On the Road by Jack Kerouac features a diverse and dynamic cast of characters, each representing various aspects of the Beat Generation’s ethos and the counterculture of the 1950s. Almost all characters are inspired by real people in Kerouac’s life.
Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac)
Sal is the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is a young writer struggling to find his place in the world, drawn to the freedom and nonconformity embodied by Dean Moriarty. He follows Dean out west and ends up loving the road, going on a series of Beat adventures all across America. Sal takes time in between his long trips to finish a book, which he can sell to publishers for some money. He spends much of the novel pursuing and following Dean, with whom he is fascinated and develops an intense friendship. Sal is taken with the wandering, free, countercultural lifestyle that Dean epitomizes and it is through his adoring eyes as narrator that we see Dean and the other bums, criminals, and hooligans he spends so much of his time with. Sal is a complex and evolving character, and he learns a great deal about himself and the world during his travels. The cross-country travels function as a metaphor for his internal journey, reflecting upon his growth and development. Deeply influenced by characters like Dean Moriarty, Sal learns about alternate perspectives on life, freedom, love, and suffering. He often finds himself torn between societal norms and the unrestrained, nonconformist lifestyle that his trips expose him to. Moreover, the cultural, geographical, and demographic diversity he encounters, particularly his experiences of poverty and marginalization, stimulate a contemplative and empathetic perspective within him. However, his longing for liberation and meaningful experiences also makes him susceptible to disillusionment, as the reality of his experiences often contrasts starkly with his idealistic expectations. Yet, these hardships do not deter him but inspire insights, shaping Sal into a more understanding and mature character as the story concludes. At the end of the novel, Sal appears to have settled down with Laura and to have left part of his life on the road behind.
Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady)
Sal’s best friend and travelling companion, Dean embodies the rebellious spirit of the novel. Dean Moriarty, who is based on the real-life character of Neal Cassady, is a central figure in On the Road. Having grown up with an alcoholic father and spent time growing up in and out of jail and reform school, Dean comes to New York at the beginning of the novel to learn how to write and be an intellectual. He is the catalyst that sends Sal on the road. Dean is madly enthusiastic about everything, and always willing to have a good time or go on a long trip with friends. He is a womanizer, who falls in love with women all over the country—and marries three (Marylou, Camille, and Inez). His freedom is of utmost importance to Dean, but his obsession with his freedom to move around and go on the road means that he neglects his responsibilities as a husband and (eventually) as a father. He abandons all three of his wives at various moments, failing to consider their feelings at all. His mistreatment of women and tendency to abandon those he loves contrasts starkly with his charismatic and seemingly liberating persona. This creates a profoundly flawed and ultimately tragic character, whose uncontrolled pursuit of freedom results in the neglect and forsaking of those around him. Sal first idolizes Dean as an interesting madman and a kind of old Western hero and then sees him as a close friend and brother figure, but by the end of the novel Dean is presented as a lonely, tragic character, almost doomed to wander the road by himself. Kerouac uses Dean’s character to interrogate the costs and implications of unchecked freedom and the continuous pursuit of self-fulfilment, challenging the romanticized narrative of restless wandering and nonconformity.
Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg)
Carlo Marx, based on the real-life figure Allen Ginsberg, is integral to the philosophical depth of the novel. A poet and friend of Sal in New York, whom Dean meets in Part One and quickly becomes friends with. Dean and Carlo go west before Sal does, and in Denver, they maintain an intensely close friendship. In Part Two, Carlo seems to be somewhat fed up with Sal and Dean’s vagabond, wandering lives. Carlo’s name plays on its similarity to that of Karl Marx, emphasizing Carlo’s countercultural, anti-capitalist stance. Carlo’s character is often caught in introspection and philosophical contemplation, providing insights and reflections on the characters’ myriad experiences and encounters. Such reflections aid the reader in understanding the deeper motivations behind the Beatniks’ unconventional lifestyle choices. As a figure exploring his own identity and sexuality, he embodies the unconventional side of the Beat Generation and its quest for self-discovery and freedom from societal conventions. This quest is an important theme of the novel conveyed through the characters’ frequent travels and exploits. Carlo’s close friendship with Sal guarantees that his influence and philosophical insights play a critical role throughout the narrative, offering alternative perspectives on the recklessness of Dean’s lifestyle. Carlo calls attention to the existential questions hovering around life, identity, and experience and their relation to the wider Beat Generation movement. As a poet and intellectual, Carlo personifies the Beat Generation’s exploration of art, culture, and intellectual thought.
