In Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, the narrator, Sal Paradise offers up to us what seems to be a very optimistic view on life. He is forever singing the praises of how wonderful his adventures will be and his high expectations for the future. To Sal, the novel is defined by youthful exuberance and unabashed optimism for the new experiences that he sets out to find. A deeper look into the novel, as well as a look at some of the critics who have written on it, reveals a much darker side, a more pessimistic and sad aspect that Sal simply fails to realize until the very close of the action. Whether Sal is hopped up on the optimism of jazz music, secure in his belief that he is off to find IT,’ or just excited about the promises of a night out in a new city, he is consistently selling the reader on the positive nature of the situations. To be more honest though, On the Road is a novel in which Sal, and the people with whom he surrounds himself, find themselves steeped into a near constant cycle of enthusiastic optimism for the future, which is then followed by a disparaging pessimism for the situation’s reality. While Sal might note that he desires the freedom and happiness of the open road, Ann Douglas says that “this is the saddest book that I’ve ever read” (Douglas, 9). While Sal attempts to show a exuberant and triumphant story of youthful optimism, critics and the actual events of the novel alike seem to point towards the fact that this same optimism turns the novel into a pessimistic story showing the actualities of life.
Sal’s optimism can be defined by hopeful, often unrealistic, ambitions for the future. Without any real knowledge of what they will encounter, since the road often lands them in cities and towns where they have never been, the characters almost exclusively hope for the best, think everything will work out just fine – never considering the clear possibilities for disappointment. High expectations for parties or a hope to make it across the country using only one road are just two example of the blind optimism seen throughout the novel. While the headstrong characters of the novel run about the country thinking that everything will be all right, the actuality remains that most situations end in sorrow or adversely affected lives. Picking up hitchhikers who ultimately fail to have the gas money they promised, parties that end in disaster or argument, and emotionally abused wives and lovers almost always win out over the brand new car that might take them to Mexico or exultation that is sure to find them within the walls of a jazz club.
The influence of Dean Moriarty on the novel, in terms of everything from plot to general tone to the thoughts and dreams of Sal, is immeasurable. Most importantly though, he is the catalyst for much of this blind optimism – for in a sense, he personifies blind optimism. During the long introduction of Dean in the first chapter, Sal shows the vast impression that Dean will have on the tone of the novel:
all my New York friends were in their negative, nightmare position of
putting down society and giving their bookish or psychoanalytical
reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love; he
didn’t care one way or the other (Kerouac, 7).
Dean’s refusal to look at the world with a disapproving eye and always having hope for simple things like food and sex exemplify his personification of optimism. This early passage of the novel shows that Dean will – and eventually does – become the driving force in the optimism that marks much of the book. Dean’s lust for life guides himself and Sal to places such as jazz clubs, old friends’ houses, and even Mexico. But with Dean as well as the cohorts that follow his madness, (Sal, Ed Dunkel, Carlo Marx and many more) the result ends up being much less than ideal, despite the fact that they sometimes happen to receive that “bread and love” along the way. Adventures such as Dean’s continually failed relationships with women are clear examples of this lust for life turning into despair. Life with his first wife MaryLou becomes awful for Dean when she whores herself about town, Camille lives with Dean during a period when his life is “not so good,” and Dean simply leaves his final wife Inez to return to San Francisco to live with Camille once again. Carole Vopat reiterates the sadness and complete lack of positivity of this pattern, noting that instead of “finding life” they are actually leaving it all behind “and especially in the best American tradition, they are leaving behind responsibility; wives, children, mistresses, all end up strewn about the highway like broken glass” (Vopat, 387). While to Sal, Dean may be the person whom primarily exemplifies the hopefulness and love for life that should guide this novel, he is more correctly seen as a negative and ultimately horrible character who in truth exemplifies what is wrong with the culture at the time, leaving women and family behind “like broken glass.”
