Study Guide

Big Sur Analysis

  • Tone

    Dark, Melancholy, Confused

    You don't need to read beyond the first chapter of Big Sur to determine that this is a dark novel. The first half of the first sentence sets the tone:

    The church is blowing a sad windblown 'Kathleen' on the bells in the skid row slums as I wake up all woebegone and goopy, groaning from another drinking bout and groaning most of all because I'd ruined my 'secret return' to San Francisco by getting silly drunk while hiding in the alleys with bums." (1.1)

    For a novel that deals with delirium tremens, mental and spiritual breakdowns, and severe alcoholism, this beginning is to be expected. As far as our label of "confused" goes, remember that Jack may be writing in reflection, but that doesn't mean that he fully understands what happened. In fact, he makes a point of telling his readers, explicitly, several times, that he still doesn't get what went on in Big Sur (more on that in "Narrator Point of View"). This confusion is reflected in the novel's tone. Jack isn't some enlightened guy looking back on the foolish days of his youth; he writes with an immediacy that keeps the waters – and the tone – just a bit murky.

  • Genre

    Roman à clef

    What can make Big Sur seem tricky to classify is the fact that it's a fictional novel, but based on the real events of a six week period in Kerouac's life, and the real people who surround him. This combination means we're dealing with a Roman à clef; technically fiction, but also thinly veiled autobiography. Kerouac makes no attempt to hide the fact that he's writing about what really happened. In fact, his introductory Author's Note (see "What's Up With the Epigraph?") reminds us to keep this in mind as we read. He explicitly refers to his other works and the part that the characters in Big Sur played in them. You'll see many passages like this one:

    I can see Dave Wain really loves him at once, and Stanley Popovich too who's come along on this trip just to meet the fabled "Dean Moriarty" – The name I give Cody in "On the Road." (13.2)

    Kerouac's not trying to play any clever, meta-fictional games, nor raise questions about the "fourth wall" – he's just being honest. This is a real account of what happened.

    That being said, we can't forget that Big Sur is a work of literary fiction. This means that while the events and people are real, Jack can apply an authorial hand to their rendering. What does this mean? Big Sur has the structure and technique of a real novel, and it shows off brilliant literary prowess on Kerouac's part.

    For an example, take a look at Chapter One. This chapter is a reflection of real events. Kerouac did wake up drunk and alone in a hotel room in San Francisco. But look at how the first chapter is structured and written. First sentence: "The church is blowing a sad windblown 'Kathleen on the bells'" (1.1). The first words of the narrative are "the church." Do you think spirituality is going to be important in this novel? The song being played is a sad one. Does this perhaps introduce the novel's tone? Now look at the last few lines of Chapter One. Jack hears "the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below, 'Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality'" (1.1) We started with "sad," we end with "lachrymose." We start with the church; we end with Satan. Jack's already hearing accusations of alcoholism and feeling the pangs of Catholic guilt over his destructive habit.

    And we've only looked at three lines in detail so far. There is a huge amount of detail packed into the literary rendering of these real-life events. It would be a mistake to assume that because the novel is autobiographical, it can't be literary, or to claim as Truman Capote did, that Kerouac's prose is typing and not writing. Because the novel is technically fiction, Kerouac has the freedom to mold certain details to meet his literary needs. The full moon, for example, fell on the night of September 5th in 1960; Jack writes that it falls on September 3rd, perhaps because the presence of a full moon is the ideal eerie setting for a night of delirium. If you want more examples, try tracing specific images or "signposts" throughout the novel. Start with the flying saucer or the bat overhead in Monsanto's cabin. These are all the result of deliberate structuring; the prose may be grammatically without form, but such fluidity isn't at the expense of the novel's good form.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Big Sur is a coastal region of central California, featuring mountains at the edge of the sea. The result is a beautiful but terrifying series of cliffs that drop straight down into the ocean, a little bit like this. In the novel, narrator Jack Duluoz (alter ego for Jack Kerouac) takes three trips to Big Sur to stay in the cabin of his friend, Lorenzo Monsanto (alter ego for Lawrence Ferlinghetti). This physical setting has metaphorical and thematic implications for the novel as a whole, which we talk about in detail in our discussion of "Setting."

