In Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road,” the narrator, Sal Paradise, presents a seemingly optimistic view of life. He consistently expresses his excitement for the adventures ahead and his high hopes for the future. According to Sal, the novel is characterized by youthful enthusiasm and unreserved optimism for the new experiences he seeks. However, a deeper analysis of the book, as well as critical interpretations, unveil a darker and more pessimistic side that Sal remains unaware of until the very end. Whether fueled by the optimism of jazz music, his conviction in finding “IT,” or simply the anticipation of a night out in an unfamiliar city, Sal continually persuades the reader of the positive nature of his situations. Nevertheless, the truth is that “On the Road” is a novel where Sal and those around him are trapped in a perpetual cycle of hopeful optimism for the future, only to be followed by a disillusioning pessimism once reality sets in. Despite Sal’s desire for freedom and happiness on the open road, Ann Douglas states that “this is the saddest book that I’ve ever read” (Douglas, 9).Despite Sal’s attempt to portray a story of youthful optimism with exuberance and triumph, both critics and the events within the novel indicate that this very optimism transforms it into a pessimistic narrative, revealing the harsh realities of life.
Sal’s optimism can be characterized by hopeful, sometimes impractical, aspirations for the future. With little knowledge of what lies ahead, as they often end up in unfamiliar cities and towns, the characters consistently hope for positive outcomes, refusing to acknowledge potential disappointments. The novel is filled with instances of this blind optimism, such as aiming for extravagant parties or attempting to travel across the country on a single road. While the determined characters believe that everything will turn out well, the reality is that most situations lead to sorrow or negatively impact their lives. They often pick up hitchhikers who ultimately fail to have the promised gas money, parties end in calamity or arguments, and many wives and lovers suffer emotional abuse rather than finding joy in a new car that may take them to Mexico or experiencing euphoria within the confines of a jazz club.
The impact of Dean Moriarty on the novel is immeasurable, shaping everything from the plot to the general tone and even the thoughts and dreams of Sal. However, his most significant contribution lies in his embodiment of blind optimism. As introduced in the first chapter, Sal portrays the immense influence Dean will have on the overall mood of the novel. While Sal’s New York friends take a negative stance, criticizing society and providing intellectual or psychoanalytical justifications, Dean charges headfirst into society, eagerly seeking both sustenance and affection, indifferent to the opinions of others (Kerouac, 7).
Dean’s refusal to view the world critically and his unwavering hope for simple pleasures like food and sex illustrate his embodiment of optimism. This early passage in the novel suggests that Dean will ultimately become the driving force behind the optimistic sentiment that pervades much of the book. Dean’s zest for life leads both himself and Sal to various locations, including jazz clubs, the homes of old friends, and even Mexico. However, with Dean and his fellow followers of his wild ways (such as Sal, Ed Dunkel, Carlo Marx, and others), the outcome often falls short of ideal, even though they occasionally stumble upon moments of joy along their journey. Dean’s repeated failures in romantic relationships serve as clear examples of this exuberance for life gradually transforming into despair. His marriage with his first wife, MaryLou, becomes unbearable when she engages in promiscuous behavior, while his time with Camille coincides with a period of personal turmoil. Ultimately, Dean abandons his final wife, Inez, to return to San Francisco and reunite with Camille once more. Carole Vopat emphasizes the sadness and utter lack of positivity inherent in this pattern, asserting that rather than “finding life,” they are actually deserting it entirely, “and especially in the best American tradition, they are leaving behind responsibility; wives, children, mistresses—all end up scattered on the highway like shattered glass.” (Vopat, 387)Despite Sal’s perception of Dean as a hopeful and lively character who embodies the essence of this novel, Dean can also be seen as a negative and ultimately terrible character who represents the flaws in the culture of that time. He abandons women and family “like broken glass.” Not only do Dean’s adventures often deviate from his initial optimism, but his overall life goes through a cycle of excitement and exuberance, followed by a gloomy reality. In the beginning, Sal describes Dean as the epitome of manhood and compares him to the sun. However, by Part Three, Dean’s continual disappointment and impulsive nature lead to numerous problems. According to Tim Hunt’s book, Kerouac’s Crooked Road, Dean’s refusal to recognize the consequences of his impulsive behavior damns him gradually. Hunt believes that Dean symbolizes the dashed hopes resulting from an unforgiving reality, a perspective that differs from Sal’s optimistic view. When Sal reunites with Dean in Denver after several months, he finds a sorrowful figure who exemplifies the toll that life has taken on him. Sal’s description of Dean in his San Francisco apartment further illustrates this point: he is wearing torn clothes, with his pants hanging down his belly and unkempt appearance.According to Kerouac (177), the man’s eyes were red and his thumb was bandaged, hanging in the air.
