On the Road by Jack Kerouac

There are some books you read quickly because they are good and you are enjoying them: that was The Long Song for me, on the first day of my holiday. Then there are some books you read quickly because you are not enjoying them and you want to move onto the next book as quickly as possible: that was On the Road for me, on the second day of my holiday. To be fair, I knew going in that there was a chance I would dislike this novel since my Mum had said several times she ‘wasn’t sure it was really a Sally book’. However, I know that this is a novel which has had a large and lasting impact on literature, so I was determined to finish.

On the Road is the story of protagonist Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriaty as they travel to and fro across the U.S. From my knowledge of the novel at the start, and my subsequent research, I am aware that this is a novel which inspired many people to make this journey, travelling by road from one coast to the other. I have to say, this came as a bit of a surprise to me, since I was definitely expecting more descriptions of the surrounding landscape than Kerouac includes; whilst I was able to get a vague idea of what that part of the U.S. looks like, it by no means made me think ‘I have to see all this right now’ and get in a car. Perhaps I’m overlooking the particular time into which Kerouac was writing, but I am still struggling to see why it was such an important novel for so many people. If anyone has any insights into this, I would love to hear them.

Primarily, my issue with the novel is the characters, or, more specifically, the male characters. I am still unsure as to whether the reader is supposed to sympathise with the protagonist but I have to say at no point during the novel did I feel any sympathy for any of the male characters. The mindset of this friendship group can only be described as hugely misogynistic, deeply entrenched in the idea that all women should indulge them in their every whim. Their lack of any sense of responsibility is clearly shown in their relationships with the women they meet on the road, particularly with Dean who, on more than one occasion, gets someone he is supposedly married to pregnant and then runs for the door. By far my favourite part of the novel was when Sal and Dean found themselves in a roomful of women they had hurt, directly or indirectly, and were shown no mercy as the women told them exactly how much they hated them.

Through the moral greyness which permeates the novel there is the remnant of an implication from Kerouac that Dean’s way of life is not one to be celebrated. The novel ends with Sal settling down, taking responsibility for the way in which his actions affect those around him. Yet Dean continues to treat the women in his life with the ultimate disrespect, even when they have shown him nothing but grace. The contrast is made clear when Sal’s wife makes the comment that she feels sad for Dean; I can’t say that I share her sentiment, but I was glad that Kerouac did end with the implication that Dean is not someone to imitate.

I actually am glad that I read this, if only because I now have an opinion (and a strong one) when it comes up in discussion. This is a well-known novel which has clearly had a big impact on the society we live in. Yet it is not a novel I enjoyed, nor is it a novel I would ever recommend to anyone. There are much better novels out there with much less destructive worldviews, and there is a whole list of other novels I would give to someone before I would ever give them this.

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3 thoughts on “On the Road

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this book for the longest time, and can’t comment very articulately except to say that I think it’s fame comes more from the philosophy of the times that he was writing in than anything else. I’ve heard it always referred to as reflecting the mindset of the 60’s (even though it was written in the late 50’s). The fact that I was a child in the 60’s, and often admired the teens with fringe on every item of clothing, long hair and beards, dirty bare feet in sandals, and peace signs has made me want to more about this generation. I think it would be interesting to look at the book from this point in my life, where once again society seems to have turned on its head. What’s right is wrong, and all that. I’ll really have to read this book soon now that I’ve read your post on it.

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    1. I’d really love to hear your thoughts after you’ve read it! I’ve been hoping that this review would start some sort of discussion, because I really am intrigued by the phenomenom surrounding this book. The only people I actually know who have read it are my parents, and whilst my Mum didn’t particularly enjoy it, she didn’t have as strong a reaction to it as I did; my Dad found it interesting, in the way he finds lots of books interesting, but doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion on it either.

      I do think that I probably wasn’t quite taking into account the time and place in which Kerouac was writing – maybe there is a cross-cultural issue in the background here as well, since I know it is considered very much an American Classic? I don’t know very much about life in America in the 50’s and 60’s!

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