On the Road Themes
by Jack Kerouac

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On the Road Themes

(Novels for Students)

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There are entire paragraphs listing the names of Sal Paradise's friends in On the Road. The nature of friendship is an integral theme of the novel. Sal, being a goodnatured person, has a diverse collection of friends. Some are artistic types, such as the bizarre poet Carlo Marx. Others, like Old Bull Lee, are wildly eccentric. Surprisingly enough, Sal even has some ordinary, everyday friends, like Chad King. Sal also has many brief yet memorable friendships on the road. Of course, the most important friendship in the novel is between Sal and Dean Moriarty.

The powerful bond between Sal and Dean drives the story. Soon after Dean arrives in New York City, Sal becomes addicted to Dean's effervescent personality. Sal recognizes that Dean is manipulating him, but Dean's relentless energy captivates him:

As we rode in the bus in the weird phosphorescent void of the Lincoln Tunnel we leaned on each other with fingers waving and talked excitedly, and I was beginning to get the bug like Dean. He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him. He was conning me and I knew it (for room and board and "how-to-write," etc.), and he knew I knew (this has been the basis of our relationship), but I didn't care and we got along fine—no pestering, no catering; we tiptoed around each other like heartbreaking new friends. I began to learn from him as much as he probably learned from me.

What Sal learns from Dean is to live completely in the moment, to savor every experience. Sal's friendship with Dean is at first so strong that he is willing to follow Dean anywhere without a second thought. As they travel back and forth across the country, they share each other's life stories, dreams, philosophies, and visions. Together, they work themselves into a musicdriven frenzy in countless jazz clubs, and they wallow in drunken debauchery in a Mexican bordello. Sal wants to be with Dean just to see what will happen next.

Of course, like most true friends, they have stormy moments. Sal is slightly jealous after he introduces Dean to Carlo and they become close. Sal also actually makes Dean cry during a petty argument they have in a diner. However, Dean is much more selfish than Sal. He abandons Sal on the road twice. The first time, he leaves him on the streets of San Francisco with Marylou, and with no money. Even worse, Dean later abandons Sal in Mexico City while he is feverish with dysentery. But Sal, ever the understanding friend, always forgives Dean. Ultimately, Sal comes to pity Dean. At the end of the novel, Sal is settling down with a new lover in New York City. Consumed by his wild compulsions, Dean is ragged and nearly incoherent the last time Sal sees him. Although Sal knows he will never forget Dean, the scene is a depressing finale to an extraordinary friendship.

Youthful rebellion in American literature can be traced back to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The rebellion of the characters in On the Road is a bit different from the revolt of sixties youth against the establishment (although a very convincing argument can be made that people like Kerouac's characters influenced that upheaval). It is not a violent or political rebellion; it is a rebellion of mind and spirit. It isn't that Sal, Dean, and the others don't believe in the "American Dream"; they simply don't buy into the popular conception of it. These characters rebel by disassociating themselves from society rather than directly attacking it. They embrace the role of the outsider through their use of drugs, their promiscuous sex, and their general disdain for traditional, middleclass American values. Freedom to live in the moment is their goal, and damn the consequences. For example, Old Bull Lee has a "sentimental streak" for the America of 1910 because:

you could get morphine in a drugstore...

(The entire section is 1,177 words.)