On the Road

On the Road Themes


Sal's and Dean's friendship throughout the novel reflects the buddy themes found in much classic and pop culture. They are two men sharing travel experiences. Their relationship is a part of the male bonding stereotype. Yet, what they have transcends a typical friendship. Through their adventures and travels, they become comrades and brothers. Dean's madness envelops Sal; Dean can make the mundane extraordinary for Sal. Their deeds and misdeeds bond them together in a way that ordinary friendship rarely does.

Friendship also plays a role in the Beat culture that Kerouac describes. It is only when Sal's group of friends are together that he can truly experience the kind of life they want to live. While living briefly in Denver without his friends, Sal quickly becomes sad and despondent at the lack of vitality in his life. He immediately leaves for San Francisco, where he once again can experience the community of madness that fuels the adventures of the book.

In On the Road, however, friendship is also a power that can destroy. Sal eventually sees his relationship with Dean as destructive. During their final journey he laments Dean's coming to take him to Mexico. Dean, and the subculture represented by Sal's Beat friends, come to represent the destruction of the traditional values of American society like family and relationship. This kind of individualist subversion is one of the themes of the novel, and Sal can sense that something is being lost by this destruction. During the final journey, Sal realizes that the destructive nature of this kind of friendship can have severe consequences for the people surrounding him and Dean.

The American West

The American West has long been a part of American literature and folklore. Going West to explore and to see the country retains its charm; most of the West remains much wilder than the East. The theme has been celebrated in American literature, notably in Walt Whitman's writing about "the road" in his poetry.

On the Road deals with this sense of adventure and exploration in two main ways. First, there is the story of exploration. For Sal, the country and towns that lie before him represent new adventures. Through his first journey, Sal understands himself to be one in the long line of explorers and settlers who went West to find a new life. Sal mythologizes much of the American West during his trip. He sees the possibilities of time and existence in the Mississippi River, echoing other great American writers such as Mark Twain. In the Denver mining town he finds a sense of the Old West, a time of cowboys and dangerous frontiers. As he picks cotton with other migrant farm workers, he imagines himself to be a part of that culture and those who farmed and worked civilization into being in the American West.

Yet, the second sense in which On the Road deals with the American West takes a much sadder tone. In this way, the novel comments on and criticizes its times. Just a year before the book was published, in 1956, President Eisenhower had signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which formally began the construction of the Interstate Highway System. A plan for the system had been in the works since 1921, and this was just one of many signs that America was taming its West. Sal realizes through the novel that though modernity and technology are bringing greater access to transportation and to places in the West, there are fewer and fewer places to be discovered. Sal confronts this reality as he visits the Wild West Festival in Cheyenne, a tourist attraction that can only simulate the real Wild West. The mining town outside of Denver has also ceased to be a true part of the West, being now a part of tourist culture. Sal and Dean also feel a sadness for the Indian cultures of the mountains of Mexico, for they realize that the coming of a highway means the destruction of their culture. By the end of the novel, the reader begins to understand that any road that leads to the American West brings with it the potential destruction of culture even as it gives freedom to the traveler or tourist.

The Natural Man

For Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty represents true freedom. Dean's motivations and passions, often foolish and criminal to the rest of the world, represent for Dean the true expression of what it means to be young and what it means to be a natural man. While all of Dean's and Sal's friends consider Dean to be irresponsible and not to be trusted, Sal instead sees Dean's erratic behavior as the proof that Dean thinks and lives on a higher plane than the rest of the world does.

When Sal first meets Dean, we learn that Dean was arrested in Denver for stealing cars. Instead of a fault, however, Sal sees such criminality as the result of Dean's unending energy and his search for true joy. Throughout the novel, Dean's behavior is portrayed sympathetically. Kerouac suggests that Dean's actions are only the result of his quest for a pure life and that he cannot be held responsible for what the rest of the world may or may not view as criminal or irresponsible. Engaging in such behavior is the only way, as Sal and Dean see it, to find the true meaning of life, "It" as they call it, throughout the novel. For Kerouac, the body's natural appetites must take precedence over any legal or social ramification that might come about by indulging in them. Stealing cars, doing drugs, or engaging in sexual relations with underage women are only expressions of the natural instincts of men who seek to live true and natural lives.

Conflicts Between Male and Female Desires

The aspect of On the Road that has been most criticized in the decades following the novel's release has been Kerouac's portrayal of the relationships between men and women. While Kerouac himself was roundly criticizing the social structures of family and work that kept men from finding a truer way of life, his novel failed to record the plight of the women being subjected to the same pressures and conventions of society. More to the point, the characters seem unsympathetic to the toll that the women have to pay in meeting the appetites and helping with the travels of the men.

