Of all the novels we have discussed so far this semester On the Road by Jack Kerouac is perhaps the one that deals most heavily with literal travel. The plot follows the exploits of the narrator, Jack Paradise, as he travels back and forth across the country; often with his friend Dean. Dean is easily the more eccentric and flighty of the two men and his carefree attitude often gets him into trouble with the law and women.
At first read, I thought On the Road was the ultimate tribute to travel. Sal is a likable character that is not pinned down by any city or family and he seems to have no real home. He splits the majority of his time between Manhattan, Denver, and San Francisco not truly fitting in anywhere but thriving on the road performing various odd jobs. However, as the novel progressed, it became increasingly clear to me that there is such a thing as ‘too much travel.’ Sal is constantly looking for a quiet girl to settle down with while Dean is constantly looking a way out of a new relationship. Dean spends his time avoiding his responsibilities as a husband and father and Sal finally recognizes this once Dean abandons him in Mexico City. Coupled with Dean’s skirting of responsibilities is his very obvious mental deterioration. By the end of the novel Sal notes that Dean is practically incoherent. When Sal questions Dean about his life with Camille, Dean replies that they will be together forever. Sal presses further, “’And Inez?’ ‘I – I – I want her to come back to Frisco with me live other side of town – don’t you think? Don’t know why I came.’ Later he said in a sudden moment of gaping wonder, ‘Well and yes, of course, I wanted to see your sweet girl and you – glad of you – love you as ever.’” (Kerouac 307 – 308). Dean can barely remember why he has travelled all the way to New York, let alone articulate a coherent thought to Sal and Lauren. Furthermore, he is conflicted by Camille and Inez and he believes that he can combine both of his lives with these women into one life in San Francisco.
I was trying to make sense of the ending of this novel. At first, I thought that Dean’s brain had essentially been fried by his obsessive drug use and constantly on the go personality. But then I attempted to think about it in terms of travel. Both Sal and Dean lack a true sense of a home but Dean also has several women and children that are his responsibilities. In essence, he has multiple families and multiple potential homes across the country. Instead of settling anywhere he chooses to constantly be on the move. The result of this constant travel is that it dilutes any sense of identity Dean has because he constantly leaves parts of himself behind in places.
I’m not sure if Kerouac intended to convey this message about travel and I’m hesitant to label travel as a negative experience. Rather than exemplifying travel as a learning and growing experience, On the Road is an abuse of travel. Dean simply uses travel as a means of escape. The further he runs from his problems the more his identity is lost. Rather than travelling to learn more about himself and others, Dean uses travel to flee himself and those who want something from him. Travelling is one of the many drugs that Dean takes to escape reality and in the end of the novel he hast lost touch with his friends, himself, and his own mind.