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On the Road

Jack Kerouac wrote his most famous piece, On the Road, in 1957. Kerouac originally struggled to find a publisher who would publish a novel full of drugs, alcohol, and sex—but in 1957, nearly a decade after he finished writing it, On the Road was published.

On the Road, Open Road, StudySmarterOn the Road follows Sal's crazy road trip adventures. Pixabay.

Did you know Kerouac wrote On the Road on a 120-foot scroll he stitched together so he could write uninterrupted on his typewriter? The scroll is on display in the Iowa University Museum of Art.

On the Road: Novel Summary

Sal Paradise is a young writer living in New York City who is friends with an intellectual circle. Sal meets Dean Moriarity in 1947. Dean has just gotten out of jail and is newly married. The two friends begin a journey with many crazy road trip adventures fueled by drugs, alcohol, jazz, and sex. They begin in New York, then they go to Chicago and Denver.

On the Road, two guys on a road trip, StudySmarterDean and Sal begin their road trip in New York. Pixabay.

In Denver, Dean searches for his father, who he hasn't seen in a very long time. Here they spend a lot of time with Sal's friend Carlo Marx. They finish their first adventure in San Francisco where they spend time with Remi Boncoeur. Sal finds a job as a night watchman and realizes he wasn't meant to work in law enforcement. He also begins to feel restless once more.

Sal decides he will head back east. On the way, he meets a Mexican woman named Teresa, or Terry, at a bus station. Terry has just run away from her husband and has a young son. Sal decides he will live with her on the near brink of starvation and works as a cotton picker. Sal considers Terry his girlfriend. Eventually, Sal feels restless, packs up, and heads to New York without Terry.

Sal runs into Dean. Dean is with his first ex-wife after running away from his second wife. He is joined by Ed, who is also running away from his wife. Dean is crazier than ever, but Sal continues adventuring with him. Sal leaves and heads to New Orleans with Dean to see the drug addicts Old Bull Lee and Jane, his wife. They meet many hitchhikers and cause trouble along the way.

After their time in New Orleans, they run off to San Francisco. Dean briefly leaves and when he finally reappears he is having trouble deciding between his ex-wife and second wife. Sal, in a fit of restlessness, goes to Denver only to return to San Francisco, due to boredom. Sal convinces Dean to return to the east with him. From there they can take their crazy adventures abroad, to Italy, in the hopes of finding happiness.

Dean manages to steal them a Cadillac car in Denver, and they drive to Chicago where they have many crazy nights filled with jazz and alcohol. In Detroit, they let loose and engage in risky behavior before heading back to New York. In New York, Dean marries his third wife. Sal attempts to live a normal life in New York and even considers marrying his girlfriend at the time, Lucille. However, Sal becomes restless once more and leaves for Denver, and Dean follows him there.

Dean wants to go to Mexico with Sal and they go. Once there, they spend too much money on alcohol and engage in a lot of sexual activity. Sal gets sick with dysentery, and Dean leaves Sal in Mexico. Sal returns to New York and sees that Dean's madness is at an all-time high. This time his madness is no longer fun; it is intense. Sal feels unable to help his hero, Dean. This causes him to think long and hard about Dean and America in general. Sal must make a decision between continuing to live his life with Dean or with Remi.

Sal decides he will leave Dean behind and go on adventures with Remi and his other friends. He waves to Dean goodbye, and that is the end of their adventures together.

On the Road: Characters

On the Road contains many characters, some even appearing for only a few sentences. Many of the characters are men. Women oftentimes appear as wives, girlfriends, or for sex; they don't have as richly developed characteristics or backgrounds.

Below are the main characters that drive the plot forward and appear frequently.

CharacterDescription
Sal ParadiseSal is the protagonist of the story. In a bid to find happiness and meaning in his life, he goes on wild adventures west and back, looking up to his hero: Dean. Sal is observant, uncertain, and cannot actualize what he wants.
Dean MoriartyDean is a madman that is idolized by Sal. He is spontaneous, impulsive, and lacks any feeling of remorse. He is quick to abandon those who care for him and has poor judgment. His madness leads him to drugs, sex, and alcohol.
Carlo MarxCarlo Marx was named after the 19th-century philosopher Karl Marx, who promoted socialism, and Groucho Marx, a 20th-century comedian. Carlo Marx represents anti-capitalistic sentiments in a comedic way. He is dark and a voice of reason for Sal.
Old Bull LeeOld Bull Lee acts as a guru and teaches Sal and Dean about drugs. He also notes that Dean is going crazy and Sal should leave him. He is an odd voice of reason.
Remi BoncoeurRemi has an interesting relationship with Sal. Sal stole Remi's first wife and is interested in Remi's new girlfriend. However, they remain friends. Remi dislikes Dean because his madness is too much. At the end, when Sal has to choose between Dean and Remi, he chooses Remi.
Ed DunkelSal likens Ed to a saint because he has many visions. Ed has an unusual woman named Galatea whom he ends up marrying.
MarylouMarylou is Dean's first wife. Despite her deep love for Dean, his madness gets in the way. She is up for any adventure Dean throws her way and understands him more than anyone.
CamilleCamille is Dean's second wife who he ultimately chooses in the end. Dean treats her terribly, abusing her and cheating on her, but she loves him nonetheless.
Jane LeeJane Lee is Old Bull Lee's wife who has a deep, soul connection to Bull. Sal looks to Jane and Bull as a perfect relationship, despite Jane's role as more of a sexual companion than a wife. She is addicted to drugs and is in a state of decay.
InezInez is Dean's third wife, and we don't learn much about her throughout the text. She loves Dean and is carrying his child, however, she doesn't tolerate Dean cheating on her.
TerryTerry becomes Sal's girlfriend during Sal's adventure west. Their relationship is based on dependence and solitude rather than love. Despite living with her and her family, Sal eventually abandons her when he begins to feel restless.

