On the Road

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The Shrouded Traveler Symbol Analysis

The Shrouded Traveler Symbol Icon
It is never clear—to the reader or even to Sal himself—what propels Dean and him to keep moving and traveling on the road. The closest thing to an explanation that we get is Sal’s dream of a shrouded figure who pursues him and urges him onward. This strange “shrouded traveler” thus symbolizes in some way Sal’s inexplicable urge to move, travel, and not stay rooted to any one place. At one point, Sal thinks that the traveler is probably death, suggesting that the inevitability of death is what drives Sal to get as much out of his life as possible by hitting the road and feeling madly alive. But, in Mexico, Sal also says that Dean reminds him of this mysterious figure. This may suggest that it is only Dean’s influence on Sal that propels him to stay on the move. Along this understanding, Sal’s relentless restlessness would be motivated by a desire to keep up with Dean and not be left behind by his friend. However, Sal himself is a kind of mysterious, wandering traveler for much of the book. Could the strange traveler represent Sal himself, or the part of him that desires to keep moving constantly? The identity of the shrouded traveler is never stated definitively. Thus, he does not simply represent any one person. Rather, this strange figure stands in more generally for the unknown (and unknowable) cause of the restlessness that afflicts Sal, Dean, all their friends, and even the whole Beat generation.

The Shrouded Traveler Quotes in On the Road

The On the Road quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Shrouded Traveler. 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 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

Just about that time a strange thing began to haunt me. it was this: I had forgotten something. There was a decision that I was about to make before Dean showed up, and now it was driven clear out of my mind but still hung on the tip of my mind’s tongue. . . . It had to do somewhat with the Shrouded Traveler. Carlo Marx and I once sat down together, knee to knee, in two chairs, facing, and I told him a dream I had about a strange Arabian figure that was pursuing me across the desert; that I tried to avoid; that finally overtook me just before I reached the Protective City. “Who is this?” said Carlo. We pondered it. I proposed it was myself, wearing a shroud. That wasn’t it. . . . Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Carlo Marx (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Related Symbols: The Shrouded Traveler
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Sal mostly takes his desire to wander for granted; he rarely attempts to make sense of it or explain it. However, in this moment, it seems important for Sal to investigate why he wanders. He remembers describing a dream to his friend Carlo (one that seems intense enough to have been a vision) of a shrouded traveler pursuing him across the desert. That shrouded traveler is his desire to wander, and the fear implied by this pursuit runs counter to the way travel has been framed in the book up to this point. The characters, so far, have claimed to be running by choice towards freedom, rather than running in fear from something unknown.

The dream gives a more sinister cast to Sal's relentless romanticism of the road. It's important that Sal first thinks the shrouded figure is himself and then realizes it's not – this seems to be an acknowledgement that wandering is not his nature in the way that it is Dean's. He next settles on death to explain the shrouded figure, which seems to imply a fear that without wandering Sal won't be living his life to the fullest. 


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Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Related Symbols: The Shrouded Traveler
Page Number: 246-247
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sal (who is in Denver with friends) learns that Dean is on his way to Denver. The news causes Sal to have a vision reminiscent of the one he described to Carlo of the shrouded traveler, except this time the shrouded traveler chasing him across the desert is neither Sal himself nor his fear of death; it is Dean. This is a dark and frightening vision in which Dean is a kind of demon causing Sal to travel based on fear rather than friendship. Sal is generally worshipful of Dean and willing to go along with whatever he says, but his vision here points to an alternate possibility about Sal’s and Dean’s friendship: that it is based on fear in addition to, or even instead of, love.

Throughout the book Sal seems uncertain about the extent to which wandering is part of his nature or simply brought about by Dean’s presence. While the reality seems to lie somewhere in between, this passage suggests that Sal’s wandering impulse is a result of Dean’s presence, and that it is not a good thing.

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The Shrouded Traveler Symbol Timeline in On the Road

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Shrouded Traveler appears in On the Road. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2, Chapter 4
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
...he had forgotten something. He thought it had something to do with someone called the Shrouded Traveler . As he had once told Carlo, he had a dream about a “strange Arabian... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 2
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Sal imagined Dean traveling west like “a burning shuddering frightful angel...pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler .” He figured Dean had “gone mad again.” The new plan was now for Dean... (full context)