  • 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."

  • Setting

    San Francisco and Big Sur, California, with trips to Monterey and Los Gatos, July 25 to September 3, 1960

    From biographical information we know that the morning Jack wakes up in San Francisco, the date is July 25, 1960. In the novel Jack writes that he will go mad "on the fullmoon night of 3 September." In retrospect, Jack either got his dates mixed up or altered the night of the full moon to suit his literary purposes: in 1960 the full moon fell on September 5th and not September 3rd.

    What we do know is that the setting of Big Sur is extremely important to the text; we know this because of the not-so-subtle title of the novel. This makes us ask a question: what does Big Sur mean to Jack?

    When the novel begins, Monsanto's cabin in the woods offers a chance to get away from the bustling city and the people in it. Jack first calls it "a refuge" (1.1) and then "an escape" (2.1), and the famous line "one fast move or I'm gone" (2.1) makes it clear that heading to the woods is as much about running away as it is about running towards. In Jack's "Character Analysis" we talk about his need for time alone, his self-imposed isolation, and the peace he finds while in solitude at Big Sur. Jack is seeking all of this – isolation, peace and solitude – in Monsanto's cabin.

    As soon as Jack arrives at Raton Canyon, we see that Big Sur also has metaphorical significance – maybe not what Jack Duluoz has in mind, but certainly what Kerouac is driving at in his novel. (This represents more of that autobiography meets literary technique that we discuss in "Genre.") The ledge of the canyon appears to Jack "a thousand feet" high "with a sheer drop sometimes" (3.1). As we know from his repeated references, Jack himself is hovering on the edge of insanity, about to fall. (Keep in mind that Jack continually promises his reader that he will fall before the end of the novel). Big Sur is a scary, dangerous, and foreboding place; a complimentary setting for the story of a man six weeks away from a paranoiac, delirious breakdown.

    The temporal setting of Big Sur is also important. Jack is tired of his image as "the King of the Beats" because the concept of the Beat Generation is no longer exciting. It's been popularized – the counter-culture movement has become mainstream. Jack writes of Ron Blake, "He comes on with that tiresome hipster approach that was natural 5 or 10 or even 25 years ago but now in 1960 is a pose." Jack is also dealing with the large-scale social changes he sees around him. The America of Big Sur is bigger, colder, less friendly than that of On the Road. "You can't get a ride anymore," he writes (10.3).

    Speaking of transformations, think about the way the scenery of Big Sur changes along with Jack's mood during the course of the novel. Compare his deceptions during his first visit alone to his visions in Chapter Thirty-Seven. The contrast doesn't escape our author, either:

    So I make supper with a happy song and go out in the foggy moonlight […] and marveled to watch the new swift gurgling clear water run with its pretty flashes of light […]. A whole mess of little joys like that amazing me when I came back in the horror of later to see how they'd all changed and become sinister, even my poor little wooden platform and mill race when my eyes and stomach nauseous and my soul screaming a thousand babbling words. (6.6-7)

    Jack's emotions are manifest in the landscape. Notice that when Jack is insane and shivering in the midst of his delirium tremens, he describes the land around him as "an insane shivering canyon" (34.10). As strange as it may sound, Big Sur functions as an emotional barometer for Jack – the scenery lets us know what's up in the mind of our complicated, conflicted narrator.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    "My work comprises one vast book like Proust's except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed. Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work. On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Tristessa, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody, and the other including this book Big Sur are just chapters in the whole work which I call The Duluoz Legend. In my old age I intend to collect all my work and re-insert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy. The whole thing forms one enormous comedy, seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness seen through the keyhole of his eye."
    – Jack Kerouac

    This is not an epigraph, rather an author's note. But it does something very similar to an epigraph: it gives us some direction as to how we should read this novel. In this case, that direction is as follows. 1) Read this as a personal reflection of real events and people, rather than a purely fictional work, and 2) read this in the context of Kerouac's other works.

