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On the Road, by Jack Kerouac is a book about the need to wander and the rejection of authority and tradition in post World War II American youth. It illustrates the ethos of the American Beat Generation of the 1950 s: freedom, mysticism, and individuality. Kerouac most likely wrote this book in order to provide a semi-autobiographical account of his own adventures hitchhiking around the United States as well as to provide an account and a rationalization for his wanderings and attempt to explain the forces that created the beat generation. The plot of the novel mirrors the main conflict of the book.
Sal Paradise is torn between his desires to lead the normal, traditional life pushed upon him by his family and the rest of straight society and his need to nomadically travel around the country like his hero, Dean Moriarty. The book alternates between episodes of Sal attempting to settle down, start a family, get a job, and his inevitable lust to wander. Sal occasionally finds happiness in stable situations but his attraction to Dean Moriarty is too strong for him to stay in one place for long. This plot is parallel to the theme of the book. The beat generation lifestyle was about a search for meaning by people who rejected most of the values of the time. They are never able to find satisfaction and are forced to continue searching, even at the end of the book.
The characters in this novel fall within two broad categories. There are the people in Sal's life who want him to settle down and live a more standard life in one place, and the people he meets on the road who want to continue to travel with him. The beatniks Sal spends time with are epitomized by Dean Moriarty, which whom Sal worships and attempts to emulate. Dean lives a life free of burden, responsibility, compromise, and stability and for most of the book enjoys himself. Sal is pulled in the direction of Dean and the other beatniks, but is pulled to the side of constancy by those characters at the other end of the spectrum, such as Remi Boncoeur, Lucille, and Sal's aunt, who want him to start a normal life. Sal's interactions with these characters and his need to please both of them serve the theme of the novel.
To me, Dean is the most interesting and sympathetic of the characters in On the Road. His incredible personal charisma and enjoyment of life make him highly enjoyable to read about. Also, he promotes Sal, who often would prefer to do little and ruminate, to action and adventure. Dean, to a degree, is what Sal and all the lost beatnik characters in the book are searching for: a father who understands their love for wandering.
A similar book that shares many of the same characteristics as On the Road would be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Both books are by esteemed representatives of the counterculture and both are about travel and alternative lifestyles as ways to find greater meaning in life. Both protagonists ultimately fail in their recorded quest and realize that authority and conformity are great powers in America, capable of even rejecting a Dean Moriarty or a Raoul Duke. The book is, essentially, a novel of the 1950 s. America was still relatively innocent in that decade, and a group of smart kids who hitchhiked, drank, had sex, occasionally smoked marijuana and listened to jazz music seems pretty tame by current standards.
One of the redeeming qualities of life on the road Kerouac describes is the incredible generosity of the strangers he meets while bumming around the country. It is difficult to imagine anyone chronicling life on the road today would meet such hospitality or decency toward people who have little. Sometime between the publication of the novel and now, America lost some of the innocence that permitted someone to criss-cross the country with no money unmolested. The novel, much like the beat generation, was an inherently 50 s phenomenon.
Unlike the social movements that followed it, the beat generation was not so much a revolution from the status quo but a quiet rejection of it. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty feel they have no place in a post-war America beginning to grow fat on its own power, righteousness, and materialism. The movement was peaceful and egalitarian: everyone Sal meets is poor and harassed by authority. The beat generation was probably to conservative to survive the social and political upheavals in the 1960 s that drastically changed American culture. This book is one of my favorite American novels. While the language is sparse and the form simplistic, the book has an energy and pace that completely describes the moment.
Sal's main indecision to stay at home or continue on the road is truly felt by the reader because Kerouac lets us feel both the excitement and the loneliness of Sal's wanderings.
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