On the Road is a novel by Jack Kerouac published by Viking Press in 1957 and often described as the defining work of the post-war jazz-, poetry-, and drug-affected Beat Generation. This stream of consciousness work describes a number of road trips through America by its main protagonist, Sal Paradise.
The Epic Jack Kerouac: On the Road as an American Epic
Letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac September 10, 1950 (excerpt) "Left M(exico) City, 'tightening my belt' for long drive ahead. Became more engrossed in landscape & noting people as I drove. Being alone, I was not called upon to make summaries to any other mind & since I was not responding to other voices calling my attention to other views of countryside or otherwise, did not notice what I may have missed seeing as I drove, because there was no one to call my attention to it and thus having only my own mad thoughts to contend with, I responded to each emotion perfectly as it came."
Jack Kerouac spent his life engrossed in landscape, and the people that fill them. Neal Cassady's letter expresses the current flowing through Kerouac and his compatriots at the time. Faced with the changing social landscape of postwar America, each member of what would be termed the Beat Generation, took it upon themselves to find a place, and effect a change. Kerouac's novels centered around these characters and their experiences. He writes in The Town and the City of Allen Ginsberg's experience at the arcade on Forty-second Street in NYC, seeing "all the children of the sad American paradise...seeking each other, don't you see, but so stultified by their upbringings somehow, or by the disease of the age, that they can only stumble about"(Charters, Beat Reader 3). The disease of the age can be found in the history of the fifties that was celebrated by the popular culture of the time; growing consumerism, the new suburban lifestyle, the social resistance to Communism, and the atomic age.
To fully ingest the immense importance of Kerouac's texts, we must simultaneously dispense with the notion of Kerouac as a pop artist, and embrace him as a reactionary to his contemporaries. While the debate as to his most important work is far from over, we can approach Kerouac by studying what is identified as his most familiar work, On the Road. This work has acquired an ambivalent reputation as "naive autobiography...or a new confessional literature"(Hunt xvi), but we should instead approach it as a synthesis of the experiences alluded to in the excerpt from Cassady's letter to Kerouac, and Ginsberg's on Forty-second Street, noted earlier. On the Road revels in the individualistic impression embodied by Cassady's letter, and the social awareness and frustration of Ginsberg. On the Road resonates with the emotion of the period; it is timely and timeless because Kerouac maintains a sense of urgency while embarking on a journey during which he will explore the society surrounding him by mystifying those experiences. It is worthwhile to note the historical significance of the work, as it applies to our coming interpretation of the novel.
Michael McClure, a poet in San Francisco who was involved with the Beats said that "the world that [they] trembling stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one"(McClure 273). In his article, "Scratching the Beat Surface," he describes the time as "locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle,"(McClure 274) in "the gray, chill, militaristic silence,...the intellective void...the spiritual drabness"(McClure 274). This is the world in which Kerouac takes his journeys that become the material for On the Road. The work "surprised and upset readers with its social and sexual recklessness and descriptions of quasi-criminal activities"(Theado 6), and with the recognition of its effect, we begin to understand its impact as a piece of social commentary. This is a necessary, yet dangerous qualification of the novel, as we will see that the informant for the audience of On the Road is neither a supporter of dissident, nor a satirist. Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road and the character most mistakenly identified as Kerouac's alter ego, is a literate keeper of American culture, not unlike oral poets of the past.
While On the Road may be Kerouac's most important work to his general audience, it is a sampling of his intentions. The published works which are available to us are only installments of what he planned to call his Duluoz Legend, which he has been quoted as saying, "forms one enormous comedy, seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluo"(qtd. in. Theado 2). Because he died prior to finishing this project, we are left with an incomplete manuscript, seemingly autobiographical, and yet more than that. It is an elusive moment in American modern literature, and one for which a simple label may not exist. The solution which presents itself is that On the Road, as symptomatic of the incomplete Duluoz Legend, is a modern American epic with Sal as the epic storyteller and Dean as the epic hero.
It is important to cast the work in this light because the autobiographical and historical elements of On the Road are the typical angles from which criticism is made when discussing Kerouac. At best, various critics have explored symbolic structures in the work, or a particular character’s development, but both the autobiographical and thematic approaches fail to examine the work as a wholly complex piece, with a simultaneously historical and aesthetic motive. What past critics have failed to recognize in their critique is those aspects of the work which make it epic.
