The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Dharma Bums follows the pattern of many of Kerouac’s other novels in concentrating mainly on two characters: a first-person male narrator based on Kerouac himself, and a larger-than-life male hero who inspires the narrator’s admiration and allegiance. This pattern has a long tradition in American literature, including such important works as Moby Dick (1851) and The Great Gatsby (1925), but Kerouac’s use of the pattern raises interesting new issues because all of his heroes were based on close friends, usually writers themselves, who sometimes had strong reactions to Kerouac’s fictional use of them. Gary Snyder, for example, was initially angered by the image of an irrepressible extrovert and womanizer that The Dharma Bums imposed on him. Years later, however, Snyder praised Kerouac for his talent as a mythographer—for synthesizing the values that he wanted to promote in his archetypal characters.

Kerouac’s characterization of Ray and Japhy has much to do with his personal and professional situation at the time that he wrote the novel. In the year between the experiences chronicled in The Dharma Bums and the time of its writing, Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road (1957), was published, and he was unsettled by the glare of publicity and deeply troubled by the outraged vituperation of critics, who denounced the activities of Kerouac’s hero Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady) as depraved and subversive. Thus in November, 1957, through the haze of an increasing drinking problem, Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in an attempt both to hold on to the positive aspects of his life from just a year earlier, and to embody those aspects in a hero whose associations with the American frontier tradition would allow Kerouac’s critics to see his visionary intentions in a more positive light.

Like all of Kerouac’s first-person narrators, Ray Smith is a man of immense inner conflicts. Though it is one of Kerouac’s weaknesses as a writer that he does not always seem aware of these conflicts, his great strength is the openness with which he allows these conflicts to express themselves—often in disconcerting or humorous juxtaposition. An episode in the first chapter illustrates several of these conflicts in Ray: between the freedom of wandering and the longing for a home, the exultations of solitude and the trials of loneliness,...

(The entire section is 992 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Raymond (Ray) Smith

Raymond (Ray) Smith, the first-person narrator, a wanderer based on the author. Ray is an intellectual who has turned from the Catholicism of his youth to Buddhism in his search for the ultimate truth of existence. He is disgusted with the shallowness and hypocrisy of American civilization in the 1950’s. In fact, his major problem is that he cannot live or get along in the world as it is and must retreat periodically from it. He is able to practice meditation successfully on mountaintops, in forests, and in deserts, but when he comes back to civilization, he feels that he is back in “hell” again. Gradually, through his meditation and conversations with friends, especially Japhy Ryder, his spiritual mentor, he comes to realize the Buddhist wisdom of the emptiness and consequent unity of all things and determines to try and live successfully within the dust and commotion of the city.

Japhy Ryder

Japhy Ryder, an outdoorsman, Buddhist, scholar, and poet who becomes Smith’s friend and mentor. He is based on Gary Snyder. Like Ray, Japhy recognizes the crass materialism and hypocrisy of American life in the 1950’s, but he is able to cope successfully with it and live in the real world. Unlike Ray, who must meditate with his eyes closed, he can meditate with his eyes open and can meditate in a crowded bar as well as on a mountaintop. Japhy participates fully in life and tries to introduce Ray to various aspects of living in the world. He introduces Ray to his...

(The entire section is 625 words.)