Marylou (LuAnne Henderson)
Marylou, based on the real-life figure of LuAnne Henderson, is Dean’s first wife. Despite her youthful exuberance and vivacious nature, she often finds herself at the brunt of Dean’s unpredictable and selfish behaviour. Dean’s alternating between fondness and neglect for Marylou mirrors the inconsistency in his life and his inability to uphold conventional commitments. She accompanies Sal and Dean on their journeys, fully indulging in their nomadic, nonconformist lifestyle. Marylou’s character offers a valuable perspective on the exploration of sexual freedom and the roles women played in the narrative of the Beat Generation. Marylou also embodies the difficulties and dilemmas faced by women in the counterculture movement. The hardships she undergoes, and the way she navigates her volatile relationship with Dean, highlight the complications involved in these unconventional relationships, thus providing an important critique of the impacts of the Beat lifestyle on women.
Camille (Carolyn Cassady)
Camille, who mirrors Neal Cassady’s real-life wife, Carolyn, is a contrast to Marylou in many ways. Unlike Marylou, she attempts to exert influence over Dean’s reckless behaviour and bring stability into his life. In doing so, Camille represents an effort to reconcile the free-spirited, rootless ethos of the Beat Generation with more traditional values of home and stability. Their relationship underscores the tension between the pull of the open road and the desire for a secure and stable life. Despite her efforts, Dean’s infidelities and unpredictable behaviour frequently disrupt their relationship, highlighting his inability to balance his ravishing appetite for freedom with the demands of a committed domestic life. Like his other wives, Dean abandons Camille repeatedly to go on the road, but it is Camille who he appears to end up with at the end of the novel (ironically, just after divorcing her to marry Inez). At the end of Part Three, Camille gets fed up with Dean and throws him out of their house, but at the end of the novel she writes to Dean to tell him that she and their daughters will wait for him in San Francisco. It is unclear whether Dean does go back to Camille and settle down, or whether he keeps her waiting indefinitely. Camille’s struggles with Dean also provide a critique of the Beat ethos, particularly its implications for women who were often subjected to the capricious whims and neglect of men. Her character provides a lens through which we see the instability and costs of the non-conformist lifestyle that Dean embodies.
After leaving Camille in San Francisco to go east with Sal, Dean meets Inez at a party in New York and quickly divorces Camille to marry her. Inez bears Dean a child, but then he leaves her behind to go find Sal in Denver and drive to Mexico to get a Mexican divorce from her.
Old Bull Lee (William S Burroughs)
Old Bull Lee is based on the real-life figure of William S Burroughs, one of the original and most influential writers of the Beat Generation. Lee’s experiences with drugs and hedonistic lifestyle mirror Burroughs’ own experiences, giving the character an aura of authenticity and a sense of lived wisdom. In the novel, Lee serves as a counterpoint to the relentless pursuit of experience and adventure embodied by Sal and Dean. He provides both a cautionary tale and guidance, subtly signalling the potential dangers and consequences of their lifestyle. Lee emphasizes living in the present, providing Sal with insights on finding peace amidst chaos and introspection in exploration. Despite his eccentricities, Lee’s character offers valuable insight into the more contemplative facets of the Beat ethos, demonstrating the movement’s gamut beyond travel and adventure. His views on life bring a nuanced perspective into the philosophical, experimental, and at times, darker aspects of the Beat lifestyle.
Terry (Bea Franco)
Terry thought to be based on Bea Franco in real life, introduces Sal to a distinct social reality that is intrinsically linked with poverty, systemic oppression, and harsh working conditions—experiences that are far removed from Sal’s previous life. A Mexican woman with a small child who has fled her abusive husband. Sal meets Terry on a bus to Los Angeles and the two forge a connection immediately. They sleep together in L A and plan to hitchhike to New York together, but then decide to work in rural California to save money for a bus to New York. Sal lives with Terry for a while and the two seem to care about each other a great deal, but Sal eventually gets restless and leaves her behind to head to New York by himself. Her character embodies the temporary yet deep connections made during a nomadic lifestyle. Despite the brief nature of their relationship, it is filled with genuine experiences, indicating the transient nature of the human connections in the novel. Through Terry, the novel delves into the immigrant experience and highlights the stark contrast between the romanticized life of a wanderer and the grim reality faced by marginalized communities in America. In real life, Kerouac and Bea Franco only knew each other for about 15 days.
Galatea Dunkel (Helen Hinkle)
Galatea Dunkel, believed to be based on Helen Hinkle, presents a contrasting perspective to the primary male viewpoint of the novel. As the spouse of one of Dean’s friends, Ed Dunkel, Galatea encounter first-hand the negative side effects of the Beat lifestyle through Dean’s unrestrained and impulsive behaviour. Galatea demands that Ed marry her before she travels east with Dean and him. He does, but then he and Dean ditch her in a hotel lobby. She stays with Old Bull Lee in New Orleans until Dean, Ed, Marylou, and Sal come to pick her up. She is furious with Ed, but the two end up making their relationship work. Her character provides necessary critique, questioning Dean’s reckless approach to life and his irresponsible treatment of women. Although she is presented as a gentle character, Galatea is not without her strength and resilience, highlighting the story’s hidden, silent victims and speaking on their behalf. Galatea’s vulnerability and inherent kindness offer a poignant reminder of the nourishing importance of love and compassion amidst the chaotic, nomadic lifestyles of the Beats. Her presence underscores the complex gender dynamics within the Beat Generation, as well as the hardships faced by those who were left behind in its pursuit of untamed freedom. Her involvement with Sal further underlines the narrative’s exploration of varied human experiences and connections.