In his critical examination of the genre, Paul Merchant writes of "the double relation of the epic, to history on the one hand and to everyday reality on the other"(Merchant 1). Since its original publication beginning in 1957, fans and critics alike of Kerouac's work have been aware of its relation to the everyday reality of the work in its autobiographical. The historical nature of On the Road may only now be fully accessible, as sufficient time has passed for us to apply an objective historicism. Merchant remarks on the artistic endeavors of the epic author as well, noting that the author's awareness of history, his own imagination, and the "audience's desire for entertainment"(Merchant 2) are consistent influences on the work. If we are to examine On the Road as an epic, then we must also confront the epic hero, a character who may be thought of as not "a man at a moment in history, but a Man in History"(Merchant 4). In On the Road, we become intimately aware of an elusive narrator, but fixated upon the epic hero of the novel, Dean Moriarty. The narrator tells us in the opening paragraph that "with the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of [his] life you could call [his] life on the road"(Kerouac 3). Dean is the instigator and the inspiration for the journey that Sal will make, the journey that he will record.
This short discussion has given us a foundation for our examination of On the Road. We must explore all of the many facets of the epic; the history, narrative, character development, and its relationship to society. On the Road offers us all of these things, and our reading of the novel will hinge upon the journey which Sal relates, his experiences with the novel's epic hero, Dean, and the experiences and observations that Sal will make about the American landscape through which he travels. Invested in our exploration of the work is an understanding of Kerouac as an American artist who has given the cannon of American literature a story of value beyond its general praise as a moment of fleeting entertainment and personal reflection. Afterwards, we shall be able to find a cultural identity in On the Road, one which transcends popular culture, and lodges itself in the collective memory of the American tradition.
There are many works that have been classified as epic, great works of literature in many languages. Each is noted for its historical and aesthetic value, but more importantly, each has a number of essential components. Included in the shared commonality are the journey, the epic hero, spirituality, and an acute observation of the culture that the narrative operates in. We will determine to what extent On the Road is an epic novel based upon the concentration of these components in the work.
The notion of journey is self-evident in this work. On the Road takes place over a span of short years, during which time the narrator, Sal Paradise, made many cross country trips, alone on some occasions, and with his entourage of fictionalized Beatniks on others. Sal is a complex narrator, given to wit, satire, and dramatics. The first word of On the Road is “I,” and the reader should take particular notice of this distinction. We will read On the Road conscious of the first person narrative, even as the speaker deflects our attention away from himself. Sal Paradise tells us that he “won’t bother to talk about” his story, but he would rather tell us about Dean Moriarty, and his “life on the road”. Dean is instantly a mystical character. Sal says that “first reports of him” came through letters, he is described as the “strange Dean Moriarty” and as “a young jailkid shrouded in mystery”(Kerouac 3,4). Within the first paragraph the relationship between narrator and subject matter has been set; the real concern of this work is Dean Moriarty and the journeys which he and Sal will undertake.
The characters are introduced to us in brief vignettes, in a way reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; New York City is the starting point, and Sal wants us to understand the people we will be dealing with. The arrival of Dean is the catalyst, Sal describes him as “simply a youth tremendously excited with life”(Kerouac 6). He also sees “a kind of holy lightning...flashing from his excitement and his visions”(Kerouac 7). When Dean meets Carlo Marx, Sal’s closest friend in the city, Sal tells us that a “tremendous thing happened”, and that the meeting of Dean and Carlo was a meeting between “the holy con-man with the shining mind [Dean], and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx”. Sal remarks that it was in their meeting that “everything that was to come began then”. Carlo tells Dean about the friends around the country, their experiences, and Sal is telling us that he is following them “because the only people for [him] are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live”(Kerouac 8) and so on.
This is how the journey begins, with a meeting in the city in the wintertime, but this first chapter also establishes Dean Moriarty as our epic hero. We are told of his extraordinary birth, essential to the creation of the epic hero(Miller, 73), that he was born “when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy”(Kerouac 3). Dean’s childhood is temporarily hidden from us, instead we are to marvel at his masterful control of the automobile, as he is “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world”(Kerouac 9). Dean’s driving ability is one of his heroic skills, like chariot warfare in Homer’s epics. Dean also begins to represent a new value system. Sal describes Dean’s criminal tendencies as “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy…something new, long prophesied, long a-coming”(Kerouac 10). The early descriptions of Dean establish a religious motif; people and their personalities are regularly referred to as holy, or prophesied. Dean is “a western kinsman of the sun” (Kerouac 10), and this pagan comparison is yet another supernatural moment in the description of Dean Moriarty. Sal introduces him as the savior of his generation; Sal says that “all [of his] New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired…reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love”(Kerouac 10). Sal, as our epic narrator, has laid a foundation for the journey, and for Dean as our hero, and the opening chapter ends with Sal anticipating his trip to the West Coast.
