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On the Road | Study Guide

Jack Kerouac

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On the Road | Symbols


The Road

The road is the purest symbol for freedom in the novel. When Sal is on the road, he's free to pursue any dream, participate in any experience, and to travel anywhere the road goes. The ultimate road for him is Route 66, which stretches from one side of the country to the other. For most members of the Beat Generation, the road only stretches forward, meaning the travelers always pursue their next adventure without considering the consequences to their families or heartbroken partners whom they leave behind.

The Shrouded Traveler

Sal frequently dreams about a "strange Arabic figure" that haunts him, propelling him to keep traveling. At first, Sal assumes the traveler represents death, whether physical death or the "death" of adhering to "square" social expectations. Enjoying personal freedom is, after all, Sal's motivating factor in hitting the open road. Later, however, Sal realizes that the shrouded traveler is actually Dean, suggesting that Dean's wild energy is the impetus to Sal's restless cross-country travels.


Dean measures the aspects of his journeys in terms of time. He allocates minutes for sex and hours for driving. In contrast, Sal measures things in terms of distance. He is a certain number of miles from home or he has this many miles left to drive until he arrives at his destination. That is, until Sal finds himself standing in the very literal Times Square in New York, a setting that gives time a geographical placement, just as Sal realizes that he is running out of time because death is the inevitable end of the life journey.


Throughout the novel, many characters experience strange visions and hallucinations. Sal dreams of the shrouded traveler, Ed dreams of ghosts, and Dean dreams of the white horse. Sal experiences a nervous breakdown in which time swirls and he sees himself in different eras with different mothers and experiences. While all of the visions suggest a symbolic meaning, they are hardly explored or discussed in the text. These visions highlight the altered reality members of the Beat Generation sought to inhabit by experimenting with drugs, alcohol, sex, and travel.

Questions for Symbols

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