On the Road

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Themes and Colors
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Writing Theme Icon
America Theme Icon
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in On the Road, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
America Theme Icon

Among other things, On The Road is a portrait of mid-twentieth century America. As Sal wanders, drives, walks, rides, and hitchhikes all around the country, he sees all sorts of different sides of the country—from small towns to big cities, from east to west (and everything in between), north and south, opera houses and poor “housing-project shacks.” Even Part Four, when Sal ventures into Mexico, serves largely to illuminate America by contrast. Sal’s urge to get on the road is also associated with a specifically American pioneer mentality, a desire to explore and see the west. Sal’s migrant lifestyle and excitement at future possibilities when he goes on the road can also be seen as especially American. The United States is, after all, both proverbially a land of opportunity, where almost anything is possible, and a nation of immigrants. On The Road is thus a quintessentially American novel. Sal’s narration often personifies cities like San Francisco and talks expansively about the entire country or the whole continent of North America. Much of the novel is taken up by lyrical descriptions of American landscape in all its variety, from cotton fields to the Rocky Mountains.

But Sal’s relationship to an idea of America is problematic. America is Sal’s playground, the set of highways and roads through which he romps freely, but at the same time there is a pervasive sadness that Sal notices as he describes the rolling landscapes and small towns of much of his country. He often blatantly calls places sad or tragic, and in Part One sees the west as a pathetic relic of its former self. Moreover, America is also made up of all those in power, the guards at the barracks in San Francisco, people doing what they’re told, the government, mainstream society and the establishment. Sal thus cannot have a simple or uncomplicated pride or happiness in his country. On The Road celebrates, documents, and laments America in all its variety, expansiveness, and peculiar energy. As a novel whose plot moves around practically the entire country, it would seem to say something definitive about the United States at a particular time. But Kerouac’s book doesn’t reduce the United States to any single truth or quality. Perhaps the real lesson about America to be taken from the novel is that there is not just one America or American experience. There are many Americas: the America of a migrant cotton picker is not the same as that of a wealthy businessman. There is the America of the oppressed, of the bums, of the rebels, as well as of the cops, of women, of northerners and southerners, small-town farmers and big-city dwellers. Ultimately, Kerouac suggests that America is as multi-form, various, and self-contradictory as his own sprawling novel.

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America Quotes in On the Road

Below you will find the important quotes in On the Road related to the theme of America.
Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Hell’s bells, it’s Wild West Week,” said Slim. Big crowds of businessmen, fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire, bustled and whoopeed on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne; farther down were the long stringy boulevard lights of new downtown Cheyenne, but the celebration was focusing on Oldtown. Blank guns went off. The saloons were crowded to the sidewalk. I was amazed, and at the same time I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Montana Slim
Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Sal's first time in the western United States, and his pre-existing conceptions about it are very specific. He has an almost frontier-period imagination of the West; he associates it with freedom, cowboys, open spaces, and the ability to re-invent one's self without accountability. When Sal saw his first real cowboy in Nebraska, he felt that something he thought he knew about the West had been confirmed.

However, in Cheyenne he realizes for the first time that his ideas about the West are over-simplified and outdated. The town has turned the old West into a sort of Hollywood spectacle that strikes Sal as deeply inauthentic. Sal's self-awareness, by this point, is neither strong nor sharp. He thinks it's sad that Cheyenne has stooped to this kind of celebration, but he does not recognize that his ideas about what the West should be are equally romantic. During his time in the West he finds many different realities that aren't what he expected. This passage marks the beginning of his reckoning with the stereotypes he once believed in. 


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Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

I wanted to go and get Rita again and tell her a lot more things, and really make love to her this time, and calm her fears about men. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Rita Bettencourt
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, nearly all the male characters have dismissive, patronizing, and even abusive attitudes towards the women in their lives. While Sal seems to genuinely like Rita, that does not translate to respect for her. Sal describes Rita as being "tremendously frightened of sex," and he says he wants to "prove" to her that sex is "beautiful." Instead of respecting that it seems she doesn't want to have sex, he feels compelled to teach her something. This is patronizing on its face, but this reasoning also seems to be a screen for Sal's more self-serving desire to have sex with her. In this passage, Sal is lamenting that he is leaving Denver and can't return to Rita, although this seems an ambivalent sentiment since he made vague plans to meet up with her in San Francisco that he never follows up on. Women are disposable objects of delight and fascination (and sometimes scorn and frustration) in this book, but rarely anything more.

Sal's lament, too, that American norms dictate that men and women must have sex immediately without talking about anything deep first seems misguided. Rita was not eager to have sex with him immediately – it was he who pressured her without first asking about her dreams and desires. As a narrator, Sal's take on the world can't be trusted at face value, but the warped ways he describes his experiences shed light on his inner life.

Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do. So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink the night?

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Sal is working as a guard at a barracks that houses construction workers – he has a cop's badge and uniform, which would seem to be symbols of law and order. However, Sal doesn't oversee or discipline the workers; he drinks with them instead and does his job badly because he is too drunk and rowdy. This passage comes after Sal has unsuccessfully tried to persuade a co-worker to give the men another chance and not arrest them for their behavior the previous night (which was also Sal's behavior, though Sal is not in trouble himself).