Ed Dunkel (Al Hinkle)
Ed Dunkel in On the Road is based on Al Hinkle, a friend of Kerouac and Neal Cassady from Denver, Colorado. He shows up with Dean at Sal’s brother’s house in Virginia around Christmas. Ed is also easily influenced by Dean and often makes impulsive and foolish decisions. Ed marries Galatea before taking her west with Dean, but then he and Dean ditch Galatea in a hotel lobby. Ed continually abandons Galatea, but she remains confident that he will come back to her, and at the end of the novel they seem to have worked things out and are still together. Dunkel is one of the most memorable characters in On the Road, and he represents the reckless and impulsive side of the Beat Generation.
Edna Chambers, functioning as a fictional character within the narrative, has notable importance. She encounters Sal in San Francisco and quickly forms a connection with him. Characterized by her free-spirited personality, she is attracted to Sal’s idealism, and this resonates with her perspectives on life. Edna’s influence on Sal contributes to his character development. She opens his eyes to alternative viewpoints, helping him to see the world through a different lens. Additionally, through her interactions with Sal, Edna offers the reader deeper insights into themes of love and compassion within the context of the novel. By doing so, she plays a crucial role in demonstrating the transformative power of human connection. Her character, although not directly connected to a real-life person, offers a unique perspective on the Beat lifestyle, juxtaposing ideals of freedom and nonconformity with a deep sense of connection and empathy. This makes Edna a multi-dimensional character who adds depth to the exploration of human relationships within the story.
Sal’s Aunt (Gabrielle Kerouac)
Sal lives with his aunt in Paterson, New Jersey. She is a kind and loving woman who is always there for Sal, even when he is making mistakes. She is also a wise and compassionate woman who gives Sal valuable advice about his life and his writing. Sal keeps returning there after his wild journeys west because his aunt offers a stable household (with food) where he can settle down for a short period before hitting the road again. Sal’s aunt represents to some degree the stable, traditional American life that Sal, Dean, and their friends reject. She is also an aspect of Sal’s privilege, which allows him to journey around freely: whenever he is in trouble, he can write to her for more money, and whenever he is sick of the road, he can stay at her house for as long as he wants. Kerouac was very close to his aunt, and he dedicated On the Road to her.
Remi Boncoeur (Henri Cru)
An old friend of Sal from prep school. He is a witty and charming young man who is always up for an adventure. He is also a talented musician and poet. However, Boncoeur is also a bit of a ne’er-do-well. He is constantly getting into debt and gambling, and he is often involved in shady dealings. Sal originally heads out west to go see Remi in San Francisco. When he finally gets there, he lives with Remi and Lee Ann for a while and works with Remi as a guard at a nearby barracks. Remi and Sal have a falling out before Sal leaves, but they reunite in New York at the end of the novel. Kerouac had a close friendship with Cru, and they collaborated on several projects, including a screenplay that was never produced.
Dr. Boncoeur is a fictional character, Remi’s stepfather, a psychiatrist from Europe, visits him in San Francisco. Remi asks Lee Ann and Sal to come to dinner with them and to act as if everything is going well in San Francisco. But Sal gets drunk with Roland Major at the dinner and embarrasses Remi in front of his stepfather, creating a rift in Remi and Sal’s friendship. Dr. Boncoeur is a kind and compassionate man who is deeply interested in Sal’s mental state. He tries to help Sal to understand his motivations and desires, and he encourages him to be true to himself. Dr. Boncoeur is a significant figure in Sal’s journey of self-discovery. He helps Sal to see himself more clearly, and he gives him the confidence to follow his path.
Sal meets Eddie, a fellow hitchhiker, on his first trip out west. They become friends and Sal lends him a shirt, but Eddie is quick to leave Sal behind when a farmer drives by with room for only one passenger. Nonetheless, Sal and Eddie reconnect in Denver, where Sal gets his shirt back.
The Alcatraz Guard
One of the guards working at the barracks where Remi and Sal also work in Part One, who used to work at the prison of Alcatraz. The guard is the complete opposite of Sal and his friends. He believes in strict rules and laws and takes delight in arresting and disciplining people.