    It's extremely important that you keep both of these in mind while reading the novel and also while reading this Shmoop guide, since we take this advice to heart in our analysis. When we talk about main character Jack Duluoz, you can assume that we're talking about author Jack Kerouac. You should also feel free to compare this character to other alter egos – like Sal Paradise in the earlier novel On the Road. You might want to read our guide to On the Road when comparing the two books. For a further discussion of the tension between Big Sur as a first-person recollection and Big Sur as a work of fiction, check out our discussion of "Genre." For now, keep this Author's Note on a mental sticky note.

  • Writing Style

    Free, Startling, Raw

    Kerouac's fame has a lot to do with his unique writing style, and Big Sur is a great example of what makes his writing unique. Kerouac had no problem breaking all the rules, whether speeding on the highway, taking illegal substances, or breaking the laws of English grammar. As a result, his prose is loose and phonetically indulgent. He sacrifices correctness for sound and rhythm that well reflects the tone and mood of his subject matter. Let's take a look at a few examples.

    You might notice number of made-up words in Big Sur. These may be words that sound like what they mean, such as:

    • "…big elbows of Rock rising everywhere, sea caves within them, seas plollocking all around inside them…" (4.2)

    • "…facing all the Pacific fury flashing on the rocks that rise like gloomy sea shroud towers out of the cove, the bingbang cove with its seas booming inside caves and slapping out…" (5.5)

    • Or words intuitively adapted from others: "…those big gooky rainforest ferns among lightningstruck conifers…" (5.1)

    • "…clear rushing unstagnated bugless drinking water…" (6.6)
    You'll also notice that Kerouac abandons paragraph breaks in favor of long dashes, particularly in dialogue. Take a look at the conversation between him and Arthur Ma at the end of Chapter Twenty for a solid example. Rhythm wins out over correctness. Or think about the way he writes lists of adjectives, without commas in between (as is technically correct): "Me just an innocent lost hearted meditator and Goop among strange intense criminal agitators of the heart" (27.4). It may be grammatically wrong, but look what it does for the fluidity of the sentence. Jack's writing at times even parodies the "proper" way to do things. We love this melodic paragraph opener from Chapter Six: "Meanwhile by the way and however…" (6.4). It reads like a caricature of the proper way to switch topics (namely, using one of these transitional phrases).

    Lastly, we should take a moment to appreciate the poetic nature of Kerouac's prose. Before you move on, read this passage out loud: "I go out on that porch and sit in the old canvas chair and turn my face up to all that mooching going on up there, all those stars crying with happy sadness, all that ream and cream of mocky ways with alleyways of lightyears old" (22.6).
  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Jesus Stuff, and Other Spiritual Potpourri

    Big Sur wouldn't be a Kerouac novel without some veiled references to Jesus, now would it? The first tip-off is the scene that takes place on the creek by Monsanto's cabin. Jack takes deliberate, spiritual, almost ritualistic care in arranging the stones in the water:

    I start inserting tiny pebbles in the spaces between the stones so that no water can sneak over to wash away the shore, even down to the tiniest sand, a perfect sea wall, which I top with a wood plank for everybody to kneel on when they come there to fetch their holy water – Looking up from this work of an entire day, from noon till sundown, amazed to see where I was, who I was, what I'd done – The absolute innocence. (6.6)

    Shortly afterwards he drinks from his shaker, which he calls his "holy cup" (7.3) Next up is Jack's trip back from Big Sur to the city. The grueling journey – on foot – begins to sound a bit like a spiritual pilgrimage or even a spiritual test. Take a closer look:

    But because I'm wearing desert boots with their fairly thin soles, and the sun is beating hot on the tar road, the heat finally gets through the soles and I begin to deliver heat blisters in my sockiboos – I'm limping along wondering what's the matter with me when I realize I've gotblisters. […] – I'm in despair because I'm really stranded now, and by the time I've walked seven miles I still have seven to go but I cant go on another step – I'm also thirsty and there are absolutely no filling stations or anything along the way – My feet are ruined and burned, it develops now into a day of complete torture, from nine o'clock in the morning till four in the afternoon I negotiate those nine or so miles when I finally have to stop and sit down and wipe the blood off my feet. (10.3-4)

    But the major tip-off is at the end of the novel, when Dave tells Jack, "The holy flesh of this little fish will heal you" and they all take "their little holy bites" at dinner (35.2, 36.4). Recall the symbol of the ichthys (also known as the Jesus fish) or the many references to fishing in the New Testament (including the famous "I will make you fishers of men" line).

