Study Guide

Big Sur Mortality

By Jack Kerouac

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But I remember seeing a mess of leaves suddenly go skittering in the wind and into the creek, then floating rapidly down the creek toward the sea, making me feel a nameless horror even then of "Oh my God, we're all being swept away to sea no matter what we know or say or do" -- And a bird who was on a crooked branch is suddenly gone without my even hearing him. (7.5)

Jack's fear of death creeps into the novel early and will play a large part in his impending madness. This is the first clear indication of his obsession with his own mortality.

"Did you write anything? " -- "I wrote the sounds of the sea, I'll tell you all about it -- It was the most happy three weeks of my life dammit. (11.6)

And yet it didn't seem that way when he was at Big Sur. Jack characterizes his time in Big Sur with a false perspective – is the novel similarly tainted by such retrospective wishful thinking? Consider the novel's optimistic ending…

(and animals are so sad and patient I thought as I remembered Tyke's eyes and Alf's eyes, 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)

Now we can understand why Jack is so bothered by the death of all these animals: the mortality of others is a reminder that he, too, will die. It's not so much about the animals' mortality as it is about his own mortality.

But now George has TB and they tell me he may even die... Which adds to that darkness in my mind, all these DEATH things piling up suddenly -- But I cant believe old Zen Master George is going to allow his body to die. (78.10)

It's interesting that Jack gives such agency to Baso (with the phrase "let" his body die). How much control does Jack have, on that note, over his own physical suffering in Big Sur?

"Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter! " -- And sure enough it is a dead otter I guess, a big brown pale lump floating up and down mournfully with the swells and ghastly weeds, my otter, my dear otter, my dear otter I'd written poems about -- "Why did he die? " I ask myself in despair -- "Why do they do that?" -- "What's the sense of all this? " -- All the fellows are shading their eyes to get a better look at the big peaceful tortured hunk of seacow out there as tho it's something of passing interest while tome it's a blow across the eyes and down into my heart (21.6)

Part of what makes these signposts of mortality so painful for Jack is that he is alone in his horror; no one shares his reaction, nor can anyone really understand it.

Because a new love affair always gives hope, the irrational mortal loneliness is always crowned, that thing I saw (that horror of snake emptiness) when I took the deep iodine deathbreath on the Big Sur beach is now justified and hosannah'd and raised up like a sacred urn to Heaven in the mere fact of the taking off of clothes and clashing wits and bodies in the inexpressibly nervously sad delight of love... (26.6)

For Jack, the appeal of sex is its ability to distract him from his delirium.

I've been sitting in that chair by that fishbowl for a week drinking and smoking and talking and now the goldfish are dead. (31.3)

Part of what scares Jack so much about death is its senselessness and its randomness. When he tries to find meaning or attribute blame, he comes up empty-handed.

"Remember when we were in East St Louis with George, and Jack you said you'd love those beautiful dancing girls if you knew they would live forever as beautiful as they are?" (31.7)

The idea of decay and death is ever-present in Big Sur. Knowing that things – people, animals, relationships – are going to end is a constant torment to Jack.

…the eyes of hope looking over the glare of the hood into the maw with its white line feeding in straight as an arrow, the lighting of fresh cigarettes, the buckling to lean forward to the next adventure something that's been going on in America ever since the covered wagons clocked the deserts in three months flat (33..1)

It's interesting that Jack's vision of America is such a dynamic one. This version of America fits well with concern over transience (the fleeting nature of life being one example).

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