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
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.”
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.