Study Guide

Big Sur Themes

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    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.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How does Jack drink when he's with others? When he's alone? Are these different kinds of drinking? Do they serve different purposes?
    2. Why does Jack drink? What does he cite as his reasons, and are these explanations validated by his actions in the novel?
    3. In Chapter Thirty-One, Dave tells Jack that he ought not to drink so much. Jack's response is, "That's not the real trouble." What is the real reason?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Madness

    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).

    Questions About Madness

    1. When is Jack the most stable in Big Sur? What seems to calm him down and keep him stable?
    2. How is Jack's madness characterized in Big Sur? Is "madness" a relative term here? Who gets to define it in this novel?
    3. After Jack's episode on the beach with Ron Blake in Chapter Twenty-One, he concludes that he "took away a lesson in temperance, or beatness really." To what is he referring? What did he learn, and how is he defining "beatness" in this instance?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Mortality

    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.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. We talk in "Genre" about the way Kerouac's novel functions as a fictional version of real events. Think about all the "signpost" deaths that occur throughout the novel and increase Jack's growing instability. Do these feel like contrived, structured, fictional details rather than honest accounts? And if so, how does such obvious literary intention take away from the palpable, real-life pain of Big Sur?
    2. In the optimistic ending of Big Sur, does Jack address his issues with mortality, or does he ignore them?
    3. What is it about death that so horrifies Jack? Why does the sight of dead animals bother him so much?

    Chew on This

    Jack is interested in Billie – and in love in general – only because it distracts him from his obsession with mortality.

  • Literature and Writing

    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."

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Jack notes that he and Cody don't really speak much in Big Sur. How, then, do the two friends communicate?
    2. Why drives Jack to write down "the sounds of the sea" during his first visit to Big Sur? What does the process of recording these sounds do for him?
    3. Why does Jack vow that, if he gets out of Big Sur alive, he'll stop writing? What's wrong with literature, in his opinion? Does he change his mind in the novel's optimistic ending?

    Chew on This

    The only effective communication in Big Sur is non-verbal.

  • Transformation

    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.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What has "The Beat generation" come to mean to Kerouac by the time he's writing Big Sur? How is this different from his conception of "beat" in On the Road?
    2. How does Jack change from the beginning of the novel to its end? Is this a linear progression, or does he flip-flop between different extremes?
    3. How is the landscape of Big Sur described at various moments in the novel? How can the setting of Monsanto's cabin "change" when it physically remains the same?

    Chew on This

    Jack's madness in Big Sur is driven by a mid-life crisis.

  • Man and the Natural World

    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.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Does Jack's immersion in nature soothe him or stoke the fires of his impending madness?
    2. When Jack is alone in Big Sur in the summer, he hears the sea yell to him, "GO TO YOUR DESIRE DON'T HANG AROUND HERE." What is Jack's desire – what does he really want?
    3. What is it about Big Sur that makes Jack feel as though he needs to be alone there? Why is it incompatible with a big gang of people?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Initially, Jack refers to Big Sur as a "refuge" and "escape." From what is he trying to seek refuge or escape?
    2. Check out Chapter Sixteen. (You might want to read it again – it's only one paragraph.) What's going on there with that "Bruce something," "the greatest driver in the world?" What does this short and stand-alone episode add to the novel?
    3. While talking to McLear, Jack comments: "I feel that lonely shiver in my chest which always warns me: you actually love people and you're glad Pat is here" (23.1). Why a "lonely" shiver? What is it about loving people that Jack finds problematic?

    Chew on This

    Big Sur can only "heal" Jack when he's there by himself.

  • Spirituality

    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.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. The first 30 chapters are dominated by quotations from eastern religions. What's going on with Jack's vision of the cross at the novel's climax? Is this at odds with his character's spirituality in the majority of the novel?
    2. What is it about Cody that reflects "golden heaven" for Jack?
    3. Does the novel indicate whether or not Kerouac still identifies as a Catholic at the time of writing Big Sur?

    Chew on This

    Jack's self-hatred is channeled in Big Sur as anger with God and religion.