It is not only the adventures that Dean embarks upon that often veer from his initial optimism, but it is also his life in general that follows the cycle of excited exuberance to a gloomy reality. While early on in the novel Sal describes Dean as an ultimate figure of manhood and the “western kinsman of the sun” (Kerouac, 7), by Part Three Dean’s life of disappointed optimism and uncontrolled impulsive nature has led him towards many problems. As described in Tim Hunt’s book Kerouac’s Crooked Road, Dean is a “fool for his refusal to recognize more clearly the way his allegiance to impulse and energy is gradually damning him” (Hunt, 70). Hunt does not see Dean as the optimistic catalyst that Sal does, but as an exemplification of what this story is really about – about hopes that are dashed due to unforgiving reality. When Sal sees Dean in Denver after a few months away from him, Dean has become a walking example of sadness and the toll that life takes. Sal’s physical description of Dean in his San Francisco apartment serves to exemplify this fact:
He was wearing a T-shirt, torn pants hanging down his belly, tattered
shoes, he had not shaved. . . his eyes bloodshot, and a tremendous
bandaged thumb stood supported in midair (Kerouac, 177).
Dean’s life at this stage, affected by his wild actions, had become much like his appearance – with more than one lover to support, a infected thumb, very little money, and not much to live for, Dean is on an ominous path to nowhere. In line with the path of the novel as a truly sad work, Dean’s life has become pitiable and horribly real. Dean, as a character, goes through the cycle of heated optimism to a wild time of excitement and then to an example of a disparaging 1940’s western hero.
This cycle is matched by events of the novel to also follow this cycle of, as Warren French writes “movements from beginnings full of happy anticipations, through periods of frenzied excitement to depressing conclusions” (French, 43). Just as Hunt suggests Dean’s foolishness in pursuing actions that push him towards this “depressing conclusion,” Sal’s travels seem to have a similar foolish tendency. From the very beginning of Sal’s first trip West, there is a precedent set that Sal’s will consistently look for the best in all situations, but that these visions will ultimately fail. Without any road knowledge or real traveling experience Sal notes, “I’ll just stay on (Route) 6 all the way to Ely, I said to myself and confidently started” (Kerouac, 9, emphasis added). Sal’s confidence in this early event in his travels shows his innocence – for this plan certainly does not work out, as the dream of an easy trip to the West ends when Sal learns, only 40 miles away, that Route 6 cannot take him across the country. Sal effectively notes that “it was my dreams that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea” (Kerouac, 10).
Despite Sal’s realization of his foolish optimism, he goes on to make the same mistakes throughout his numerous cross-country trips. Before his trips, Sal encourages the reader to think that maybe this time he’ll be successful (Campbell, 455), thinking that he can make his money last by being frugal and not using it foolishly, for example. Instead Sal spends money in bars, wastes money on whiskey and apple pies, and buys booze for other road companions. This leaves him poor, depressed and unlike Campbell says above, turning the reader towards a more pessimistic interpretation of the novel, rather than an encouraging and hopeful one.
As Sal continues down the road, his hopes get bigger and the consequences of disappointments grow larger along with those hopes. Late in Part One when Sal, staying in Denver with the Rawlins’, takes a trek to the mountains with a group including his hosts and Tim Gray, aspirations for the short trip run high. Sal notes that “only a few days ago I’d come to Denver like a bum; now I was all racked up sharp in a suit, with a beautiful well-dressed blond (Babe Rawlins) on my arm” (47). He is on top of the world, assuming nothing can or will go wrong with their trip. Again, he is showing this idea that the readers will buy into his story as a positive one, as Campbell would say, encouraging the readers to believe that good things will happen. Bringing him back to reality though, the trip follows the pattern of frenzied excitement to depressing end, when a gang of drunken teenage boys ruins a perfectly good party and a fight in a bar puts an end to an already ravaged evening. In the end, Sal ends up broke and the whole group takes “the sad ride back to Denver again” (Kerouac, 50), a much different and more depressing tone than on the way towards Central City.
When Dean, Sal, and a new companion Stan decide on a trip to Mexico, the wear and tear of many compiled and disparaging events begins to change Sal. This does not stop him from trying once again to succeed in an incredible journey that they all hope will turn out just as planned. This time though, the stakes are much higher. This is shown by the passage in which Kerouac writes “‘Man, this will finally take us to IT!’ said Dean with definite faith” (253). The trip begins with such optimism for Dean that he believes that they will all finally discover the thing that they all assume that they are missing in their lives. A trip like this, after noticing the events of the rest of the story, is almost certain to fail, as Sal (who is seriously beginning to doubt all of this unabashed optimism) confirms. When Stan gets stung by a bee and begins to swell up too much to ignore, Sal shows his weariness of the trip by saying, “Damn! It made the whole trip seem sinister and doomed” (256). Sal’s inclination, for the first time not an optimistic one, is correct as the trip to Mexico ends up being more than they can handle. Vopat notes the change during the trip, and the higher stakes, saying that “in Mexico Sal hopes to escape from the self, civilization, and their discontents” (Vopat, 393), in other words, Sal is trying to find IT. She then goes on , quoting Sal: “the strange Arabian paradise we had finally found at the end of the hard, hard road was only a wild whore house after all” (Vopat, 393). It is impossible to consider this event anything other than a comment on the harsh and depressing realities of the world, the same realities that Vopat sees in the American landscape of Sal Paradise’s story. “America is a land of corruption and hypocrisy, promising everything and delivering nothing, living off the innocence and opportunity” (Vopat, 390) she says when describing Sal’s America. The very fact that a critic sees America as such a depressing world after Sal’s description of his adventures upon it show that his original thoughts of optimism are sorely erroneous in this novel.