Many of the characters in On the Road are based on real-life people Kerouac knew. Many were other Beat Generation writers, while some were family members. Carlo Marx is based on the poet Allen Ginsburg, Dean Moriarty is based on Neal Cassady, and Old Bull Lee is based on William S. Burroughs.

On the Road: Analysis

On the Road belongs to Beat Generation Literature.

Beat Generation Literature is a literary movement that originated in the 1950s. Beat literature was characterized by its exploration of American culture and politics and its influence on society in the Post-War Era. Many Beat writers experimented with narrative structures, themes, and style. Many taboo subjects such as drugs, sex, and alcohol were discussed.

What characterizes On the Road as Beat literature is its spontaneous prose and non-conforming writing style. On the Road also heavily portrays the effects of drugs, alcohol, and sex throughout the text, while speaking on contemporary cultural and political occurrences in the United States.

On the Road, Typewriter, StudySmarterKerouac wrote undisturbed on his typewriter by stitching long stretches of paper together. Pixabay.Spontaneous prose is a writing style preferred by Kerouac. This meant Kerouac wrote undisturbed and let whatever thought he had flow onto the page. This gave Kerouac's writing a feeling of chaos and wildness, which matches the energy of Sal and Dean's crazy adventures. Oftentimes throughout On the Road, Kerouac included long, rambling sentences and often replaced periods with commas or em dashes (—). The text also seems to wander, much like the wandering of the characters.

During the following week, he confided in Chad King that he absolutely had to learn how to write from him; Chad said I was a writer and he should come to me for advice. Meanwhile, Dean had gotten a job in a parking lot, had a fight with Marylou in their Hoboken apartment—God knows why they went there—and she was so mad and so down deep vindictive that she reported to the police some false trumped-up hysterical crazy charge, and Dean had to lam from Hoboken. So he had no place to live" (Part 1, chapter 1).

Notice a few key characteristics in this excerpt from On the Road. There is a lack of periods, as they are replaced mostly with commas and em-dashes. The text wanders topics from Chad King, to Dean wishing to learn how to write from Sal, to Dean fighting with Marylou, to Dean having no place to live. It reveals the wild, chaotic writing that is to come.

On the Road is written from the first-person perspective. This means the narrator and the protagonist are the same. Sal is the narrator and protagonist of the story. It is indicated by the use of the pronoun "I".

The tone of the novel is observant and reflective. Throughout the novel, the reader gets to see how Sal observes the world around him and the people he chooses to surround himself with. He often reflects on what it means to be in those settings and around those people. Early in the novel, he states how he chooses to be around mad people because he finds them very interesting in comparison to his boring life. The largest reflection we get from Sal is at the end of the novel when he sadly reflects on Dean.

When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes. "Okay, old Dean, I’ll say nothing" (Part 4, Chapter 6).

Sal sees Dean as a hero and idolizes him throughout the novel. After Dean abandons a sick Sal in Mexico, Sal realizes he doesn't admire Dean as much as he thought he did. Sal followed Dean along to get meaning and happiness in his life. But, he never did so and only ended up hurt. Here in one of his reflections, Sal realizes the value of a true friendship.

On the Road, open book with dog, street light, little girl holding an umbrella, StudySmarterOn the Road is full of crazy adventures. Pixabay.

On the Road: Themes

On the Road contains many important themes such as madness, emptiness, and friendship.

Madness

Dean is mad, but it is Sal's idolization of Dean's craziness that is the source of the novel's madness. Sal wishes he could be mad like Dean, but he is unable to, so he follows Dean around to experience the madness. The madness is the basis of their friendship, which is why Dean is quick to abandon Sal, and Sal chooses Remi over Dean at the end of the novel. Anytime the reader sees Sal become bored in life, such as when he lives with Terry or attempts to live a married life with Lucille, he seeks Dean's madness. Madness that is fueled by drugs and alcohol is a source of escape for Sal.

Oh, sociology and all that field, you know. Say, Dean gets crazier every year, don’t he?""He sure does" (Part 4, Chapter 3).

Dean's craziness is apparent, and it worsens all the time. From the beginning of the novel until the end of the novel, his madness intensifies and creates more hurt and chaos.

Emptiness

On the Road, benches at a park, StudySmarterSal's admiration for Dean's madness comes from an emptiness he feels in his own life. Pixabay.

