On the Road Summary

Overview

Summary of the Novel
Sal Paradise, a writer and college student, lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his aunt. He spends much of his time with his eccentric and artistic friends in New York City. One of his friends, Chad King, introduces him to Dean Moriarty, a young man recently released from a reformatory in New Mexico. Dean spends the winter in New York, then moves back west to Denver in the spring. A few months later, Sal follows him to Colorado.

Sal hitchhikes west, learning more about himself and the many intriguing people he meets along the way. He arrives in Denver and connects with a group of his New York friends. He moves into an apartment with his friend Roland Major, but Sal is anxious to see Dean who is on a tight schedule, hustling back and forth between his wife, Marylou, and his girlfriend, Camille. Sal roars around Denver with Dean and other friends and goes to a party in Central City. After a few weeks, he leaves on a bus for San Francisco.

In San Francisco, Sal moves in with his friend, Remi Boncoeur, and Remi’s girlfriend, Lee Ann. Remi gets Sal a job as a special policeman at a barracks for overseas workers. Sal hates working with the other cops there who are miserable and narrow-minded. After a few months, Sal leaves San Francisco and travels to L.A. On the bus he meets Terry, a young Mexican-American woman, and they fall in love.

Sal goes with Terry to Sabinal, her hometown near Bakersfield. He meets her family, moves into a tent with her and her young son, Johnny, and gets a job picking cotton. But he soon realizes that he can’t make enough money to support Terry and her son. He persuades Terry to move back with her family and he returns to his life in New York alone.

A year later, at Christmas time, Sal and his aunt are visiting relatives in Virginia when Dean, Marylou, and Ed Dunkel arrive from California. Sal takes off with them, first to New York, then to Louisiana where they visit their friend, Old Bull Lee, who lives in New Orleans. Sal, Dean, and Marylou drive back out to San Francisco where Sal and Dean have another raucous time. Dean moves in with Camille, but Sal soon gets sick of Dean’s craziness. He takes a bus back to New York by himself.

Another year passes and Sal travels west to Denver again, and then to California. When he visits Dean and Camille in San Francisco, Camille throws both men out. Sal and Dean decide to return to New York together. On the way east, they spend a wild week drinking and stealing cars in Denver before recklessly speeding to Chicago where they spend a few days listening to jazz and bop musicians. When they arrive in New York, Dean promptly falls in love with a woman named Inez.

In the spring, Sal leaves New York and heads west again. He stops in Denver, meets up with some old friends, and plans to go to Mexico. Two weeks later, Dean drives out to join him, unable to resist the lure of the road. Sal, Dean, and a new friend, Stan Shephard, leave for Mexico in another of Dean’s broken down cars.

They drive south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas and finally cross the border into Mexico. They are excited to be in a foreign country, delighted with the friendly people, and amazed by the striking desert landscape. In Gregoria they meet a young man, Victor, who supplies them with marijuana and takes them to a brothel where they spend the afternoon, drinking, dancing, and having sex with a number of women. That night they leave Gregoria and sleep on a road in the steaming jungle, waking up covered in sweat and bugs.

Feeling as if they have become a part of the jungle, they drive on towards Mexico City. On a jungle road they meet some young Indian girls whose purity and simple way of life make a deep impression on Sal and Dean.

Mexico City is an abrupt, chaotic contrast to the earthy, peaceful jungle. Sal, Dean, and Stan roam the busy streets, experiencing everything in the crowded, noisy city. Sal gets dysentery and becomes very ill, but Dean leaves him in Mexico to go back to Inez in New York. Sal recovers and eventually makes his way north, returns to New York, and falls in love with a woman named Laura.

Sal sees Dean one more time when Dean comes to visit him in Manhattan. It is a brief, painful visit; Sal is more involved now with his New York friends, and Dean has difficulty explaining himself, trying to describe to Sal how he feels about him. As Sal goes off to a concert with friends, Dean leaves New York, all alone on a freezing night, heading back to California. Later, Sal sits on a pier and reflects on their friendship and times they spent together.