Sal doesn't protest hard or implicate himself, rather he thinks to himself a platitude about how, "This is the story of America" and everyone is doing what they think they're supposed to do rather than being true to themselves. This is an odd and contradictory position for Sal to be in, because he is suddenly an authority figure – he represents the establishment rather than the counterculture to these men – and, because of this, he is immune from punishment. So he is benefiting from being a guard, but, all the while, he denounces such authority figures as conformists. This mirrors Sal's position in the book overall. He is devoted to a romanticized counterculture, but he's only able to choose the life he lives because he has some money and he's a white man (women and minorities in this book generally do not have the freedom to make the choices he has made). In other words, he is always both the establishment and the counterculture at once.

Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

By this point in the novel, Sal is tiring of San Francisco. He thought that he would go West and find the freedom and happiness he craved, but he quickly sours on this idea as his friendships strain, he runs into trouble at work, and he finds certain parts of the city boring. This encapsulates one lesson of the novel, that a person's initial goal never turns out to be what they thought it would be, and the path to get there is always more rewarding than the achievement itself.

This also marks a shift in mentality for Sal. Until he got to California he could still have the romanticized frontier-era ideas about the West that initially drove his journey, but once he has reached "the end of America" he has to acknowledge that America is not going to give him what he initially hoped. In saying that "there was nowhere to go but back," Sal is admitting that he needs to re-evaluate his desires and expectations and, perhaps, revisit the realities that he had overlooked in favor of his illusions about America. As he traverses the country once more on his way back East, his observations become more specific and nuanced, less about what he hopes he will see and more focused on what he actually sees and experiences.

Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

I thought all the wilderness of America was in the West till the Ghost of the Susquehanna showed me different. no, there is a wilderness in the East; it’s the same wilderness Ben Franklin plodded in the oxcart days when he was postmaster, the same as it was when George Washington was a wild-buck Indian-fighter, when Daniel Boone told stories by Pennsylvania lamps and promised to find the Gap, when Bradford built his road and men whooped her up in log cabins. There were not great Arizona spaces for the little man, just the bushy wilderness of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the backroads, the black-tar roads that curve among the mournful rivers like the Susquehanna, Monogahela, old Potomac and Monocacy.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Sal is traveling back East from California and he is spending more time noticing the parts of the country he initially passed over in his hurry to get out West. This marks a part of the book in which his observations become more specific. Instead of dealing in vague tropes about the West, Sal is suddenly thinking about specific historical figures and their relationship to the American landscapes they inhabited.

Significantly, he frames all these men as wanderers, much like him, who were searching for something in the American wilderness. He does not acknowledge that these were all men with very specific goals and tangible attachments and commitments to their society. While this is, again, an example of Sal romanticizing the past in a self-serving way, it is, at the very least, a little more nuanced than the romantic ideas he conjured up earlier in the book, and it is an explicit acknowledgement that Sal was wrong before to look for freedom in a specific place. This passage seems to imply that Sal is discovering that the kind of freedom he once associated with the West can be found anywhere – that freedom is more tied to attitude than place.

Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

On rails we leaned and looked at the great brown father of waters rolling down from mid-America like the torrent of broken souls—bearing Montana logs and Dakota muds and Iowa vales and things that had drowned in Three Forks, where the secret began in ice. Smoky New Orleans receded on one side; old, sleepy Algiers with its warped woodsides bumped us on the other. Negroes were working in the hot afternoon, stoking the ferry furnaces that burned red and made our tires smell. Dean dug them, hopping up and down in the heat.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Sal loves to rhapsodize about the American landscape, which is of a piece with his frontier-era ideas about open land being synonymous with freedom. However, something that his romantic frontier-era ideas about the landscape never acknowledged was that the American continent was already settled by American Indians, and to re-populate the West with white settlers was not simply to find freedom in open land, but to violently remove others from their land. In other words, romanticizing the American landscape has always been bound up with erasing the pain of others, particularly minorities.

This is clearly evident in this passage, as Sal's description of natural features of the landscape bleeds seamlessly into a description of African-American laborers; Sal's description indicates that he sees these people as part of the landscape, rather than as people with complex and important lives who have themselves constructed the American landscape as we know it through their labor. Much of Dean and Sal's conception of America is filtered through their own position as middle-class white men. They have a lot of trouble imagining the lives of others who aren't like them.

Part 3, Chapter 11 Quotes

All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up into this pile. Had they taken me with it, Dean would have never seen me again. He would have had to roam the entire United States and look in every garbage pail from coast to coast before he found me embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life, his life, and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Sal and Dean have spent the night in a movie theater in Detroit with a bunch of socially marginal people that Sal and Dean think are sad. Sal imagines being swept up with all the trash left on the floor of the movie theater. His description of this trash echoes, in a sense, his description of the kinds of people in the theater, which points to an implicit fear in Sal that he is becoming one of these sad people instead of achieving his countercultural dreams.

The passage seems to mark a rare moment of near-self-awareness by Sal about the fine line between being a member of a drug-fueled counterculture and being an addict with few ambitions, although he snaps out of it quickly to imagine himself happy in the dustbin with all the rubbish and to say that it is better to be anonymous in the world than famous. This seems to be another case of Sal's willingness to put a positive spin on almost any experience that he perceives as being outside the American mainstream.

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.