On the Road

Teaching and learning resources for the novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road is a thrill ride of a novel based on Kerouac’s own experiences traveling across the United States in the late 1940s and interacting with other literary figures in the Beat movement. Its style and the stream-of-consciousness manner in which the original draft was written reflect his wild and unconventional attempts to achieve an elevated state of consciousness, often through hedonistic adventures.

I’ve chosen two excerpts from the novel for passage analysis exercises, each with two essay prompts suitable for students doing literary analysis and/or preparing for the AP Literature and Composition exam. The prompts focus on two of the distinguishing aspects of the novel: its excited, headlong style, and its concern with the pursuit of a kind of enlightenment.

On the Road: The Original Scroll is a special edition of the text that replicates Kerouac’s rough draft of the novel, which was feverishly typed out in a three-week flurry on a 120-foot long roll of taped-together sheets of tracing paper.

Passage Analysis 1

These prompts are based on the passage at the end of Part 1, Chapter 1, beginning with “Yes, and it wasn’t only because…” and ending with “…somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” (See the PDF for the full excerpt.)

Prompt #1: How is this passage representative of the style of the novel? Discuss the aspects of its style that contribute to the effect of the passage (and the novel). What rhetorical devices does Kerouac employ? What poetic characteristics does this style contain? What tone does it convey? How does the style express the theme of carpe diem suggested in the passage?

Prompt #2: Based on your understanding of the novel, what is the “pearl” referred to in the last line of the passage? Discuss the nature of this “pearl,” and describe the attempts of the characters in the novel to obtain it.

Prompt #1: Style

The primary goal and effect of Kerouac’s stylistic choices are to convey a sense of the state of mind of the characters in the story: an exuberant, chaotic delight in new adventures; a desire to intensely experience everything and everyone around them—to constantly be aware of the present as it unfolds, moment to moment. He wants the reader to experience the state of being of people “on the road”—constant, restless movement from one experience and feeling and place to the next.

One particular aspect of this effect is that the text feels as though it is meant to be read aloud. In reading it aloud, one experiences the story in time, as it was originally experienced—as ephemeral, transitory events that don’t necessarily allow for reflection—and the story is more keenly felt rather than thought.

Diction: Extreme, strong, vivid verbs and adjectives that convey intensity of feeling and experience as well as a sense of chaos and exuberance

  • Mostly colloquial; not overly intellectualized
  • Replete with descriptive detail, vivid imagery


  • The description of Dean on line 4: “his suffering bony face…his straining muscular sweating neck”

– these adjectives convey the intensity with which Dean feels and strives: his sensitivity and the force of his desire and personality

  • Line 15: “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy”

– conveys a sense of exuberant, unrestrained affirmation and action; even the noun “overburst” implies action, and the adjective expression “yea-saying” incorporates an action

Syntax: Long, varied, complex sentences rush from one idea, image, or description to the next with a chaotic, restless rhythm of pauses, but few full stops—constant movement from phrase to phrase

  • Mirrors the state of mind of the characters: although it’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, it gives a sense of each phrase being formed on the spur of the moment
  • Variety of phrase and clause types, liberal punctuation of different kinds: commas, dashes, hyphens, apostrophes, quotation marks, semicolons, exclamation points and question marks

– gives sense of chaotic excitement as opposed to ordered calmness

– frequent contractions reflect sound of spoken language, lack of formality, rapidity of expression

– incorporated quotations take the reader out of the reflection of the passage and into the original moment of happening: “I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” (line 20)

– dashes: disrupted flow, off-kilter rhythm

  • Parallelism and repetition of structures and phrases intensifies and emphasizes ideas and feelings

– “I could hear a new call and see a new horizon” (line 23): emphasizes the depth of the narrator’s sense of longing for new experiences

  • Long descriptions with multiple adjectives and little punctuation give a feeling of rich detail being captured as quickly as possible

– “nutty surrealist low-voiced serious staring talk” (lines 10-11): complexity and richness of Carlo Marx’s manner that can’t be captured with spare descriptions

Rhetorical devices: Passage is replete with a great variety of rhetorical devices that convey intensity of experience, feeling, and conviction

  • Paradox: “his dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor” (lines 5-6)

– Dean manages to look more graceful, more appealing, more comfortable in his simple clothes than people wearing much more expensive clothing because of his state of mind and manner

  • Personification: “the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy” (line 7)

– comparing Dean’s exuberance to a person renders it more powerful and vivid

  • Rhetorical question: “what did it matter?” (line 25)

– conveys narrator’s nonchalant confidence about the value of his experiences: his conviction and the rightness of his decision can’t be doubted

  • Metaphor: “a western kinsman of the sun, Dean”

– Dean is as bright, striking, powerful, and full of energy as the sun itself

  • Allusion: “as saith Ecclesiastes, ‘It is your portion under the sun.’” (lines 20-21)

– the narrator’s and Dean’s experiences are spiritually significant, as if prophesied and validated by the Bible

  • Hyperbole: emphasizes good-humored, powerful desires

– “I’m starving” (line 20): exaggerates Dean’s physical, sexual, spiritual appetite

  • Antithesis: juxtaposition of Dean and Sal’s other friends highlights Dean’s distinctive good qualities

– much of first paragraph goes back and forth between positive descriptions of Dean, negative descriptions of Sal’s other friends