While we may be tempted in these early chapters to identify Sal as the hero, it is essential to remember that Dean is always the catalyst for the journey that develops into an epic tale. Dean represents for Sal a personification of the brewing social upheaval, and a heroic embodiment of the dissatisfied segment of the population.
As Sal begins his journey, he is alone. He has spent months “pouring over maps…even reading books about the pioneers”(Kerouac 12), and planning to hitchhike along Route 6. He imagines the road crossing through the Hudson Valley, and he idealizes the landscape. Unfortunately for Sal, his first attempt at heading West fails, and Sal says that it “was [his] dream that screwed up…the idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great line across America”(Kerouac 13). Sal’s pilgrimage to Denver to join Dean and the rest of the friends has stumbled, but Sal is not the epic hero. It is Sal’s journey, or rather our journey, through the modern American city and countryside, but we are always being led by Sal’s vision of the heroic Dean.
Sal’s journey continues with his arrival in Chicago. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis”(Kerouac 14), and it inspires Sal to think of his friends “from one end of the country to the other…doing something so frantic and rushing about”(Kerouac 14). Sal doesn’t say what they are frantically doing, and this is the premise of the narrative. We know from historical accounts that the post-war era was a tumultuous time, and Kerouac’s more politically active contemporaries were particularly affected. In a more universal sense, Sal is traveling through a society which has yet to determine its post-war values, leaving individuals unsure of their place in that new social order. The Beat Generation rose out of the inability of these individuals to satisfactorily identify with this society. We can see Sal’s figurative journey through post-war America as an exploration of the value system, and his attempt to find what his friends are rushing about to do as an exploration of the individual’s role in that value system.
The idea of Sal as a wandering storyteller is well served by his mode of transportation. Hitchhiking allows Sal to experience a cross section of the population, and his descriptive vignettes are the basis for a modern oral history. As the epic genre is often considered anthropological in its recitation of social values, Sal is the original epic poet of this society; he is not formulaic in his composition (Merchant 8 ), he is establishing the social values through discovery, rather than tradition. Each time Sal hitches a ride, the drivers and companions reveal an aspect of the culture. From Chicago to Denver, Sal meets truck drivers, sightseers, women and men, fugitives, and blue-collar workers; notably representative of both genders and many classes. During these encounters Sal idealizes these people, their communities, and his journey. He crosses his “beloved Mississippi River”(Kerouac 15), and personifies the land’s relationship to the nation, saying that is has a “big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America”(Kerouac 15). This sensual representation is a common thematic tool employed by Sal, and is used in concert with the human interaction he experiences to encapsulate a vague embryonic social structure that he does not completely understand. This subtlety is a powerful tool, and “it is one of the characteristics of the epic that it can contain great themes within simple frameworks”(Merchant 21).
Despite the universal nature of Sal’s journey across a changing social landscape, On the Road is steeped in individualism. Again, the search for identity, to answer the question of how I fit into this new America, is the basis of this journey. Sal is hardly immune from this. After napping in Des Moines, he wakes up, “and that was the one distinct time in [his] life…when [he] didn’t know who [he] was”(17). He continues,
“I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right then and there, that strange red afternoon”(Kerouac 17).
This passage has several key elements of which we should take note. Firstly, this is a momentary departure from the traditionally objective epic formula, and a departure from Sal’s usually detached observation. This tension of individualism is the kernel of conflict from which the novel grows. As critics have noted, “the central theme of an epic need not be more complex than this”(Merchant 6) simple conflict between ideas. Secondly, an element of mysticism is brought to the story, when Sal speaks of himself as a haunted ghost, and in the out-of-body(better word?) experience which allows him to look upon himself as a new person. Finally, his allusion to the literary tradition of going West to begin anew that is uniquely American, is keeping in the epic tradition of referencing ready made concepts to illustrate a point. We can see these themes continually throughout the novel, and Sal has assumed the role of the epic narrator by their use.
