Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The major goal of Ray Smith as discussed above—the achievement of a sustained unity among the many conflicting sides of his personality—is also the major theme of the novel as a whole. A consideration of all the important conflicts in Ray’s character, and of all those moments in which he perceives ways of resolving them, would easily fill a book. Yet what is most interesting and feels most true about The Dharma Bums is that the novel as a whole expresses something that Ray never recognizes, and in fact tries to deny at the end: that such a euphoric state of sustained enlightenment is beyond him. Coming down from Desolation Peak, where Japhy had also worked as a lookout, Ray tries to believe that in taking Japhy as a model he has finally attained the state of permanent blissful enlightenment that he has been seeking: “The vision of the freedom of eternity was mine forever.” For the reader, however, who remembers many similar moments in the novel, it is hard not to view this overly optimistic finale with some skepticism.

Like many other wondrous characters in American literature, Japhy Ryder represents a myth into which the first-person narrator ultimately cannot enter, a limit that he cannot achieve. What is even more interesting than the wondrousness of the mythical hero in The Dharma Bums, as in many other American novels, is the curiosity and resilience of the earthbound narrator. Though he repeatedly lapses from what he thinks should be permanent enlightenment, Ray Smith never ceases to explore large questions in a way that compels the reader to accompany him on his quest.