On the Road

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Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
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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.
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Theme Icon

Each part of Kerouac’s novel—until the short, concluding Part Five—tells the story of a journey, and its title emphasizes the importance of traveling, of being on the road whether riding, driving, or hitchhiking. Travel is hugely important to Sal and his companions, largely because it is associated with a kind of freedom and a sense of possibility. When Sal takes off to travel across the country, he is exercising his freedom to go anywhere, not to be tied down to any one place. At first, his goal is to travel west. As it was for the American pioneers who first traveled there, the west is a place of possibility and newness for Sal, a chance to start a whole new chapter of his life. But, once Sal gets as far west as he can—to San Francisco and the west coast—he ends up eventually journeying back east. At this point, Sal realizes that the freedom of the road is not contingent on any one destination, like the west, but is in the road itself. It is in being on the road, in the process of traveling, that Sal feels happiest and most free. For his friends and him, the journey is much more important than any destination.

Thus, travel in the novel becomes a kind of purposeless wandering. While Sal may have ostensible goals in mind, like San Francisco or Denver or even Mexico, his real purpose in traveling is simply to get on the road again. He often has no good reason for going to a particular destination. Rather, he feels an urge just to travel and wander. At various times throughout the novel, Sal tries to settle down, whether cotton picking with Teresa or working a stable job in Denver. But, he always eventually gets “the bug” to go out on the road again. Through Kerouac’s evocative descriptions of the road and the landscapes whizzing past Sal as he speeds along, the novel romanticizes and glorifies Sal’s aimless wandering. In giving such importance to the idea of travel, the novel asks readers to consider Sal’s travels in relation to other important journeys from the literary tradition. On The Road can be seen as a rewriting of The Odyssey, for example: instead of a hero journeying home, Kerouac depicts an ordinary man who feels most at home on the road itself. One could also read the novel in relation to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the foundational work of western literature equating physical travel with a kind of spiritual journey. Finally, the novel also begs comparison to a foundational text of English literature, The Canterbury Tales, whose plot is entirely made up of stories told by travelers on the road to Canterbury. Through these comparisons, Kerouac’s novel can be seen as claiming that the paradigmatic journey of his generation is a kind of aimless wandering. The heroes and protagonists of Kerouac’s America are then the country’s hitchhikers, bums, and transients.

All of this restless wandering finds an equivalent in the form and style of the novel. Its meandering plot—without a single climax, central event, or any clear symmetrical organization—mirrors Sal’s crisscrossing path across the United States. And, just like Sal or Dean speeding along a highway, Kerouac’s prose often speeds forward with long, run-on sentences and lists conveying the same manic energy and excitement that his characters prize so much. Stasis is the enemy not just of Sal and Dean’s lives, but of the novel itself. When Sal finally chooses to settle down, staying in New York instead of going off with Dean again, this represents the conclusion of the novel. With this ending, Kerouac may suggest that the free wandering of his characters can only go on for so long and that eventually everyone has to stop somewhere. But, we don’t learn exactly what happens to Dean after he leaves New York. Sal may choose to end the part of his life on the road, but for Dean the road seems to be his life.

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Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Quotes in On the Road

Below you will find the important quotes in On the Road related to the theme of Freedom, Travel, and Wandering.
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 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 2 Quotes

It was a completely meaningless set of circumstances that made Dean come, and similarly I went off with him for no reason. In New York I had been attending school and romancing around with a girl called Lucille, a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling that I actually wanted to marry. All these years I was looking for the woman I wanted to marry.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

By this time in the book Sal has returned to New York from his travels out West. He seems to have been living a much less countercultural life, spending a year attending school and forming a serious relationship with a woman he wanted to marry. However, this passage shows the flippancy with which he is able to abandon this life, which implies that his attachment to it was never so deep.

This passage is an indication of Sal's ambivalence about wandering and it shows the differences between his values and Dean's. While Dean has casually married and abandoned many women, Sal has never married and it seems that, when he does, he plans to take it seriously. This implies that someday he will look to move on from his life on the road, which is a goal that Dean never claims. As the book moves forward it becomes clearer and clearer that Dean and Sal, while close friends, have profound differences that will eventually take their lives in different directions.

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. 

Part 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

“I want to know what all this sitting around the house all day is intended to mean. What all this talk is and what you propose to do. Dean, why did you leave Camille and pick up Marylou?” No answer—giggles. “Marylou, why are you traveling around the country like this and what are your womanly intentions concerning the shroud?” Same answer. “Ed Dunkel, why did you abandon your new wife in Tucson and what are you doing here sitting on your big fat ass? Where’s your home? What’s your job?”

Related Characters: Carlo Marx (speaker), Dean Moriarty, Marylou, Camille, Ed Dunkel
Page Number: 120-121
Explanation and Analysis:

Carlo is an important character, since he was first described as being just like Sal and Dean, but his friendship with them frays as his life goes in a different direction. In a sense, Dean represents the reckless and doomed extreme of the counterculture. He is accountable to nobody and has no ambition besides having fun new experiences.

Carlo rejects the same kinds of authority and mainstream culture as Dean, but Carlo is shown to be devoted to his poetry. Of anyone in the book, Carlo is the one who seems most productive; he always has new and interesting poetry to show the others, which implies that he has found a way to balance his lifestyle and his ambition.

Sal seems caught in the middle – he lives Dean's life most of the time, and tries to write sometimes. He's less carefree than Dean, and less productive and responsible than Carlo. While Sal romanticizes Dean throughout the book more than Carlo, this is a moment of reckoning in which Carlo becomes a center of morality. This is not the unexamined morality of mainstream society, but a heartfelt critique coming from a friend and fellow member of the counterculture. This is an important passage in that it challenges the simplistic ideals and reckless lifestyle of its protagonists, making the moral stakes of the book more fraught and complex. 

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 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.

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.