the prevailing attitudes of the day. It is thus unsurprisingly that the Dharma Bums' ultimate enemy is bland and mindless conformity to expectation. As Kerouac's characters resist convention, the author attempts to "normalize" or justify their quirky behavior. This theme is introduced to the reader in the very first sentence of the book when Ray nonchalantly reveals his bizarre mode of transportation: "hopping freight trains." As the story progresses, it becomes clear just how many "conformist" forces are unfairly pitted against the harmless protagonist and his friends, from aggressive policemen to hunters bewildered that anyone would want to climb Matterhorn instead of shooting deer. The ultimate source of uniformity, to which Japhy and Ray are explicitly opposed, is the middle class - that is, the majority of the American population - who are trapped in the "rat race" of money-making and social climbing.
Ray admires both Japhy Ryder and Sean Monahan because of their adherence to the principle of simplicity. Japhy's original abode, for example, is described as being tiny; when he is permitted to live with Sean Monahan's little shack, he uses only one of its three rooms. Ray also points out that Japhy is "serious about food:" he brings only what is necessary on their climbing trip, cooks sparing meals that are somehow the most delicious Ray has ever tasted, and is scornful toward the "crapulous" gluttons of everyday society. Ray repeatedly returns to the idea that the frugal lifestyle is not only admirable, but indeed superior to the avaricious lifestyles of most people. But even Japhy experiences doubts the validity of his own ideal sometimes, as evidenced by his discomfort in eating at a "fancier" restaurant and the night when he begins to doubt his Buddhist beliefs.
It is no coincidence that Ray feels at home with children and dogs. Ray's lives a spontaneous and "liquid" lifestyle. He almost never justifies his decisions or shifting beliefs, but rather "rides them out" without considering which path to take or which choice to make. He and his friends drink alcohol to excess, a habit that eliminates their inhibitions, and create poetry not by deliberating over word-choice and rhyme scheme but by writing or saying whatever first comes to mind. In climbing and descending Matterhorn, Ray begins to realize that the best way to rock-hop - and live life - is to simply jump without agonizing over which is the "right" way to go.
Kerouac's prose, like Ray's life, is free-flowing and effervescent, employing long sentences and sentence structures that are sometimes odd. He dubbed his writing technique "Spontaneous Prose" and lived by the motto "First thought equals best thought." Such a "jazzy" writing technique is appropriate for the rhythm-loving Beat Generation and is exemplified by Gary Snyder's poem "How Poetry Comes to Me:"
It comes blundering over the / Boulders at night, it stays / Frightened outside the / Range of my campfire / I go to meet it at the / Edge of the light
Ray states his belief that charity is an important virtue in the very first chapter of the book, when he shares his food with the old bum on the train. Later, he admires Japhy for his tendency to give not because "it is the right thing to do" or "to martyr himself," but rather for the sheer joy and "privilege" of giving. Near the end of the book, Ray again shares his food - that is, his livelihood - with a hungry companion that he meets while hitchhiking. Importantly, his tendency to give things away to random strangers exemplifies Ray's belief in the importance of compassion for all - not just one's friends or those to whom one owes a debt. The prayer he teaches Japhy, in which he imagines the eyes of friend or enemy with equal neutrality, is also rooted in this idea. In some senses, Ray, who is less hostile toward Christians and bourgeois "conformists," is a stronger advocate of compassion than Japhy is.
The few women with whom Ray is acquainted fall into two categories: they are either objectified sexual objects, or married (and thus, being unavailable, nondescript). In some sense, Ray is hypersensitive to women's physical appearances, and often first identifies them by hair color and body type. Those women who are invited to Sean Monahan's cottage are there almost expressly for sensual reasons, and Japhy's frequent usage of the term "girl" to mean "sexual playmate" is never counterbalanced by any statements of reverence. Japhy's agreement to "satisfy [Princess] the Bodhisattva" during yabyum is undeniably colored by the taint of his own selfish motives, and he even jokingly entertains the idea of marrying his own sister.
Ray's effort to deny his sexual feelings toward women seems unsuccessful as he cannot fully suppress his lust. Unlike Japhy, a veritable sexual dynamo, Ray is awkward around women and sometimes admits that he is jealous of his friends' sexual successes. Thus, there is evidence that Ray's "pledge of celibacy" is less a moral decision than a defense mechanism. Although there is not much evidence for the idea, it is also possible that Ray is conflicted about homosexuality or bisexuality. The narrator is, after all, based on Kerouac, whose particular sexual difficulties and practices are difficult to categorize.
According to (a crude interpretation of) Buddhist teaching, the physical world and all of its sensations is nothing more than an illusory dream. Ray fully believes in this idea-the notion of "nothingness" or "the void" and attempts to better understand it through meditation. But it is certainly possible to interpret the world's empty meaninglessness as dismal rather than reassuring. This, coupled with the fact many of the Zen riddles, or koans, are inherently paradoxical, lends itself to a very special form of personal reassurance: the belief in absurdity.
The truest interpretation of Buddhism, it seems, is not as a solemn and depressing philosophy of futilely struggling against an inevitable descent into nothingness. Rather, as Ray understands in his most lucid moments, it is the assurance that "nothing matters." Ultimately it is a religion that frees its believers from worry and concern because there is nothing to be concerned about. It is this positive conceptualization of the world's absurdity that lends meaning to Ray's standing on his head on Desolation Peak and his final utterance, giddy and random.
An overarching theme in The Dharma Bums is the idea of pragmatism. In fact, this theme encompasses many of the novel's other concepts (as, for example, spontaneity, sexual tension, and non-conformity). Ray and his companions effectively get by not by following a hard-and-fast religious doctrine but rather by doing "whatever works." When faced with sensual pleasure, for example, it is inconvenient for Ray to continue believing in "the void," and so he merely stops to participate in yabyum. On the other hand, when he struggles to find a girlfriend, he can veil his disappointment by convincing himself of the value of celibacy. Japhy's dual nature is also pragmatic: he has no rigidly-defined "type," but instead possesses the capacity to be a quiet and meditative soul as well as a rowdy party-goer. While it is possible for the reader to find inconsistencies in the attitudes of Kerouac's characters, they remain blissfully oblivious to any discrepancies and instead "go with the flow" of their given situation. This theme is also present in the novel on a more literal level in the very unpredictable arts of hitchhiking and mountain-climbing, which necessitate quick thinking and spontaneous resourcefulness.
Dharma Bums Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Dharma Bums is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.