For Sal and Dean, the women represent a force pushing against their hope for freedom. At the end of the men's journeys, women are there to feed and shelter these men, but they are never meant to actually participate in the men's journeys. Women are routinely abandoned in the novel. Dean is married three times throughout the narrative. All three women he divorces and leaves with children and responsibilities of their own. Ed Dunkel marries a woman, Galatea, in San Francisco, whom he then abandons on the trip to New York when her money runs out. Women are seen as disposable objects of these men's desires, as though there is no natural ethic, just an individual ethic of self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. It is only in the brief instances when the women tell Dean and Sal how irresponsible the two are being that we see any of the women's true feelings or needs; it is by no means clear, however, that Dean and Sal are interested in resolving the conflicts by helping the women get what they want.

Marginalized Cultures in the Americas

Throughout the novel, Dean and Sal are mesmerized by the marginalized peoples of the Americas, specifically through African-American culture and Mexican culture. As On the Road was being published, America was still a racially and ethnically diverse society that privileged whites of Western European descent. Soon to come were the tumultuous racial conflicts of the 1960s. As African Americans are beginning new struggles to become full citizens in their communities, Sal and Dean revel and see freedom in the very idea of being marginalized. To be marginalized is to be left alone to do what you want, and if you do not care to be involved in the dominant culture, all the better.

This notion is a twist on the idea that greater civil and social rights were needed for African Americans during this time. Kerouac does not specifically mention the need for greater equality, but through the character of Sal, Kerouac shows the value of attempts to take part in the marginality of a subculture. Sal and Dean see, through this marginality, a freedom from the constraints of the white male American culture that held many of their contemporaries. In the African American jazz clubs, they find a freedom of expression that they cannot find in their own lives.

During their trip to Mexico, they see freedom and adventure in the poverty of the Mexican people, not oppression. (Of course, Mexican culture itself is not marginalized in Mexico, but it seems to yield such a feeling among these outsiders, who see just a few slices and subcultures.) Sal's months of living as a migrant farm worker, picking cotton, are perhaps the best example of such a view in the novel. During these months Sal comes to see himself as Chicano, a part of the impoverished and marginalized culture in which he lives and works. Instead of feeling the oppression of the culture, he feels freedom in making only a dollar and a half a day, living with his Chicano lover, Terry, and taking care of her son.

But Sal and Dean never expect to stay forever in the conditions of such cultures. Through their travels they always return to the white American culture that they came from, finding food and shelter when they need it. Sal's comfort in the migrant farms of California, perhaps, comes from subconsciously knowing that if he ever needed it, his aunt in New York could wire him money to come home. This is a luxury the rest of the farm workers do not have.

Rejection of Authority

The life that Sal and Dean want to live is one that rejects all notions of authority and rule. Dean has little regard for the law and conventions of society. Authority is seen in the novel through the pleadings of the maternal characters for Dean and Sal to settle down and fulfill their responsibilities, and it is most clearly understood in the various run-ins that the group of Beats has with law enforcement. Anarchy in the individual eventually confronts the authority of society.

On every journey, Sal and Dean are confronted with the realities of law enforcement and the laws that they have broken. This is vividly seen in a stop in Washington on the day of Truman's re-election inauguration. As they watch the festivities, a parade of military vehicles rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue, a display of the military might of the country. For Dean and Sal this display is nothing they want to be a part of. They are stopped and harassed by Washington police when they speed and drive on the wrong side of the road. The police want to arrest Dean on the ground that Dean's wife, Marylou, is a prostitute and that Dean is pimping her across state lines. The authorities of the novel clearly disapprove of the lifestyle that these young hipsters are leading. Others can tell, simply from their looks, that these people are rejecting the authority of the nation and the pressures to conform.

It is only in Mexico that they find a large measure of freedom from authority (and nearly full freedom from United States authority). The police there encourage them in their exploits, guarding their whorehouse as they pay for sex, and letting them sleep in their car in town-which would have caused suspicion among American police. American society is thus condemned in Sal's eyes for its paranoia and its insistence on following rules. But in Mexico, where the rules are relaxed and people are only worried about getting by, one finds true freedom from authority (although, of course, there are things one may not do in Mexico).

The Rainy Night of America

Kerouac's "rainy night of America" is a theme taken up several times in On the Road and in his other novels. The rainy night comes to symbolize for Sal the motion of time in the country. It is most clearly seen when Sal visits rivers-first the Hudson, most notably the Mississippi, and then the river that takes up the final paragraph of the novel.

Kerouac compares the cycle of water, from rain, to river, to sea, to evaporation and then all over again, to the movement of time and culture. This is a metaphor for life and history. What has come before will come again and then start all over again. It is in these moments of reflection on rivers that Kerouac glimpses his own impermanence in the flow of life. Sal's and Dean's own travels begin to take on this kind of rhythm. The things that they do, the problems they face, and the messes they always find themselves in are all part of the cycle of the road. As Sal and Dean cross the Mississippi, he reflects upon the meaning of the river. It starts in secret and flows through the lands of America, only to reach oblivion in the sea. The river's cycle starts again in the rainy night. Kerouac saw his own life and particularly his life on the road in this metaphor.