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On the Road | Study Guide

Jack Kerouac

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On the Road | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Why is Sal fascinated by rivers in On the Road, as illustrated in Part 1, Chapter 3, and Part 2, Chapter 6?

Rivers hold the same mystic power as open roads for Sal. Seeing his "beloved Mississippi River" for the first time in Part 1, Chapter 3 is an almost spiritual event for Sal, who breathes in "its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself," just like Route 66. At Bull Lee's house in Part 2, Chapter 6, Sal takes a walk in the woods and attempts to reach the river, but he is blocked by a fence. Sal, who seeks enlightenment through his relationship with nature, interprets the fence as a symbol for social restraints that inhibit individuals from experiencing truth. The river starts out as a symbol for the West but later embodies wild freedom. Rivers, like time, stream in one direction: forward.

How does Dean's character change over the course of On the Road?

On the surface it appears that Dean's character hasn't changed over the course of the novel. In the end, just as in the beginning, he lives as a selfish, womanizing cad who would abandon anyone he loves to pursue his next great adventure. The changes to his character are subtle. Physically, Dean changes from a strong and youthful specimen to a drug-addled and weak man who can barely speak. Although he doesn't fulfill society's expectations as a father and husband, by the end of the novel Dean is willing to work boring jobs to provide for his family. Whereas he started the novel relying solely on himself, at the end of the novel, he needs Sal's friendship.

How does the Beat movement affect children in On the Road?

Because the Beat movement values individual happiness and enlightenment while devaluing social norms and expectations, children such as Dodie Lee and Frankie's daughter, Janet, are often neglected. These children must largely raise themselves as their parents chase happiness and enlightenment through drug and alcohol abuse. Dean abandons his children completely and seemingly without a thought when the responsibilities of home life become too boring or "square" for him. On the darker side, children in the Beat movement are also seemingly more vulnerable to abuse. Dean, who chases momentary sexual gratification without considering consequences, regularly eyes young girls sexually. Although he never acts on those desires—or is never given the opportunity to—the girls' Beat parents are often too drunk or high to protect them.

When and for what purpose does Kerouac use stream-of-consciousness style in On the Road?

Stream-of-consciousness is a literary style in which sentences, thoughts, ideas, and scenes run together in a long, rambling flow. Kerouac uses this style when Sal is high, drunk, or excited, which gives the novel an exciting yet slightly confused energy, much like life on the road. Sal's narration while in an "altered state" is realistic, leaving readers to feel as if they are part of the party. Through the stream-of-consciousness narration, Kerouac is able to present the ugly and beautiful muddled together through Sal's rambling thoughts. It showcases Sal's confusion as he struggles to define himself through the first portions of the novel; notably, when he feels more established at the end of the novel, he no longer uses this flowing style.

Why is it significant that On the Road was censored and that Kerouac used pseudonyms?

Knowing that it took Kerouac six years to get the novel published helps define the society in which Kerouac lived and the social conventions he rebelled against. It is widely documented that Sal is a thinly veiled version of Kerouac himself, while other friends' identities are disguised through the use of pseudonyms in the novel, including Neal Cassady (Dean) and Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx). Kerouac claimed to have edited scenes out of fear of being sued by the sources of his real-life inspiration and because he knew publishers at the time would never release such provocative and potentially offensive materials. Kerouac's willingness to edit and censor his work undermines the novel's message of living in the moment and searching for truth in honest living.

How does the interaction with Hyman Solomon add to the religious tone in On the Road?

In Pennsylvania, Dean, Sal, and Marylou pick up a Jewish bum named Hyman Solomon "for kicks" because Dean is drawn to the man's eccentricity, even though he knows Solomon won't have any money to help fund their journey. Solomon has crisscrossed the country "kicking at Jewish doors and demanding money" from his community. They take Solomon as far as Testament. They hang around for two hours waiting for Solomon to return with his promised money, but he never shows up. Dean muses that Solomon, with his biblical name, has brought them to a biblical town so they'll realize God is real and entangled in everything they see and do. Hyman Solomon, like Dean and Sal, is also a wanderer. Readers may connect this wandering lifestyle to the many stories of wandering that are told in the Bible.

How does the trip to Mexico in Part 4, Chapters 5 and 6, function as the climax to On the Road?

Sal and Dean have spent the entire novel searching for true freedom and for a place where they can live within the moment without considering the past that brought them there or the future that lies before them. Mexico serves as the setting for this realization: fueled by drugs and wild sex with prostitutes, the pair lives a truly "Beat" existence by living in the moment. In the jungle village, Sal, who is covered in bugs and blood, becomes one with nature as he breathes in the hot air. Rather than just admiring nature from the outside, it enters Sal and mixes with his soul. Mexico is also the place where Dean abandons Sal, who finally sees Dean's true character.

How does On the Road treat outsiders?

Being an outsider is a valued trait for the characters in On the Road, particularly if one is an outsider from traditional social conventions. Living the Beat life means living outside of societal norms, which are viewed as boring or "square." The Beat outsiders cluster together, creating a tight circle of friends who travel and explore together. While on the road, Sal is an outsider from most groups. First he is a naive traveler, not fully integrated into the hitchhiking community. He is an outsider with the migrant workers, Okies, and security guards he encounters in his first and second journeys. The only place Sal really belongs is with Dean, who also lives as an outsider—outside of the group of friends, outside the law, outside of the family circle, outside of societal norms, and so on. It is interesting, then, that these outsiders aren't more compassionate to other outsiders, such as homosexuals and racial minorities. For the characters in the novel, being an outsider is "cool" as long as one has the financial means to return to normal society at will.

How does Sal's relationship with random travelers change over the course of On the Road?

When Sal takes his first cross-country journey, he is eager to prove himself as a Beat while he travels from New York to Denver. As he hitchhikes from Chicago to Colorado, he begins meeting random travelers who pick up on his "greenness" or inexperience on his own. Some travelers, like Montana Slim and Eddie, take advantage of his good nature, taking what they can from Sal while offering nothing but false companionship in return. Sal, desperate to be accepted into this wandering culture, gives freely of everything he has. As he matures on the road, Sal is able to avoid tricksters who seek to take advantage of him. He also matures from student of the road to teacher, as seen in his interaction with Henry Glass, doling out sound advice for Glass's success and protecting him from danger while on the road.

How are mothers portrayed in On the Road?

Mothers are portrayed in a variety of different ways in On the Road, but their defining characteristic is their desire to provide for their children, which they achieve with varying degrees of success. Terry and Frankie, working-class moms, both travel across the country searching for work to provide better lives for their children. Camille and Inez stay home, struggling to build stable lives for their children while Dean flits across the country, abandoning them at every turn. Jane Lee, despite her terrible drug abuse, often stays home to "be responsible for" her two children. Sal's aunt, who functions as a parent for him, can always be counted on to wire him money and offer food and stability whenever he returns to New York.

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