Study Guide

On the Road Themes

By Jack Kerouac

  • Dissatisfaction

    In On the Road, restlessness and the resulting motion are tied up with the madness of the Beat Generation. The need to move comes from dissatisfaction. Most interesting is motion through time vs. motion through space, as Dean focuses on the former while Sal the latter. The motion becomes futile, however, as there is no true heaven at the end of their traveling. Restlessness is also tied to the characters romantic relationships, as they feel the same dissatisfaction with women, and the same need for more and more variety.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. We’ve spent all this time talking about motion and dissatisfaction and needing to move and restlessness, and we’ve yet to ask the question of why. Why all the dissatisfaction? Why all the sadness? What is going in America that is so absolutely terrible?
    2. Sal is restless. So is Dean. But are these feelings different in any way in the two of them? Do these feelings manifest themselves differently in the characters?
    3. For Dean, how does literal motion, both in his body movements and his travel across country, reflect any spiritual or figurative motion?

    Chew on This

    Sal’s geographical restlessness mirrors his sexual restlessness, suggesting that there is no "end of the road" for either.

  • Sadness

    In Sal's eyes, sadness is everywhere in America. He sees it in people, places, and in his own dreams. Most of all, sadness is tied to solitude. Sal feels worst when he is unable to connect to those around him through deep conversations. Sadness becomes a key element in the relationships between men and women, as Sal yearns for a soulful connection with women, not just a physical one. Sadness is also reflected in the music of the times, the jazz blues. Sadness is a large part of the Beat Generation, in the sense of "beaten" or "beaten down."

    Questions About Sadness

    1. What is Sal so sad about?
    2. Does Sal characterize anything as sad that seem not seem to be remotely sad?
    3. At one point Sal calls a night both "merry" and "sad." How is this possible?
    4. What elements of On the Road are both merry and sad?
    5. Would you characterize On the Road as a sad tale?

    Chew on This

    In his solitude, Sal says that "all he does is die" when he is "down in Denver." Later, he tells Dean that he (Dean) doesn’t die enough to cry. This notion of dying, of recognizing sadness, is what makes Sal different from Dean, and can be traced throughout their actions and travels.

    The sadness in Dean and Sal’s friendship is based on an inability to have a soul connection, just like the sadness in Sal’s relationship with women.

  • Madness

    In On the Road, madness it the main source of Sal’s idolatry of Dean. While he himself cannot achieve the madness of his hero, Sal is fascinated and follows Dean around because of it. While madness initially enables Sal and Dean’s friendship (they "understand each other on other levels of madness"), it later becomes a barrier between them. We also see a religious element to madness (akin to a religious fervor or ecstasy), as well as the association of madness with drugs, alcohol, and jazz. We also trace the evolution of madness in Dean, and it is suggested that its root may be in Dean’s criminal past.

    Questions About Madness

    1. What are the different kinds of madness that Dean goes through, and how does Sal choose to characterize them?
    2. Sal famously comments that the only people for him are the mad ones. What is so appealing about these people?
    3. Is Sal, in his own way, sort of mad?

    Chew on This

    Although Sal seems to envy Dean’s madness, in actuality he wants no part of it. Sal consorts with Dean to experience vicariously what he refuses to incorporate into his own life.

  • Admiration

    Sal’s chooses Dean as his hero because of Dean’s madness, holiness, and vitality. In his hero, Sal recognizes the ability to act in a way he admires but knows he cannot imitate. Because of this, Sal prefers to follow and to watch. Sal’s heroes stem from his childhood visions of the West and of cowboys. On the Road examines what happens when our heroes fail to live up to our grand expectations and instead become merely human.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. What’s so hero-worthy about Dean, anyway?
    2. Does Dean make Sal out to be a hero, too?
    3. Sal gets let down by his hero. Is a flawed hero still a hero?
    4. Do Dean’s various women idolize him the same way that Sal does or do they see something else in him?