Dean’s current stage of life, impacted by his reckless behavior, has become similar to his physical appearance in that he has multiple lovers to take care of, an infected thumb, very little money, and a sense of aimlessness. Aligning with the overall melancholic tone of the novel, Dean’s existence has become pitiful and starkly realistic. As a character, Dean experiences a cycle that begins with intense optimism, then moves on to a period of thrilling excitement before ultimately embodying a disillusioned western hero from the 1940s.
According to Warren French, the events of the novel mirror a cycle that involves happy beginnings, frenzied excitement, and depressing conclusions. Dean’s actions in the story, criticized by Hunt for leading to a depressing outcome, parallel Sal’s foolish tendencies in his travels. From the start of Sal’s first trip West, it becomes clear that he always hopes for the best but ultimately faces disappointment. Despite lacking road knowledge or travel experience, Sal confidently decides to stay on Route 6 all the way to Ely. However, this plan fails as Sal soon discovers, just 40 miles away, that Route 6 cannot take him across the country. Sal realizes that his dreams were the cause of this failure and describes them as a foolish hearthside idea.
Despite Sal’s recognition of his impractical optimism, he continues to repeat the same errors during his numerous journeys across the country. Prior to his trips, Sal leads the reader to believe that perhaps this time he will achieve success (Campbell, 455), trusting in his ability to stretch his funds by being frugal and not squandering them foolishly. However, Sal ends up spending money in bars, wasting it on whiskey and apple pies, and purchasing alcohol for his fellow travelers. As a result, he becomes impoverished and despondent, contradicting Campbell’s optimistic interpretation of the novel and instead swaying the reader towards a more pessimistic outlook.
As Sal travels further, his hopes grow larger and the consequences of disappointments become more significant. In Part One, while staying with the Rawlins’ in Denver, Sal embarks on a mountain expedition with his hosts and Tim Gray. The expectations for this short trip are high. Sal reflects that just a few days ago, he arrived in Denver as a penniless individual but now he is dressed sharply in a suit, accompanied by a well-dressed blond woman, Babe Rawlins. He feels on top of the world and believes that nothing can go wrong during their expedition. This showcases Sal’s desire to portray his story positively and encourages readers to believe in good outcomes, as Campbell would suggest. However, reality soon sets in as the trip follows a pattern of soaring excitement leading to a disappointing conclusion. A group of drunken teenage boys ruins their party and a bar fight brings an end to an already troubled evening. Eventually, Sal ends up broke and the entire group returns to Denver in sadness, a stark contrast to the initially optimistic tone on their way to Central City.
During their trip to Mexico, Dean, Sal, and their new companion Stan experience a series of challenging events that begin to affect Sal. However, this doesn’t deter him from embarking on another incredible journey with hopes of it going as planned. The stakes this time are much higher, as Dean expresses his unwavering faith in their pursuit, stating, “Man, this will finally take us to IT!” (253). Dean is optimistic about discovering what they feel is missing in their lives. However, considering the events leading up to this point in the story, it becomes apparent that their trip is likely to fail. Sal, who has started to doubt this relentless optimism, confirms this when Stan gets stung by a bee and begins to experience alarming swelling. Sal’s exclamation, “Damn! It made the whole trip seem sinister and doomed” (256), reflects his weariness and skepticism towards the journey. This shift in Sal’s mindset proves to be accurate as their journey to Mexico becomes overwhelming for them. Vopat observes this change during the trip and acknowledges the higher stakes involved. She explains that Sal seeks to escape from himself, society, and their discontent during their time in Mexico (Vopat 393). In other words, Sal is hoping to find IT. However, as she quotes Sal saying, “the strange Arabian paradise we had finally found at the end of the hard, hard road was only a wild whorehouse after all” (Vopat 393), it becomes evident that their expectations have been shattered.The event is undoubtedly a portrayal of the harsh and depressing realities of the world, which Vopat also observes in Sal Paradise’s depiction of America. In describing Sal’s America, Vopat states, “America is a land of corruption and hypocrisy, promising everything and delivering nothing, living off the innocence and opportunity” (Vopat, 390). This perspective from a critic highlights the stark contrast between Sal’s initial optimism and the gloomy reality depicted in the novel.
