Study Guide

Big Sur Madness

By Jack Kerouac

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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.

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