Rebellious Ideals of the Beat Generation in Kerouac's "On the Road". Turning-Away from Mainstream America

Term Paper, 2017

24 Pages, Grade: 2,2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Ideals of the Beat Generation in On the Road
2.1 Non-Conformity and Rebellion
2.1.1. Dean Moriarty as the Embodiment of the Beat Non-Conformist Dean Moriarty, Women and Gender Roles Dean Moriarty, the Holy Goof.
2.2. Being on the Road
2.2.1 Going Westwards
2.2.2 Fleeing an Imposed Lifestyle
2.2.3 The Transcendental Aspect ofThe Road
2.3 Turning TowardsNon-White Cultures
2.3.1 The African-American Culture
2.3.2 The Mexican Culture

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, bum, burn” (Kerouac 7). A crucial quote from Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Jack Kerouac wrote a Bible for an entire counterculture in only three weeks; even though he might not have had it in mind when he wrote this particular novel. Nevertheless, he made a clear statement not only seen through this quote but also throughout the whole novel. A statement about people who are mad and different. It is about a movement of its own, a mad counterculture, a Beat Generation. Major parts of the people who belonged to the Beat Generation are present in the novel, but which attitudes made them members of this rebellious movement? What were the ideals of the counterculture of the sixties? For these questions, I will provide answers in this term paper.

It is well known that during the period after the second World War and especially during the Cold War, a certain conformity according to the standards of society was expected in the United States (cf. Williams 161). People were expected to have a certain degree of institutional education, being a member of a conventional family, while also having a respectable job (cf. Williams 161). But not every member of the American Society had the opportunity to achieve the popular American Dream of a bourgeois life (cf. Williams 163). Especially, the characters of On the Road do not seem to fit those given expectations at all. They rather invented their own ideals and beliefs, which are expressed by their lifestyles and arts. Therefore, On the Road is not only the story of ajourney and wild road Trips. It tells a story about a generation which scrutinized the standards of the society, by not living up to other people's expectations. The embodiment of this rebellious counter-movement is not only the real-life beats but also the protagonists of the novel, Sal Paradise, and Dean Moriarty.

In this Paper, I will prove that essential beliefs and ideals of the Beat Generation are portrayed in the Novel On the Road through the illustrated lifestyles of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty during their journeys. As the major characters of the novel, who clearly did not live up to the society's expectations of the Post-War-America Dean and Sal are perfect prime examples for the Beats. In order to achieve this aim, I will critically examine how the ideas the Beat Generation are to be found in the novel, expressed by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and their portrayed lifestyle. The ideals I will refer to include a nonconformity towards society's expectations and in addition a rebellious attitude towards the mainstream society. Furthermore, an inner drive to travel, to be on the road and to search for meaning is also a recurring motif and belief of the protagonists. Lastly, Sal and Dean start to turn towards different, Non-American cultures, in order to find the meaning (of life) they could not find in America, which will be also discussed in this paper.

In order to prove this, I will begin to examine the rebellious attitude of the protagonists to find the motivation and source of their rebellion, which leads their nonconformity. Regarding the mentioned non-conformity I will investigate how Sal and Dean did not conform to given rules and expectations and to what extent they carried out their nonconformism. Moreover, I will survey the underlying meaning of the journeys in the novel and the reason for their transcendental search. Additionally, I will examine if Sal and Dean even knew why they were traveling and searching, or if they were on the road just for the sake of being on the move. Eventually, I will look at why exactly the protagonists turned to other cultures and what Dean and Sal found in the African-American and Mexican cultures.

