Study Guide

Big Sur Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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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.

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