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In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the introduction of Dean Moriarty and the paradoxical themes of the Eastern and Western “road” to the character Sal Paradise incur dissension in Sal’s evolution. Sal ultimately chooses to return to the East and its standard of living, establishing Sal, not Dean, as the true hero of the novel. The character’s cross- country misadventures allow Sal to develop his sociological proclivity and gain a new and worldlier outlook on spirituality. American, frontier-style bohemianism Buddhist ideology that takes the form of “IT” provides an irresistible catalyst to the characters. These liberties, however, come at a heavy price when he recognizes the potential destruction that the road’s enticements create. Dean uses and abandons the people around him, and his quest for “IT” is wrought with fallacy. The implications of his abandonment of responsibilities finally estrange him from Sal and many others besides. Nevertheless, the security of Sal’s Eastern lifestyle time and again finds itself at odds with the seductiveness of the West, the “road” itself most notably symbolized in the character of Dean Moriarty whose fate placed him in a situation to exploit this freedom.
Sal, born out East and living with his aunt, is a young veteran working on a novel and intermittently attending college in the process. He had recently split up with his wife in the beginning of the novel. His father had just passed away and he, it could be contended, was not emotionally stable when he first encountered Dean. His authorial inspiration had reached a plateau and his life and become dry and lackluster. His lifestyle prior to meeting Dean Moriarty corresponded with the American ideals of the time that came to symbolize the McCarthyistic dogmas of the East. After developing a disdain for “intellectual” companionship, Sal begins to realize, “My New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons (Kerouac 1, 8). Sal embodies the “powerlessness of the individual lost in a vast, complex, corporate society” which proved to be a common conflict in post-World War American fiction (Newhouse 161). His desire to be initiated into some ultimate truth, and subsequently explore it in his novel began to flower with the guidance of Dean and their numerous cross-country adventures.
Only after Sal abandons his “big half-manuscript…my comfortable home sheets” does his dialogue and stand-still writings end and is given a chance to experience his novel’s meaning on the road rather than musing comfortably (and fruitlessly) in his Eastern home (Kerouac 9).
“Dean is the perfect guy…because he was actually born on the road,” Sal discloses in the beginning of the novel (1). Sal is unnerved by how Dean lives his life and finds himself consumed by the promise of traveling with Dean to bring significance to his own existence and erudite aspirations. When asked about the motives of his cross-country ramblings, “Dean could only blush and say, “Ah well, you know how it is” (145). The West, to Sal, represents action, exploration, camaraderie and spiritual realization. By defying the conservative politesse aura of the decade, Dean engages in the taboo street life that the novel suggests is the only way to break from society and achieve transcendence. He forms a network of starry-eyed followers who are spellbound by his con-man charisma and boundless energy, “he was simply a youth tremendously excited with life” (4).
Many times throughout the novel, Sal begins to feel conscious of his “whiteness” and seeks relief in other races ostracized by post-war American society because, to Sal, to be white is a sign of decadence of the body and mind (Gair 65-6, Richardson 7). “I was… a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I had white ambitions”(Kerouac 180). There is a kind of truth that the master enslaves himself.
For Dean, this is especially true. He, who has run amok the lowest partitions of society, holds true the paradox that only through oppression does a man find true freedom. In many instances the characters of the novel are entranced by the spontaneity and whites frowned upon expressiveness of Jazz, which was, at the time, considered a substandard form of art exclusively African American. To look different; to act different; to think different, these became the vague archetypes of subversion and godlessness (Johnston 105). “On the Road invites us to suppose that in America Blacks have been somehow “freer” than whites…as if suffering were a kind of gift” (Richardson 12). But Sal, too, believes that whites cannot find true meaning because of their capitalist lifestyles and materialistic tendencies. Too little culture and the corruption of capitalism, according to Sal, is what bogs whites down (Mortenson 2). Sal and Dean find solace in escapades in Mexico, jazz clubs, and on the streets of towns where a minority group has a majority presence.