2. The Ideals of the Beat Generation in On the Road

2.1 Non-Conformity and Rebellion

After the second World War, the American Dream had changed and the definition of success in life in Post-War-America turned more towards a widely bourgeois lifestyle (cf. Williams 161, 162). The issue with this concept of imposed standard middle-class life is that not every individual can live up to the expectations of society's norms (cf. Williams 162). Which has been made more than obvious through Dean Moriarty, who I will examine more distinctly later. Nevertheless, I will shortly take on him, since the first description of Dean Moriarty illustrates that not every American citizen had even the opportunity to live up to the norms of the society at that time. Dean is described as a "young Gene Autry - trim, thin-hipped, blueeyed, with a real Oklahoma accent - a sidebumed hero of the snowy West" (Kerouac 4). Also, one of the first things we learn about Dean Moriarty is that he just "was out of reform school" (Kerouac 3). These descriptions of Dean Moriarty already imply that his per- conditions to acquire the status of a middle-class American citizen could be quite a bit better. Additionally, going to a penal institution does not go along well with American middle-class standards. Furthermore, Dean's outer appearance, which is compared to a country singer also seems rather unconventional. Dean's hardships in life, contribute to his turn towards to a certain group of nonconformists, the Beats.

Those particular people, the Beat Generation, were a counterculture which "served as a bohemian retreat from the dominant culture, as a critique of mainstream values and social structures, as a force for social change" (Skerl 2). The Beats were a niche of rebellious people, who opposed the white middle-class society of the United States. Also, the term "Beat", which refers to the state of being tired or down and out, already implies that the movement includes people who do not fit into the system of meritocracy. As a result, the Beat Generation includes people that are non-conformists and probably even outlaws. In On the Road one can read a lot about “migrant workers, hoboes, drifters, jazz musicians, jazz aficionados, prostitutes, and thieves" (Williams 163) and less about people, who actually participate in the mainstream society of America. Even though a lot of the characters in the novel appear as outcasts, Kerouac succeeds to illustrate the Beats "with respect and dignity" (Williams 168). For instance, Dean, who already came into conflict with the law before Sal even meets him (cf. Kerouac 3), appears often in a positive light, even if his actions are morally questionable. For instance, he is considered to be "making love to two girls at the same time" (Kerouac 38), which makes the fact that Dean is enjoying some kind of bigamy appear romantic since it is described as love. Although nowadays Dean would be judged as a cheater, he is not much criticized by the narrator for his actions. Not to mention "his specialty [of] stealing cars" (Kerouac 35). Not obeying the law and moral norms of the state is one form of rebelling against the system, which will be taken up later in this chapter (cf. Kerouac 35, 126).

Another reason for the Beats to not live up to the expectations of the society is the disillusion caused by the preceding war, which makes it impossible to stick to the optimism of the pre-war era (cf. Kupetz 138). This phenomenon of disillusion after a World War can be also seen in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which also illustrates how a Generation has lost its will to conform to the expectations of society after being affected by war. Therefore the phenomenon of outcast groups after wars is not such an uncommon social creation. Through this post-war disillusion, the Beat Generation opposes the corrupted American Dream, which turns more and more towards the fanatic dream of hoarding money (cf. Williams 169). The critical view on the contemporary reality of the American Dream is, among other things, illustrated through the mocking at contemporary politics of the time the novel is set in. A striking example for this is when Remi makes fun at the politics of Truman since the Americans should "cut down on the cost of living" (Kerouac 63). By stealing food, Sal and Remi actually really cut back on the costs of his living, but they still know that the politicians did not intend to turn the citizens into thieves, or criminals. Nevertheless, the reinterpretation of this slogan is, again, an underground rebellion against social norms and rules. The irony of this action is easy to recognize, since they are following the given advice regarding an economical way of living, by breaking the law. But the novel offers also further scenes of rebellious behavior towards the law and authority. Sal stealing cars (cf. Kerouac 35) and visiting brothels (cf. Kerouac 262,263) are just two examples of the protagonists crossing the line.

