Study Guide

Big Sur Madness

By Jack Kerouac

Madness

I've got the directions all memorized from a little map Monsanto's mailed me but in my imagination dreaming about this big retreat back home there'd been something larkish, bucolic, all homely woods and gladness instead of all this aerial roaring mystery in the dark. (3.1)

Much of Big Sur has to do with the rift between imagined ideals and reality – from Big Sur to Jack and his public "Beat" persona.

The road's up there on the wall a thousand feet with a sheer drop sometimes, […] And worst of all is the bridge! I go ambling seaward along the path by the creek and see this awful thin white line of bridge a thousand unbridgeable sighs of height above the little woods. (4.1)

Big Sur is an appropriate setting for Jack's tale – he's teetering on the edge of madness, as he indicates with various "signposts" throughout the novel.

In August a horrible development took place, huge blasts of frightening gale like wind came pouring into the canyon making all the trees roar with a really frightening intensity that sometimes built up to a booming war of trees that shook the cabin and woke you up -- And was in fact one of the things that contributed to my mad fit. (6.5)

Jack's constant allusions to his mad fit actually give the novel its structure – we're heading towards a definite climax in our plot.

So once again I'm Ti Jean the Child, playing, sewing patches, cooking suppers, washing dishes (always kept the kettle boiling on the fire and anytime dishes needed to be washed I just pour hot hot water into pan with Tide soap and soak them good and then wipe them clean after scouring with little 5-&-10 wire scourer) (7.1)

Jack is always calmed by labor – he seems most peaceful while he's working at something.

The blue sky adds "Dont call me eternity, call me God if you like, all of you talkers are in paradise: the leaf is paradise, the tree stump is paradise, the paper bag is paradise, the man is paradise, the fog is paradise" -- Can you imagine a man with mar-velous insights like these can go mad within a month? (7.5)

The constant reminders of Jack's impending madness make us wonder about the perspective of the writer himself – how sane is our author at the time of writing?

Suddenly, boom, the door of the cabin is flung open with a loud crash and a burst of sunlight illuminates the room and I see an Angel standing arm outstretched in the door! -- It's Cody! all dressed in his Sunday best in a suit! beside him are ranged several graduating golden angels from Evelyn golden beautiful wife down to the most dazzling angel of them all little Timmy with the sun striking off his hair in beams! -- It's such an incredible sight and surprise that both Pat and I rise from our chairs involuntarily, like we've been lifted up in awe, or scared, tho I dont feel scared so much as ecstatically amazed as tho I've seen a vision... (23.4)

Jack's delirium isn't just about nightmare and terror; his highs are as extreme as his lows.

"Her voice is the main point—she talks with a broken heart—her voice lutes brokenly like a heart lost […], it's almost too much to bear sometimes […]. I just sit and marvel and stare at her mouth wondering where all the beauty is coming from and why" (26.4)

Billie's voice is a great example of the way Jack associates sadness with beauty.

"O the sad music of it all, I've done it all, seen it all, done everything with everybody." (31.7)

Jack's madness is in part driven by the cynical boredom of his middle age.

I see it all raving before me the endless yakking kitchen mouthings of life, the long dark grave of tomby talks under midnight kitchen bulbs, in fact it fills me with love to realize that life so avid and misunderstood nevertheless reaches out skinny skeleton hand to me and to Billie too -- But you know what I mean.

And this is the way it begins. (33.1-2)

Look at the strange combination of sadness, despair, and yet appreciation that Jack feels in these moments of reflection. These conflicting feelings are at the emotional heart of the novel.

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