The novel shows signs of optimism through Sal’s journey of breaking away from blind hopefulness towards the end of the story. Sal no longer feels the intense urge to seek disappointment through exploration. Hunt states that Sal has already experienced “the act of breaking free from the established routine or order in search of excitement and understanding of time” which has only resulted in “experiences that ultimately lead to insight, exhaustion, and a return to the established order” (Hunt, 23). Sal’s initial attempt to rid himself of foolish optimism occurs when he declares that the Mexico trip is “doomed,” and this mindset continues throughout the final chapter. When Sal meets Laura, a woman with innocent and pure eyes whom he genuinely loves, he takes his first step towards becoming a more realistic adult from an optimistic fool. Sal recognizes the silliness of Dean’s excessively early arrival in New York to meet Laura when he notes that “suddenly Dean arrived anyway, five and a half weeks in advance, and nobody had any money” (Kerouac, 290). Sal is no longer thrilled about going out, getting drunk, and having endless conversations with Dean about everything and nothing at all. He has moved beyond these impractical actions and belief in unrealistic dreams. This is something that readers, who view the novel as “the saddest story I’ve ever read,” can consider as a positive aspect. Sal will no longer continue down this gloomy path, giving us a reason to feel encouraged.
The novel maintains a strong sense of optimism despite the constant criticisms. The pursuit of the pearl, or IT, serves as a clear explanation for this. Dean’s excited exclamation about finally finding IT during their trip to Mexico illustrates this. Additionally, Sal is equally eager to find himself and explore American culture on their cross-country journey. The search for love, enjoyment in difficult times, and meaningful conversations all contribute to this prevailing optimism. The relationship between jazz and the pursuit of IT is also important. Jazz provides a wordless exchange of minds that goes beyond individual capabilities and rarely ends in a negative manner. Carruth suggests that jazz combines freedom and discipline to create ecstasy. This possibility of transcending the objective world may be what Sal and Dean are seeking in their pursuit of IT. However, unlike jazz musicians, they are unable to escape their hopeless reality in the American landscape, as noted by Vopat.Despite the influence of jazz constantly renewing their hopes and keeping them optimistic, their yearning for a fulfilling life and new adventures is consistently overshadowed by the harsh reality that things rarely go as planned, ultimately leading to a return to the predictable status quo.
Despite the initial optimism conveyed through Sal Paradise’s narration, Kerouac’s novel On the Road ultimately highlights the depressing outcomes of events and characters. However, it is important to note that the entire novel is not solely characterized by pessimism. Sal and his companions do have enjoyable experiences and encounter various landscapes throughout their journey across America. Sal even briefly discovers a sense of fulfillment when he connects with the untamed wilderness of the Mexican swamp. Nevertheless, this discovery proves to be fleeting as Sal is eventually forced to return to a world that lacks sympathy for a disillusioned college student traversing the continent. This overarching theme of sadness in the novel has led to general criticism. Kerouac’s work serves as a cautionary tale, warning readers about the bleak state of the world. This notion is further supported by Kerouac’s personal decision to distance himself from the “beat” lifestyle, a movement for which he is often credited as its creator. His departure from this lifestyle echoes Sal’s ultimate separation from Dean in the novel, symbolizing his own experience with the world’s despondency. If others fail to recognize this reality, Kerouac can no longer be part of it.