Due to Sal Paradise's encounters with people who do not obey the rules of society, a romanticized picture of the people who belong to the margins of the American society is depicted, since they are depicted in a rather positive light. This is also illustrated by Sal's relationship with Terry. During their relationship, Sal and Terry break with the bourgeois ideals of a classical family of the time on a quite radical basis. Terry, who does not fall into the picture of the conventional middle-class mother, is actually already married and has a child (cf. Kerouac 88). Despite that she has certain duties as a mother, she stays with Sal and her baby in a tent (cf. Kerouac 85), while both are picking cotton to make a living (cf. Kerouac 87). They live for the moment, which is evident by the following quote by Sal: "Everyday I earned approximately a dollar and a half. It was just enough to buy groceries in the evening on the bicycle. The days rolled by" (Kerouac 88). Other than Terry, Sal is free to choose, if he wants to fit into society, by leading a middle-class citizen life. Instead, he chooses a life as a part of the Beat Generation. Also, Williams states that the characters in the novel "are often happy and satisfied even though their lives are far outside of mainstream America" (163). Which, in this case, applies for Terry and Sal, since Sal describes his work on the plantation as being "beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth" (Kerouac 87). Also, when Sal is about to leave, Terry tells him that she will miss him (cf. Kerouac 91), which indicates that she was happy with him, despite the modest circumstances they shared. As one can see, throughout the novel the relationships of the characters are mostly a fundamental break with middle-class values, which is caused by their non-conformist personalities and actions.

The novel carries the awareness of the fact, that the middle-class conformity and capitalism is to be found all over America, but Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are fighting against the imposed conformity throughout their journey (cf. Kupetz 139). The Beat protagonists of the novel choose not to live inside of the mainstream culture and to not live the mad dream (cf. Williams 166). Nevertheless, Sal Paradise sometimes caught up "between the middle-class bourgeois ideology" (Kupetz 146) and the counterculture. There are moments in which Sal takes it into consideration to settle, for instance when he admits that he "was willing to marry her [Lucille] and take her baby daughter" (Kerouac 113). On the other hand, he is always longing for going west, which can be seen either as the American spirit of going westwards (cf. Kerouac 16) or as the hope for the west, in this case firstly Denver, to be a pole of nonconformity (cf. Kupetz 146). A place, where the Beats gather, fleeing from the conformity of their society, which in their eyes turned into "workings of a massive industrial corporation” (Warner 173). Since a place where Sal could find people, who shared his spirit, a definition of this group is also given:

"close-knit friends that formed around Paradise and Moriarty: Remi Boncoeur, Big Ed Dunkle, Tim Gray Elmer Hassle, Chad King, Jane Lee, Old Bull Lee, Roland Major, Marylou and Carlo Marx, among others. Unlike the diverse non-conformists Sal met on the road, this is mostly a group of Beats, the novel describes in detail their idiosyncrasies and how each lives his own version of the American Dream" (Williams 166).

This definition by Williams breaks the Beat Generation down to particular members, who are taken into focus in On the Road and is a practical overview of Beats since this paper limits itself to the Beat Generation taken on in Kerouac's On the Road. Often the Beats try to escape from the society's restrictions through the use of drugs (cf. Warner 174, Kerouac 235, 257) but they also do so through their lifestyles, which is more than evident by Sal Paradise's lifestyle, of traveling, having no fixed job, no hints that tell the reader that Sal will settle soon. In addition, he writes to his aunt, when he runs out of money (cf. Kerouac 50), which makes it hard to look at him as a serious and stable member of society since he seems to still be dependent on parent-like figures. The life he leads in the novel is characterized by a steady uncertainty and wandering around, which tries to oppose the stuck expectations and habits of the narrow-minded society not only through consuming drugs (cf. Warner 174, cf. Kerouac 167), but also “through their art [and] actions [they] [...] sought to replace the unfeeling and repressive establishment with a new society based on emotion and free expression” (Warner 174).