The Life and Work of Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac had a major influence on an entire generation of Americans following the publication of On The Road, his semi-autobiographical novel that became the bible of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Kerouac’s impact continued into the next decade as the hippie movement developed during the 1960s and writers such as Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and songwriter Bob Dylan produced works influenced by Kerouac’s spontaneous, confessional, free-thinking style.

Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebrid de Kerouac to French-Canadian parents on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town thirty miles northwest of Boston. Kerouac spoke only French until he was seven years old, and his French-Canadian and Roman Catholic background had a strong influence on him throughout his life. In school, he was an excellent though somewhat rebellious student. He was also a gifted athlete and was awarded a football scholarship to Columbia University in 1940.

After living in New York City and attending school for two years, Kerouac dropped out of college, joined the Merchant Marines and, later, the U.S. Navy. However, Kerouac was at odds with the Navy’s many rules and highly disciplined routine. He received an honorable, though early, discharge which cited him for “indifferent character.” When he returned to school in New York, he became acquainted with a number of other writers and intellectuals who would have a profound effect on his life. Writers Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Burroughs, along with Kerouac and their friend Neal Cassady, would become the core of what was eventually known as the Beat Generation.

After meeting Cassady in 1944, Kerouac embarked on a series of road trips, traveling to Colorado, California, and Mexico. These journeys, and his friendship with Neal, would become the basis for On The Road which was published in 1957, ten years after he began making notes for the book. Kerouac’s many friends appeared as characters in the book, although he changed their names and some details of their lives. Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx), William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty), and Kerouac himself (Sal Paradise) were all key players in the novel’s wild narrative. Kerouac wrote the first complete version of On The Road in April, 1951 during an intensive three week writing stint when he typed the entire novel on a single, continuous roll of paper. Later he would describe this method as “sketching” or “spontaneous prose,” a technique that would be the hallmark of all his subsequent work.

Before he finished On The Road, Kerouac published his first novel, The Town and The City, in 1950. This fictionalized account of his early life received critical praise, although sales were modest. Kerouac continued to work odd jobs to support his travels around the United States.

In the six years between the completion of On The Road and its eventual publication, Kerouac remained prolific, writing a series of novels he considered to be one long story about his family and friends. Included in this series were Visions of Cody, Tristessa, Doctor Sax, and The Subterraneans. During this time he also became interested in Buddhism and introduced Buddhist concepts in some of his work.

In 1957, Kerouac’s experimental writing and controversial subject matter was considered by many to be outrageous and offensive. When it was published, On The Road received widely mixed reviews with some critics praising the author’s daring style and probing examination of American society and values. Others, however, would deride Kerouac’s effort as a meaningless series of vignettes filled with petty criminals and dope addicts. “Since most critics had never experienced anything like the Road, they denied its existence as art and proclaimed it a ‘Beat Generation’ tract of rebellion, then pilloried it as immoral,” explained biographer Dennis McNally.

Despite the mixed reviews, On The Road became a bestseller for weeks and Kerouac became a celebrity. It was a role he was never comfortable with, however, and following the publication and uproar over what would always be his most famous book, Kerouac had a difficult time dealing with the cult status of his work and his own popularity. On The Road became the bible of the Beat Generation, a term Kerouac had coined but later regretted when the press and public focused on the “Beat” image and lifestyle, but generally overlooked the mystical, poetic element of Kerouac’s and other Beat writers’ work.

In 1958 Kerouac published The Dharma Bums, a novel about his friend and Beat poet Gary Snyder. Success and celebrity, however, made it difficult for Kerouac to finish any other projects. He compiled a stack of unpublished manuscripts and only excerpts of his work were published over the next few years. In 1962, Kerouac was able to finish a new novel, Big Sur, which dealt with the negative effects of fame on his artistic and personal life. Throughout the 1960s, though, Kerouac retreated from public view. He died in 1969 from a stomach hemorrhage, a result of his chronic alcoholism.

Estimated Reading Time

On The Road is an entertaining, though complex, novel filled with colloquial dialogue and written in an unconventional style. The reader should be prepared to spend some time with this book. It is filled with unusual references and repeatedly uses slang terms popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The reading might be broken down into several sessions of two to three hours. Because of the novel’s length and its lack of a conventional plot or story, the reader should allow several days to finish the entire book.

