On the Road

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Privilege and Prejudice Theme Analysis

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.
Privilege and Prejudice Theme Icon

The ideal world of Sal and his friends is one of freedom—from obligations, from the law and police, from being tied to any one place or even any one woman. But all this has a flip-side: Sal and Dean’s freedom is often predicated on others’ lack of freedom, and is generally only attainable because of their privileged status as white males in America. On The Road often uses marginalized or minority groups to emphasize the eccentricity or weirdness of the experiences Sal and Dean find themselves in. They go into “colored” neighborhoods or run into “queers” in San Francisco. Dipping into these communities allows Sal and Dean to demonstrate how wild and countercultural they are, without having to experience the discrimination that forces these kinds of people into marginalized communities. Dean often says that he “digs” black people, admiring how far outside the mainstream they are and what seem like their eccentricities. But this is not so much a choice (like it is for Dean and Sal) as a burden placed upon them. Sal talks about his running into “queers” for comic entertainment and shock value to the book’s original 1950s audience, but the novel at times seems to harbor resentment toward them—at one point, Dean calls New York City “Frosty fagtown New York.” These marginalized groups are important to the eccentric atmosphere the novel evokes, but they don’t get to play central roles in the plot. This is perhaps clearest with the novel’s treatment of African Americans. Dean and Sal practically worship black jazz musicians, but these people are only peripheral characters at best. While Dean and Sal “dig” aspects of black culture, they generally don’t stop to consider the experiences of African Americans and their endurance of racism and segregation. While picking cotton with Teresa, Sal even romanticizes pre-Civil-War cotton picking, clearly not thinking about the horrors of slavery.

A similar dynamic is at play with women in On The Road. Women like Marylou, Teresa, and Camille are important to the novel’s plot, but are not allowed to become rounded characters with fully fleshed-out inner lives. Sal, Dean, and other male characters often treat women as interchangeable and replaceable. They fall in love with various women, but then suddenly leave and abandon them. Dean’s ideal situation is to have multiple women in San Francisco with him, so that he can spend time with different women at different times. In other words, he expects a woman to stay at home while he goes around to other women and then be there waiting for him when he comes back. His mobile freedom relies on his women lacking theirs. Dean repeatedly abandons his wives to go on the road, because he needs to be free. But what about Camille’s freedom? Or Inez’s? Women are also often insulted by Sal’s narration. They are objectified, considered mostly in terms of their physical appearance, and patronizingly called “dumb” or “stupid.” Sal’s narration also shows a double standard regarding sexual liberty. Sal and Dean try to sleep with women all over the country, all the time, but when Marylou sleeps with numerous men, Sal calls her a “whore.”

On The Road is a story of freedom, of setting out on the road to find oneself and live how one wants to live. But it is important to recognize how privileged Sal is for being able to go on such journeys. Could he hitchhike across 1940s America so easily, for example, if he were black? Or if he had to work to support a family? Or if he didn’t have an aunt who could conveniently send him money? And it is also important to consider how, although Sal prizes his own freedom and madness for life, he often doesn’t respect that of others who are different from him. Kerouac’s novel is a compelling, exciting, thought-provoking representation of a group of friends and fellow-travelers on the road, but not everyone has the ability to set off on the road whenever he or she feels like it, and not everyone is welcome in Sal’s cadre of eccentric friends.

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Privilege and Prejudice Quotes in On the Road

Below you will find the important quotes in On the Road related to the theme of Privilege and Prejudice.
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.


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Part 1, Chapter 13 Quotes

There was an old Negro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama; they moved right along their rows, bent and blue, and their bags increased. My back began to ache. But it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Much like Sal's assessment of his interaction with Rita, this passage points to Sal's unreliability as a balanced and reasonable narrator. Often in the book, Sal and Dean and others fetishize the African American experience as one that is somehow free from the pressures and norms of white America. Obviously, that assessment ignores the violence and prejudice that, in fact, limit African American choices in ways that a white American's choices would not be limited. Here, Sal easily praises the beauty of picking cotton, though he speaks only from an experience of doing it casually and by choice. By contrast, the black farmers and sharecroppers that pick cotton have to do this particular work in order to survive – and it's grueling labor, something that Sal can't appreciate from his tourist's understanding of it. Most tellingly, Sal casually refers to the "God-blessed patience" with which African Americans have picked cotton for generations; he's romanticizing slavery here and implying that there was something peaceful and beautiful in being enslaved and forced to pick cotton.

In a sense, this easy reverence for the labor of cotton picking flies in the face of the racist de-valuing of jobs that were traditionally held by minorities. Sal likely believes – and he is, perhaps, correct – that his attitude towards African Americans and their work is more generous than the mainstream white attitude towards minorities in the 1940s. However, replacing racist disdain with romanticized reverence is still evading a frank acknowledgement of the realities that minorities were facing. As much as Sal believes he is on a journey to learn the real America, he doesn't seem capable very often of seeing past the surface.

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 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 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 1 Quotes

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered me was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker)
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Sal has tried to settle in Denver and commit to a stable job at a fruit market, but he is dissatisfied with the life that he is living after the excitement of the road. His response to this dissatisfaction is to romanticize the lives of minorities because they seem to Sal to be living exciting lives that are outside of the American mainstream.

What Sal does not understand is that their lives are not an example of the kind of countercultural existence that Sal chose for himself. The people he romanticizes live in white-imposed exile from the American mainstream because of bigotry. For Sal to imagine the excitement and ecstasy of being a minority (in contrast to the dreary disillusionment of being a white man with an obligation to go to work every day) shows how profoundly he does not understand America, even though his whole purpose in life seems to be to explore America and try to see it for what it is.