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How does Jack Kerouac use diction and literary devices in On the Road?

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tnqanh | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) Honors

Posted February 7, 2012 at 9:52 AM via web

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How does Jack Kerouac use diction and literary devices in On the Road?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 7, 2012 at 11:31 AM (Answer #1)

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Diction (that is, word choice) and literary devices are especially important elements in Jack Kerouac’s narrative titled On the Road. The style of Kerouac’s narrative seems almost as significant as its plot, and in fact it may be even more significant. Consider, for example, the following passage from very early in the narrative, when the narrator realizes that his travels have taken him away from the city where he hopes to meet his friends:

I cursed, I cried for Chicago. "Even now they're all having a big time, they're doing this, I'm not there, when will I get there!"-and so on. Finally a car stopped at the empty filling station; the man and the two women in it wanted to study a map. I stepped right up and gestured in the rain; they consulted; I looked like a maniac, of course, with my hair all wet, my shoes sopping. My shoes, damn fool that I am, were Mexican huaraches, plantlike sieves not fit for the rainy night of America and the raw road night.

In this passage, Kerouac adds to the interest of his writing by using a number of devices of diction and literary style.  He opens, for instance, with a very brief sentence featuring heavy alliteration: “I cursed, I cried for Chicago.” Instead of writing “I cursed and I cried,” he makes the phrasing seem less leisurely, more abrupt. He doesn’t introduce the quoted sentence by writing “I said to myself . . . .” Instead, he simply dives immediately into his thoughts. He doesn’t relay them using the past tense; rather, he uses present tense (“Even now”) to help give us a sense that we are there, inside his head, listening to his thoughts unroll. By using contractions (such as “they’re” instead of “they are”) he contributes to the rapid pace and colloquial tone of the phrasing. Meanwhile, the use of comma splices in this same quoted sentence also helps give it a sense of speed and the flavor of everyday speech. More alliteration appears in “Finally . . . filling”; a colloquial expression appears in “stepped right up”; more brevity appears in “they consulted”; and then this brief phrase is immediately juxtaposed with the much longer phrasing of the rest of the sentence. Vivid details appear in the references to “my hair all wet, my shoes sopping,” and indeed “sopping” is an especially striking verb. The use of the phrase “damn fool” implies that the speaker is blunt and plainspoken, even when assessing himself, while the word “huarches” adds authenticity to the account, making the speaker seem concerned with verbal precision. The phrase “plantlike sieves” is far more memorable than “leaky fiber shoes” would have been, while further alliteration adds to the effectiveness of “rainy night of America and the raw road night” – phrasing that also profits from the emphatic repetition of “night.”

Here and elsewhere, then, Kerouac shows himself highly attentive not just to what he is saying but also to how he is saying it. He writes not merely to tell a story but to make the story vivid and memorable. We don’t simply read his words; we listen to them with our inner ears, and we see with our mind’s eye the striking visual details he often provides.

 

 

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