Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a novel that employs several narrative techniques to capture the spirit of the Beat Generation and the author’s own experiences on the road. These techniques contribute to the novel’s unique and vivid storytelling. He creates a story that is both profoundly personal and universal. The reader feels like they are on the road with Sal and Dean, experiencing all of the joys and sorrows of the journey.
On the Road is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Sal Paradise (a character based on Kerouac himself). This perspective allows readers to intimately connect with Sal’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences as he embarks on his cross-country journeys.
- “I was twenty-two years old then, and I was crazy for the road.”
- “I had a vision of myself as a knight on a white horse, roaming the American continent.”
- “I wanted to see everything and experience everything.”
Stream of Consciousness
Kerouac employs a stream-of-consciousness narrative style, especially in the spontaneous writing sections. This technique mirrors the rapid flow of thoughts and experiences as Sal and his friends travel across America. It captures the immediacy and intensity of the Beat Generation’s quest for self-discovery.
The only people for 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, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
On the Road does not follow a strictly linear narrative structure. Instead, it meanders across time and place, reflecting the nonconformist, spontaneous nature of the Beat lifestyle. The narrative is episodic, with adventures and encounters rather than a traditional plot arc.
Kerouac developed his writing style, known as “spontaneous prose.” This approach involves writing without self-censorship or extensive revision, aiming to capture the raw, unfiltered essence of his experiences. It contributes to the novel’s frenetic and unstructured narrative.
The novel is rich in descriptive detail, particularly when describing landscapes, people, and cultural phenomena encountered on the road. Kerouac’s vivid descriptions create a sense of place and atmosphere, immersing readers in the journey.
Kerouac introduces readers to a cast of eccentric and memorable characters, including Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady), Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg), and Old Bull Lee (based on William S Burroughs). These characters are vividly portrayed through Sal’s observations and interactions, offering insight into the Beat Generation’s social and intellectual milieu.
Kerouac uses metaphorical language to enrich his descriptions and make his narrative more vivid. For instance, Sal describes the road as a “magic land” or a “mystical realm”.
- The road: “The road is life. If you miss it, you miss life.”
- Dean Moriarty: “Dean Moriarty was a holy madman and a holy outlaw. He was a seeker, always searching for something more.”
- The natural world: “The sunset in the desert was a religious experience. It was a moment of pure beauty and wonder.”
Kerouac’s writing is often compared to jazz music in its rhythmic and improvisational qualities. He often uses short, staccato sentences and phrases to create a sense of momentum. He also uses repetition and parallelism to create a sense of rhythm. The narrative frequently references jazz musicians and performances, reinforcing the Beat Generation’s affinity for jazz as a cultural touchstone. Kerouac structured the novel as if it’s being played by a jazz musician, with phrases that echo the patterns of a jazz riff.
- “The city was alive with jazz, and we danced all night long.”
- “Dean was playing jazz on the steering wheel, and we were all laughing and singing.”
- “The road was a jazz rhythm, and we were all dancing to it.”
Transcription of Conversations
Kerouac transcribes conversations, dialogues, and monologues between characters in a conversational, unpolished style. The novel uses a lot of informal language and colloquialisms, reflecting the counterculture of the characters and replicating the rhythm of jazz music, thus making the narrative feel spontaneous and unfiltered. This technique provides insight into the characters’ thoughts and dialogues, creating a sense of immediacy and authenticity.
“What are you running away from?” Dean asked.
At times, the novel incorporates letters exchanged between characters. These letters serve as a narrative device to convey additional perspectives, emotions, and developments in the story.
- Sal’s letter to his aunt: In this letter, Sal writes about his travels with Dean Moriarty and his desire to live a free and adventurous life. He also expresses his love for his aunt and his gratitude for her support.
- Dean’s letter to Carlo Marx: In this letter, Dean writes about his love for Sal and his desire to be with him. He also expresses frustration with his life and desire for a new beginning.
- Carlo’s letter to Sal: In this letter, Carlo writes about his love for Dean and his desire to be with him. He also expresses his concern for Sal and willingness to help him find his way.
- Sal’s letter to Dean: In this letter, Sal writes about his disappointment with Dean and his decision to leave him. He also expresses his sadness and his hope that Dean will find happiness.
Throughout the narrative, Sal and his friends discuss spirituality, Buddhism, and the search for meaning. These conversations contribute to the novel’s philosophical depth and exploration of existential themes.
- Sal’s encounter with the older woman in Denver: The older woman tells Sal that he is on a holy journey and destined for great things. This experience gives Sal a sense of purpose and direction.
- Sal’s relationship with Dean Moriarty: Dean is a free spirit who is always on the move. He is also a seeker who is always searching for something more. Sal learns from Dean about the importance of freedom and following your heart.
- Sal’s experiences in the natural world: Sal often finds spiritual insights into the beauty of the natural world. For example, he describes a beautiful sunset in the desert as a “religious experience.”
- Sal’s experiences with other people: Sal meets various people on his journey and learns from their experiences. For example, he meets a group of people who are living in a commune and who are trying to create a new way of life.
- Sal’s own experiences: Sal also has his own spiritual experiences. For example, he describes a moment when he feels a sense of oneness with the universe.
Kerouac uses symbolism to create a deeper meaning for his novel and to explore the themes of freedom, adventure, and the American dream. Symbolism effectively allows him to communicate complex ideas vividly and memorably. He uses symbols to create a sense of wonder and excitement and to explore the deeper meaning of his characters’ experiences.
- The road: The road represents freedom, adventure, and the American dream.
- The car: The car represents freedom and mobility.
- The city: The city represents excitement, opportunity, and danger.
- The natural world: The natural world is sacred.
Kerouac uses imagery to create a sense of place, describe his characters, and explore the novel’s themes. This is effective as it allows him to develop an understanding of immediacy and excitement in the reader. He uses vivid language to describe his characters and the world around them. This makes the reader feel as if they are right there on the road with Sal and Dean, experiencing all of the joys and sorrows of the journey.
- The road: “The road is a river of asphalt flowing through the American night.”
- The natural world: “The sunset in the desert was like a religious experience. It was a moment of pure beauty and wonder.”
These techniques help to create a unique narrative tone that encapsulates the energy, restlessness, and yearning for freedom of the Beat Generation.