review by Julia Hones
In Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road“, Sal Paradise, the narrator, is a newly divorced college student who lives with his aunt in Paterson, New Jersey. In the first chapter he introduces his friend, Dean Moriarty. Sal explains that they “understand each other on different levels of madness”. Sal creates great expectations for the reader with this interesting statement: “I’ve shambled after, as I’ve been doing all my life, people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Dean was to him like a long-lost brother. His aunt warned him that Dean would get him in trouble but Sal, an adventurous young writer, did not mind taking the risks.
Sal and Dean are determined to “dig” whatever and whoever comes across their way. Initially, we get the idea that they are eager to explore every place and go through new experiences but we soon find that all they care about is to meet new girls to replace the ones they left behind, drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, party and listen to jazz.
The story begins in 1947. Sal and Dean travel across the United States of America and they even drive down to Mexico. Sal starts by hitch-hiking and then, when he joins Dean, they drive borrowed cars. There are vivid descriptions of the rides and towns but very few personal perceptions like this interesting one: “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities. New York gets good-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets. LA is a jungle.”
Reading this, I expected something enlightening would come out of these trips. I was wrong. They visit many places and meet different people but we don’t get to know them well enough to find them interesting or care about them. Relationships are superficial and ephemeral. Their hedonistic lifestyle makes them blind to other people’s feelings and needs. Even their own comradeship is pushed aside by their hedonism in certain situations.
Women in this story are seen as sexual objects. Sal and Dean want to “make them”. There is no meaningful description of the women beyond their physical features. They only get to exist in relation to men and they are treated like inanimate objects that can be easily replaced and disposed of.
Marylou, Dean’s first wife, is called a “whore” when she does not subject herself to his idea of what a woman should be like: submissive. I suppose he expected her to be faithful, even though he himself cheated on all his wives and lied to them constantly. Dean lives in the present moment and ignores all responsibilities, including the two daughters he had with his second wife, Camille.
Some hilarious situations take place when Sal is broke and accepts a job as a policeman. He acknowledges he does not have the soul to be a policeman and the anecdotes that follow are well told and interesting. The disturbing irony of Dean’s so-called carefree spirit is rooted in the fact that, in reality, he is not free but trapped by a disorder that rules his erratic frenzy: his behavior is consistent with bipolar disorder.
On a couple of occasions, Sal expresses his desire to fall in love with a woman to marry her but, on the other hand, he feels the urge to be on the move and escape from commitments. The road is analogous to his life. He admits that all he has to offer a woman is his own confusion, and so he travels in search of his identity. Dean’s influence is powerful on him.
In the final chapter, however, Sal finally falls in love with a woman with whom he wants to settle down, and there is a hint of transformation.