On the Road Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Jack Kerouac spontaneously wrote the unedited bulk of On the Road on a 120-foot roll of teletype paper in 1951. There is some disagreement about how much editing was required of him before it was finally accepted for publication, by which time he considered the novel somewhat passé. His Visions of Cody (1972) treats approximately the same period as is covered in On the Road from a variant and more positive perspective while delving into the narrator’s chronic identity split. On the Road became the bible of the Beat generation and Kerouac’s most famous work, a vital contribution to his life story as told in his Legend of Duluoz novels.

On the Road’s cross-continental...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

On the Road Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sal Paradise is living at his aunt’s house in New Jersey while working on his first novel. His “life on the road” begins when he reads letters written from reform school by Dean Moriarity. When Dean arrives in New York with his new wife, Marylou, Sal is impressed with the younger man’s enthusiasm and flattered by Dean’s desire to learn to write. He recognizes that Dean is a con man who is probably conning him as well, but he enjoys his company. Sal is sorry when Dean meets Carlo Marx, a poet with a “dark mind,” for he cannot keep up with Dean and Carlo’s wild energy.

Sal leaves New York in the spring of 1947, planning to hitchhike to Denver and continue to San Francisco, where his friend, Remi Boncoeur,...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)

On the Road Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because On the Road was published near the end of the 1950’s, when the conformism of the Eisenhower era was at its most numbing, the book has generally been regarded as a forecast of the counterculture explosion of the next decade. While it certainly contributed to the developing sensibility of the generation that came of age in the 1960’s, the book actually belongs to an earlier era in American life. Critics have pointed out how much Kerouac’s sense of America is derived from the Transcendentalists of the previous century—writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shaped and shared the literary heritage of New England, Kerouac’s home ground—and how Kerouac...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)

On the Road Chapter Summary and Analysis

Part One, Chapters 1–2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Sal Paradise: the narrator of the story

Dean Moriarty: a young man who travels to New York from New Mexico and later becomes Sal’s great friend

Chad King: Sal’s friend in New York

Carlo Marx: another New York friend of Sal’s

Marylou: Dean Moriarty’s girlfriend

Elmer Hassel: a friend of Sal’s and a drug dealer

Sal’s Aunt: owner of the house where Sal lives in New Jersey

Remi Boncoeur: Sal’s friend, a merchant seaman in San Francisco

Roy Johnson: a friend of Sal’s from Denver who lives in San Francisco

Summary
In 1947, Sal Paradise, a recently divorced student and writer...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Part One, Chapters 3-5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Truck Driver: a trucker who gives Sal a ride

Eddie: a young hitchhiker from New York

The Cowboy: a man who gives Sal and Eddie a ride

Carnival Owner: a man who offers Sal and Eddie a job

Farmer: a raucous man at local truck stop

Montana Slim: a shady character Sal meets while riding on the back of a truck

Mississippi Gene: a quiet hobo Sal meets on the truck

Mexican Waitress: a young woman Sal asks out for a date

Summary
Sal makes it to Chicago by bus and spends a few days wandering around the city and visiting local jazz clubs. But soon he’s ready to leave again. He hitchhikes west and meets a...

(The entire section is 953 words.)

Part One, Chapters 6-8: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mr. King: Chad King’s father

Roland Major: Sal’s roommate in Denver

Camille: one of Dean Moriarty’s girlfriends

Ray Rawlins: another friend of Sal’s in Denver

Rita Bettencourt: a waitress and friend of Dean’s

Mary Bettencourt: Rita’s sister

Tim Gray: a friend of Sal’s in Denver

Summary
Sal immediately looks up his friend Chad King who is working at a museum, and studying anthropology and American Indians. Sal learns that Chad is no longer friends with Dean Moriarty or Carlo Marx. A rift has developed between these two and Sal’s other friends. Sal is curious to see how things will develop...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Part One, Chapters 9-10: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Babe Rawlins: Ray’s beautiful blond sister

Summary
Sal and his friends, minus Dean and Carlo, drive to Central City, an old mining town west of Denver. In its heyday, Central City was a rich silver mining area, but now it’s just a tourist trap. One outstanding feature of the town is the beautiful old Opera House. Every year, Central City hosts a well-known opera company that performs in the old theater.