    Jack undergoes a sort of communion in Chapter Thirty-Six when he eats of the fish Dave killed for dinner. In this novel, even the idea of communion takes on a dark and sinister twist. Jack feels guilty at eating the fish that only hours earlier was swimming happily along the river. Of course, shortly after this dinner, Jack does battle with his faith in the nightmare of his delirium. He sees a vision of the cross disturbed by "a great evil blur like an ink spot" that he believes to be the devil (36.9). Everything about Kerouac's alter-ego has been darkened and shaken since his days in On the Road – even his faith.


    Every time he's at Big Sur, Jack mentions the mule he names "Alf the Sacred Burro." Alf is a reminder of the spirituality and primitiveness of Big Sur. This wilderness is like a Californian version of the "Garden of Eden," and Jack mentions Adam and Eve twice while at Big Sur. Remember that Jack vows not to kill any animals – even rats – while staying at Monsanto's cabin. He makes a point to feed and care for them all, including Alf, in his attempt to isolate himself from people by taking refuge in the natural world.

    Dead Animals

    There seem to be an unreasonable number of dead animals in Big Sur. But don't take our word for it:

    • "Your mother wrote and said your cat is dead." (11.1)

    • "Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter!" (21.6)

    • We both look at the fishbowl and both the goldfishes are upsidedown floating dead on the surface of the water. (31.2)

    • I suddenly look at the fish and feel horrible all over again, that old death scheme is back. […] That fish has all the death of otters and mouses and snakes right in it or something. (35.3, 36.5)
    All these dead animals function as "signposts" of Jack's impending madness. They are a constant reminder that, as good as things might seem at certain ecstatic, drunken moments, there's always something dead in the background waiting to be found. And they're a reminder to Jack that, as happy as might feel for a minute or two, he must confront his own mortality. And so must everybody else. Thinking of his dead cat, he says, "Ah death, and to think this strange scandalous death comes also to human beings, yea to Smiler even, poor Smiler, and poor Homer his dog, and all of us" (11.6).

    Jack is tormented by the inevitability, by the randomness, and especially by the lack of good reason behind death. "Why did he die?" Jack wonders of his dead otter. "Why do they do that? What's the sense of all this?" (21.6) Later he writes, "Those poor little hunks of golden death floating on that scummy water – it reminds me of the otter […]. Why would they do that? Why? What kind of logic is that for fish to have?" (32.1) This issue of mortality is ever-present in Big Sur – for Jack and for the reader.
  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Jack Duluoz narrates the events of the novel in retrospect: he knows what's going to happen at the novel's conclusion, and he guides us through the events with this end in mind. That's why we can point out "signposts" or direct the reader to pay attention to certain details. (At one point Jack writes, "I was healthy and feeling good, [yet] I would be going mad in this canyon in six weeks on the fullmoon night of 3 September" [4.1].)

    Yet there is an immediacy to his perspective that keeps the writing reflective of Duluoz's current mood. Just look at Jack's wild language as detailed in the climactic Chapter Thirty-Seven. These are not the calm and careful words of a man recalling with measured perspective what happened to him years back. These are instead the frantic words of a man going insane. Similarly, Jack-the-writer is still consumed with the same confusion that plagues Jack-the-character; as he writes time and time again, "I dont understand what happened at Big Sur, even now" (37.4). Jack's inability to understand the events at Big Sur keeps the novel in the same mood and tone that characterize the events that occurred.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Falling Stage

      Jack's alcoholism/delirium tremens/madness

      We get the sense that Jack has been under this "dark power" for some time now. And in fact, many of these Booker stages are going to have to be somewhat flexible to fit the plot of Big Sur because Kerouac did not write a classically composed novel. Still, it will be interesting to see how Big Sur fits into the Booker format.

