Real Name: Jack Kerouac (photo)
What Happened to Jack?
Before you start any analysis or discussion of Big Sur, check out Kerouac's author's note at the start of the text. You can also see what Shmoop has to say about it on our "What's Up with the Epigraph?" page. With this information in mind – that we should read Big Sur as largely autobiographical, and that we should think about Jack Duluoz in the context of Kerouac's other works and other alter-egos – we can start in on the good stuff.
The first thing we notice when we dig into this novel is that we're dealing with a Jack Kerouac who is very different from what we've seen in the past or what we know to be Jack's public persona. This Kerouac (as represented by Jack Duluoz) is older, more cynical, and jaded. In On the Road, Sal Paradise (a.k.a. Kerouac) was excited for life. In Big Sur, Jack Duluoz has "done it all, seen it all, done everything with everybody" (31.7). "O the sad music of it all," he laments (31.7). "I'm sick of life—" he says, "If I had any guts I'd drown myself in [the] tiresome water" (34.4). In On the Road, traveling held the thrill of adventure, of new people, and new possibilities. Look at what Jack has to say about the road now:
I realize I'm just a silly stranger goofing with other strangers for no reason far away from anything that ever mattered to me whatever that was—always an ephemeral "visitor" to the Coast never really involved with anyone's lives because I'm always ready to fly back across the country, but not to any life of my own on the other end either, just a traveling stranger. (33.4)
What's responsible for this change? What happened to Jack? We'd be lying if we said drugs and alcohol didn't play a big part here. Jack Duluoz's character (and Kerouac's death) show that drug and alcohol abuse doesn't take long to kill a person. The paranoia, shaking, and sickness that Jack describes in the novel are real symptoms of delirium tremens, the body's reaction to alcohol withdrawal. We're talking about damage caused by serious drinking for days or weeks on end as a regular habit for years at a time. Here's Jack's description of this horrible condition:
Any drinker knows how the process works: the first day you get drunk is okay, the morning after means a big head but so you can kill that easy with a few more drinks and a meal, but if you pass up the meal and go on to another night's drunk, and wake up to keep the toot going, and continue on to the fourth day, there'll come one day when the drinks wont take effect because you're chemically overloaded and you'll have to sleep it off but cant sleep any more because it was alcohol itself that made you sleep those last five nights, so delirium sets in – Sleeplessness, sweat, trembling, a groaning feeling of weakness where your arms are numb and useless, nightmares, (nightmares of death)... (14.4)
You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there's on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud – In fact it's actually a cancerous look you throw on the world, through browngray wool fuds over your eyes – Your tongue is white and disgusting, your teeth are stained, your hair seems to have dried out overnight, there are huge mucks in the corners of your eyes, greases on your nose, froth at the sides of your mouth: […] The only thing to do is turn over and lie face down and weep – The mouth is so blasted there's not even a chance to gnash the teeth -- There's not even strength to tear the hair. (21.13)
In addition to the physical problems of drinking are the mental and emotional consequences. Jack feels shame over his illness. When he first goes mad on the beach in Chapter Twenty-One it is "with double upon double horror" that he realizes Ron was there to witness his breakdown (21.16). When the others prepare dinner during the third trip to Big Sur, Jack is shamefully aware of his own lack of productivity, identifying himself as "the useless pioneer who doesn't do anything to help the men or please the women, the idiot in the wagon train who nevertheless has to be fed" (36.4). "[I'm] the only person in the world who is devoid of humanbeingness, damn it," he writes (35.2). At the culmination of his paranoia and delirium he's terrified that Elliot might be awake and watching. Even the next morning, he won't go on a walk anywhere where he might be spotted by passing tourists. It's not just his actions, but his words that confirm this:
