Study Guide

Big Sur Chapter 21

By Jack Kerouac

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Chapter 21

  • When Jack was alone in Bug Sur in August, it was fog season. Now that he's back, he has the advantage of looking at the stars every night. It's also incredibly windy – "too big a wind for such a little canyon," he writes.
  • Jack wakes up hung over, and he deals with it by having some wine.
  • Dave makes breakfast and lectures about the right way to cook eggs.
  • After breakfast the men go outside to have a wood-chopping contest. Jack concludes that "you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood." Cody, for example, chops "with the fury of a Greek god […], like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody's life."
  • The others see that Jack is unhappy and weary, and suggest they go to the hot springs bath.
  • Unfortunately, on the way, the men spot a dead otter out in the ocean. This is Jack's otter, about which he wrote poems in his time alone at Big Sur. Yet another omen of death.
  • When they finally get to the hot springs, Jack and Cody refuse to go in because 1) there's a bunch of gay men standing around naked, and 2) the hot water springs seem to be full of sperm.
  • And that's it for the hot springs.
  • Jack notes that he and Cody were both raised Catholic, so despite being labeled as "the big sex heroes of [their] generation" they're actually quite reserved in such situations.
  • All of this adds up the horror plaguing Jack's soul. The peace he found in Big Sur is gone.
  • After the springs they go to Nepenthe, a fancy restaurant atop the cliff. Cody plays chess and eats copiously and talks non-stop. Cody never makes small-talk, explains Jack – if he's going to talk, he has to do all the talking, and it's going to last for hours "until everything is exhaustedly explained."
  • Jack is drunk on manhattans by the time they start conversing with the men at a nearby table: a lieutenant and some older gentlemen. After Jack elucidates his theory of Guerilla warfare, the older gentleman admits that, actually, he's a general.
  • Jack finds both the general and the lieutenant to be "sinister," though they do take an interest in his guerilla warfare theory.
  • A year later, when Jack hears about the army's new tactical approach, he'll think it had to do with his drunken ramblings back in Big Sur.
  • They make it back to the cabin by late afternoon, at which point Jack is very drunk. Everyone heads back to the city except for Jack, who's staying behind in the cabin. Ron Blake asks to stay, too, and Jack doesn't have the heart to turn the poor kid down.
  • Jack wants to sleep, but Ron wants to make the most of his time with the King of the Beatniks. Jack does his best not to "disappoint his believing heart."
  • Jack digresses to lament the state of the Beat culture in America.
  • Truth is, Jack's tired of the enthusiastic young people begging him to hang out and impart his wisdom. He's sick of kids trying to be like him.
  • That's why he came out to Big Sur in the first place.
  • He's not who he was when he went on the road; yet these high school kids keep showing up at his door and expecting him to be 25 and happy.
  • In fact, he's old enough to be their father and just plain tired.
  • So he decides to drink another bottle of port down at the beach with Ron.
  • Unfortunately, he passes a dead mouse on the way. He tries to make a clever allusion to Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse," but instead just feels depressed that there is yet another dead animal.
  • And in fact, this is his own personal mouse to whom he's been feeding chocolate and cheese all summer. That he knows the mouse makes the situation all the worse.
  • Next they pass a garter snake; it bothers Jack that Ron treats it as some horrifying, sinister, and villain. He feels his Sur has been changed.
  • Once they camp out on the beach, the night is fine, since they're drinking and singing.
  • But the next morning Jack again asks himself, "Why does God torture me?"
  • Delirium tremens, he explains, "isn't so much a physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don't drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility. The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your birth."
  • Jack goes on to describe his guilt and his sickness as both visceral and intense. "The only thing to do," he says, "is turn over and lie face down and weep," as "there's not even strength enough to tear the hair."
  • Meanwhile Ron is happy and singing at the top of his lungs to start the day.
  • There's no alcohol left and Jack looks back on his feelings and epiphanies while alone at Big Sur and finds them stupid. He's sick, and he knows it. And all the wisdom he thought he found here on the beach is just another way to make people sick.
  • What's worse is that Ron thinks he can help when he can't.
  • Jack just passes out on the beach and moans to himself for hours, speaking in French or meaningless gibberish and turning and tossing in the sand.
  • When Jack finally drags himself up and back towards the cabin, he's horrified to see that Ron's been sitting there the whole time, witnessing his fit of madness.
  • Jack apologizes and explains that he's sick.
  • When Ron tries to tell him to get some sleep, Jack wants to yell at him – the guy has no idea what Jack's going through. But he says nothing.
  • The only time he's ever been worse, says Jack, was a week later when he and Dave returned to Big Sur with two girls "leading to the final horrible night."

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