Sal’s journey to Denver continues with more archetypal examples of the American people, such as the “by God…first cowboy (Kerouac 19), and more idealizing of the land as the valley of the Platte river is compared to the Nile Valley in Egypt (Kerouac 19). While stranded in Shelton, Nebraska, Sal is offered the chance to work in the traveling carnival, at the ring toss booth. His offered thirty percent of the take, and “a bed but no food”(Kerouac 22). He is told that this is a “good opportunity”(Kerouac 22). This is the first of many times when Sal will be tempted from his time on the road. This particular opportunity would afford him some comfort, security, and an identity as a carney, but as Sal tells us, he “was in such a bloody hurry to get to the gang in Denver”(Kerouac 23) that taking the job was out of the question.
Why Sal chooses to keep moving westward, and later, eastward, is a central question. Something about these temptations, or opportunities, must be lacking in order for Sal to pass them by. Sal is not simply a Bohemian or a hedonist; he has shown us that he is looking for something specific, and hopes to find it among people who are also looking for it. Sal cannot articulate what it is, but we can label it as identity, place in society, or simply a clear definition of compelling social values. Why Sal does not find it in the Americana that he encounters suggests his dissatisfaction with what are becoming the standards by which individual happiness is measured. To understand that dissatisfaction requires us to reflect on the social climate of the time.
If we can imagine several important events at the close of World War II, we can imagine the first Red Scare and its paranoia; we comprehend the influx of returning soldiers, their psychological traumas, and the economic disarray caused by the chaotic job market. What may be most hard for us to imagine, but which may be the most significant, is the effect of the Atomic Age. With the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idea of sudden, inexplicable, and unexpected death became a very serious reality for Americans, who had been relatively secure in their safety at home. Sal never touches on this specifically, but Kerouac’s friend and peer Allen Ginsberg did in his poem America. We must ponder our own mortality before approaching this work, and realize that for these young adults, their mortality was ever present. Atomic weapons had brought a new urgency to one’s daily existence as the sanctity of individual life eroded. Therefore, it is hardly a wonder that steady employment was not first and foremost on Sal’s mind when he was given the chance to work at a traveling carnival. Perhaps the idea of making thirty percent of the take, his sales commission or some other trite white-collar bonus, was as ridiculous as the freak show at a traveling carnival. Each rejection of the common life is a reminder that what Sal is searching for in his journey is something larger and something spiritual. As was stated earlier, Dean epitomized the instinct to reject the common life.
To return to our wandering narrator, Sal’s journey continues to move through a post-war social landscape, rattling with upheaval. Sal decides to move from Denver to San Francisco, and ironically finds his stay in Denver has been anti-climatic, as he hasn’t talked with Dean “for more than five minutes the whole time”(Kerouac 59). In San Francisco, Sal confronts more social expectations. He takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. When he finds the work distasteful he tells his supervisor that he “wasn’t cut out to be a cop”(Kerouac 67). In response, Sal is reminded that “it’s [his] duty…[he] can’t compromise with things like this”(Kerouac 67). Sal’s aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.
Her name is Terry, and he meets her on the bus to LA. She is a Mexican who has run away from her husband. They spend “the next fifteen days…together for better or for worse”(Kerouac 85). Sal spends the better part of a week with Terry and her family in a migrant worker’s camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Sal, and he says that he “thought [he] had found [his] life’s work”(Kerouac 96). The economic reality sets in and Sal begins to pray “to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people [he] loved”(Kerouac 96). His eventual departure is emotional in its stark nature. To revel in a romantic narration of something so personal would be a breech in character. Instead, Sal’s failed attempt at love and family is concluded with the phrase, “lackadaddy, I was on the road again”(Kerouac 101), and still searching for that which life with Terry could not provide.
The next significant character that Sal meets is the “Ghost of the Susquehanna”(Kerouac 102). His importance cannot be overstated, as his role “is to complete the triad”(Goldstein 60) of symbolic structure in the narrative. Goldstein examines the dogmatic imagery of the Holy Trinity , but the old wandering bum that is the Ghost links the spiritual symbolism addressed in our current examination. Goldstein says, “like the bridge he seeks to show Sal but never finds, the old hobo connects to the mad dreams of these American youth”(Goldstein 60). This is the old man that Sal alludes to in his first stay in Denver, when drunk on a roof he says that “all we could do was yell…over the Plains, where somewhere an old man white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word”(Kerouac 55). Goldstein notes that while the prophecy of the old man’s arrival comes true, “he does not seem to have the Word”(Goldstein 61) that is promised. Irony thickens at this interlude, and foreshadows the tragedy of Dean later in the novel.