  • Climax: long sentences sometimes build up to excited climax

– sentence beginning on line 16 begins as a reflective, negative sentence but builds up to an exuberant conclusion with Dean’s remarks about being hungry

  • Alliteration and consonance: give a poetic feel to the text, as something that should be read aloud

– “straining muscular sweating neck” (line 4): repetition of “s” sounds gives emphasis to description

– “nutty surrealist low-voiced serious staring talk” (lines 10-11): repetition of “s” and “t” sounds

– “New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons” (lines 16-18): repetition of “n,” “t,” and “p” sounds

Prompt #2: The “Pearl”

The title of the novel suggests constant movement: the characters are constantly in search of new experiences, sensations, scenes, people, places.  The point of being “on the road” is not to reach a particular destination but to give themselves a constant stream of opportunities for these new experiences.  They are exuberantly in search of adventure.

Being “on the road” is also a metaphor for the human experience of time: the ceaseless change and renewal of the moment.  Time is by definition transitory, and human experience is thus defined by the inexorable progress of time from moment to moment.  The goal of being completely “in the moment,” being “in the here and now,” is a concept that plays an important role in Eastern philosophy, which the characters are influenced by.  Instead of becoming lost in abstract thought, distracted by worries and speculation about the future or by reflection on the past, one tries to be keenly aware of each feeling and sensation as it happens.  The human tendency is to want to stop time, in a sense, by reflecting on things, but to be “in the moment” requires letting go of what has happened in favor of what is happening.

In this passage, the “pearl” is initially identified with the phrase “girls, visions, everything.”  It is, in part, sexual desire, which provides opportunities for intense sensation; intense sensation is one way to “bring oneself into the present.”  But Sal’s desire for “visions” shows that the pearl is also a kind of more overtly spiritual goal that involves perceiving something that one is not normally able to perceive.  And identifying it with “everything” suggests that it is not something specific and finite, but something that can potentially be achieved through any experience.

The description of Dean and Sal’s fascination with Dean are also important clues to the nature of the pearl.  Dean is “a kinsman of the sun” who is “eager for bread and love,” has an “excited way of speaking,” and is characterized by “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy”; he exists in a constant state of exuberant hunger for new experiences.  He gives free expression to his feelings and desires, and he has boundless energy.  Dean is contrasted with Sal’s other friends, who are either overly intellectual and critical or cynical and bored; they lack Dean’s positivity, passion, sensitivity, and capacity for excitement and adventure.  The vitality of Dean’s personality and way of life are “a new call” for Sal and show him “a new horizon”; he wants to live life the way Dean does.

Thus, the “pearl” is not a thing that can be obtained once and for all.  It is a state of being that must be achieved again and again, in each moment.  It consists in the ability to focus intently on each sensation and feeling and experience as it happens and to give free and natural expression to one’s thoughts, desires, and emotions—to rid oneself of any inhibiting or limiting habits that prevent one from achieving this state of being.  When one exists in this state, one experiences life intensely and joyously, as an exuberant spirituality, and one has a deep sense of the wonder and beauty of existence.  In this state, one perceives even ordinary things and feelings and events as profound and fresh; one appreciates the significance of everything and everyone.  For most people, this state is difficult to achieve and can only be experienced for short, unsustainable periods of time before it is compromised by the demands of human life and human habits of thought and behavior.  Dean is a heroic and inspirational figure to Sal because he is one of the few people who have the capacity—the energy and the sensitivity and the desire—to sustain this state of being for long periods of time, and Sal strives to be like him in this sense.

The “pearl” is also a vision of truth: this sense of the beauty and wonder of the universe, this feeling of embracing everything, is the ultimate truth for spiritual seekers like Dean and Sal.  But it is not a truth that can be captured in words, that can be precisely defined; instead, it is a mystical truth that can only be experienced.

Ultimately, the title and the search for this pearl are ironic: Dean and Sal are in restless search of something that is constantly present, always here and now.  A spiritual quest in the form of physical movement is one means to the end of achieving this state of being, but in fact such a quest is unnecessary.  The sensory and social and emotional stimulation provided by a journey may be helpful, but the physical journey should not be confused with the spiritual journey.  Unfortunately, human nature often leads people to engage in mere self-indulgence as a poor substitute for true spirituality, and it seems that the characters in the novel often fall prey to this confusion while on their journey.

PDF version (Excerpt and prompts) | PDF version (Excerpt, prompts, and notes)

Prompts and notes © 2008 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.

Passage Analysis 2

These prompts are based on the passage at the end of Part 2, Chapter 4, beginning with “At Ian MacArthur’s the party went on” and ending with “…the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever.” (See the PDF for the full excerpt.)

Prompt #1: How is this passage representative of the style of the novel? Discuss the aspects of its style that contribute to the effect of the passage (and the novel). What rhetorical devices does Kerouac employ? What poetic characteristics does this style contain? What tone does it convey? How does the style express the theme of carpe diem suggested in the passage?

Prompt #2: What clues does this passage give about the nature of the “it” that Dean refers to in lines 21 and 23? Consider, in particular, the descriptions of Rollo Greb and George Shearing in the passage, as well as the other references to the thing that Dean is trying to “get.”

PDF version (Excerpt and prompts)

Prompts © 2008 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.