Study Guide

Big Sur Isolation

By Jack Kerouac

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That first night I sit there and all I know, as I look up, is the kitchen light is on, on the cliff, to the right, where somebody's just built a cabin overlooking all the horrible Sur, somebody up there's having a mild and tender supper that's all I know... (5.5)

Though he came to Big Sur to be alone, Jack is still desperately looking for human contact.

And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I'll do in three weeks only) "no more dissipation, it's time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody (6.1)

Look at everything Jack is trying to escape from by seeking refuge in Big Sur.

All said So-Is sight of the world, right there in front of my nose as I look, -- And looking at that valley in fact I also realize I have to make lunch and it wont be any different than the lunch of those olden men and besides it'll taste good -- Everything is the same (7.5)

The solitude Jack experiences in Big Sur is unique – even alone he feels a part of something bigger. He never forgets his own small place in the universe.

I figure I'll get a ride into Monterey real easy and take the bus there and be in Frisco by nightfall for a big ball of wino yelling with the gang, I feel in fact Dave Wain oughta be back by now, or Cody will be ready for a ball, and there'll be girls, and such and such, forgetting entirely that only three weeks previous I'd been sent fleeing from that gooky city by the horrors -- But hadn't the sea told me to flee back to my own reality? (10.1)

Jack Duluoz is characterized by the same boredom that plagued Kerouac's alter ego Sal Paradise in On the Road – no place is ever good enough to stay.

A regular nuthouse actually and just exactly the image of what the journalists want to say about the Beat Generation nevertheless a harmless and pleasant agreement for young bachelors and a good idea in the long run -- Because you can rush into any room and find the expert, like say Ben's room and ask "Hey what did Bodhidharma say to the Second Patriarch? " -- "He said go f*** yourself, make your mind like a wall, dont pant after outside activities and dont bug me with your outside plans" -- "So the guy goes out and stands on his head in the snow? " "No that was Fubar" -- Or you go runnin into Dave Wain's room and there he is sitting crosslegged on his mattress on the floor reading Jane Austen, you ask "What's the best way to make beef Stroganoff? "... "Beef Stroganoff is very simple, "t'aint nothin but a good well cooked beef and onion stew that you let cool afterwards then you throw in mushrooms and lotsa sour cream

The wild intellectual camaraderie and the opportunity to learn from others are what Jack misses when in solitude.

I'm bursting to explain everything to him, not even Big Sur but the past several years, but there's no chance with everybody yakking -- And in fact I can see in Cody's eyes that he can see in my own eyes the regret we both feel that recently we haven't had chances to talk whatever, like we used to do driving across America and back in the old road days, too many people now want to talk to us and tell us their stories, we've been hemmed in and surrounded and outnumbered -- The circle's closed in on the old heroes of the night (13.2)

Isolation is not just a physical thing in Big Sur; Jack feels alone even when he's around his closest friend.

"Well I'll be damned" he keeps saying as he sees those bluffs and cliffs and hanging vines and dead trees, "you mean to tell me you ben alone here for three weeks, why I wouldn't dare that... must be awful at night ... looka that old mule down there... man (18.2)

Cody's reaction to Big Sur is almost exactly identical to Jack's, and markedly different from the general population of tourists (both men feel awe and terror rather than joy at the landscape's beauty). This is just a reminder of how close these two friends really are.

I feel excited to be with the gang but there's a hidden sadness too and which is expressed later by Monsanto when he says "This is the kind of place where a person should really be alone, you know? When you bring a big gang here it somehow desecrates it not that I'm referring to us or anybody in particular? there's such a sad sweetness to those trees as tho yells shouldnt insult them or conversation only" -- Which is just the way I feel too. (94.7)

If this is the case, then why does Jack return to Big Sur with Romana, Dave, and Billie at the end of the novel?

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 goes some way in explaining why Jack spends so much time in self-imposed isolation. He may love those around him, but he harbors a hidden disgust for people in general.

I know is that I'm a helpless hunk of helpful horse manure looking in your eye saying Help me" -- "But when you make those big final statements it doesnt help you" (32.1)

She just doesn't get it – Billie is trying to counter Jack's despair with logic and pragmatism. This sort of misunderstanding is the greatest barrier between Billie and Jack.

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