An 'On the Road' Literary Analysis

The Plot & Characters

             “On the Road” is the nomadic journey of two young and spirited individuals in the prime of their life, seeking liberation in an attempt to push the “American Dream” to its very limits. Loosely based off of Kerouac’s life travels through America, “On the Road” follows Kerouac’s triumphs, struggles, and personal development as he travels along the renowned Route 66 with a few of his fellow companions, most notably, Neal Cassady. Kerouac takes on the form of, Salvatore Paradise, a writer whose struggle is similar to that of a caged canary, until the day a door is finally opened by a “cut-loose” rebel from the West Coast. Unlike Kerouac, his “partner in crime”, Neal Cassady, is portrayed as the voluptuously flamboyant Dean Moriarty. As fate would have it, Dean had just been released from prison and made the immediate decision to transition from the West Coast, along with his loving wife, Marylou, to Sal’s location on the East Coast. In order to make New York City their new home, Dean expressed an interest in literature by mailing his descriptive prison letters to a close “one-time” friend named Chad King. In an attempt to re-affiliate himself with Dean, Chad hooks him up with one of the only writers he knows, Sal. Intrigued by Dean’s letters, Sal is soon confronted by Dean for the first time and they discover a mutually shared understanding of one another. This meeting is the start of a friendship that pulls both Sal and Dean, back and forth from both sides of the country. It’s their lack of accomplishment in life that induces them to aspire to the one common goal that draws them together; the ambition of progression.
            From the rugged and ruthless wilderness to the harsh and unforgiving urban environment, all forms of land are grouted as one by the baron wastelands and mountain tops that tower the open skies. From his first travel to San Francisco, the introverted main character Sal is mesmerized by the landscapes and describes them with precise, intricate detail; however, over time, Sal’s perception of America changes during his travels. His initial observations of America dwindle from a grand and euphoric world of wonder to a much more contemplative and somewhat philosophical form of thought. For example, instead of describing the intricate details of the Mississippi River, or the Mississippi hills, Sal begins to look at the “bigger picture.” He begins to ask questions in the form of “what is”, or “what are.” These questions are more perplexed, more seemingly simplistic; However, they foreshadow the kind of “spiritual awakening” Sal believes he encounters amongst his final visit to San Francisco.


           One such theme promoted often in Kerouac’s novel is Sal’s variety of descriptions that are used to epitomize a person’s values, or even their appearance, based on the state or country that they came from. For example, Dean came from the West Coast and to Sal he was a representation of that culture because of his “passionate, young, exuberant, and wild” mindset. On the other hand, Sal believed he was a “saint-like figure from the West who lived his life with no regrets”. One might call this stereotyping; however, another may just call it a “cultural observation.” This notion can be considered as justifiable, since both Sal and Dean constantly try to weave themselves into a variety of different cultures and with a “palate” of people of different ethnicities. Since this was the 1950’s, racism and segregation were more than just a “social norm”, they were government influenced.
            One theme that pertained specifically to the 1940’s and 1950’s was the idea of conflicts between men and women. One of the misrepresentations given in the novel, “On the Road” was the struggles that women faced. Kerouac never gave a woman a conflict, other than one that revolved around her significant other. There were no issues surrounding a female character that made her try to question, rebel, or struggle with society’s standards. The lack of depth and description amongst the female character’s mindset is only somewhat understandable, since Kerouac didn’t focus on women’s thoughts and perspectives closely enough. Although, “On the Road” does describe what women were like “on the surface" in the 1940’s and 1950’s, specifically how they were there at the end of the day to support their men. It doesn’t, however, explain why women might find their own lifestyles oppressive as this viewpoint has been presented in other notable novels of that era, such as “Peyton’s Place.”
            Other themes include that of an American’s journey westward, which has been a recurring theme throughout the course of America’s history. From Lewis and Clark’s epic journey, to the pioneers in search of salvation and success, to the westward movement of the Great Depression, Sal and Dean are characters who have followed in their ancestors’ footsteps; However, one significant difference between their situations is that they could stay settled in one place. Unlike their predecessors, it was contrary to their belief to settle down in one location. Their belief of the American Dream was different; it was revolutionary for the time.

Excerpt & Analysis

             “But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or a say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” (Chapter 1, Page 5).
             Some people have declared that this is the most famous excerpt from any of Kerouac’s novels. This declaration is more than understandable, not just because it epitomizes Sal’s character, or because it’s written with such passion and tension, but because it identifies with a wide audience of people who follow others like zombies. In a sense, this was and, to some extent, still is the “assembly line” mindset that is engraved so deeply into our culture; However, since this took place around the “Dawn of the 1950’s”, it pertained heavily to what the “cultural norms” were during the time. Normalities such as becoming a housewife, looking good, buying a home in suburbia, or even becoming a “man in a grey flannel suit.”
             This beautifully written and descriptive quote is also an introduction to Sal’s social struggle. In this excerpt, Sal gives his friends somewhat of a glib portrayal by calling them “dingledodies.” He then continues with the phrase, “and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me”, which is a portion where Sal admits his general “weakness” to be drawn in so easily by peer-pressure. In the grand scheme of things, this quote is a confession from Sal that foreshadows his interest in Dean and gives the reader more understanding as to why Sal wanted to follow Moriarty into San Francisco in the first place. Sal continues the sentence by saying, “because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or a say a commonplace thing…” This section fits the protagonist/antagonist, Dean Moriarty, quite nicely. Considering that he is mad to live, because of his passion to just “go”, and that he is mad to be saved because nearing their second confrontation Dean, with his life in shambles, was contemplating the idea of suicide, until he could rely on the one person who would have him, Sal.


             Overall, “On the Road” was a mesmerizing read that takes the reader on a journey to an era when American society was at its dawn of “conformism.” With the help of Kerouac’s colorful descriptions and mind-boggling symbolic references, this novel is quite simply the novel that defined the “Beat Generation.”