What’s Up With the Ending?
The last two chapters of Big Sur deliver what the novel has promised for the last 200 pages or so: a detailed account of Jack's breakdown on the night of September 3rd, 1960. In fact, the novel has been building towards this moment. Certain events have been accomplished in the novel: the scenery of Big Sur has "changed and become sinister" as Jack said it would; the "signposts" of madness and of mortality have culminated in their expected climaxes (Jack's breakdown and the coffin-shaped grave, respectively); the novel's structure is completed by a third and final visit to Big Sur, which with the initial solitary visit effectively bookends the novel; and Jack's cyclic alcoholism has completed its final episode of madness-sleep-optimism. The ending does a lot of work for the novel as a whole.
So in this sense, the novel's ending is everything we expect it to be. As far as mood and tone go, however, we're a little shocked by the optimistic ending to this dark tale. Jack has just spent ten-or-so pages exploring in horrible, visceral detail the delirious nightmares of his worst mental breakdown. If you missed it, think phrases like "human-formed vultures" with "pizza puke faces" "slowly fornicating" "on the town dump"; an "Orgy with still dozens of uncooked chickens lying around on the floor" in "big stinky emptiness and horror" (37.2). Jack does battle with devils and personal demons; he has a searing vision of the cross; he imagines the landscape at Sur is screaming unintelligible babble in his direction. And then, all of a sudden:
I sit there in the hot sun and close my eyes: and there's the golden swarming peace of Heaven in my eyelids -- It comes with a sure hand a soft blessing as big as it is beneficent, i.e., endless -- I've fallen asleep. […] Blessed relief has come to me from just that minute -- Everything has washed away -- I'm perfectly normal again […] -- I'm sitting smiling in the sun, the birds sing again, all's well again. […] Just a golden wash of goodness has spread over all and over all my body and mind -- All the dark torture is a memory – […] I'll take Billie home, […] she wont commit no suicide or do anything wrong […], Romana's life will go on, old Dave will manage somehow, I'll forgive them and explain everything […] It'll all be like it was in the beginning -- Simple golden eternity blessing all -- Nothing ever happened -- Not even this -- […] The little boy will grow up and be a great man... There'll be farewells and smiles -- My mother'll be waiting for me glad -- The corner of the yard where Tyke is buried will be a new and fragrant shrine making my home more homelike somehow -- On soft Spring nights I'll stand in the yard under the stars -- Something good will come out of all things yet And it will be golden and eternal just like that. (38.8-11)
Did Jack really dismiss 200 pages of hallucinatory ranting, nightmares, delirium tremens, self-hatred, guilt, and alcoholism with a "Look on the bright side" conclusion? Is this ending in any way justified, given the dark desperation that characterizes the rest of the novel?
It night be that the contrast here isn't so much a contradiction in mood as a well-expressed duality. After all, Big Sur is driven by the elation-depression cycle of Jack's drinking bouts. Jack's own writing is defined by this tension between awe at the beauty of the world and overwhelming sadness at his inability to express it. His character is defined by the very same dichotomy of despair and awe. Do we have reason to believe that it really ends here, in the golden sunshine of sleep on the porch in Big Sur? Or is it likely that, back in the city, Jack will embark on yet another week-long drinking binge, meet up with another woman, start another affair, return to his state of paranoia, and end up back on a beach somewhere listening to the ocean's angry words?
Regardless, the conclusion of Big Sur tells us a lot about Kerouac and what he wanted his novel to be. It's remarkable that, in the midst of his alcoholism and delirium tremens (because Kerouac was still sick in the same way while writing Big Sur), he identified this sense of hope and chose to end his novel with it. Kerouac likely knew better than anyone that if Duluoz was to act in accordance with his real-life alter ego, the peace found on the porch of Monsanto's cabin was fleeting at best. But it didn't matter – Kerouac still ends the novel with the "golden swarming peace of Heaven."