On the Road

On the Road Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss Kerouac's vision of individuality in On the Road. Is such a vision of individuality healthy or hurtful?


    Kerouac's vision of individuality relies on a person's willingness to separate from the conventional lifestyle of the culture. For Kerouac, this was white American culture. In the novel, Sal often wishes he could become part of another culture and race, a true separation, yet whether or not Sal would be able to remain an individual while becoming part of another group is not discussed in the book. One could also question whether Sal was truly being an individual through much of the book, since his goal, as he stated it, was to follow Dean and Carlo around to be a part of the fun they were having. Towards the end of the novel, Kerouac seems to be suggesting that separating himself from Dean and the Beat lifestyle had become necessary in order to retain his own notions of self.

  2. 2

    In the novel, what does it mean to be "Beat," and how does this concept change over the course of the novel?


    At the beginning of the novel, Sal describes a person as Beat who is mad, "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 commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles." By this definition, someone who is Beat is a person who lives in the moment, always attempting to experience life at its fullest.

    Yet the notion of Beat changes through the novel. This change is best characterized by the persons Sal finds himself surrounded by in a Detroit movie theater, a place he and Dean stop to sleep because they cannot afford a room. These people he describes as trash, persons who have been discarded by society, an image Sal himself comes to identify with.

  3. 3

    Discuss Kerouac's use of the passage of time in the novel.


    Kerouac's notion of time seems to be that of an entity that is constantly moving and constantly taking others with it. During the novel, Sal feels many different emotions concerning this reality. As he sees his friends growing smaller in the rear window of a car as he leaves them, he laments not being able to be a part of their lives permanently. Yet, the madness he seeks makes such permanence impossible. This is also the case in the memories that Sal and Dean continually share. They cannot conquer the past, so they continually try to relive it.

  4. 4

    Sal and Dean discuss "it" throughout the novel and believe that each of their journeys is going to bring them closer to this "it." What is "it"? Do Dean and Sal ever find "it"?


    Dean's and Sal's notion of "It" is best summed up by Dean as he watches a jazz musician preform. The musician has "it" because he is living completely in the moment. He no longer cares for the conventions of society because when he has "it," he is able to live outside those conventions. He no longer cares about things like money, family, or shelter and the other necessities of life. For Dean, finding "it" means living in a pure state.

    Arguably, the closest Dean and Sal come to finding "it" is during their trip to Mexico. During this trip they have literally taken themselves out of the American landscape and immersed themselves in a new culture. They head to Mexico City, a place that could truly be a Beat haven for them, but they find they cannot live in "it" for very long after all.

  5. 5

    What is the novel's vision of the American dream in relation to 1950s America and today?


    The novel's vision of the American dream as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is interpreted as meaning that one is constantly moving through the American landscape. Adventure and exploration are the tenets of this dream, though through the novel Sal and Dean often find there are fewer and fewer places to explore.

    Kerouac's characters speak harshly to those who find happiness in consumerism and the conventional life of family and job. Kerouac also could see the American landscape, particularly the old frontiers of the American West, quickly turning into tourist attractions. This transformation has continued into the present day, and Kerouac's novel promotes traveling to get to know a culture rather than being a tourist who never changes.

  6. 6

    Discuss the relationship between men and women in the novel. Are Sal and Dean justified in the ways they treat women?


    For those who see conventional middle-class life as a burden to be challenged by a bohemian lifestyle, the way Dean and Sal treat the women in their lives might seem necessary. Family and wives were, and are, part of the bedrock conventions of society.

    Yet, in the novel, Sal begins to see the toll such a lifestyle can take on one's loved ones. During their last journey, both Dean and Sal have sentimental moments when relating to children, and they begin to see that ideas of family might be more important than they realize. The novel suggests that family ties are a natural part of human life, beyond mere convention. Sal and Dean are constantly torn between the love they feel for women and family and the freedom they desire.

    Nevertheless, treating women who are not going to become family seems to be a different matter, and here the conflict is about basic respect and equality versus individual aggrandizement. In that sense, the male beatnik treatment of women is part of the larger beatnik lifestyle of disrespect for the lives and property of others.

  7. 7

    Is Sal's interpretation of African American culture fair?


    Kerouac's novel has been criticized for being a glorification of a caricatured African American culture. Sal sees this culture as one that does not have to deal with the pressures of white middle-class conformity precisely because of the marginalization of African Americans in his experience. Through the novel, Sal often does not see the burden of this marginalization on African Americans.

  8. 8

    What does law enforcement represent in the novel?


    Law enforcement officers are truly the "bad guys." During the multiple traffic stops that Dean and Sal have to talk and beg their way out of, law enforcement officers are not seen as the guardians of society but as a force that is attempting to control society and take away an individual's freedom. In one section of the novel, Dean characterizes police officers as being a part of a national conspiracy to spy on Americans. For Dean and Sal, the military and law enforcement are the antithesis of what it means to live in America. Other contemporary dystopias take a similar view (consider Orwell's 1984), a reflection of anti-totalitarianism during the Cold War.

  9. 9

    Compare the "old" Sal of New York with the "new" Sal after his journeys.


    The "old" Sal of New York was primarily interested in following around characters such as Dean and Carlo Marx in order to "burn" with them in their madness and to catch some of that himself. Yet, by the time that Sal crosses the Mississippi River on his first journey, and continuing through his second and third journeys, Sal ceases to simply follow people around and becomes one of the madmen himself. While Dean remains the catalyst for these bouts of madness, Sal finds that he too possesses the power to experience life for himself in such a way. His first journey takes him everywhere from drinking on the back of a truck to picking cotton in California. The "new" Sal is a person who experiences life firsthand, not only through others. He also gains in wisdom about some of the effects of libertinism on oneself and others.

  10. 10

    How might Kerouac's novel have influenced the cultural upheaval of the 1960s?


    The cultural revolution of the 1960s reflected a time in which the more strict morals and conventions of the 1940s and 1950s were examined and often tossed out by younger adults. The novel provided a guide for much of the spirit of individual freedom from convention and power that was sought. In its depictions of drug use, loose sexual morality, and lack of regard for authority, it helped to plant the ideas of revolution that fueled much of the social changes of the time. The novel showed that subcultures could and did exist alongside the allegedly conformist life of the American white middle class, and it romanticized some of the alternatives by suggesting that greater freedom might exist through a subculture or Beat lifestyle.