Anybody who's never had delirium tremens […] may not understand that it's not so much a physical pain but a mental anguish […] so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother […], you've betrayed every effort your father ever made […], you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil. (21.13)
And yet, later, Jack writes of his guilt: "[It's not so much that I'm a drunkard that I feel guilty about but that others who occupy this plane of 'life on earth' with me don't feel guilty at all […]. I feel guilty for being a member of the human race" (31.1). This brings us to another point in the "Ways That Jack Has Changed" checklist: he has become a bit of a misanthrope. Just a bit, and only sometimes, but Jack reveals a cynical attitude toward America and Americans that we never saw in On the Road. Consider his description of the passing tourists in Chapter Ten:
Things have changed in America, you cant get a ride any more […]. Sleek long stationwagon after wagon comes sleering by smoothly […], the husband is in the driver's seat with a long ridiculous vacationist hat […] making him look witless and idiot -- Besides him sits wifey, the boss of America, wearing dark glasses and sneering, even if he wanted to pick me up or anybody up she wouldn't let him -- But in the two deep backseats are children, children, millions of children, all ages, they're fighting and screaming over ice cream, they're spilling vanilla all over the Tartan seatcovers. (10.3)
And that's the short version. This is only the first part of a rant that leaves Jack looking incredibly judgmental. Jack condemns the general population and identifies himself as separate from it. "They see in me the very apotheosical opposite of their every vacation dream," he writes. "And of course [they] drive on – That afternoon I say about five thousand cars or probably three thousand passed me not one of them ever dreamed of stopping" (10.3). Even his friends are subjected to this sort of judgment and condemnation, as seen time and time again in Jack's paranoid delusions. Recall that he wonders if he friends are trying to poison him, or drive him mad. We should also consider Jack's motives for deliberately bringing Billie to meet Evelyn – why does he want to punish his friend Cody this way? Is it sheer curiosity or is something else going on here? A dark question, certainly, but Big Sur is full of thoughts like these.
Before we condemn Jack, let's appreciate that this character is full of contradictions, dualities, and complexities. Sometimes he's negative and jaded, but other times he truly marvels at the beauty of the world. We were struck in particular by this passage here, which encapsulates the many sides of Jack Duluoz:
I see it all raving before me the endless yakking kitchen mouthings of life, the long dark grave of tomby talks under midnight kitchen bulbs, in fact it fills me with love to realize that life so avid and misunderstood nevertheless reaches out skinny skeleton hand to me and to Billie too – But you know what I mean. (33.1)
This duality extends to the way Jack feels about people. Sometimes he's consumed by paranoia, but just as often he's loving and appreciative. This tension between the desperate need to be alone and the desperate desire to be around others is at the heart of Big Sur. Take a look at Chapter Twenty-Three; right after Jack concludes that he's desecrating Big Sur by bringing others there, McLear shows up, and he writes:
Pat and I are in a serious talkative mood and I feel that lonely shiver in my chest which always warns me: you actually love people and you're glad Pat is here. (23.1)
We see the same flip-flopping at the extremes of Jack's delirium in Chapter Thirty-Seven, when he says of Elliot:
He's a warlock disguised as a little boy, he's also destroying Billie! – I get up to look at him feeling guilty too realizing this is all nonsense probably but he is not properly covered, his little bare arms are outside the blankets in the cold night, he hasn't even got a nightshirt, I curse at Billie – 1 cover him up and he whimpers. (37.2)
The same duality is reflected in the cyclic nature of Jack's alcoholism, and in the bouts of elation-depression that accompany his drinking. Consider the novel's ending: ten pages of horror-driven delusion that end with the image of golden heaven, and with the conclusion that everything will be fine. It's no surprise, then, that Jack repeats throughout the course of his novel, "I can't understand what's going on." Even in retrospect, and in the acts of writing and reflecting, Jack admits, "I still can't understand it."
