Big Sur is the fictional rendering of true events in the life of author Jack Kerouac. In 1960 Kerouac was a serious alcoholic suffering from cyclical bouts of delirium tremens. The novel deals with this disease explicitly and directly; the free-form style allows for a realistic rendering of Kerouac's delirious nightmares. Big Sur explores the illness of alcoholism as main character Jack Duluoz (Kerouac's alter-ego) oscillates between happy, drunken states and miserable mornings (or weeks) after.
Much of the sickness Jack feels after drinking has to do with identity, with reconciling the morning-after alcoholic with the way he sees himself.
Big Sur is the story of author Jack Kerouac's experiences with delirium tremens. In his opinion, this illness resulting from alcohol withdrawal is a form of madness. The novel builds towards one particular episode – the night of September 3, 1960 – in which main character Jack Duluoz (Kerouac) is haunted by visions and nightmares. In this novel, madness is the direct result of substance abuse, but also a reflection of inner turmoil. At this point in his life, Jack is struggling with the cost of fame (stemming from the popularity of his novels and his reputation as "King of the Beat Generation"), his own mortality (he's nearing 40), and a spiritual crisis (Kerouac was raised Catholic but studied Buddhism extensively).
Jack is more stable when alone than he is with other people.
Jack is more stable when he's around people than he is when he's alone.
Big Sur is riddled with what Kerouac calls "signposts" of death, often in the form of dead animals or, in one instance, in the form of a sick friend. In recognizing the mortality of other living beings, protagonist Jack Duluoz must constantly deal with his own mortality, a task made more difficult by his alcoholism and delirium tremens. "Everything is death," concludes Jack at one point in the novel.
Jack is interested in Billie – and in love in general – only because it distracts him from his obsession with mortality.
Author Jack Kerouac, through the perspective of his later ego and narrator Jack Duluoz, maintains that literature can't touch the fullness of life. Life surrounds us, he writes, it overwhelms us in its enormity. Writing is, at best, an approximation of what really goes on in the world. At the peak of his alcohol-driven madness, Kerouac feels shame at his profession. He even vows to never write again (though, quite obviously, he changes his mind after the fact). Big Sur raises interesting questions about the purpose of writing, particularly the writing of confessional, autobiographical novels such as Big Sur. Is writing a self-serving process of introspection? Or is Kerouac thinking of his readers rather than himself? While these questions are never raised nor answered directly, Big Sur suggests them, particularly in the novel's final line: "There's no need to say another word."
The only effective communication in Big Sur is non-verbal.
Big Sur features a number of major transformations. The first brings to light the rift between the 25-year-old, "King of the Beat Generation," happy Jack Kerouac as featured in his earlier novel, On the Road, and the nearly-40-year-old, cynical, run-down, and alcoholic Jack Kerouac reflected in Big Sur. Jack is forced to deal with the rift between his image and his self, a process that drives him to self-imposed isolation time and time again. His attempt to reconcile image and self is also partly responsible for his breakdown at the end of the novel. The novel also explores the way America has changed from the days of On the Road (1940s) to the days of Big Sur (1960). These changes, in Kerouac's mind, are largely negative: the country is bigger, dirtier, harsher, and less friendly. Big Sur illustrates how seemingly static places or landscapes can transform in the mind as a result of changes in perspective. In this case, Big Sur, California can seem at times beautiful, frightening, or lonely, depending on the mental state of the writer describing it.
Jack's madness in Big Sur is driven by a mid-life crisis.
Big Sur makes rather explicit comparisons between the city (San Francisco, specifically) and the natural world (in this case, a cabin in the woods of Big Sur, California). Kerouac describes the city as "gooky," confining, a place in which he feels "trapped," a place he needs to "escape." Big Sur, while freeing, is also frightening. The natural world is incredibly large, and serves as a reminder of the insignificance of man and the futility of one's life. Narrator Jack Duluoz finds both environments problematic for these very different reasons.
Jack's breakdown at the end of the novel is the result of worlds colliding; he tries to mix his social and sexual life with his solitary and spiritual ones.
Big Sur explores the tension between the desire to be alone and the need to be around others. Kerouac's alter ego and narrator, Jack Duluoz, oscillates between two extreme viewpoints: a cynical, misanthropic take on Americans and the way they've changed for the worse in the last decade, and a genuine love of the people with whom he surrounds himself. While he finds solitude comforting and healing, he also gets bored when he's alone. While he finds company soothing, the presence of others often makes him paranoid.
Big Sur can only "heal" Jack when he's there by himself.
Jack Kerouac is known for his unique spirituality, an amalgamation of Catholicism and Buddhism. While raised a Catholic, Kerouac studied Buddhism extensively and seemed to have no trouble reconciling the two. In fitting with the frightened mood of the novel, Jack's spirituality is darkened in comparison to that of his alter-ego in On the Road. He wonders if all his religious studies have been fruitless, if his madness is the work of devils, and if God hates the world.
Jack's self-hatred is channeled in Big Sur as anger with God and religion.