The best place to search for optimism in this novel can be seen in the fact that Sal seems to eventually break away from his blind hopefulness at the end of the story. Sal no longer feels the intense drive to discover and become disappointed. According to Hunt, he has already experienced “the action of breaking out of the established routine or order in search of kicks and the knowledge of time” and it has only left him with “experiences that end in vision, exhaustion, and a return to the established order” (Hunt, 23). Sal’s first attempt to lose the foolish optimism of situations, when he suggests that the Mexico trip is “doomed,” continues through the final chapter of the book. Upon meeting a woman with “innocent and pure eyes” named Laura, whom he sincerely loves, Sal is making his first move from optimistic fool to a more realistic adult. Sal realizes the silliness of Dean’s extremely early arrival in New York to meet Laura when he notes that “suddenly Dean arrived anyway, five and a half weeks in advance, and nobody had any money” (Kerouac, 290). No longer is Sal excited to go out, get drunk, and talk to Dean for hours on end about nothing and everything. He has moved beyond these impractical actions and belief in unrealistic dreams. Finally, something that a reader of the novel as “the saddest story I’ve ever read” can look at and see as a positive thing. Sal will no longer follow this dismal path, and we can be encouraged by this.
The question as to why there is such strong optimism in the novel despite the constant put-downs remains. The incessant search for the pearl, or IT, is an obvious answer to the question of why. Dean’s exclamation of “we’re finally going to find IT!” (Kerouac, 253) on their trip to Mexico is a clear example. Sal’s equal desire to find himself and the American culture in a cross country trip is another. The search for love in strange women, good times when it seems as though there are none to be had, and ongoing conversations about everything and anything all contribute to this idea as well. Also, the relationship of jazz to this search for IT and the continuation of constant optimism is relevant. Jazz always seems to fulfill just what they are looking for, a wordless conversation of the minds that goes beyond what individuals can usually do together, and rarely ends in a depressing conclusion. Carruth writes the following about jazz: “Freedom and discipline concur only in ecstasy” (Carruth, 27), suggesting that both of these happen in jazz music, creating a sense of ecstasy. Carruth notes that jazz music can have the ability to allow the players and listeners alike to “transcend the objective world” (Carruth, 27), something that Sal and Dean might be looking for in their search for IT. Unfortunately though, these two central characters fail to transcend this reality as jazz musicians might be able to, and they are stuck in the hopeless American landscape that Vopat so plainly notes. The influence of jazz continually renews their hopes and helps them remain optimistic though. Regardless, their lust for life and new experiences is consistently underscored by the change to the depressing reality that mostly nothing will work out as planned and a return to the established order is inevitable.
Kerouac’s On the Road is a novel in which the depressing conclusions of events and characters are masked by the early optimism that is laid down time and time again through Sal Paradise’s narration. This is not to say that the whole novel is defined by pessimism, for Sal and his crew do have fun and do experience a great deal of the American landscape. Sal even seems to find IT when he connects with the intense wilderness of the swamp in Mexico. But in the end, Sal’s discovery of IT only lasts momentarily and he returns to a world that shows little remorse for a disillusioned college kid crossing the continent, underlining the general criticism of this novel as sad. Kerouac’s novel, and the cycle of early hopes to frenzied excitement ending with depressing conclusions, seems to serve as a cautionary tale to warn readers of the sorry state of the world. Kerouac himself supported this idea when he decided to draw away from the world of “beat” of which many consider him the creator. Kerouac’s movement in his life away from the beat lifestyle seems to suggest that, much like Sal’s departure from the life of Dean at the end of the novel, he has experienced the depression of the world and if others do not realize it, he can no longer be a part of it.