Jack and Literature
Much of Jack's confusion stems from his new perspective on what he does for a living. We can never forget that Jack is a writer. Until the turmoil of his alcoholism and delirium tremens, Jack was content to write, read, study, and learn. In the latter half of Big Sur, however, Jack looks back at what he's done with his life – even at what he's done in the last few weeks – and thinks it's silly in retrospect. "You fool," he tells himself, "you happy kid with a pencil, don't you realize you've been using words as a happy game?" (34.3). He soon adds, "I realize I've been playing like a happy child with words words words in a big serious tragedy" (34.8). Faced with the enormity of an overwhelming, contradictory world, Jack concludes that writing can't possible capture the complexities of life. "We're stuck with a 50% incomplete literature and drama," he decides; "writing's just an afterthought or a scratch anyway at the surface" (26.6, 25.3).
The conclusion that literature is rubbish, is a problematic position for a writer. Jack is faced with more than an identity crisis – he's faced with a spiritual one. If writing is a fruitless endeavor, what purpose is there to his existence? Or, as Jack asks: "If I don't write what actually I see happening in this unhappy globe which is rounded by the contours of my deathskull I think I'll have been sent on earth by poor God for nothing" (31.1).
Jack even feels guilty about the writing he's done in the past. "You said in 1957 in the grass drunk on whiskey you were the greatest thinker in the world," Ben Fagan reminds him. "That was before I fell asleep and woke up: now I realize I'm no good at all," responds Jack (30.3).
Later, Jack remembers this quote from Milarepa: "When the various experiences come to light in meditation, do not be proud and anxious to tell other people […]," and then he reflects: "Here I am a perfectly obvious fool American writer doing just that" (31.3). Maybe he deserves to suffer, he wonders, for writing about the suffering of others. It gets so bad he even concludes, "Books, shmooks, this sickness has got me wishing if I can ever get out of this I'll gladly become a millworker and shut my big mouth" (37.5).
Which leads us to an overwhelming question: why is Jack writing Big Sur? What could have changed between the crisis in Chapter Thirty-Seven and when Jack began writing the novel? To answer this question, think about the relationship between Jack-in-the-story and Jack-writing-the-story. (For more on this connection, check out our section on "Narrator Point-of-View," where we discuss the combination of perspective and immediacy found in the narrative voice.)
As the narrator is reflecting on his time at Big Sur, he knows from the beginning what's going to happen at the end. But there's an immediacy to his narration, in that he's still caught up in the emotions and confusion of six week period narrated in the story. "I don't understand what happened at Big Sur even now" he explains in Chapter Thirty-Seven. In the final Chapter Thirty-Eight, he reiterates: "I still can't understand it. Most of all I cant understand the miraculousness of the silence."
This lack of understanding suggests a possible motive for the novel. Just as his initial trip to Big Sur represents a process of self-examination for Jack Duluoz, the act of writing of Big Sur may be a similar act of self-examination for Jack Kerouac. Or it could be less about the self and more about others – maybe Big Sur is an attempt to explain an often misunderstood illness. After all, many times during the course of the novel Jack reminds us that those who don't drink can't understand what he's going through. Take a look at this passage:
And I realize the unbearable anguish of insanity: how uninformed people can be thinking insane people are "happy," O God, in fact it was Irwin Garden once warned me not to think the madhouses are full of "happy nuts," "There's a tightening around the head that hurts, there's a terror of the mind that hurts even more, they're so unhappy and especially because they cant explain it to anybody or reach out and be helped through all the hysterical paranoia they are really suffering more than anyone in the world and I think in the universe in fact." (36.6)
There is something to be said for the simple need to explain oneself to others. This takes us back to Jack's tension between wanting to be alone and needing to be around others. The latter desire for companionship is tied to the basic need to be understood.
Finally to the novel's closing line: "There's no need to say another word." Again, think about the difference between Jack-the-narrator and Jack-in-the-story. For Jack-in-the-story, there is more to say, there is more to figure out, there is more to understand. But Jack-the-narrator has just written the novel of his experiences, and he has explored the events at Big Sur. He might not understand them, still, but he's gone some way in explaining them to his readers. There's no need to say another word now that the novel is complete.