On the Road

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Society, Norms, and Counterculture 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.
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Theme Icon

On The Road was hugely important to the Beat movement, a countercultural artistic and literary movement of the 1950s, and still appeals to rebellious spirits today. Kerouac’s characters eschew the norms of mainstream society and live how they want, without regard for the law, manners, or social niceties. Sal and his friends indulge in drugs, heavy drinking, and casual sex, while Dean marries, divorces, and abandons several women. They steal food and cars, drive like maniacs, and wander around the country without stable jobs, socializing with other hitchhikers, criminals, and bums. Many of Sal’s friends (including Sal himself) are writers and poets. They spend much of their time partying, drinking, and generally making trouble—and, one should keep in mind, this is all set in the late 1940s! Kerouac’s novel was notorious for its racy material when it was published, and still has the potential to shock (or at least surprise) readers today. As Sal and his companions understand it, by rebelling against the constraints of mainstream society, they get more out of life. They live with a wild enthusiasm and do what they really want and need to do, rather than simply obeying what someone else thinks they should be doing. As Sal puts it, they are “mad to live.” Because of their countercultural behavior, Sal and his friends are often at odds with the police, so Kerouac’s novel contains a good deal of anti-police and anti-government sentiment. As we see when Sal works as a barracks guard in San Francisco, or when Dean is pulled over by police, the police seek to impose restrictions and laws on the free, mad behavior that Sal and Dean love so much.

On The Road defines and often glorifies the Beat movement, but it also raises some questions and problems with it. For one thing, how long can one rebel against mainstream society? Sal seems to return to a more normal life at the end of the novel and—as Dean starts to illustrate—all the drinking and drug use associated with such behavior eventually takes a toll. The eccentric madness of Old Bull Lee may be entertaining and interesting when Sal visits him in New Orleans, but would one want to live with him for a prolonged period of time? Would one want to be one of his children, raised by two drug-addicted parents? Additionally, who is excluded from Sal’s community of friends? As the Privilege and Prejudice theme below discusses, Sal’s group of countercultural friends often replicates the same prejudices of normal society. And finally, to what extent does the counterculture of Sal and others itself become a culture, with its own rules and restrictions? Sal is often afraid of being left out or left behind, and spends much of the novel following and pursuing Dean, a kind of ringleader of their group of friends. Does rebelling against mainstream culture, then, mean subscribing to just another form of culture or society? These questions, left somewhat unresolved by Kerouac, do not negate the excitement and possibility of the Beat movement entirely. Rather, On The Road is the quintessential representation of the movement, documenting it in all its excitement and with all its problems.

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Society, Norms, and Counterculture Quotes in On the Road

Below you will find the important quotes in On the Road related to the theme of Society, Norms, and Counterculture.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

In the bar I told Dean, “Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.”

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

While in the bar with Dean, Sal – who can, perhaps, be seen as a proxy for Kerouac himself – explains his attitude towards writing. Sal claims that it's tenacity, rather than skill or natural talent, that makes a writer. This is echoed in Kerouac's prose, which is loose, rambling, and only vaguely edited. Sal's attitude seems to be that simply getting the words out is more important than crafting them. His metaphor of writing "with the energy of a benny addict" also shows the world that Sal lives in. Benzedrine, an upper popular in Kerouac's time, was a drug that the counterculture loved to use recreationally.

Rather than being a stuffy or academic writer, it's clear that Sal wants to break with the social norms that govern writing and daily life. While Dean claims to want to learn to write, it seems clear that Dean is not cut out for it. He is someone who lives for experiences themselves, not for representations of those experiences. But Dean admires Sal's art and Sal admires Dean's spirit, so the two bond despite their differences.


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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 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.

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 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. 

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 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. 

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

Dean took out other pictures. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road.

Related Characters: Sal Paradise (speaker), Dean Moriarty
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dean and Sal are looking at photographs from their friendship and Sal imagines that their children will one day see these pictures. He is startled to realize that the pictures do not convey the excitement and rebellion that he feels has characterized his and Dean’s lives. He worries, as a result, that his children won’t know how complex and adventurous their lives actually were.

Sal's worries point to several things. While Dean has previously imagined him and Sal growing old together as hoboes, it seems that Sal’s vision of the future is one in which the two of them grow old as reasonably mainstream white male Americans, raising a family in a context in which their children could conceivably not know that their fathers had once been part of the counterculture except through photographs. This suggests, again, Sal’s and Dean’s diverging futures. It also, importantly, acknowledges that appearances are reductive. Sal himself doesn’t explicitly make this leap, but he has spent the whole book judging people (minorities, women, even his white male friends) based on their appearances, and this passage indicates that Sal’s superficial judgments, like the imagined judgments of Sal’s imagined children, could fail to scrape the surface of what is true.

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.