2,1.1. Dean Moriarty as the Embodiment of the Beat Non-Conformist Dean Moriarty, Women and Gender Roles

Emotions and feelings are a very present in the novel (cf. Kerouac 73, 91,113), and often expressed by sexual situations (cf. Kerouac 113). Sex, as the only holy thing in life, is more than once brought up as a theme connected to Dean Moriarty, who clashes with all the expectations the society could ever have, which may also result from his status as a "Jailkid" (cf. Elmwood 350). Dean is a great means to criticize the society since he is "being outside of social norms while also being located inside those norms" (Llano 195). A tendency to being criminal plus his background made Dean an outcast, as he likes to steal cars and went to reform school (cf. Kerouac 201, 202, 3), but also because he grew up without a mother (cf. Kerouac 119). Just at the beginning, we learn that his childhood was not quite stable since he "had in fact been brought up generally on Larimer Street and thereabouts. He used to plead in court at the age of six to have his father set free" (Kerouac 35). From a young age, Dean was surrounded by unstable conditions in his life, which applies also to his father. His family background shows how he never even had the opportunity to be a member of the American middle-class society. Still, he makes attempts at participating in this society, for instance, when he goes to San Francisco, in order to live with Camille (cf. Kerouac 100). Unfortunately, Dean has got also a tendency to fail with his attempts of participating in the middle-class American life, which is well illustrated, when his wife is throwing him out of his home, which, in fact, throws him back on the road with Sal (cf. Kerouac 169).

Concerning Dean's relationship to women we learn at the very beginning of the novel, we learn that Dean's wife is Marylou (cf. Kerouac 3), but in Denver, Marylou is not anymore the only woman Dean is dedicated to (cf. Kerouac 38). A little later the reader learns that Dean is willing to "divorce Marylou and marry Camille and go live with her in San Francisco" (Kerouac 43). Nevertheless, if we go further in the story, it is said that "Marylou was the only girl Dean ever loved" (Kerouac 101). But still, Dean is a father and a husband to Camille (cf. Kerouac 100). In spite of Dean's position as a father and husband, he does not constantly fulfill his duties of the roles he holds. This is also because he is often involved with more than one woman at the same time (cf. Kerouac 38, 101), or because he constantly tries to impress a girl. As for instance, when Dean and Sal should leave Denver, in order to avoid that Dean gets arrested for having stolen "five-hundred cars" (cf. Kerouac 203), Dean still takes a waitress on a ride with the Cadillac, which does not belong to him (cf. Kerouac 204). Even though there is the possibility of getting arrested, Dean seems not to care much and uses any chance for a flirt. Despite the fact that he will probably never see the mentioned waitress again, he takes a risk for her, which is on the one hand quite romantic, but on the other hand, it pictures well how Dean does not care about the power of the jurisdiction and executive of the state. Furthermore, Dean tends to leave his obligations behind to go on the road with Sal, for instance when he "had come about four thousand miles from Frisco, via Arizona up to Denver, inside four days, with innumerable adventures sandwiched in, and it was only the beginning" (Kerouac 106). As we know, he has a family in San Francisco, he should be there for. So, although, it is normally expected that the husband is the caretaker of the family, Dean does not identify himself with the expectations imposed by society, since he just takes off, even though he has a little child he should take care of (cf. Kerouac 100). This is also pointed out by Galatea Dunkel: " 'Now you are going East with Sal,' Galatea said, 'and what do you think you're going to accomplish by that? Camille has to stay home and mind the baby now you're gone - how can she keep her job?" (Kerouac 177). Clearly, Dean leaves his family and does not take much responsibility, which is also criticized by other characters in the novel. By going on the road he flees the imposed rules for being a father and a husband.


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Rebellious Ideals of the Beat Generation in Kerouac's "On the Road". Turning-Away from Mainstream America
University of Constance
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rebellious, ideals, beat, generation, kerouac, road, turning-away, mainstream, america
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Elisa-Maria Schneider (Author), 2017, Rebellious Ideals of the Beat Generation in Kerouac's "On the Road". Turning-Away from Mainstream America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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