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.
Society, Norms, and Counterculture ThemeTracker
Society, Norms, and Counterculture Quotes in On the Road
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.”
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!”
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.