Sal and his friends plan to host a party in the town, although they have nowhere to stay. Babe Rawlins, Ray’s sister, knows of an old miner’s shack they can use if they clean it up. Everyone gets to work, scrubbing and dusting the old shack, while Sal and Babe...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Part One, Chapters 11-12: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Lee Ann: Remi Boncoeur’s girlfriend

Old Cop: a cranky, ex-Alcatraz guard who works at the Barracks with Sal

Sledge: an angry, brutal cop at the Barracks

Terry: a young Mexican woman Sal meets on a bus

Blond boy: a young man who gives Sal a ride

Trailer Salesman: a man who gives Sal a ride

Summary
Sal travels by bus to San Francisco, enjoying the scenery of the West. When he arrives in the city, he looks up his friend Remi Boncoeur, who is living in a shack in Mill City. Sal recalls meeting Remi in prep school, and tells us that while they were in college, Remi introduced him to a woman Sal married and later divorced....

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

Part One, Chapters 13-14: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Ricky: Terry’s brother

Ponzo: Ricky’s friend

The Ghost: a mad hobo Sal meets in Pennsylvania

Skinny Salesman: he gives Sal a ride to Times Square

Summary
After a few days, Sal and Terry have had enough of L.A. They can’t find jobs and they are overwhelmed by the wild, crowded city streets, teeming with tourists and eccentric characters. Sal calls the city “a jungle.” Sal and Terry decide to go to New York together. Terry visits her sister while Sal waits outside. He can hear the two women arguing, and Terry quickly leaves the house. They move out of their hotel room and are back on the road again.

To save money, Sal...

(The entire section is 1052 words.)

Part Two, Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Galated: Ed Dunkel’s wife

Summary
A year has passed and Sal is back in school on the GI Bill. For Christmas, Sal and his aunt go to Testament, Virginia to visit Sal’s brother, Rocky. One day, while Sal is visiting with his Southern relatives, Dean shows up with Marylou and Ed Dunkel, driving a brand new car. Sal hasn’t seen Dean for over a year.

Dean immediately creates chaos in the house, leaving Sal’s relatives completely bewildered. Dean drives Sal and the others downtown to the heart of the little city. Dean explains that he had been working on the railroad in San Francisco, earning $400 a week, but he spent it all buying his new car. Now the car is...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

Part Two, Chapters 4-6: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Tom Saybrook: a friend of Sal’s

Lucille: Sal’s girlfriend in New York

Damion: Sal’s friend; the ”hero” of his New York group

Rollo Greb: a friend of Sal’s who lives on Long Island

Hyman Solomon: a hobo

Old Bull Lee: Sal and Dean’s friend in New Orleans

Jane Lee: Old Bull’s wife

Summary
On New Year’s Eve, Sal and Dean sleep all day at Sal’s aunt’s house. When they wake up, Ed tells them about his last New Year’s Eve, which he spent alone, having visions of his dead mother. However this year they’re all going to a party in New York, so they head off for Manhattan. As they drive...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Part Two, Chapters 7-9: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Alfred: a young, crippled hitchhiker

Hal Hingham: Sal’s friend in Tucson who loans him money

Okie Country Singer: a hitchhiker from Bakersfield

Summary
Sal wakes up to find Bull and Dean pulling nails from an old and rotten piece of wood. Bull wants to use the nails to build a shelf that will last forever. Bull is a great believer in building solid things. He shows off a table he built, a part of fence, and an “orgone accumulator” which is a device designed to collect orgones from the atmosphere. Sal notes that Bull is at his best in the morning, before fatigue and the effects of his drug use cause him to retire to his chair in the corner.

...

(The entire section is 920 words.)

Part Three: Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Roy Johnson: a friend from Denver who lives in San Francisco.

Dorothy: Roy’s wife

Marie: a friend who lives in San Francisco with her little daughter

Summary
In 1949, Sal travels to Denver again. He gets a job at the fruit market, where he works long, exhausting hours. At night, he walks the streets of Denver’s lively black and Mexican neighborhoods, wishing he were anything but a disillusioned “white man.”

