"But No Matter The Road Is Life", Discuss The Role Of The Road In "On The Road" Essay

"But No Matter The Road Is Life", Discuss The Role Of The Road In "On The Road" Essay
In Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957), the reader follows the main protagonists, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, on a journey of self discovery, brought to them through the freedom and visceral nature of life on the road; a life which has no boundaries and knows no limits. “No matter the road is life” summarises the enrapturing nature of the road; Sal and Dean are pulled in its direction, much like the pull of a magnetic force. However it is the word “life” which must be analysed most carefully; for several of the characters within On the Road, the road has a significance, yet for each of them it is significant in a different way. This allows each of the characters to access it on different levels, thus causing the road to take on the role of life because of its symbolic nature which is relevant to all who have experienced it. Without the road – which allows Sal and Dean to continue their hedonistic pursuit of “girls, visions, everything” – the pair become discontent and agitated; Sal reaches temporary insanity and Dean becomes so dysfunctional that he experiences loss of coherent speech. The road offers Sal and Dean an experience which became known as the Beat Generation, a life full of raw sexual encounters, gritty worldly experiences and portal into an underworld.

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), the road’s main role is to stand as a physical symbol of freedom and spontaneity for the main characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, personified versions of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, (iconic figures during America’s Beat Generation). However the road also has a more abstract and spiritual symbolic purpose in forming the veins for the raw and sexualised body of America, which provide Dean and Sal with a journey in which to follow in order to discover a form of utopia and realisation within the America that they live in. The novel follows both the highs and the lows of Dean and Sal, but has a constant connection to the need of the road within both their lives. The road is defined in a similar manner to that of the Beat Generation; it has a sense of spontaneity and vivacity to it, and provides Sal and Dean with a way in which to experience raw sexual encounters and the underworld of hallucinogenic substances and petty criminality. Nevertheless the road offers Dean and Sal a portal into a life of the Beat kids and plays a key role for them in terms of fulfilling their journey on the road. appeal

The obvious, and indeed most literal symbolism of the road is the notion that the road provides all of Kerouac’s characters with a sense of freedom and vitality that so often was denied in post-war America; the strangulating realisation that society was an oppressor and that conformity was the only way in which to survive in a world born out of the Jazz Age was rebelled against by the escapism into a life where the only thing that mattered was where the next lift to the next town was coming from. Life as a “bum”, all “ragged” and somehow excited Kerouac, as it allowed him to rebel against the society which wanted him to conform so much. The irony however is in the fact that by feeling the need act in such a rebelling fashion, the characters of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty actually analysed to such an extent, that their conservative values became even stronger in their need to feel like the ultimate bohemian traveller. The notion that Dean and Sal feel such a strong need to fit in is highlighted in the narration where Sal admits that he was “the farthest thing from an arty type”. During the 1800’s when Puritan’s travelled to America in search of a new world, there began the belief that it was important to fit into an archetypal group in order to be accepted and tolerated by society. This fixation that the American’s was translated and the same conservative views still stand strong, shown in Sal and Dean’s need to be accepted by the Bohemian culture. This suggests that although the road may form the conception that it is impulsive and impetuous, in actual fact it is the very opposite, caused by people such as Sal and Dean who try so hard to create the perfect spontaneous, Bohemian lifestyle that they end up simply reconstructing the journey’s of others, just to create the image. This is evident in the way that Sal and Dean simply follow the road, and never divert from their set route, but is also apparent in their need to always be moving, “I was itching to get on to San Francisco”. The journeys that the “general gang” as Sal calls them follow are standard routes and show little spontaneity or individuality. Moreover, the fact that even before Dean and Sal have reached their destination they are planning their next “adventure” which suggests more interest in what the journey stands for and less about the journey and the experience itself; “come with me let’s go to New York – and after that lets go to Italy.” The constant fascination with the next destination and less about the place they are in only enhances the fact that to Sal and Dean, the journey may be less about self discovery, and more about affirmation for themselves of as their own Bohemian ramblers, “stumbling” across America in search of a dream, a destination which proves never be as good as what they imagine before they arrive.