The Ghost of the Susquehanna
An old, mad hobo whom Sal sees outside of Pittsburgh on his way back east in Part One. The Ghost shows Sal that one can wander around and find wilderness anywhere in America, and that the freedom of the road has more to do with a state of mind or being than with getting to any particular destination, like the West Coast.
Dean’s cousin, whom he meets up with in Denver. Dean is excited to see his cousin, as they were close friends while growing up, but Sam has matured and changed. He asks Dean to sign a paper guaranteeing that he will have nothing to do with Sam and his family.
A friend of Sal in New York. Dean originally comes to New York to ask Chad to teach him how to write and be an intellectual, and Chad sends him to Sal to learn how to write.
One of the hitchhikers in the back of the truck that Sal joins during his first trip on the road goes out drinking with Sal in Cheyenne before they part ways.
Another hitchhiker in the back of the truck that Sal joins on his first trip west, during the best ride Sal says he ever had.
A writer and one of Sal’s friends in Denver. Roland dislikes Dean and his manic, eccentric behaviour, as he prefers to spend his time leisurely writing. When he runs into Sal in San Francisco, they get uproariously drunk at the dinner with Remi and Dr. Boncoeur, embarrassing Remi.
Sal and Dean’s friend in Denver, who they hang out and part with there.
Ray’s sister, who Sal hangs around with in Denver.
One of Sal’s friends lives in Denver. When Sal first goes to Denver, he stays with Roland Major in an apartment belonging to Tim.
The wife of Tim Gray.
A girl in Denver whom Dean fixes Sal up with. Sal sleeps with her before he leaves Denver for San Francisco.
Remi’s girlfriend is in San Francisco. Sal is highly critical of Lee Ann and thinks that she only went to San Francisco with Remi because she thought he was wealthy. She becomes frustrated with Remi and kicks him out of their little shack in San Francisco.
Terry’s brother, tells Sal that he can help him make money by selling manure to farmers. However, Rickey ends up just drinking most days, telling Sal that they will make money mañana, tomorrow.
Rickey’s friend, who Sal thinks is romantically interested in Terry. Sal hangs around with Ponzo and Rickey while living with Terry.
Old Bull Lee’s wife, who is also a heavy drug user.
One of Sal’s friends hosts a big party on New Year’s Eve in New York.
A woman in New York whom Sal thinks he loves and wants to marry, but ultimately decides to leave behind in Part Two.
Sal’s friend who lives on Long Island with his aunt. Sal goes to a party hosted by Rollo around New Year’s in Part Two before he goes west again with Dean.
A Jewish vagrant is picked up by Dean as he, Sal, Marylou, and Ed drive south toward New Orleans.
A writer and a friend of Sal. He moves to Tucson to have time to focus on his writing but then ends up bored there, missing New York. He lends Sal some money so that Sal, Dean, and Marylou can make it to San Francisco.
A jazz musician Dean and Sal see perform in San Francisco. As he says of several jazz performers, Dean calls Slim God.
Sal and Dean drive around with Roy in San Francisco before they leave in Part Three. When Dean comes to Denver in Part Four, he arrives with Roy.
A girl whom Dean goes out with in San Francisco before he and Sal leave to go east in Part Three.
A black man in San Francisco whom Sal and Dean drink with before they leave to go east in Part Three. They go get drinks at Walter’s house and are both impressed when Walter’s wife doesn’t seem to mind Walter’s drinking and going out.
A woman Sal knows in Denver. Sal and Dean stay with her in Part Three. Dean is irritated with Frankie but infatuated with her thirteen-year-old daughter Janet.
The thirteen-year-old daughter of Frankie. Dean is attracted to Janet, but Sal keeps him away.
A friend of Dean, who owns a ranch with his wife. Sal and Dean stop by their ranch on the way from Denver to Chicago in Part Three.
An ex-convict whom Sal meets on a bus in Part Four and accompanies to Denver.
Sal hangs out with Stan in Denver, in Part Four, and Stan goes to Mexico with Sal and Dean. As Sal sees when Stan leaves Denver and his grandfather begs him to stay, Stan is attempting to flee his grandfather for some unexplained reason.
A man who lives upstairs at Babe Rawlins’ house in Part Four and is hopelessly in love with her.
Sal, Stan, and Dean run into Victor at a gas station in Gregoria, Mexico. Victor takes them to his house where he sells them marijuana and brings them to a brothel.
At the end of the novel, Dean meets Laura, falls in love, and seems to settle down in New York with her.
A lost friend whom Sal and Dean seek everywhere they go.
The characters in On the Road are deeply complex, unique and flawed. They navigate their lives against the backdrop of America’s diverse landscapes and cultures, often grappling with personal loss, disillusionment, and the constant pursuit of ‘it’ – a vague but profound understanding and enjoyment of life. These characters collectively embody the spirit of rebellion, exploration, and the pursuit of authenticity that defined the Beat Generation and make the novel a seminal work in American literature.