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On the Road

On the Road

by Jack Kerouac

On the Road Themes

Little Words, Big Ideas

Dissatisfaction

In On the Road, restlessness and the resulting motion are tied up with the madness of the Beat Generation. The need to move comes from dissatisfaction. Most interesting is motion through time vs. m...

Sadness

In Sal's eyes, sadness is everywhere in America. He sees it in people, places, and in his own dreams. Most of all, sadness is tied to solitude. Sal feels worst when he is unable to connect to those...

Madness

In On the Road, madness it the main source of Sal’s idolatry of Dean. While he himself cannot achieve the madness of his hero, Sal is fascinated and follows Dean around because of it. While m...

Admiration

Sal’s chooses Dean as his hero because of Dean’s madness, holiness, and vitality. In his hero, Sal recognizes the ability to act in a way he admires but knows he cannot imitate. Because...

Drugs and Alcohol

In On the Road, we see different kinds of alcohol use, including abuse and alcoholism in Dean’s missing father. Both drug and alcohol use can be sources of money problems and poverty, as char...

Sex

While these are often separate themes, the characters in On the Road fail to distinguish between love and sex, sex and marriage, lust and love. Dean marries or wants to marry every girl he lusts af...

Time

Time is a big deal in On the Road. As it ticks away, characters feel an impending sense of franticness, a fear of death, and a need to move and beat time. "Knowing time" is tied up in the word "bea...

Friendship

In On the Road, we get a glimpse into a friendship based on hero-worship. Sal puts Dean on a pedestal, and in doing so later struggles to feel equal with his friend. The two become uncomfortable wh...

Spirituality

Holiness is one of the sources of Sal’s idolatry for Dean. It becomes Dean’s distinguishing characteristic, making him unique from common criminals. Holiness is part of the Beat Generat...

Art and Culture

In On the Road, the music we focus on is jazz, more specifically the American bebop of the 1940’s. Music has religious associations, as Dean sees several musicians as God. It brings about a m...

Visions of America

Sal views America though many different lenses, characterizing the country by its use of alcohol, its sadness, the relationships between men and women, American music (jazz), and the poverty he see...

Contrasting Regions

In On the Road, the West becomes a symbol for childhood dreams and ideals, a haven of cowboys and heroes. Sal is disappointed by the West, however, and at one point characterizes it as empty and th...

Criminality

Much of On the Road contains anti-police sentiments. Since we as readers are sympathetic to the criminals, we take a side against the law enforcement, and the police are explicitly insulted for bei...

Poverty

Poverty seems to be everywhere in the American that Sal sees. He meets homeless men on the side of the road and musicians playing for money. Sal even experiences poverty first hand as he travels. A...

Versions of Reality

Dreams in On the Road are often religious in nature, featuring God (in odd forms) or Biblical imagery (such as a snake). We see hallucinations both as the result of drugs or physical extremity, but...

Wisdom and Knowledge

In On the Road, much of learning is a spiritual process. Sal watches Dean reach his "Tao decisions" as he advances spiritually, and frequently speaks of "the word" or a "pearl of wisdom" coming to...

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