    Chew on This

    Dean functions as Sal’s hero at the beginning of On the Road, but their roles slowly switch over the course of the novel.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    In On the Road, we see different kinds of alcohol use, including abuse and alcoholism in Dean’s missing father. Both drug and alcohol use can be sources of money problems and poverty, as characters repeatedly prioritize drugs or alcohol over food and other necessities. Alcohol is one lens through which to view America, both as it exists in the 1940s and as it has changes over time (Bull Lee discusses the decay of America via the loss of "the Ideal Bar"). Alcohol and drugs become a tool through which we can see Dean and Sal’s relationship, as Sal’s dreams and actions when he is high or drunk parallel those of a sober Dean.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How does all the drug use factor in to the plot, the characters, and the tone of the story?
    2. Why does Dean have visions when he’s sober, and Sal doesn’t seem to until he’s starving to death or on drugs?
    3. Sal uses alcohol to characterize his friends. Who are the different people we see drinking, and what does their drinking behavior say about their personalities?

    Chew on This

    Through Dean and Old Bull Lee, Kerouac draws connections between intense drug use and wisdom in On the Road.

    The attitude and visions that Sal is able to obtain only with drugs is what Dean experiences all the time. Sal uses drugs to be more like Dean.

  • Sex

    While these are often separate themes, the characters in On the Road fail to distinguish between love and sex, sex and marriage, lust and love. Dean marries or wants to marry every girl he lusts after, while Sal only wants sex if there is a loving and soulful element to it. On the Road portrays a sex-without-strings attitude. There is also a holiness, or a spiritual element to sex. Lastly, the character of Dean lusts after very young girls, perhaps suggesting that women are being used as a substitute or representation of abstract desires (youth, for example).

    Questions About Sex

    1. We said Dean’s interest in young girls might be about his desire for youth. Sal said Dean’s sexual depravity was because he was in jail. Are we just making excuses for a pedophile?
    2. What’s the difference between what Sal wants in a woman and what Dean wants in a woman?
    3. Does Sal actually find what he’s been looking for in Laura? What is the effect of her only being around for a few pages?
    4. Dean has three wives. Are there any big differences between them, or are they all just women that fall in love with Dean and get treated pretty badly for it?

    Chew on This

    Because he wants a soul connection rather than sex, what Sal is actually looking for in a woman is a female version of Dean.

    While Dean cannot satisfy his sexual lust, Sal cannot find a woman to placate his feelings of solitude. These different examples of Beat Generation dissatisfaction reflect the core differences between Sal and Dean.

  • Time

    Time is a big deal in On the Road. As it ticks away, characters feel an impending sense of franticness, a fear of death, and a need to move and beat time. "Knowing time" is tied up in the word "beat," in the sense of music and keeping the time with a beat. It becomes a godly thing to "know time," and Dean pursues it as his highest goal.

    Questions About Time

    1. What does it mean to "know time"?
    2. Dean sees matters in time and Sal in distance (read more in the "Character Analysis" for each). What might this say about their personalities or, perhaps more importantly, their ability to relate to each other?
    3. How does Dean’s vision of time evolve with his evolving madness?

    Chew on This

    Dean identifies musicians as God-like for knowing time. In doing so, he establishes his own limitations since, as a non-musician, he can never himself truly know time. Dean’s journey is then imbued with an overall sense of futility.

  • Friendship

    In On the Road, we get a glimpse into a friendship based on hero-worship. Sal puts Dean on a pedestal, and in doing so later struggles to feel equal with his friend. The two become uncomfortable when it is clear between them that Sal thinks a great deal of Dean. Defenses are raised on Sal’s part to compensate, and their friendship is momentarily on the rocks. We also look at the intellectual friendship between Carlo and Dean. This friendship is based on mutual interest in each other’s minds.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Sal comments on Carlo and Dean’s friendship with some envy. How and why is it different than his own friendship with Dean?
    2. What is Dean looking for in a friendship? Is he finding it in Sal?
    3. Sal forms a lot of brief friendships on the road (Eddie, Mississippi Gene). Check them out. What are they doing for Sal? How do they comment on his friendship with Dean?

    Chew on This

    Sal’s brief fight with Dean underscores the inherent flaws in their relationship, and explains why Sal chooses not to honor their friendship in the end.

    Dean, because of his madness, is incapable of being a true friend to Sal. As a result of this limitation, Sal does not hold him morally responsible for his actions.

