Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road is widely seen as quintessentially Beat, to use the term that Kerouac himself first used to define him and his friends years before. On the Road is an autobiographical story except for changed names and a few tweaked details. Kerouac’s counterpart in the novel, Sal Paradise, embarks on countless trips back and forth the American continent in the 1940s. Sal is searching for something, but even Sal himself is not sure what that something might be. Critics have analyzed the novel in terms of this something, pointing to different things Sal seeks throughout his travels—an understanding of his sexuality, acceptance into the American culture, male dominance, cheap thrills, and a sense of belonging to a community. For the most part, Sal’s travels are driven by Dean Moriarty, the novel’s portrayal of Kerouac’s close friend Neal Cassady.
Sal initially spends his time on the road looking inwardly to discover introspective understanding of who he is. He finds this to fail and so he begins to turn towards others to validate him so he might at least understand himself in respect of another. Dean and Sal’s friendship plays a vital role in this attempt, with their homosocial bond exceeding that of a normal friendship and becoming what critic Mary Carden sees as a strong hint at Sal’s repressed homosexuality. Analyst John Wier sees the story’s arc to be that of a wedding between the two, complete with a proposal, a marriage ceremony, and a honeymoon, supporting a view of Sal as falling on neither end of the gay/straight spectrum. This is one of the major ways that Sal fails at categorizing himself simply and fully and is a continual theme throughout the novel.
While struggling to understand his sexuality, Sal seeks community in Mexican fieldworkers, African Americans, jazz musicians, and train hoppers. Sal is of Italian descent, echoing Kerouac’s French-Canadian roots, and critic Erik Mortenson believes this to be the earliest and most basic source of alienation because of a distance from American culture felt since childhood. Sal’s attempts to assimilate himself into the Mexican and African-American societies fail based on race alone. Sal is not a musician so he cannot fully belong to the jazz movement, and Sal’s desire to reach a destination, no matter how fleeting or arbitrary that destination may be, causes him to ditch any friends he makes while hopping trains. Critics have separately argued for each of the aforementioned desires to be the something that Sal is seeking on the road, but I will argue that no single critic was correct. Rather, all of the critics were correct. Sal is attempting to find a deep understanding of who he is with special attention to his relationship to society. As I will trace in my essay, all of the mentioned methods are different manifestations of the initial issue, a desire for self-identity, which Sal futilely attempts throughout the journey to rectify.