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Themes

Like that other classic of Beat literature, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Howl celebrates personal freedom and breaking free from social norms. Travel is one means of acquiring freedom, the characters in Howl do just as much globetrotting and cross-country road-tripping as Kerouac's Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. The second and third sections of the poem deal with confinement. Moloch is the god of prisons, governments, and boring suburbia, while Rockland represents the mental and physical confinement of the mental institutions.

Questions About Freedom and Confinement

  1. Do you think this poem and the subsequent obscenity trial helped pave the way for the sexual revolution in the 1960s? What role do sex and sexuality play in the search for freedom?
  2. Where do you find examples of physical confinement in Howl, and where do you find examples of mental confinement? Is there a clear line dividing these two kinds of confinement?
  3. What's the speaker's beef with psychiatric hospitals? Does he really think that all the patients inside these hospitals should be released? Is he just being provocative?
  4. What role do travel and road-trips play in the search for freedom? If you've read Jack Kerouac's On the Road, how does this poem compare?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Although Moloch stands for prisons and government, these are portrayed as mental barriers in the poem, rather than physical ones.

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