Study Guide

On the Road Plot Analysis

By Jack Kerouac

Plot Analysis

On the Road is famous for not following a standard plot. In fact, it’s famous for doing a horrible job at being a novel, in the plot sense of what a novel should be. This may have something to do with the fact that Kerouac banged out a manuscript in a few weeks on one long piece of typewriter paper. But, because we were feeling experimental, we decided to give it a shot anyway. Let us know if it works for you.

Initial Situation

The part where On the Road doesn’t fit the Classic Plot structure so well.

The first sentence of On the Road is the conflict, so there isn’t so much of an initial situation.


"I first met Dean Moriarty" etc.

Yes, that’s right: Dean is the conflict. Dean either causes Sal’s restlessness or incites some latent restlessness. It is in large part due to Dean that Sal takes off across the country. Dean also sets up the conflict inherent in any relationship in which one guy idolizes another: eventually, Dean has to become human in Sal's eyes.


All of the novel until Mexico, which in itself is kind of complicated.

Basically all of On the Road is complication after complication, through which we come to better understand our narrator and his hero. The poverty, the women, the policemen, the thefts – all of these serve as complications in the story’s plot.


The alcohol/drug/prostitute blowout in Mexico

Sal and Dean have spent the entire novel in pursuit of "the end of the road." They believe they will find it in Mexico, and do in fact declare parts of the country "heaven" when they get there. This is also the climax of drug and alcohol use, as well as the climax of Sal’s idolatry of Dean, since he finally calls his hero "God."


Sal gets a fever in Mexico! Will he survive? Dum dum dum…

The suspense lies not only in the fact that Sal might die, but that his friendship and idolatry of Dean is brought into question. Dean betrays his friend big-time here, leaving Sal in Mexico on what could be his deathbed. Sal says he’ll "say nothing," but we don’t know if he genuinely forgives Dean. Even if he does, it could still be that his conception of Dean has been forever ruined.


Sal finally finds The Girl, and Dean makes a last visit.

Sal’s grand search for love in America is over. We know this is denouement material and not climax material because this woman (Laura) is presented in such an understated way. No fireworks, just a simple declaration that she’s the one. Dean’s final visit, too, lacks the vitality and energy of previous interactions we’ve seen between our two main characters. If the novel is winding down, so is Sal – and whether he likes it or not, so is Dean.


Sal ruminates on the world and Dean.

Sal ends, not surprisingly, on a note of sadness. He wonders at the fact that Dean came all the way to New York just to see him, and realizes that he could not help his hero in the end. Dean is still clearly with him, though, still the focus of Sal’s thoughts.