Sal becomes involved with a wealthy young woman. She gives him a hundred dollars for travel money because she realizes he’s not happy. Sal leaves for San Francisco again, and at the Colorado/Utah border, Sal tells us he saw God in the sky “in the form of...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Part Three: Chapters 4-5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Tenorman: a jazz musician Sal and Dean meet at a club

Ed Fournier: another jazz musician

Walter: a man Sal and Dean meet at a bar

Walter’s wife: a sweet-tempered woman, married to Walter

“The Fag”: a gay man who drives Sal and Dean to Denver

Summary
To start off their two days of “kicks,” Sal, Dean, Galatea, and Marie go to a jazz club where they listen to a passionate performance by a “tenorman” who plays to a wild, screaming audience. After his set, Sal and Dean talk to the tenorman. Dean tells him he just wants to have a ball; the tenorman says that “life’s too sad to be ballin all the time.”

They all speed across town to Jameson’s...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Part Three, Chapters 6-8: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Sam Brady: Sal’s cousin in Denver

Janett: Frankie’s thirteen year-old daughter

Shotgun woman: a neighbor of Frankie’s

College boys: Sal and Dean’s passengers in the travel-bureau limousine

Ed Wall: an old friend of Dean’s who lives on a ranch in Sterling, Colorado

Summary
Sitting in a restaurant in downtown Denver, Sal and Dean get into a nasty argument because Sal thinks Dean is making fun of him for being five years older than Dean. Dean leaves, very upset, and Sal feels guilty for yelling at him. When Dean comes back in, he tells Sal he was crying.

In Denver they stay with an Okie woman named Frankie and...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)

Part Three, Chapters 9-11: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Hoboes: two men Dean picks up in the Cadillac

Country girl: a young woman Sal meets on a bus

Inez: a woman Dean meets at a party

Summary
Sal, Dean and the college boys leave Ed Wall’s ranch and speed across Nebraska at night. Dean has never been to Chicago, and he’s excited to get there. Sal, thinking about Dean’s crazy antics, tells us that “it was remarkable how Dean could go mad and then suddenly continue with his soul—which I think is wrapped up in a fast car, a coast to reach, and woman at the end of the road.”

As they drive through the night, Dean recalls some adventures he had going through Nebraska and Indiana to see an...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)

Part Four, Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Henry Glass: a young man just released from prison

Stan Shephard: a friend of Tim Gray’s who lives in Denver

Charity: Babe Rawlins’s aunt

Stan’s grandfather: a sad old man who doesn’t want Stan to leave with Sal and Dean

Summary
With the arrival of spring, Sal is ready to leave New York again. Dean is working as a parking lot attendant in Manhattan and living with Inez in the east eighties in a cold-water flat. Inez and Camille have been having long talks on the telephone about Dean and have become friendly. Dean sends Camille money every month for child-support.

Late one night Sal and Dean discuss their lives and futures....

(The entire section is 1163 words.)

Part Four, Chapters 4-6: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Victor: a young Mexican who lives in Gregoria

Venezuela: a Mexican girl who works as a prostitute in Gregoria

Summary
Three miles outside of Denver, Stan is bitten on the arm by a mysterious bug. His arm swells considerably, and Sal regards this as an ominous sign. They drive out of Colorado, through New Mexico, and into Texas. Dean urges them all to tell their life stories. Stan goes first, describing his European travels as they continue south through hot, dusty Texas.

In San Antonio, while Stan goes to a hospital to have his infected arm treated, Sal and Dean roam around the Mexican part of town. They stop in a pool hall to watch a young, crippled...

(The entire section is 907 words.)

Part Four/Five, Chapter 6 & Conclusion: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Young Indian Girl: a shy girl Sal, Dean, and Stan encounter along a jungle road

Laura: a woman Sal falls in love with in New York

Old Man: a man with flowing white hair Sal sees on a road

Summary
Outside Gregoria, Dean’s headlights don’t work, and they are forced to drive in the dark on a jungle road. Outside the car, they can hear millions of screaming insects. Their headlights come back on as they pull into Limon, a small town in the jungle. They pull over on the outskirts of town; they’re so exhausted they all have to sleep, but it’s too hot and there are too many insects.

Dean curls up on the dirt road; Stan sleeps in the car; and Sal stretches out on the...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)