Why I Love Kerouac’s Novel: On the Road

“Nothing behind me, everything in front of me, as is ever so on the road.”

–       Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

I was in the first year of my bachelor’s degree when an instructor encouraged me to read On the Road. My professor had witnessed my struggle to find a balance between self-expression and my intrinsic desire to suppress emotion in the pursuit of prosperity and professional advancement. Recognizing my plight, he suggested a healthy dose of Jack Kerouac and a short break from my current creative endeavors. That innocent introduction resulted in a near obsession with the iconoclastic author and a love for the works that emerged from the Beat Generation. More importantly, though, my exposure to On the Road perpetuated an epiphany that changed the direction of my personal journey: life is about experience, not observation.

In reading Kerouac’s defining novel, I immediately identified with Sal Paradise, the quiet, perceptive narrator. Depressed and complacent, Paradise was fascinated by Dean Moriarty, the newly-arrived aspiring intellectual and jailbird, as he ardently sought guidance in expanding his knowledge of the academic world. Instead of joining Carlo Marx, a friend and fellow pedant, in conversation with Moriarty, Paradise followed behind them, a witness but non-participant in their fervor for life.

“I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people that interest me, because 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…”

Moriarty personified everything I wanted to be in my life: energetic, zealous, ambitious, and enterprising. His lust for life and learning was comparable to my own, and yet he differed from me in the fact that he unabashedly pursued his desires without vacillation or fear. Much like Paradise, I found myself irrepressibly drawn to Moriarty’s frenetic nature and eager to follow his path.

Through the lens of Paradise’s memory and emotional filter, I witnessed Moriarty’s influence on those around him.  Inspired by his friend’s reckless abandon, Paradise traveled to the west to join Moriarty in his recreations. Over the next three years, the two traveled endlessly, both together and independently, discovering the west while exploring faith, mortality, and love. While Moriarty’s wild behavior led to drunken escapades, multiple wives, and children across the country, Paradise discovered self-confidence and joy through rumination on his own experiences. The ever-changing environment served as a catharsis for Paradise, bringing him out of his depression and waking him to glory of new experiences.

Kerouac’s novel, a story more about the idiosyncrasies of the characters than a plot, awakened in me a desire to do more than observe life; it motivated me to participate in it. Paradise, disheartened and complacent from his divorce, was rejuvenated by the corybantic behavior of Moriarty and, as a result, came to a better understanding of his own purpose. On the Road, though over fifty years old, has lasting resonance due to Kerouac’s ability to capture the restlessness spawned by conformity to a society that glorifies prosperity over the human experience.

As a result of On the Road’s exploration of epicurean pursuits and the therapeutic effect of aimless peregrination, I became cognizant of my own need to explore the world around me. While Moriarty lacked discipline of his own desirous ways and had to endure the consequences of that irresponsibility, Paradise found a balance between selfish indulgence and spiritual existence, a parity I hope to master in my own life. Through his willingness to change, to leave one world for another, Paradise opened his eyes to a greater perspicacity of his existence.

“I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

In the same respect, Kerouac’s novel has inspired me to share in Moriarty’s spirit – to be “mad to live” – and to seek experiences beyond my own personal comfort and boundaries. I attribute many of the decisions I’ve made in the past two years, including my recent application to the MLS program at Rollins College, the direct result of On the Road’s liberating effect on my soul. My freedom, my progressive and undogmatic pursuit of education, is in many ways the result of the impetuous friendship of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

I’m optimistic for a great week, my friends!
~ Victoria Elizabeth



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