Sal’s continued journey on the road is entwined with the making of Dean as the epic hero. With an entire country recovering from war, while simultaneously beginning a new, more sinister conflict with the Soviet Union, it is understandable that a new system of values, mores, and expectations for one’s personal happiness would arise. It is also understandable that faced with no clear answer to this historically significant and spiritually disturbing era, there would be a search for new heroes. For Sal Paradise, this was Dean Moriarty, the “son of a wino”(Kerouac 38).
An intriguing scene in which we are directly exposed to Dean is in his marathon discussions with Carlo Marx. Sal tells us “that they began with an abstract thought, discussed it; reminded each other of another abstract point forgotten”(Kerouac 48). Sal describes his point of view as “listening to them like a man watching the mechanism of a watch”(Kerouac 50), and then tells them that “If [they] keep this up [they’ll] both go crazy”(Kerouac, 50). This image of Dean engaged in philosophical discussions for entire nights conjures up the sage figure, or a mystic. Sal’s undercutting of the experience reminds us that his is not a traditional role, and Dean is not the usual hero. It is important for Sal to find something new to celebrate, and while he and Dean succeed in their roles as epic storyteller and epic hero, they are a modern incarnation.
Several components are essential in defining an epic hero, all detailed in Dean Miller’s book, The Epic Hero. The first requirement is an extraordinary birth(Miller, 70). Dean was born to a wino, “one of the most tottering bums on Larimer Street”(Kerouac 39) but we are told nothing of his mother except that she died “when he was small”(Kerouac 39). His relationship with his father is fragmentary at best. Dean tells a story of when he was eleven and “rode a freight from New Mexico clear to LA”(Kerouac 139) and lost his father along the way. Miller claims that “a young hero is taken away from his immediate family…the hero’s primary paternal relationship is not with his father but with a father substitute”(Miller 95). For Dean, this is Big Red. It was as a child, with freight hopping hobos that Dean learns about the American landscape. A unique aspect to the notion of Dean as an epic hero is that his childhood, the basis for such definition, is based solely upon his recollections, which are rather conflicting. Dean tells Sal that he once lived with a farmer in Arkansas, when he was eleven(Kerouac 113). It seems that Dean Moriarty’s education through experience has a somewhat inconsistent timeline. According to Dean he says “all this to show you that of the South [he] can speak”(Kerouac 114). While we may choose to chuckle at the egocentric posturing of Dean, Sal finds him very convincing, and what Sal refers to as “the new and complete Dean, grown to maturity”(Kerouac 114).
Another significant aspect of the epic hero is his sexuality. This characteristic of the human condition is generally controlled by social values, but according to Miller, we see the epic hero “ignoring, exceeding, or in some other way violating this rule”(Miller 110). Dean’s character more than convincingly fills this role. He had married, and fathered a daughter, and then suddenly had decided to abandon them and set out on the road to find Sal(Kerouac 110). Along the way, he met his former lover Marylou, and brought her along(Kerouac 112). This is the same Marylou from Denver whom Dean would routinely allow three hours a day from lovemaking and then set out to find other girls to spend the rest of his time with. During this visit with Sal, Dean asks him “to work Marylou”(Kerouac 131) and Sal tells us that this is because “he wanted to see what Marylou was like with another man”(Kerouac 131). Dean’s abnormal and promiscuous sexual behavior is what Miller describes as “sexual drive…channeled and re-formed in the heroic imagination”(Miller 115). We should remind ourselves here that every epic, and thus the story of every epic hero, is a narrative subjected to the personality of the narrator. Sal finds Dean’s philandering to be an awkward, yet important piece of Dean’s status, and so, therefore, must we.
Imprisonment is another defining moment for the epic hero, what Miller calls “an extraordinary epic event”(Miller 146), and Dean has spent time in prison, for stealing cars. Sal discusses what effect this experience had on Dean saying, “only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes…Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live”(Kerouac 132). Sal is describing one of the important aspects of Miller’s “framework of heroic adventure”(133). Miller says that “heroic madness shows itself as an intensification…of the hero’s normal bent toward movement from place to place and adventure to adventure”(Miller 151). Dean’s imprisonment, according to Sal, is when his heroic personality was solidified. Prison had the effect of fueling his obsession with the road. The madness that Sal admires is a symptom of Dean’s heroic nature.