This emphasis of minority freedom is epitomized in the novel when Sal develops a passionate, though brief relationship with a Mexican woman named Terry and even cares for her son while picking cotton to support his new family on a very meager wage for extremely tedious work. “I forgot all about the East and all about Dean and Carlo and the bloody road” (97).Yet, Sal does remember Dean; he begins to feel restless and abandons Terry at her family’s home. Sal, however, has independently experienced freedom (liberated of Dean’s influence) and this marks a profound change in his autonomy. From this point on in his journey as a character, Sal begins to muse over the endless warnings about Dean.
“Dean had gotten worse he [Old Bull Lee] had confided in me, ‘He seems to me to be headed for his ideal fate…psychopathic irresponsibility and violence…if you go…with this madman you’ll never make it’ (Kerouac 147). Sal has excuses ready for every wrong committed by Dean regardless of the severity of his actions. Everyone from Sal’s aunt to Dean’s own brother allude that to tread the road with Dean will result is disaster at the expense of the companion. “They said I really didn’t know Dean…he was the worst scoundrel that ever lived and I’d find out someday to my regret (Kerouac 196). Dean may be one path to fulfillment and adventure, yet the avant-garde bohemian is so erratic and unpredictable that there is no guarantee that he will maintain his interest in his companions.
Bohemianism, after all, claims no stability. It is a lifestyle characterized by spontaneity, anarchy, and “total obsession with one’s deepest impulses” (Newhouse 15). To be a bohemian in America was to embrace the hobo mystique. It is a renunciation of any bourgeois tendency in favor of a more rustic existence. One’s resources are not collected and stored: they are found on the road and must be searched for and earned. Sal and Dean often take off with little chattels and frequently do not even have a thought-out or even coherent plan for their adventure. Post-war American Bohemianism, in particular, makes use of earthly misappropriations to aid in the pursuit for higher consciousness.
Frequent drug use is persistent throughout the novel in an attempt by many characters to rise above the mundane realities of the world to achieve some higher truth. Many characters throughout the novel, not excluding Sal, experiment with the effects that drugs have on their consciousness. Usually, however, sexual promiscuity proves to be more rampant, with Dean as its veritable poster boy. By defying the conservative politesse aura of the decade; Dean engages in the taboo street life that so entrances Sal and other characters. Sal more or less is constantly defending Dean’s actions, regardless of how much he exploits and neglects his friends and responsibilities. “ ‘Criminality’ was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western ” (7). “For him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life” yet, “his relations with women are abusive and obtuse enough to…wonder” (Kerouac 2, Richardson 5). Dean’s fanatical, though admittedly fleeting, passions with various women explore the notions that sex offers a moment of ecstasy where a person can experience a ephemeral moment of understanding. When referring to his sexual escapades, Dean often describes molding his soul with the woman he finds himself in a relationship with.
The “road” is a character in its own right. It unites the East and West, yet is not linear in the literal sense of the word because it is often backtracked and re-routed. The characters frequently voyage their own separate ways though never really leave the same “road” because it “could remain a valid metaphor for freedom only if it led away from social entrapment to a new kind of fulfillment…[it] was allegorical, a quest for salvation that prevented the civilized man from achieving transcendence” (Newhouse 67). The road promises the potential for fulfillment and freedom regardless of direction and whose ideologies are most clearly translated in the character of Dean Moriarty.
“The ‘Beat Condition’ [was] characterized…[by] a ‘beatific stage’…marked by the attainment of vision and by the communication of that vision to the human community” (Johnston 104). Kerouac, like Buddhists, sought liberation and enlightenment through the process of suffering and self-denial of any material ties. However, the consequences of a person’s karmic actions only cease when all earthly attachments are renounced (Fisher 201). Sal discovers that Dean’s life is inculcated with attachments that create Karmic consequences. Though Dean repeatedly abandons people and places, he fails to do it out of selflessness. On the contrary, Dean freely deserts people just to achieve his own ends, creating a trail of destruction and neglect in his wake. “You have absolutely no regard for anybody buy [sic] your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside.” (Kerouac 194). In Buddhism, this lifestyle has cataclysmic Karmic repercussions, preventing the person from realizing true happiness until rebirth. Dean retains his perpetual characteristics throughout the novel and with his many wives, children, and followers shuffling behind him in his shadow craving his attentions and illuminations; Dean’s mania is wholly focused on finding “IT”.