The road also plays an important role in the discovery of woman for both Sal and Dean, which is perhaps enhanced by the roads sexualised nature. Before the pair set off on their voyage of self discovery, Sal seems convinced that whilst travelling they will come across “girls, visions, everything”. The fact that “girls” is mentioned first is very significant, especially as Queer Theories would argue that the novel has a reoccurring motif of undiscovered sexuality and Sal’s uncomfortable attitude when around women. Although there is much scope for debate on this issue, it is important to note that it is Sal independent of Dean who is confronting this issue. It is clear that Kerouac feels some dissatisfaction with the level of open emotion and visceral instincts which are adhered to in the novel, for example Dean who seems to listen solely to the animal passions inside him; on the other hand Sal seems far more reserved suggesting that “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together” because society tells them that they must “submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk”. Kerouac’s scorn for the American culture is highlighted here in his bitter attack on the somewhat over-spontaneous youth of America. His conservative values are once again brought to the forefront of the readers mind, yet it seems unnatural that for a youth who has such conflicting morals to his piers, why is he the one “stumbling” after them. Perhaps a lack of direction within life is the cause for Sal’s emotional and spiritual journey of self discovery.
Throughout the novel, a degrading stance towards women is taken by Kerouac; Sal admits to wanting the “pearl” to be handed to him, a symbolic reference to his wish to loose his virginity, or simply to experience more sexual encounters then he has previously had. The fact that Kerouac sees the road as the place to find such fulfilments suggests a clear rejection to respect the female figure, and yet both Sal and Dean seem to find reassurance in the fact that the mother land of America is so precious and sacred. As Sal and Dean prepare to embark on another phase of their journey, Dean’s reaction to the purpose of women is as follows: “so long’s I can get that lil ole gal with that lil sumpin down there tween her legs, boy”. The role of the road for Dean is to meet girls and to fulfil his hedonistic ambitions through as many different sexual encounters as he could experience, the road provides Dean with a ‘chauvinistic’ attitude which grows as the novel progresses. The idea that the roads role is clearly to provide the pair with “innumerable girls and sex parties and pornographic pictures” suggests an inherent need for sexual fulfilment through the typical American Dream, passed down from their Jazz Age ancestors and acquired through their journeys along the road. During the beginning of the novel, defines his journey on the road as a discovery of “girls” and visions”, as oppose to Dean who simply wanted “bread and love”; the suggestion from Kerouac here is that Dean’s expectations of the road are far simpler then Sal’s; but that they both represent a period in American history. Dean’s far more austere needs of “bread and love”, perhaps inherited from Puritan morals, are far more simplistic when opposed to Sal’s which seem more inherent of the Jazz Age, were there was the discovery of the great American Dream. Sal’s wish for “girls” and “visions” is far more hedonistic and vague, almost expecting without knowing what he wants to find. Ironic, especially as the novel could be read to see Dean as the self-indulgent youth and Sal the writer with morals who simply wants to find “love”. Nevertheless it seems clear that both embark on the journey with specific desires that they wish to be fulfilled.

For Sal in particular, his journey on the road is one of self discovery; throughout the book there are several spiritual references, and at the beginning Sal claims to be going on the road in search of “visions”. For Sal, his time is used as a period of self discovery, in search of a religious epiphany which he reaches towards the end of the novel, “and for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I had always wanted to reach … and wonderment in the mortal realm”. Sal’s sudden realisation and his “wonderful Technicolor visions” suggest that his searching for spiritual enlightenment was beginning to bear its fruits. Kerouac had his own mild fascination with religion when writing the novel; his daily scribblings, poetry and interpretations of Buddhism resulted in his branching away from the strict confines of the Catholic religion in which he had bought up with; this rebellion of religion is paralleled to a personified version of Kerouac in Sal Paradise. Sal’s realisation of some “wonderful” spiritual fulfilment which he reaches seems to reduce him in some way to the realisation that he is a single person in the whole body of America “mighty” America. Dean Moriarty on the other hand seems to reject all religion, claiming that sex was the “only holy thing” in life. However Sal on the other hand seems fulfilled by his sudden revelation and approaches his journey on the road with a new sense of excitement and enthusiasm. His descriptions seem to suggest that Sal was in some way reborn out of his spiritual epiphany, perhaps coming to the realisation that America was no longer the “mighty land” he had once worshipped. The Dean Moriarty who Sal once would adore with reverence was now just a “rat”, his silly criminal games are a joke and he is just an “idiot friend” to others. Sal’s spiritual epiphany on the road seems to bring to light the side of Dean that Sal was oblivious to before, and fills him with a sense of reduction compared to his new-found God.