  • Spirituality

    Holiness is one of the sources of Sal’s idolatry for Dean. It becomes Dean’s distinguishing characteristic, making him unique from common criminals. Holiness is part of the Beat Generation – where Beat comes to mean "beatific" among other things. Sal searches for the holiness of a soul connection with women, while Dean thinks that sex itself is the "one holy thing" in life. Dean sees a spirituality in music, declaring many musicians to be God because they "know time." Lastly, the fervor of Dean’s madness is often portrayed as a spiritual ecstasy.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. Is Dean actually getting "holy" and "pure" as the story progresses, or is it all in Sal’s head?
    2. Sal’s name has some heavy religious meaning (check out his "Character Analysis"). Yet Dean is always the spiritual one. So where is Sal’s holiness?
    3. Sal’s vision of the snake might have some Biblical meaning. Then again it might not. What do you think?

    Chew on This

    Although much about Dean appeals to him, what Sal wants to learn most from his hero is spiritual wisdom.

    Dean’s spiritual fervor escalates with his madness, suggesting a necessary tie between holiness and madness.

  • Art and Culture

    In On the Road, the music we focus on is jazz, more specifically the American bebop of the 1940’s. Music has religious associations, as Dean sees several musicians as God. It brings about a madness, if associated with drugs. Music also features prominently in the definition of "Beat," as in the beat of a music. This is important in Dean’s characterization of those who "know time." Music becomes here another lens through which to examine America; the jazz is the same, from one city to the next, and is intensely American in its sound and culture.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What’s so mad, drug-related, and vision-y about music? Why would Kerouac want to use it as a backdrop to this story?
    2. We noticed an INCESSANT AND BLATANT connection between God, time, and music. Why is that?

    Chew on This

    Just as Sal "shambles after" Dean, unable to partake in the madness, so Dean shambles after music, unable to play himself. This suggests that musicians are the mad heroes to Dean just as Dean is a mad hero to Sal.

    Kerouac uses many devices to paint an accurate picture of America at the time of On the Road. The use of music, in particular the accuracy of historical and pop cultural references, underscore the importance of the novel in cultural history.

  • Visions of America

    Sal views America though many different lenses, characterizing the country by its use of alcohol, its sadness, the relationships between men and women, American music (jazz), and the poverty he sees everywhere. We also see comparisons of America to Mexico, including a sad reflection on modernization and war. By the nature of its place in Beat literature, On the Road provides a vision of one small slice of U.S. cultural history.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. We keep talking about "lenses" through which Sal views America, and ways in which he characterizes his country. What are these different lenses? How do they work on their own and together to paint a picture of American in the 1940s?
    2. Sal’s sadness crops up here a lot. We attributed his own personal sadness to solitude. What about America’s sadness? Same deal?
    3. What historical and cultural events are going on at the time that lead to the formation of the Beat Generation?
    4. How does the trip to Mexico clarify the portrait of America that Sal has built? Or does his experience in Mexico contradict it?

    Chew on This

    Kerouac traces three key elements through Sal’s trans-continental journey in an attempt to identify the uniquely American spirit of the 1940s: alcohol, poverty, and criminality.

    Dean and Sal may act the same in Mexico as they do in the United States (alcohol, women, and music), but there are distinctly unique elements to all three of these that make the Mexico excursion very different than their trips across the U.S.

  • Contrasting Regions

    In On the Road, the West becomes a symbol for childhood dreams and ideals, a haven of cowboys and heroes. Sal is disappointed by the West, however, and at one point characterizes it as empty and the East as holy. American geography is also used to represent personal goals, as in traveling west Sal may really be seeking to become a Western hero himself.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. How does Sal characterize the East as different from the West? Is he just talking about the country when he does this, or is the split of east and west representative of something more? You might want to look at that passage towards the beginning of the book when he discusses the East of his childhood and the West of his future.
    2. Sal always describes Dean as a Western hero or a cowboy. What makes Dean such a product of the West? What are his uniquely "Western" qualities?
    3. What does it suggest that Sal ends up staying in the East? Or that Dean comes east to see him at the end of the novel?
    4. Sal at one point refers to himself as a hero of the West, along with Dean. What’s going on there?

    Chew on This

    Just as the West has become an idealized, childhood dream for Sal, Dean is also Sal’s idealized, childhood hero. As the novel progresses, both fail to live up to his expectations in similar ways.