      Recession Stage

      Jack's time alone in Big Sur

      According to Booker, this is the stage where "all may seem to go reasonably well." Jack writes that the solitary time in Monsanto's cabin does his soul good. There are those "signposts" of something wrong, but for the most part, our "hero" is happy.

      Imprisonment Stage

      The signposts get worse; Jack begins to disintegrate

      This is where the dark power grows stronger until it imprisons the hero. In this case, Jack's worsening visions, drinking, and paranoia begin to consume his character, the novel, and even the text's prose.

      Nightmare Stage

      Chapter Thirty-Seven

      This part of the novel is quite literally a "nightmare stage." Jack's delirious nightmares mark the height of his madness, paranoia, and fear. As Booker writes, "it seems that dark power has completely triumphed…"

      Rebirth Stage

      Jack falls asleep; when he wakes up, the world is golden heaven

      In a typical Booker Rebirth plot, the hero is saved by a young woman or child. This is not the case here. The "young woman" (Billie) is suicidal or possibly even filicidal (i.e., wanting to kill her child). According to our hero, the "child" (Elliot) is a "cretin." Neither of them will be saving Jack. Jack's rebirth is self-propelled, though we are left to wonder just how long this recovery will last.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Alcoholism, depression, delirium tremens, nightmares, confusion, guilt

      We see immediately why people call Big Sur "dark." Jack wakes up hung over in San Francisco and we know from the start that we're not dealing with the happier 25-year-old Jack from On the Road.


      "One fast move or I'm gone."

      While the initial situation is rife with conflict, we can identify this line as the impetus for the story's basic plot line: a trip (or two, or three) out of the city to Monsanto's cabin in the woods.


      Signposts of death, impending madness

      Jack is happy with his time alone in Monsanto's cabin. But he never lets his readers forget that all experiences mark preludes to the real meat of his story – his fit of delirium on the night of September 3rd. Every signpost – the death of his cat, of the goldfish, and of the otter, the sickness of George Baso, the vision of the flying saucer, and the night on the beach with Ron Blake –function as speed bumps on the road to the novel's climax.


      Jack's final night in Big Sur

      We've been building towards this night for the entire novel. All of Jack's "signposts," all his "hints of coming madness," and all his hesitations and insistence that "something is wrong" refer to this, his breakdown and delirium on the night he writes as September 3, 1960 (see "Setting" for discussions of exact time and place). As readers, we're certainly not disappointed. Jack delivers an explicit, visceral, wrenching account of his experience that night. This experience is not to be missed by, so make sure you look it up in your text.


      The child coffin-shaped hole

      After the horror of the delirious hours of the night, we still have to deal with Billie and her staggering instability. Remember that she's threatens to kill herself, her son, or both, several times in the course of the novel. When she digs a hole that is the exact size and shape of a child's coffin, we know we're not out of the woods yet – literally and figuratively.


      Jack falls asleep on the porch

      In the "golden swarming peace of heaven" that is sleep, Jack leaves the torture of the past twelve hours. "All the dark torture is a memory," he writes.


      "I still cant understand it […]. Something good will come out of all things yet."

      Needless to say, this is a surprisingly optimistic ending to page after page of delirious nightmares in the woods. Kerouac re-interprets even the most painful of events (like his cat's death) in a new and hopeful light. See "What's Up With the Ending?" for a full discussion.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Jack wakes up drunk in the city, and realizes he needs to get out, and fast. He makes his way to Monsanto's cabin.

      Act II

      Jack returns to Big Sur two more times before the novel's climax. In the meantime he meets up with his old friends, (Cody included), and begins a messy love affair with Billie. Act II ends at the peak of Jack's madness, Chapter Thirty-Seven.

      Act III

      Jack recovers from his madness by simply falling asleep. He ends his novel on a surprisingly optimistic note, though whether or not anything has been resolved is subject to debate.