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On the Road | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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How does Sal's attitude toward Dean change over the course of On the Road?

When Sal first meets Dean, he thinks Dean is a poser or "wannabe" intellectual. Nevertheless, he has a strange regard for him as "a sideburned hero of the snowy West." Later, Sal travels to Denver specifically to be near Dean. As they travel the road together, Sal and Dean fight regularly, particularly after their second journey. As time passes, though, Sal recognizes that Dean is viewed as an idiot, failure, and "goof" by the rest of their friends. Sal, however, elevates Dean, even comparing him to God. By the end of the novel, Sal sees Dean as a wonderful companion with whom he has shared many experiences, but he also understands that they have grown apart. There is no longer a place for Dean in Sal's life as he has grown up and changed, while Dean has remained the same.

How does On the Road treat homosexuality?

Homosexuality in On the Road receives conflicting treatment. Sal is somewhat homophobic, calling homosexual men "fags" and secretly making fun of their mannerisms and cars. He and Dean are happy to use gay men for rides and even attempt to swindle money from one man, but they continue to disparage them. Carlo, however, who is one of their best friends, is "out" and proud. Both Sal and Dean form close relationships with him, and in parties fueled by drugs and sex, there is no mention of dislike for Carlo's sexual preferences. There are scenes in which Carlo and Dean are in bed together, and even a scene in which Dean and Sal, along with Marylou, share a bed. The novel suggests that homosexual behavior is fine when fueled by a party atmosphere but is not acceptable as a lifestyle.

How do Dean and Sal's treatment of women in On the Road compare and contrast?

Through most of the novel, both Dean and Sal treat women as sexual objects to be won and enjoyed. One of their reasons for crisscrossing the country and visiting various cities is to pursue new women. Neither is really interested in a long-term, equal partnership with a woman, and both create false relationships with women that ultimately let them down—Sal with Terry and Lucille; and Dean with Marylou, Camille, and Inez. Sal, however, wants to be a good partner. He wants to be a good lover, to be respected and admired by women, and to make women's lives better. Through much of the novel he is too immature to come through, however, and leaves all his women disappointed. Dean, on the other hand, is out to please himself. He doesn't consider, or care about, the consequences of his romantic adventures. By the end of the novel, Dean's romantic life is still in shambles, while Sal has grown and created a more substantive and perhaps longer-lasting relationship with Laura.

Which of Dean's three wives in On the Road is the best match for him and why?

Dean marries three women during the narrative of On the Road and has children with two of them. The reader learns very little about Inez, his third wife, except that she regularly converses with Camille, Dean's second wife, and that Dean leaves her on their wedding night. Camille offers Dean the most stability. She has the highest expectations of him, demanding that he remain faithful to her and be a contributing member of their growing family. It is with Camille that Dean settles at the end of the novel, although not happily. However, it is Marylou, Dean's first wife, who appears to be the best match for him. She seems to know him best, understands his personal history, and is most forgiving of his infidelity, recognizing that he will not change.

What role does Sal's aunt play in On the Road?

Sal's aunt provides him with security, both financially and emotionally. Between each journey, Sal returns to her home in New Jersey where he eats well, sleeps in a comfortable bed, and writes. Whenever Sal experiences hardship or a setback, his aunt bails him out. She appears to be nonjudgmental of his lifestyle and gives him room to explore his identity, although she remains wary of Dean's influence. In this way, Sal's aunt prevents him from fully experiencing the Beat lifestyle, as Dean is forced to do, because she offers a traditional, stable home and respite from the grind of life on the road.

How does On the Road glorify criminal behavior?

On the Road is often criticized for its glorification of illegal and criminal behavior, particularly its portrayal of drug and alcohol abuse. Dean, an ex-convict and career criminal, is treated as a hero in the novel. He steals cars without compunction, including a spree of theft during his third cross-country journey. While he drives, he regularly breaks speed and road laws, and the police officers who pull him over are portrayed as "squares" who threaten the pure freedom of his experiences. While on the road, the characters' regular theft of gasoline, cigarettes, and food is viewed as charming and acceptable behavior. There is never a hint that the narrator, Sal, ever considers this behavior wrong or inappropriate.

How does the lifestyle of "Okies" and migrant workers in On the Road compare to the Beat lifestyle?

Like members of the Beat Generation, "Okies" live life on the road. Okies are poor, white migrant workers, typically from Oklahoma or nearby states, who travel from place to place looking for work. The term, much like the term Beat, is somewhat derogatory. The main difference between the two lifestyles is that the Beats choose to be on the road, while Okies have been forced into their travels by the Great Depression. Despite the comparisons, members of the Beat Generation are dismissive of Okies (such as Frankie) and speak disrespectfully about them—perhaps because Beats think of themselves as intellectuals, while Okies are "just" physical laborers.

How is heaven represented in On the Road?

On the Road is often viewed as a novel about enlightenment, and Kerouac openly discussed how he wrote it as spiritual novel. Characters like Sal and Dean are happiest when on the open road. To them the freedom to explore is like heaven. Sal feels most spiritual when he is in nature. The forces of freedom and nature collide when the pair visit Mexico, a land overflowing with exotic nature and free exploration of drugs and women. At the same time, the travelers have the freedom of a strong currency and an understanding police force. They enter Mexico as if they are entering the "Promised Land."

What is the significance of the white horse in Part 4, Chapter 6 of On the Road?

The white horse symbolizes Sal's connection with nature. Sal first describes his dreams of the white horse during his second cross-country journey—long after he discussed his desire to be "at one" with nature while picking cotton in California. While on the road, Sal is not content to visit heavily populated cities merely to party—he is much happier when enmeshed in nature, such as in the opera town near Denver or the Mexican jungle. The symbolism is solidified in Mexico after Sal sleeps on the metal roof of the car, covered in bugs and blood. That night he and Dean both have the same dream or vision involving the same white horse, suggesting that through nature they have transcended reality and finally reached self-enlightenment.

How are police officers represented in On the Road?

For the most part, police officers in On the Road are viewed as "square" forces charged with enforcing lame social expectations and bent on destroying freedom of expression. All the officers who pull Dean over for speeding, for example, are vilified for ruining the trip, while Dean, the one breaking the laws, remains the novel's tortured hero. The same is true of the officers at the barracks where Sal and Remi work. Those who break rules by drinking and stealing are cast as the "cool kids," while those who take their jobs seriously are cast as "squares." The only exception to the negative representation of police are the Mexican officers who, despite questioning the travelers, let them carry on. This support of the travelers' freedom is one reason why they view Mexico as the Promised Land.

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