  • Criminality

    Much of On the Road contains anti-police sentiments. Since we as readers are sympathetic to the criminals, we take a side against the law enforcement, and the police are explicitly insulted for being power-hungry and abusive. As for criminality, it is tied both to poverty and to madness. Sal uses Dean’s time in jail to explain his sexual depravity.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Criminality is a big part of Dean’s past. How does it shape his character? Does it excuse certain actions that he might otherwise be held responsible for?
    2. At one point, Sal comments that everyone in America loves to steal. He does so himself. So why does he get all huffy when Dean steals a few cars? Is there any point to drawing a line in the illegality sandbox?
    3. What is it about cops that Dean and Sal dislike so much?

    Chew on This

    Sal’s stint as a night watchman illustrates the finer points of his relationship with Dean. While Dean is a criminal through and through, Sal tries and fails to be on the other side of the law. He is unable to be an effective watchman, but his attempt nevertheless, can be traced through much of his later interactions with Dean.

  • Poverty

    Poverty seems to be everywhere in the American that Sal sees. He meets homeless men on the side of the road and musicians playing for money. Sal even experiences poverty first hand as he travels. As for poor money management, Sal and his friends display an inability to find any sort of middle ground. Sal is either sending money home to his aunt or asking her for more money.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Why is Sal so awful at managing his money? What might this reflect about him, or about the Beat Generation that he represents?
    2. Is there a relationship between poverty and drugs?
    3. We noticed a lack of a happy medium in Sal’s money dealings. He either has a ton of cash and sends money home to his aunt, or doesn’t have enough and asks her for money. Are there other examples of this extremes-only lifestyle in the book?

    Chew on This

    Sal and Dean differ in many ways, but the one thing they have in common is their constant state of poverty. Poverty is a lens through which we can view their friendship.

  • Versions of Reality

    Dreams in On the Road are often religious in nature, featuring God (in odd forms) or Biblical imagery (such as a snake). We see hallucinations both as the result of drugs or physical extremity, but also in sober moments. Characters are concerned with the best way to understand their visions in order to use them and to learn from them.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What’s going on with Sal's snake vision? We were most interested in the part where Sal says either the snake is evil and must be destroyed or…it’s completely harmless.
    2. God seems to crop up in visions all the time. What is it about God and visions that go so well together?
    3. What makes a person seem like God to Dean? To Sal?
    4. Is the Shrouded Traveler death, or is it Dean? Or is it both?

    Chew on This

    Ed Dunkel’s "ghost on the sidewalk" becomes a symbol for each character’s alter ego. As Ed, Sal, and Dean evolve as characters, they each define what their own ghost on the sidewalk is, and subsequently break away from it.

    Visions are the only way in which Sal emulates Dean’s madness. They are his glimpse into Dean’s other-world of spirituality and enlightenment.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    In On the Road, much of learning is a spiritual process. Sal watches Dean reach his "Tao decisions" as he advances spiritually, and frequently speaks of "the word" or a "pearl of wisdom" coming to him via a prophet. Dean himself becomes a prophet in Sal’s eyes. Learning is also the basis of friendship between Dean and Sal, as they are drawn to one another because of the desire to learn – Sal to learn madness, Dean to learn intellectualism. Knowledge is tied up with drug use, it seems, as the wisest character in the text, Bull Lee, is also a drug addict. Lastly, learning and knowledge become another lens through which to characterize America, as Sal berates "the artsy types," such as the Jesuit college boys, who learn from books in stead of through life and experience. These types are everywhere in America, as one character puts it, "sucking up the blood" of the country.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Sal wants to learn certain things from Dean, but Dean also learns certain things from Sal. What are these certain things, you ask? Right back at you.
    2. Bull Lee is supposed to be a wise sage. What wisdom does he have to impart?
    3. Sal keeps talking about the Pearl of Wisdom. What might this pearl be, exactly? And who’s going to give it to him?

    Chew on This

    Kerouac uses the characters of Bull Lee and Dean to draw a parallel between wisdom and drug use.

    Sal displays a mental restlessness equal to that of his geographical dissatisfaction; there is no pearl of wisdom, just as there is no end of the road.