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.
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering ThemeTracker
Freedom, Travel, and Wandering Quotes in On the Road
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.