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.
Friendship Theme Icon

As much as it is a novel about journeying, On The Road is also a novel of friendship. To whatever extent Sal and others form a coherent “movement,” it is not an official club or organization, but is simply a loose community brought together by various ties of friendship. Wherever Sal goes, he thinks of friends he can call up to stay with, go out with, or drink with. The narration often casually drops the names of friends, as if the reader is another of Sal’s friends, familiar with his acquaintances. In traveling around the country, Sal forges more and more friendships through the unique camaraderie of travel (and especially hitchhiking) companions.

In addition to Sal’s vast network of friends, travel buddies, and acquaintances, Kerouac explores some especially close, intense friendships. In Denver, for example, Dean and Carlo meet every day early in the morning to sit on a bed together and talk, sharing everything about their lives. The most important friendship in the novel, though, is that between Dean and Sal. Both of them fall in love with different women over the course of the novel, but their friendship remains constant. Dean leaves Marylou, Camille, and Inez, but always comes back to Sal. And at the end of the novel, Dean and Sal’s parting ways is narrated more tragically than any parting from a female love interest. On The Road thus explores and celebrates this intense male friendship as even more important than romantic relationships. Sal and Dean often seem more interested in each other than in Marylou, Camille, Lucille, or any other woman. (Ironically, while the novel celebrates intense, quasi-romantic relationships between male friends, it treats the idea of actual romantic relationships between men, i.e. homosexuality, somewhat derisively, as seen with the “fag” who drives Sal and Dean out of San Francisco in Part Three.)

The intense friendships of the novel can be seen as a substitute for the family that many of Kerouac’s characters either lack or run away from. Dean, for example, doesn’t know his parents and spends some of the latter half of the novel searching for his father. Sal, on the other hand, leaves his family behind when he travels west, and Stan Shephard, in Part Four, quite literally flees from his grandfather. For Sal and his friends, their close friendships form a new kind of road family. Sal even refers to Dean as his brother at times. But, these friendships are not always ideal. Early in the novel, Sal fears being left out of Dean and Carlo’s circle. Dean abandons Sal multiple times, including while Sal is feverishly ill in Mexico. And Sal ultimately abandons Dean at the end of the novel for his plans with Remi and Laura. Nonetheless, despite its somewhat tragic ending, Kerouac’s novel still celebrates the community and camaraderie of the uniquely close friendships forged by Sal and his fellow travelers on the road, even if these relationships don’t always survive. After all, Sal may part ways with Dean at the end of the novel, but he never stops thinking of him.

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Friendship Quotes in On the Road

Below you will find the important quotes in On the Road related to the theme of Friendship.
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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But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “awww!”

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

This luminous passage is Sal's clearest articulation of his compulsion towards people who are eccentric, reckless, and even dangerous and self-destructive. Sal isn't interested in banal daily life or in people who follow rules and live out other people's ideas and expectations – he wants passionate people who are unique and unafraid of consequences. This explains his attraction to the counterculture and the group of freewheeling friends he accumulates throughout the book.

It's important that Sal specifies that these are the types of people he's "shambled after...all my life." His wording suggests that he sees a difference between himself and those people. He is following after people who interest him in order to see their world, but he doesn't see himself as one of them necessarily. For this reason, his friendships – while intense and often rewarding – always seem a little precarious. Sal's values and interests are always slightly ajar from the group. By the end of the book we get the sense that it might be his ambition and instincts as a writer that separate him from these people who strive only to be present in the moment.

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 could hear Dean, blissful and blabbering and frantically rocking. Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes. . . Dean had never seen his mother’s face. Every new girl, every new wife, every new child was an addition to his bleak impoverishment. Where was his father?—old bum Dean Moriarty the Tinsmith, riding freights, working as a scullion in railroad cookshacks, stumbling, down-crashing in wino alley nights, expiring on coal piles, dropping his yellowed teeth one by one in the gutters of the West. Dean had every right to die the sweet deaths of complete love of his Marylou. I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to follow.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty, Marylou
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite Carlo's evisceration of Dean's lifestyle and morality, Sal still seems to worship Dean and want to do everything he can to help him. Instead of holding Dean accountable for his treatment of Marylou, he excuses it by empathizing with Dean's difficulties – his time in jail, his absent mother, his degenerate father. Instead of listening to Carlo's admonishment of Dean's treatment of Marylou, Sal comes to almost the opposite conclusion, deciding that Dean deserves Marylou's love because of his troubled past. This is another instance of Sal viewing women as objects who have importance solely through their relationship to men, as opposed to human beings who have value in themselves.