As well as the road being a way in which to access “girls, visions, everything”, the road can not only be a part of life, but can be life. In the opening paragraph Kerouac describes the part of Sal’s life that was consumed by travelling as his “life on the road”. Kerouac almost uses this as a way in which to allow the reader to forgive loveable Dean for the way he treated Camille, Inez and Marylou by holding the magnetic force of the road accountable for Dean’s sudden need to go on a journey; the way the Dean’s exclaims that “this road drives me!!” suggests that Dean is controlled by the road, that it has some ineffable force over him. Towards the middle of the novel, Sal goes to visit Dean and Camille and arrives to find Camille “crying her heart out”, and yet Dean somehow walks away, like he did from all his previous marriages. The magnetic appeal of the road for Dean means that he is unable to stay away from it, as if it was some sort of drug to him. Just as with “Heroine” or “Benzedrine”, Dean uses the road as escapism from life which he considers to be too difficult to Deal with. The reader knows that Dean does this from previous encounters of petty thievery when times get hard. Unlike Sal who finds comfort in his “visions”, Dean seems only to be able to run away. The strength of character this shows is interesting, especially as Sal seems to be the weakest of the pair. However Dean’s constant need to run away from the problem instead of facing it only highlights his unwillingness to grow up and the immaturity which the road has somehow stripped Sal of Kerouac describes Dean as being viewed by girls not in a sexualised manner, but in a way that a “mother looks at their dearest and most errant child”. The way that Dean is portrayed in such a childlike manner with a “very shy and sweet voice” suggests the way in which Dean has used the road not as tool for maturity and self discovery like Sal, but as a tool for escapism, allowing him to lapse into a degenerate state which causes the road to become a negative rather then a positive experience.

The road’s role in Dean’s degeneration and deterioration is clear; towards the beginning of the novel he is described by Sal the narrator as being a "youth tremendously excited by life”. Yet throughout the novel, the road provides Dean with gritty world experiences and drugged fuelled, sex filled days that cause him to erode into a shadow of the man that he once was. There are several references throughout the novel of Dean having gone through a changing process, and that his life on the road being dissimilar to “the way it is today”. Sal speaks fondly of “those early days” when Dean was but a “jail kid shrouded in mystery”. The degeneration of Dean’s language is but one of the many signs that at the end of the novel, he was a changed man, his vocabulary no long makes sense, made up of “yaas” and “find quote”. The hallucinogenic experiences and sexual encounters internally scare Dean in such a way that he becomes socially inept, rubbing his tummy with a “manic giggle” and speaking almost nonsense. For the reader, this realisation comes when Sal himself understands that “Dean, by all his virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming an Idiot … the HOLY GOOF”. The fact that Sal, the only one who saw Dean differently to the rest of the world now sees him as a “rat” feeding off society, shows that Dean has completely fallen from grace, for now he does not even have the respect of his friends. This was all due to the sexually indulgent and decadent lifestyle provided for him by the road.

On the road, Sal has time to addressing issues of race; something fairly liberal for an American at the time. The
Ideas of race or strong throughout the novel, however none as strong at the beginning of Book Three. Sal idealises the “brown people” for living a simpler, more joyous life. This is ironic seeing as life on the road was meant to be the simplest and purest of all. These wishes of Sal are particularly prevalent whilst Sal is in Denver, he expresses his wishes to be black and equated the black world with joy, “kicks”, darkness and music, none of which he feels his has gained from his time on the road. The wish of Sal to “exchange worlds with the happy, true hearted negroes of America” shows a shift in the acceptability of Blacks in America, surprising especially as race was such a sensitive subject, even in the 1950’s. If anything, the journey Sal has taken has shown a maturity and understanding, something which Dean has yet to learn. The language that Kerouac uses, the “Negroes of America” suggests a sense that the country is shared, divided equally somehow by the Blacks and the Whites, a notion that some Whites in America would not expect, even in the year of the first Black American President. However the fact that Sal is able to acknowledge this suggests that he has benefited in some way from the experience, perhaps due to his spiritual epiphany or reserved nature, unlike Dean who cares only for himself.

The body of America, transporting Dean and Sal in its veins as it bulges before them, beautiful and big. Towards the beginning of the novel, Sal Paradise finds himself a shy, unsuccessful writer who goes shambling after Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx as they embark upon their own journey across the veins of America. His unenthused attitude due to his “feeling that everything was dead” gives the reader the impression that Sal will get little from his experience; the way that Sal only “vaguely plans” to take the road trip across America as oppose to Dean who was “hung up on the wonderful possibilities” the road had to offer. However at the end of the novel, it is Dean asking Sal “D’you think I can ride fortieth Street with you … want to be with you as much as possible, m’boy”. The rejection of Dean by Sal is highly significant, and shows a role reversal in the pair, perhaps caused by their experience on the road. Sal seemed not to use the road for his own self-indulgent needs, unlike Dean, but rather to gain an understanding of the deeper meaning of life, and indeed of himself. Perhaps Kerouac is suggesting that the real role of the road is to define the character of the traveller; those who take the most from their experience will end it like Sal, happy and fulfilled, with “everything” being achieved. Yet for Dean, he abused his opportunity allowing Kerouac to punish him. Thus the road’s role is not to provide girls or spiritual enlightenment, but to provide an understanding of ones self.

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