There are more details about Dean that leads us to accept him as an epic hero. For example, Miller identifies speech as a mark of the hero, explaining that “when the hero does speak, his speech has a peculiar- a violent- tone”(Miller 230). In the early pages of On the Road, Sal describes Neal looking over his shoulders, “yelling, ‘Yes! That’s right! Wow! Man!’ and ‘Phew!’”(Kerouac 7). Again, we have yet another characteristic of Dean that corroborates our claim that he is an epic hero.
Kerouac incorporates another facet of the hero into Dean’s character. Dean possesses a tragic flaw. This is not to confuse him with a tragic hero, which is a strictly Greek dramatic character(Miller 7). Rather, it suggests a derivation of the epic hero which is not without precedence . What makes him heroic to Sal is his free nature, and his reluctance to tie his spirit to social demands. This self-centered personality causes Dean to “[antagonize] people away from him by degrees”(Kerouac 155). The institution of marriage is particularly difficult for Dean, and by the end of the novel he is “three times married, twice divorced, and living with his second wife”(Kerouac 305). This decline of Dean makes up the second part of the novel, and culminates in the end of Sal’s journeys.
Sal’s travels erode into disappointment. He slowly becomes more dissatisfied with what he finds on the road, and he begins to look back on his previous travels in a more cynical way. His companions begin to be people from lower classes, old Negroes and Mexican whores. Back in Denver, and very alone, he speaks in verse saying, “Down in Denver, down in Denver/All I did was die”(Kerouac 181). This casts a pathos and a doubt onto the entire novel. We begin to confront the possibility that this journey and Sal’s hero Dean were both failures. After reuniting with Dean, Sal begins to sense Dean’s decline and labels him “the HOLY GOOF”(Kerouac 194), when earlier he was called holy in a reverent tone. Dean’s abilities falter. When confronted with his abandonment of wife and child, he is silent. Sal explain, “where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent…He was BEAT”(Kerouac 195).
Sal’s last attempt at finding an answer to the problems falling around him was a trip to Mexico with Dean. Immediately he struck dysentery and the final betrayal occurs when Dean leaves him behind, feverish and hallucinating. Sal reflects that “when [he] got better [he] realized what a rat [Dean] was”(Kerouac 303).
Dean will eventually leave Sal for good, a year later in New York, and it is fitting that the novel ends there. Sal closes sitting on a pier during sunset, looking west. He reminisces on God, crying children, and the idea that “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old”(Kerouac 310), and “[he] think[s] of Dean Moriarty, [he] even think[s] of Old Dean Moriarty the father [they] never found”(Kerouac 310), and the novel ends.
The novel’s conclusion can feel anti-climactic. This is an epic story of a spiritual quest, and it ends quietly, and pensively. There is a subtle power to be noticed here, however. Sal’s great journey on the road is in search of it, the basic call to action. Sal is looking for the meaning of life, and thinks that his hero Dean has the ability to find it. Along the way they reject the society that surrounds them, looking always for something a little more, but in the end, Sal can only look westward from New York City, at the continental United States that is the land he as idealized, and the people has explored, and think about it. For Dean, it seems to Sal, it was the father that they never found, the reason to be out on the road. Sal found it in the quiet and contemplative acceptance of humanity that he practices on the pier at the novel’s close.
This interpretation of the novel’s ending appears to conflict seriously with the idea of the epic. There is no triumph of the kingdom over evil enemies; instead it is the individual combating his personal demons. If we consider the modernist theme of individual isolation, however, we can make the argument that the modern epic would naturally end like this. Where the traditional epic would end with the triumph of the society, the modern epic will end with the triumph of the individual, Sal. The traditional epic hero is crowned king, or dies a glorious death; in this modern epic, the hero disappears into the masses, a specter steeped in sadness. Here, we do not judge the hero’s success by the achievements of the society that he represents, but rather by what effect he has had on those individuals near him. Sal’s journey was a successful one; he went looking for a meaning to life, what he found has allowed him to calmly embrace the humanity that the continent represents, and he watches the sunset, and thinks of his friend.