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The American Dream in On The Road Essay


The novel serves as a forceful and complex rejection of the white middle-class American Dream.

"On the Road" exemplifies how the Beat generation was a multi-levelled and powerful rejection of the traditional American Dream. The fundamental messages of the American Dream are stability and that to be an accomplished person one must own a house in the suburbs. "On the Road" contradicts this point as all enjoyment and progression of the characters comes through a nomadic and unstable lifestyle. This impulsiveness leads to the rejection of social norms, and therefore the direct rejection of the American Dream. The characters outright refusal to live the way that is expected of them is a manifestation of the Beat movement in the purest sense. In addition to living outside the expectations of society, the characters hold little regard for the law, mocking it with their indifference. Furthermore, the characters have a casual attitude to loyalty in relationships, instead of being faithful to one person they are emotionally and sexually promiscuous and even friendships are considered disposable. Perhaps the most fundamental motivation for the characters actions in this novel is the constant search for instant gratification. Contrary to the traditional values of a well planned and monotonous life, the members of the Beat generation represented in "On the Road" stand for spontaneity and an urge to satisfy their basic, animalistic desires with no regard for the consequences. As a result of these contradictions to traditional beliefs and values, "On the Road" is a blatant and complex rejection of the American Dream.

Characters in On the Road, representative of the Beat generation, did not enjoy or believe in commitment. They were happier travelling around, never being tied to one place. Sal believes that in searching for an alternate lifestyle on the road he will find meaning and fulfillment. This nomadic and free way of life is a direct rejection of the American Dream, as there is no stability.

Our battered suitcases were piled on the pavement again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life. - 199

Sal and Dean have many travels and relationships throughout the novel; the two will never own their own house or start a family because they consider the road to be their real home, their life. This is because it would require them to settle and fully commit to a place and a person, which opposes all that they are trying to achieve. Drifting around America with no purpose other than seeking an abstract concept of 'meaning' is the main theme of the novel, and the motivation behind the main characters.

We were all delighted, we all realised we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of time, move. And we moved!- 127

This refusal to settle and a desire to travel shows that the characters in On the Road are living a life that is a fundamental rejection of the traditional American Dream.

According to Kerouac, the American Dream emphasises the importance of normality, which is exactly what is being rebelled against in On the Road. The characters reject social norms and expectations in many aspects of their life. Normality is not something that is strived for by the characters in this novel; they are searching for an alternate way of life and wish to find fulfilment in their own minds, not from satisfying societies expectations. All of the main characters in On the Road aspire to be 'intellectuals', which is seen as a frivolous or pretentious life choice in the American Dream.

All my other current friends were 'intellectuals' - Chad the Nietzschean anthropologist, Carlo Marx and his nutty surrealist low-voices serious staring talk, Old Bull Lee and his anti-everything drawl - 13

The characters do not participate in the expected pastimes or professions represented by the American dream; Dean and Carlo prefer to stay up all night talking about philosophy than watching football or reading the newspaper, Sal wishes to be a philosopher and a writer instead of a lawyer or businessman. These characters accept and embrace their abnormal lifestyle and their depravity, Sal knows Dean is manipulative and shallow, but he doesnt look down on him for it.

He was conning me and I know it... and he knew it... but I didnt care and we got along fine. - 10

Showing such a complete lack of concern for how they are seen by each other and the public puts the characters in On the Road in stark contrast to the traditional American family.

Throughout the novel the characters show little respect for the law, they see it as guidelines for social decency rather than rules, and characters such as Sal and Dean often stray from these guidelines. This rebellion is a fundamental feature of the Beat generation and goes against the stereotypical image of the 'good, law abiding citizen' depicted in the American Dream.

Every precinct in town knows my fingerprints from that year I stole five hundred cars. You see what I do with them, I just wanta ride, man! -210

The issue of criminality is made apparent to the reader very early in the novel with references to Dean's time in jail, and is later ingrained as a common trait of Kerouacs portrayal of members of the beat generation through constant references to illegal behaviours, such as Remis constant thievery and Old Bull Lees drug addiction. These crimes are not fuelled by malice, but by a genuine desire to enjoy themselves, like Dean stealing cars just to go for a ride. Dean is especially pessimistic about authority figures, primarily the police, stemming from his time spent in jail. Sal is less passionate in his attitudes, but agrees with Dean and also holds a loose regard for the law.

Everybody in America is a natural born thief. I was getting the bug myself. I even began to try to see if doors were locked. - 69

This rebellion for the sake of personal enjoyment shows how the characters in On the Road are forcefully opposing the conformity and obedience emphasised in the American Dream.

The characters in On the Road do not approach relationships in the way that is expected in the traditional American Dream. Dean has three different wives and abandons many friends throughout the novel, including Sal. Kerouacs characters do not delude themselves with the concept of true love or being completely loyal in their relationships.

He wanted me to work Marylou... He wanted to see what Marylou was like with another man- 124

This is shown through the characters being sexually experimental, as when Dean encourages his wife to sleep with other men. Concepts like sharing sexual partners or homoeroticism were considered outrageous by traditional Americans trying to live the American Dream, but the Beat generation embraced these ideas, as shown throughout the novel through all of the characters willingness to participate in these supposedly depraved acts. Friendships in the novel also differ to the American Dream in that they are very passionate, but often erratic and fragile. Dean eventually abandons Sal when his companionship was most needed, as Sal has abandoned relationships throughout his journey. These flimsy relationships are a result of the Beat lifestyle a lack of commitment and always moving around makes lasting friendships impossible, so any social ties are easily broken.

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