On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s Rejection of the Middle Class American Dream

Jack Kerouac was one of a group of young men who, immediately after the Second World War, protested against what they saw as the blandness, conformity and lack of cultural purpose of middle-class life in America. The priorities of people of their age, in the mainstream of society, were to get married, to move the suburbs, to have children and to accumulate wealth and possessions. Jack Kerouac and his friends consciously rejected this pursuit of stability and instead looked elsewhere for personal fulfillment. They were the Beats, the pioneers of a counterculture that came to be known as the Beat Generation. The Beats saw mainstream life as a prison. They wanted freedom, the freedom to pick up and go at a moments notice. This search for the true meaning of life was given a literary voice in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, written in 1951 but not published until 1957. This essay will investigate some of the aspects of the novel that make it a forceful and complex rejection of the white middle class American dream.

Beginning in the winter of 1947 Jack Kerouac undertook a series of journeys by car across the United States and finally into Mexico that he then wrote about in On the Road. The novel conveys a feeling of constant motion, a frenetic search for meaning in an America that is very different from the middle class ideal. Sal Paradise, the narrator of the story, describes an America of constantly changing landscapes peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Sal Paradise’s America is an America where the only commitment seems to be to the immediate gratification found in fast cars, sex, drugs and jazz. Sal’s idol and travelling companion is Dean Moriarty, a reckless and hyperactive womanizer who, to Sal, is the phy…

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…tual values but also a search for a personal identity that had been lost or maybe had never even existed in the first place. In On the Road, the narrator, Sal Paradise, recounts the details of a search that, ultimately, is not rewarded. Sal’s infatuation with Dean Moriarty leads him only to a parting of the ways. When he is abandoned by Dean, whilst seriously ill in Mexico, Sal finally realizes what Dean really stands for. Sal, at last, comes to the understanding that his friend’s philosophy is based on the premise that personal authenticity requires the complete abandonment of personal ties. Dean believes that all your energy must be focussed on obtaining your own kicks to the exclusion of everyone else. As Sal says in the final paragraph of the novel, ” I realized what a rat he was” (302).

Works Cited

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.


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