Study Guide

Big Sur Chapter 36

By Jack Kerouac

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Chapter 36

  • Back at the cabin the women get salads and bread ready while Dave prepares the fish.
  • Jack watches "from the porch with horrified eyes" the shadows of his friends moving about "monster-like and witch-like and warlock-like." His paranoia is back.
  • Jack runs to the creek thinking that the water will heal him.
  • Just as before, he thinks there's kerosene in the creek. While he runs back and forth to the cabin he notes the eyes of the watching neighbors staring at him.
  • Meanwhile Dave is pumped for what he calls "a sacrificial banquet with all kinds of goodies you see laid in a regal spread around one little delicious fish."
  • Because of the small size of the fish and the large size of the party, everyone only gets about four bites. While he cooks he explains the proper way to heat the oil, and prep the fish.
  • Jack looks over Billie; she's sitting "like a nun in the corner."
  • Both Dave and Romana are eager to get Jack to eat.
  • Jack, in his paranoid state, interprets this enthusiasm and the various pieces of food shoved in his face as attempted poisonings.
  • Romana is walking around mostly naked, except for bra and underwear. And Jack is at least sober enough to notice.
  • When Dave playfully touches Billie and winks at him, Jack is too out of it to respond in any kind of good natured way – even when Dave jokes about switching from the husky brunette Romana to the thin and blonde Billie.
  • Jack looks out the window at the full moon outside – it doesn't bode well for his impending madness. He goes back to the creek and drinks more water.
  • When it's finally time for dinner Jack sits down at the table, sheepishly – he feels useless, as he's the only one who contributed nothing to the prep work. "The idiot in the wagon train […] nevertheless has to be fed."
  • Before they eat, Dave thanks the full moon and the "Fish people" and the "Fish god." He very carefully takes his fork and extracts a tiny, delicate piece, which he offers to Jack. Jack takes it, and everyone else takes "their little holy bites."
  • Jack is frightened by it all.
  • During dinner Dave announces that he and Jack are sick from drinking and they're going to reform themselves.
  • Jack feels sick because in the dead fish they're consuming he recognizes all the other dead animals he's recently encountered – his cat, the otters, mice, snakes, and goldfish.
  • After dinner Dave sits on the porch and smokes a cigarette while Jack runs down to the creek again.
  • Jack feels that he needs to escape, but doesn't understand why or what's going on with him. He runs back and forth from the cabin to the creek.
  • When he sees the shadows of his three friends, he again grows paranoid – he suspects they're plotting against him.
  • Maybe Dave is jealous of his literary career; maybe Cody sent Billie to undo him; maybe Romana is a secret agent.
  • He tries to go for a walk but is too frightened to be out in Big Sur alone and returns to the cabin; he claims he hears the sea babbling.
  • As the night goes on, things get worse for Jack.
  • He descends into some serious delirium, which you'll have to read in your text to completely understand.
  • The remainder of the chapter is characterized by experiences like this one:
  • "Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep – Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me."
  • He wavers between extreme paranoia and sympathy for his friends. He feels guilty at accusing them in his mind.
  • Jack thinks he finally understands "the unbearable anguish of insanity: how uninformed people can be thinking insane people are happy" when in fact "there's a tightening around the head that hurts, there's a terror of the mind that hurts even more, they're so unhappy and especially because they can't explain it to anybody." The insane, he says, suffer more than anyone else in the world.
  • Again he's consumed by the babbling of the sea, "telling [him] to die because everything is over."
  • Finally Dave and Romana head to the creek with their sleeping bag to retire for the night. Jack and Billie sit awake next to the fire while she begs him to come lie in her arms.
  • Jack is too paranoid and delirious to have normal conversation.
  • Billie finally persuades him to get into her sleeping bag with her. They're both naked but Jack is sweating and embarrassed and feels trapped.
  • Jack jumps and says they should try the cot inside instead – but he arranges it as he did the night he was trying to close himself off when he was alone at the end of the summer. The result is that he's just as closed in and trapped there as he was in the sleeping bag.
  • Next he tries laying the sleeping bag outside on the porch, but one thing or another (mosquito, sweat, lightning) bothers him and he just can't sit still.
  • Jack concludes that the only good sleeping spot in the whole place is down by the creek, and Dave and Romana have taken it.
  • Billie is frustrated that they're not having sex; she begs Jack to make love to her, but he says he can't.
  • Jack is horrified to find that he can't even light his cigarette – "something sinister blows it out," he writes. When he finally does get it going, "it mortifies [his] hot mouth anyway like a mouthful of death."
  • He decides he needs to sleep apart from Billie; he tells her he's just going to take a nap and then he'll come and sleep with her in a bit.
  • That doesn't work. Jack just stares into the darkness with wide, frightened eyes; when he tries to close them, "some elastic pulls them open again." "If I try to turn over," he says, "the whole universe turns over with me but it's no better on the other side of the universe. I realize I may never come out of this."
  • His mother must be waiting for him at home, Jack thinks. She must be praying for him because she knows what he's going through. He cries out for her to help him.
  • Jack wonders briefly if Dave and Romana aren't lying secretly awake, waiting for him to die.
  • Maybe it's because he's a Catholic, and this is all a big anti-Catholic scheme.
  • "This madness changes you completely," he writes, "and in the morning you no longer have the same mind."
  • At this point the voices he hears from the sea and his own mind are overwhelming; he sees "faces, yelling mouths, long haired yellers, sudden evil confidences, sudden rat-tat-tats of cerebral committees arguing about 'Jack' and talking about him as if he wasn't there."
  • Jack cries out that he's not human anymore and will never be safe again. He wonders what his mother will think of him. He cries out for his cat Tyke until he remembers he's just eaten a poor little fish and has no right to ask for his cat.
  • Then begin the visions. Jack sees "blue Heaven and the Virgin's white veil" but is interrupted by "a great evil blur like an ink spot" that he believes to be the devil. He sees angels "laughing and having a big barn dance in the rocks of the sea." "Suddenly," says Jack, "as clear as anything I ever saw in my life, I see the Cross."

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