On the Road displays many characters, particularly Sal, who feel empty and dissatisfied with their lives. To combat this emptiness there is a sense that Sal and his friends must keep moving from location to location, relationship to relationship, and from one alcohol binge or drug to another. Despite the many exciting, dangerous, and crazy adventures Sal and his friends go on, they always feel empty inside and never truly find meaning and purpose in their lives.

Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night" (Part 1, Chapter 3).

Sal sees Denver as a promised land because he believes at the beginning of the novel that taking an adventure out west will give his life meaning and excitement, rather than the emptiness he feels inside.

Friendship

The friendships throughout On the Road are based on the hero-worship of Dean. Sal sees Dean as a hero and wishes to be his companion to experience Dean's madness. Because their friendship is not based on true love or care for one another, Dean is quick to abandon Sal, and Sal chooses Remi over Dean at the end of the novel. However, other friendships prove to be stronger, such as Dean and Carlo's, which is based on the intellectual interests they both share. We see here that friendship must be an exchange between two people, rather than the worship of someone's insanity.

Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes - the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx. From that moment on I saw very little of Dean, and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them" (Part 1, Chapter 1).

Here we see Sal describe Dean and Carlo's intellectual friendship based on common interests. Sal begins to feel insecure because he feels his friendship with Dean is not as strong. This is because their friendship is based on Sal's admiration of Dean.

On the Road: Quotes From the Novel

Here are some key quotes from the text:

At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis. And as I sat there listening to that sound of the light which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about" (Part 1, Chapter 3).

Beat Generation writers such as Kerouac were heavily inspired by Jazz and Bop. Jazz and Bop appear multiple times throughout On the Road, often inspiring moments of frenzy. However, as Sal reflects in this quote, Bop can come to represent a unification of everyone across the country, all doing their own thing, but still sharing their taste in music.

I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk. I began talking moonshine and roses to the doctor’s young wife. I drank so much I had to go to the men’s room every two minutes, and to do so I had to hop over Dr. Boncœur’s lap. Everything was falling apart. My stay in San Francisco was coming to an end" (Part 1, Chapter 11).

Beat writers like Kerouac wrote about taboo subjects such as drugs and alcohol and their negative effects. Here Sal has had too much to drink and because of his heavy drinking he is putting his friendships at stake and he feels as if his life is falling apart. Kerouac was a heavy drinker in his lifetime and even died of complications with cirrhosis due to heavy drinking.

I looked out the window at the winking neons and said to myself, Where is Dean and why isn’t he concerned about our welfare? I lost faith in him that year. I stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time of my life" (Part 2, Chapter 10).

Sal idolizes Dean, but when he begins to realize that Dean doesn't care much for Sal, Sal's heroic image of Dean fades. During this moment we see Sal begin to lose admiration for his hero and begin to see the reality of Dean's madness and faux-friendship.

On the Road - Key takeaways

  • On the Road is a novel written by Jack Kerouac and published in 1957.
  • It follows the crazy adventures of Sal Paradise as he follows his mad friend Dean Moriarity to the west and back in search of meaning and happiness.
  • The novel belongs to the Beat Generation Literary Movement of the 1950s and contains Kerouac's signature writing style of spontaneous prose and subject wandering. It also contains taboo subjects typical in Beat literature such as drugs, sex, and alcohol.
  • On the Road contains themes such as madness, emptiness, and friendship.
  • At the end of the novel, Sal must choose between his hero worship of Dean's madness or true friendship. He chooses the latter.

Frequently Asked Questions about On the Road

Jack Kerouac is the author of On the Road.

The message of On the Road is that purpose and meaning in life cannot be found externally through someone else's life or through the abuse of substances. Finding purpose and meaning has to come from within. 

Sal Paradise is the main character.

On the Road is not a true story, but many of the characters and stories come from Kerouac's own life. 

On the Road is important because it helped further the Beat Generation literary movement, helping shape future writing styles. 

Final On the Road Quiz

Question

When was On the Road published?

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1957

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Who wrote On the Road ?

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Jack Kerouac

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Who is the protagonist of On the Road ?

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Sal Paradise

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Who does Sal idolize and worship?

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Answer

Dean and Dean's madness

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Where does Sal and Dean's journey begin?

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New York

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Why does Sal worship Dean's madness?

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Sal feels empty and dissatisfied with his own life and wants to experience Dean's madness to feel happiness. 

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What literary movement does On the Road belong to?

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Answer

Beat Generation literary movement

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What style of prose did Kerouac write in?

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Answer

Spontaneous Prose

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What are the three main themes contained in On the Road?

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Madness, emptiness, and friendship

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Who is the character of Carlo Marx based off of?

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Allen Ginsberg, Karl Marx, and Graucho Marx

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Who does Sal choose at the end of the novel?

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Remi

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Why did Kerouac have a hard time finding a publisher for On the Road ?

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On the Road contained many taboo subjects such as drugs, sex, and alcohol.

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What style of music heavily influenced Kerouac and many other Beat Generation writers?

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Answer

Jazz

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What point of view is the story told from?

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Answer

First-person point of view

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What tone does On the Road have?

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Answer

The tone of the novel is observant and reflective.

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