Jack Kerouac, the “father of the Beat generation”, wrote his most famous novel without knowing that it would soon transform the youth generation of America. Even today, the book speaks to those who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or a way to break free from conformity. In this book, Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac’s altar ego, who wants to leave his home of Paterson, New Jersey to explore the great unknown. More than this, though, he desires a break from the confinement of his life and a need to search for ultimate freedom, a theme that is representative of the Beat Generation. Despite Sal’s occasional excitement on the road, mostly relating to drugs, sex, and alcohol, Paradise is consumed with an extreme sense of loneliness and emptiness about his life. Although this loneliness is sometimes artificially filled by the arrival of a new woman, like Terry, or a night out drinking with Dean Moriarty, the void within him remains empty. Sal continually tries to emulate his friend Dean, someone he believes has got “the secret that we’re all busting to find” (196). Yet even Dean, who Sal thinks so highly of, does not have the answers to the questions they seek. Sal is intrigued by Dean because of his passion for life and his active, intense personality; however, as the novel progresses, Sal realizes that Dean is self-interested and possesses no more knowledge that Sal himself.
Sal’s ultimate goal is to break loose from his mundane existence is New Jersey and find something passionate and alive to experience. Although he tries to make the most out of life like Dean, he is continually brought back to a place of confusion and uncertainty. Many times throughout the book, the notion of “IT” appears, and Sal says at one point, “I wanted to know what ‘IT’ meant” (207). It seems that “IT” is the essential meaning of life, or what these men are hoping to find by being out on the road. At one point, upon reaching Mexico, Dean and Sal think they have found some sense of “IT”: “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic” (276). The men are amazed at the lax regulations they encounter and the abundance of women they find. But the excitement always wears off and Mexico is no exception as Sal finds himself feeling “the same unmistakable ache and stab across the mind, the same sighs, the same, the same pain…” (289). It seems that ultimately, these men never do find what they are looking for; instead, they only find fleeting examples of happiness but never the real thing. Sex and alcohol are only momentary replacements of “IT” and do not encompass what Sal is really looking for.
While much of the road seems to be full of excitement and new experiences, Sal is continually let down and disappointed. After Dean abandons him in San Francisco, Marylou is next to desert Sal, who says, “Now I had nobody, nothing” (172). Even though Sal tries to fill the emptiness inside of him with people like Dean and Terry, ultimately the only person he can rely on is himself. He comes to realize this towards the end of the novel, as he discovers what kind of a person Dean Moriarty truly is: “When I got better I realized what a rat he was” (302). It seems that something positive does emerge from his time on the road as he matures and comes to realize that Dean always cared more about himself than he did of Sal. While at times Dean’s restlessness and zest for life are entertaining, ultimately we can see that he is someone who is too self involved and is just another lost soul on the road, looking for something to ease the pain.
The road does represent something important and even sacred for Sal who says, “The road is life” (212). However, he also says that in reality, life is not as enjoyable as he had hoped: “the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, or the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness” (254). It is as if Sal is trying to rationalize his travels on the road, but deep down he knows that ultimately, he is hopeless and continues to search for answers. The road is only a quick fix to something that needs more lasting repair. Although we can never really know what “IT” is, we can assume that it is the desire to find some sort of inner spiritual peace. I think Kerouac does a good job of portraying the sentiment of his generation at that time. Moreover, his book gives a sense of the restlessness he himself was experiencing during those years. Even though he did not intend for his book to have such a lasting impact on the nation, it did, and even more than fifty years later, people are still reading and praising it. It is truly a book that speaks to a generation of individuals who wanted something more than what they were given.
Wanting more or challenging the life one has been given is something that has been prevalent throughout this course. We’ve seen Malu embracing the spirit and life of her unborn child, the narrator in Black Rainbow who stands up for his own freedom and individuality, the Samoan culture who continues traditions of tatau despite outside criticism, and even Guy from Danticat’s “Wall of Fire Rising”, who yearns to escape his mundane existence. This idea of wanting more or the desire to experience unfamiliar things is what travel is all about; people desire change and excitement, as is shown in Kerouac’s novel, and travel gives us the freedom to do this. Not only does travel enable us to branch out and explore exciting and new places, but it is through travel that we learn about ourselves, as we’ve discussed often in this class, and in doing so, we come to understand who we are as individuals and who we are within society.