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.
Writing Theme Icon

Along with several other of his friends, Sal is a writer. In fact, Dean first comes to Sal to learn how to write. Part of the way in which Sal and his friends rebel against mainstream society is in dedicating themselves to modern, experimental writing and creative pursuits rather than to traditional jobs. This aspect of On The Road is often read autobiographically, so that the novel can be seen as, in some way, about Kerouac himself and other Beat writers. But while people often draw direct equations between characters and real-life people (so that Sal, for example, is really Kerouac himself), what might be more important is the general tension between writing and real-life experience. Writing requires withdrawing from social life, taking time out of the crazy course of life to pause, reflect, and write. However, at the same time, one needs something to write about. One needs to live and go out in order to have interesting experiences that may form the basis for one’s writing. This tension can be seen with Sal, who leaves his half-finished manuscript at home in order to journey west after Dean. He seeks new, interesting experiences on the road, but this means putting his writing on hold for some time. Sal prizes living with a mad enthusiasm, but also values writing, which requires some peace, quiet, stability, and discipline. Sal balances these competing impulses by alternating between going on long journeys with or in search of Dean and staying with his aunt or otherwise settling down for a period of time. This vacillation between stasis and movement, withdrawing from the madness of his friends and indulging in it, allows him to balance writing with living his life. One can also see Kerouac himself working through a similar tension through his energetic prose style, filled with run-on sentences and often heedless of proper grammar. By making his writing as exciting, meandering, and free as Dean’s journeys, he makes the solitary activity of his writing more like the mad life it depicts.

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Writing Quotes in On the Road

Below you will find the important quotes in On the Road related to the theme of Writing.
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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