The main character of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Sal, begins an expedition across the country in order to shed his former ailing identity, as a result of his divorce, with hopes of attaining a new personality and a new direction. Depending on friend’s advice, especially Dean’s, he takes off with fifty dollars in his pocket with hopes of eventually landing on a cruise liner stationed in the Pacific off of the Californian coast. Through the novel, he “wears” numerous personalities but never really fits any of them, unless you take the saddened eternal wanderer as a personality in itself. It is on the California-destined journey that Sal “tries on” numerous identities, never actually settling on one which could establish a foundation for his life.
The first identity Sal employs is that of a husband. All we know of Sal’s wedded union is that it was a failure. We do not even know his former wife’s name. The only information we have of that marriage is that it caused (and if not caused at least happened at the same time) Sal to battle “a serious illness.” During this particular identity he was forced to contend with a “miserably weary split-up and feeling that everything was dead” (1). Once this particular path is terminated due to her absence, he assumes a new role as writer. He writes feverishly for months hoping to write the great American novel and follow in the steps of Hemingway and Eliot. Once his isolation proves too much, or upon realizing his work is not satisfactory, he desires a new course on the open-road.
It is this decision, based on Dean’s wisdom, which dictates the next few years of Sal’s life. Various other identities are assumed including hobo, student, police officer and cotton gatherer. Each identity is short-lived, regardless of weak or strong feelings for the position. This finite period of time attributed to each post illustrates Sal’s ever-increasing desire to be on the move. He physically, as a result of emotions and thought-processes, cannot remain in one place for an extended period. No place is able to become his home despite a desire to be viewed as a native or local in every town he visits. The reason for this movement, other than his searching for new places based on a desire to travel, is due to his realization of what he has from that which he does not possess. For instance, when he assumes the role as a hobo, it is fun for some time. He is able to lie idly in the grass and drink without discretion in Middle America. However, once he begins to think of the possibilities for adventure and gain in other places, namely California, he begins to shun the idea of being a homeless wanderer. Another more solid example of this condition is represented in his role as cotton gatherer and assumed position as father to Terry’s son, Johnny. At one point he says, “I thought I had found my life’s work” (89). He furthers this idea of really being enveloped into this given identity when Sal, as an Italian-American, says, “From then on I carried a big stick with me in the tent in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am” (90). He seems to have completely devoted himself to this new cause and career as cotton-picker. The “of course” once again stresses his desire to fit in with surrounding culture, being able to assume the native position without differentiations. He professes his love for Terry as well as Johnny. However, once the cold of October begins to settle in on the fields, his devotion fades. He wires his aunt for more money and within a few days, walks away from Terry knowing he will never see her again in his life.
The major theme of Kerouac’s novel is a desire to always obtain something more. It could be in the form of wealth, position or in understanding. Sal assumes the role of that tragic figure, lost in a losing battle to find a complete understanding of just what it is he is supposed to be accomplishing with his life.