On the Road

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The Road Symbol Icon
As the title of the novel suggests, the road is of tremendous importance to Sal and Dean’s lives. They spend the majority of the novel traveling—whether driving, riding buses, walking, or hitchhiking. The open road symbolizes freedom for Dean and Sal. They long to be on the move, feel happiest on the road, and meet new friends as they travel. The idea of a physical journey along a road also comes to stand for more symbolic journeys. Dean and Sal come to understand themselves and the world better over the course of their time on the road. They travel not only on physical, literal roads, but also on journeys of maturation and learning. The road can even symbolize life itself, which can be thought of as the ultimate journey. Normally, one thinks of a road as useful for getting from one place to another. For Sal and Dean, however, their destination is never as important as the road itself, as being in the process of a trip. The road itself is the goal for them, and the journey is more important than where they end up. As Sal says at one point, emphasizing the importance of the road and all that it represents, “the road is life.”

The Road Quotes in On the Road

The On the Road quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Road. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of On the Road published in 1999.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Related Symbols: The Road
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote kicks off the lust for travel that pervades the book. From it, we get the sense that Sal fantasizes about traveling but may not have himself possessed the will to make it happen without Dean as a catalyst. This illustrates an important difference between their personalities: Sal is more reflective and passive, whereas Dean is impulsive and makes things happen.

This quote could be said, also, to explain what propels the dynamic of their friendship throughout the book. Sal needs Dean to show him adventures and motivate their wandering lifestyle. Dean seems to need Sal to give their life importance. Dean likes that Sal is a writer and even hopes to write himself, though he can't make himself sit still long enough to do so. So Dean and Sal need each other in a sense, and this cements their bond through the ecstasy and tribulations of the adventures that follow.

The quote also lays the foundations for the ways that their different temperaments lead to the eventual fracture in their friendship in which Dean careens himself into disaster (as his wandering nature suggests he would) and Sal settles into a life of writing, tired but still admiring of his life on the road with Dean.

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Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

Whenever spring comes to New York I can’t stand the suggestions of the land that come blowing over the river from New Jersey and I’ve got to go. So I went. For the first time in our lives I said good-by to Dean in New York and left him there.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Related Symbols: The Road
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Sal has stayed in New York a while and made progress on his book, but when Spring comes he feels compelled to hit the road again – this time without Dean. First, this points to the tension Kerouac consistently sets up between writing and experience. Unlike Carlo, Sal never seems able to find a lifestyle that allows him to simultaneously write and have experiences; he is always bouncing back and forth between the two, never seeming fully satisfied either way.

Second, this points to a new dynamic in Sal and Dean's friendship in which Sal does not need Dean to inspire him to travel. This also comes at a moment in which Sal is recognizing Dean's patterns with women – Sal seems able to criticize Dean for the first time and imagine a life without him being the prime motivator. This is by no means an end to their friendship, but an evolution of it in which Sal seems less in awe of Dean and more his equal.

Part 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Related Symbols: The Road
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Sal began his journey to the Western United States with romantic and simplistic notions about what he would find there, he and Dean travel to Mexico with the notion that somehow Mexico will provide the magic that America didn’t. Sal seems unable to shift his paradigm for viewing the world. He constantly believes that the vague and romantic reality he craves is out there for him to find, despite the fact that all his traveling has only served to present him with places whose complexity and difficulty disappoint him.

Sal never reassesses his belief that his romantic ideas are true, which points to his preference for his romantic fantasies about the world over a frank assessment of the reality before his eyes. In a sense, it seems that it is this quality (more than any other that he might attribute to a Shrouded Traveler) that propels his wandering.

Part 5, Chapter 1 Quotes

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Related Symbols: The Road
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

In this final passage, Sal and Dean have seen one another for the last time, and it is under conflicted circumstances. Sal has found the woman he wants to marry and is close again with a friend who had been previously estranged from him and Dean. Sal seems to be finally assimilating to mainstream society and ready to leave his days on the road behind. When Dean asks to ride with Sal to Penn Station and Sal’s friend refuses, Sal waves goodbye to Dean, symbolically choosing his new life over his old one.

However, in this last poetic passage that seems to be Sal’s attempt to capture the essence of the American continent by describing landscapes and people and the constant road moving through all of it, Dean emerges in the end to tie it all together. This implies that Sal sees Dean as emblematic of America overall, and it also presents Dean as a redemptive figure in the face of death. Despite the fact that Sal has left Dean behind, Sal recognizes that Dean taught him to live and showed him the best and worst of America.

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The Road Symbol Timeline in On the Road

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Road appears in On the Road. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Writing Theme Icon
Sal Paradise recalls how his “life on the road” began when he met Dean Moriarty, shortly after splitting up with his wife. He had... (full context)
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
...Carlo each kept a half. Sal then journeyed out west slightly later, beginning his “whole road experience.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
...and so decided to journey north to Bear Mountain, where he could get on this road and stay on it all the way to the west coast. After getting out of... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 10
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
...lay down outside with some hobos, which made him want “to get back on that road.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 13
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
As Sal and Teresa walked along the road, cars full of high-school kids sped by, the kids jeering at Sal and Teresa. They... (full context)
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
...He “forgot all about the East and all about Dean and Carlo and the bloody road.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 14
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
The Ghost of the Susquehanna walked in the middle of the road and Sal was sure that “the poor little madman,” would get hit by a car.... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 1
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
...says that he now had “the bug,” again, the itch for “another spurt around the road.” (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 6
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Sal, Dean, Marylou, and Ed all felt good getting on the road again. Sal felt as though they were “performing our one and noble function of the... (full context)
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
...another hitchhiker and then dropped him off in North Carolina. Sal drove along “the holy road,” through South Carolina at night while everyone else slept. Dean and Sal were overjoyed to... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 8
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
...over driving after Houston. It started to rain and Sal had to veer off the road into the mud to avoid a car coming at them on the wrong side of... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 2
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
...as she knew that the arrival of Sal meant Dean would likely go on the road and leave her again. (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 5
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
...get him to give them money, but he wouldn’t. When they got back on the road, Dean drove for a while, speeding so dangerously that the other passengers were terrified. (full context)
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
...longer journey ahead of them. Sal says that they didn’t mind this, though, because “the road is life.” (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 8
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
...and marry him as soon as he divorced Camille. As they got onto a dirt road leading toward Ed Wall’s ranch, it was raining and Dean drove so fast that the... (full context)
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
...stolen it. After the meal, Sal, Dean, and the two passengers got back on the road. (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 9
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Dean drove past some hobos on the side of the road and thought if his father might be among them. They saw a man driving a... (full context)
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Back on the road, Dean continued driving dangerously until they pulled into Chicago, looking like “a new California gang... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 5
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
They got back on the road and headed toward Monterrey. Dean said he was high off the Mexican sun. He kept... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 6
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
America Theme Icon
...jungle and started driving toward some mountains, seeing “mountain Indians” along the side of the road. They stopped the car outside a little hut and saw a three-year-old Indian girl. (full context)