On the other hand, though, this passage is one of the most intense moments of friendship between Dean and Sal. While Dean has offered to let Sal sleep with Marylou, Sal decides, out of loyalty to Dean, that he can't do it even though he wants to. Sal views this as an act of kindness and empathy towards Dean, which, in a way, it is, despite that Marylou is caught in the middle. 

Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

Suddenly Dean was saying good-by. He was bursting to see Camille and find out what had happened. Marylou and I stood dumbly in the street and watched him drive away. “You see what a bastard he is?” said Marylou. “Dean will leave you out in the cold any time it’s in his interest.”

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Marylou (speaker), Dean Moriarty, Camille
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

While Dean and Sal often discredit Marylou's opinions and character, she is able to see something about Dean that Sal can't; he is fundamentally selfish, which is a threat to his and Sal's friendship. Prior to this passage, Sal and Dean and Marylou were all traveling together, but Dean left them on a whim in San Francisco in order to go visit another woman. Sal seems just as surprised by this as Marylou as they watch him drive away, but Marylou is the one who is able to show Sal that this is part of a pattern of behavior for Dean.

The reason Marylou is able to see this aspect of Dean is that, as a woman, Dean treats her with less respect than he treats Sal, and once Sal is in the position of being disrespected by Dean it takes Marylou to make sense of it for him. This passage shows a faultline in the friendship between Dean and Sal; it indicates that the friendship might not be as important to Dean as it is to Sal, and it foreshadows a time in which Dean will seriously let Sal down.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

I looked at him; my eyes were watering with embarrassment and tears. Still he stared at me. now his eyes were blank and looking through me. It was probably the pivotal point of our friendship when he realized I had actually spend some hours thinking about him and his troubles, and he was trying to place that in his tremendously involved and tormented mental categories.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a pivotal moment in Sal and Dean's friendship, and, because of that, a pivotal moment in the book. Sal has come to find Dean in San Francisco and discovers that Dean's life seems like a mess; he's in trouble with women, his health isn't great, and he seems unhinged. Instead of writing him off or trying to get him help, Sal decides that the best thing to do for Dean is to get him on the road again. This is a role reversal in their friendship, as it is usually Dean who spurs Sal to action. It also points to something sinister about their friendship; they seem to be enablers of each other's worst traits, including their desire to evade all responsibility in their lives.

Despite that Sal's method of helping Dean seems not to be the best one, Dean is deeply moved to realize that Sal has spent time considering his needs and problems. This empathy would seem to be a fundamental function of friendship, and the fact that Dean takes note of this in Sal emphasizes Dean's persistent inability to empathize with others – it just isn't the way he operates. So even though this is presented as being a beautiful moment for the two men's friendship, it spells trouble to come and points to problems from the past.

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 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 6 Quotes

And he was gone. Twelve hours later in my sorrowful fever I finally came to understand that he was gone. . . When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dean and Sal are in Mexico and Sal is sick. Instead of staying and taking care of his friend, Dean leaves him to go back to New York and see Inez. This is a complicated moment for Sal because, after Dean's departure, he is finally admitting “what a rat” Dean is for being so unreliable and such a bad friend. It’s stunning, in a sense, that it Sal so long to realize Dean's nature, but, on the other hand, for Sal to acknowledge this major fault of Dean’s is a big step forward for Sal’s ability to reckon with the reality of the world rather than retreating into his fantasies about what reality should be.

Nonetheless, Sal fails to hold Dean accountable for this behavior, seemingly chalking it up to fate and “complexity” that Dean always seems to be abandoning people and getting into trouble. This passage points to the morality of the book overall, which seems not to put much stock in the importance of human choice and decency. Sal seems unable to affirm that anyone should have any responsibility to anybody else.

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.