Another critical ideology of Buddhism that the novel relates to is reincarnation. Buddhists believe that until Nirvana (enlightenment, or “IT”) has been attained, the “soul” will forever be reborn into different sentient forms. Sal, while wandering the streets after being abandoned by Dean, has an epiphany and believes he has glimpsed a view of his past lives:
I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back again are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and working up against a million times the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. (Kerouac 173)
This spiritual mystery, Sal believes, is epitomized in Dean. Sal exclaims, “He was BEAT-the root, the soul of Beatific…the HOLY GOOF…the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot (Kerouac194). Sal feels that Dean’s “sins” must be committed because it paves the way for the freedoms required to fully experience and absorb existence. To Sal, Dean was a spiritual leader whose insights into the truth of existence must be respected and emulated under his careful tutelages.
Ironically, the novel (though claiming Dean already possesses “IT”) never actually gives direct evidence of Dean’s spiritual enlightenment. The notion is neither clearly argued for or against. Dean’s great string of abuses in his quest may be interpreted as his lack of true understanding-he is often called a liar and a con man. Yet Sal in particular often claims that this freedom must be accompanied by these “abuses” because true freedom must not have any restrictions. In anarchy, Dean claims, lies true freedom. However, direct evidence of Sal’s transcendence is given:
And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows…and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness…innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. (Kerouac 173)
Sal, however, has the privilege of having had experienced both Dean’s world and his own that provides the right conditions for the primordial soup that becomes Sal’s great heroism. It leaves him free to find a medium between the madness and the mundane. Dean’s childhood never allowed for this.
Dean’s father is ever present throughout the characters’ journeys. He is a physical representation of Dean’s future if he continues down the path he travels. Dean’s symbolic demonstration of the ultimate ideal and manic, irrational franticness was, unlike Sal, imposed on him from birth. As a child growing up in the Great Depression, Dean never experienced stability, responsibility, or discipline. Kerouac believed in a “dispiriting portrait of a broken American home…that father does not know best” (Spangler 8). At a very young age, he is left to fend for himself-motherless and with an indifferent father living as a hobo. After one escapade on a train, an eleven- year-old Dean was left alone to look for work, “I was so starved for milk and cream I got a job in a dairy and the first thing I did I drank two quarts of heavy cream and puked” (Kerouac 140). As an adult, his views of minorities (including women) and his subsequent treatment of them were directly influenced by the fact that Dean had only ever associated with the dregs of the underworld as a result of his social placement dictated by birth. Dean never has a choice or a glimpse of another life. His attitude is a product of his environment, and he never has the luxury of the partiality of Sal. Sal has experienced securities and comforts that Dean never had. And though Dean represents how liberating complete freedom can be, Sal weighs the consequences of this freedom and decides that the overall cost remains too detrimental.
Ultimately, Dean Moriarty does succeed in finally alienating Sal by abandoning him in Mexico when Sal became too ill to continue in their frantic partying at a local whorehouse. “When I got better, I realized what a rat he was” (Kerouac 302). Yet Sal still defends Dean, claiming that Dean’s lifestyle dictate he had to leave to deal with his own problems. Sal’s quest for illumination began with an unassuming, uneventful life out East with his aunt and his novel. “Sal seems to understand the need for a civilizing influence; he wishes for a wife with whom he can share a peaceful life and leave behind the franticness of his youth with Dean”(Gair 59). His peaceable existence of security, conformity, and responsibility is shattered upon meeting and traveling with Dean Moriarty who opens Sal’s eyes up to the prospect of enlightenment and experience. Though Sal proves at times to be naïve to the point of blindness when it comes to Dean’s never-ending conning and manipulations, he breaks with the social ramifications of the day, emerging worldlier and more insightful in the process. On the road you belong to the world. Dean Moriarty’s escapades across America are allegorical: a pursuit for salvation that prevented the Eastern man from attaining transcendence. Through his adventures in both Dean’s world and his own past, Sal discovers the tools that allow him to find a median in his world of extremes and thus finally attains a spirituality that is the pan-ultimate of what Kerouac had once described as “beat”.
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