On the Road by Jack Kerouac: Dean Moriarty's Character Analysis

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac, born in 1922, was a pioneer of modern thought. He coined the term “beat generation” and was friends with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg (Kaplan). Jack rebelled against America’s materialistic view of time, which he thought was caused by capitalism. Jack sought personal meaning through the pleasuring sensations and stimulations of the moment and was heavily influenced by jazz music and drugs. While Allen Ginsberg tended to bask in his popularity, Jack Kerouac did not. He was one of the few who actually lived out his view of time.

In 1957, Jack’s novel, On the Road, was published; it became a best-seller and a guidebook for the young and restless. The novel was based on Jack’s actual experiences while wandering about America. While parts of the book were likely literal history, it is likely that Jack heavily embellished certain events and characters. Many saw On the Road as a meaningless; however, it was a breakthrough because it challenged the WWII era view of time. Jack Kerouac challenged some of the fundamentals of capitalism itself.

Jack saw how everyone’s time was being constrained by capitalism and wondered why it mattered how much output an economy produced. He saw how capitalism was ruining the “sanctity of the moment”. According to Kerouac, Americans were constrained by “clock time” because time was valued by what a person could make with their time, not what they could feel with their time. Kerouac questioned whether a society should be judged solely by its material output.

Dean Moriarty

One of the main characters in On the Road was Dean Moriarty. In my opinion, the novel revolved around Dean’s view of time; and Kerouac used Dean’s character to make several points. Dean did not want to deal with the past or worry about the future; therefore, he only lived in the moment. The moment was his escape. Dean did not find any personal meaning from capitalism.

Literary critic Erik Mortenson noted that, while most Americans were factory workers during Kerouac’s time, most of the characters in On the Road did not have jobs at all. And the few that did have jobs only held them temporarily before getting restless and moving on. On the Road was a story of several men and women who used time to fulfill their own personal desires, not the desires of others; they were completely unconstrained by any schedule other than their own. This view of time abruptly opposed the common post-WWII view of time.

Dean Moriarty had a personal schedule filled with events down to the very minute. He had a rationalized view of time; he saw time as something that never stopped, and he wanted to take advantage of every moment (Mortenson, 54). While society viewed a twelve-hour period as a constricting amount of space in which people were pressured to make something in order to make a living, Dean was not pressured by time because he used time to meet his own ends. Instead of producing materials, Dean sought sensation and stimulation. “Time may still be subsumed by space, but it is a space that Dean is free to configure according to his own wishes. Time does not employ Dean, he employs time” (Mortenson, 54).

Dean was bound to movement because he lived in the moment and the moment was always moving. Living in the moment allowed Dean to remain unsusceptible to capitalism’s/society’s control. Dean had a fragmented view of time (which we will discuss later), he did not see the connection between past, present, and future; he only paid attention to the present moment. “Focusing exclusively on the unfolding moment, Dean avoids the trap of seeing the present as anything but what it really is, the final and ultimate reality” (Mortenson, 57).

Because each moment repairs itself by passing along into oblivion, Dean did not have any worries. Erik Mortenson noticed that after traveling across America several times, Kerouac further criticized American society and capitalism by bringing Dean to Mexico. Kerouac depicted Mexico as relaxed and unconstrained by time. The people may have been poor; however, they were much happier than their American counterparts. “Mexico is continually portrayed in obverse relation to an oppressive America. Things are cheaper, cops are nicer, and time sheds its constraining feel” (Mortenson, 61). Mortenson noted the symbolism of Dean exchanging his watch, which symbolized “clock time,” for crystals that a young Mexican girl found on a mountain (Mortenson, 61). Dean loved the fact that everyone was so relaxed in Mexico.

Throughout the book, Dean was searching for what he called the “it”. “It” refers to the pure ecstasy and pleasure of the moment (Mortenson, 64). Dean used Jazz music and drugs as vehicles bringing him closer to “it.” However, when Dean was able to find “it,” it only lasted a moment.

Sal Paradise

Another important character in On the Road was Sal Paradise. Note the symbolism of Dean Moriarty’s and Sal Paradise’s last names. Even though Sal tended to follow Dean, Sal represented a different view of temporality than that of Dean (Mortenson, 59). Compared to Dean, Sal felt the tension of the moment. “He continually looks forward and backward for release” (Mortenson, 59). Sal saw death as a sort of birth out of time and an escape into a blissful “heaven.” While at the same time, Dean saw death as the end of all existence (Mortenson, 59). While Dean only cared about the moment, Sal used writing to “extend his past experiences into the future” (Mortenson, 64).

“Sal may attempt to follow Dean’s example, but ultimately his Christian belief in the transcendence of death differentiates him from Dean’s belief in the sanctity of the moment. Although Sal follows Dean throughout the novel, he never entirely abandons his moral conceptions. However, despite Sal’s failure to emulate Dean, they nevertheless remain united in their mutual attempts to escape oppressive notions of time” (Mortenson, 60).

I believe that, possibly, Jack Kerouac developed Sal’s character as a representation of himself as he wondered about the country. Sal had a much more stable view of temporality than did Dean.

Further Discussion and Quotes

In my opinion, On the Road seemed like a book about the late sixties and early seventies written to the people of the fifties. I completely agree with Erik Mortenson that Jack Kerouac authored the book with the intent of challenging the view of temporality commonly held in the 1950s by illustrating an entirely opposite view of time. Capitalism caused people to be pressured by time, and because of that they were unable to find happiness in time. Therefore, Kerouac attempted to create a setting where characters were completely free and unconstrained by time. Kerouac hoped that readers would compare On the Road to reality, and realize the difference between the two.

There are some direct quotes from the book which well-portray Dean’s personality.

  • “’I just go along. I dig life.’… He had no direction” (Kerouac, 122).
  • “’IT! IT! I’ll tell you- now no time, we have no time now.’ Dean rushed back to watch Rollo Greb some more” (Kerouac, 127).
  • “It’s not the tune that counts but IT” (Kerouac, 208).

I also believe that Kerouac was trying to show the disaster of living completely in the moment. Because Dean ignored the past and future, he had a very fragmented life. He was irresponsible and had no attachment to anyone but Sal. During the novel, all Dean’s friends other than Sal rejected Dean because they thought he was crazy. And in my opinion, they had reason to believe he was crazy.

  • “Dean- responsible, perhaps, for everything that was wrong” (Kerouac, 193).

Towards the end of the book, Dean started falling into despair; and this was very against his personality. I believe Kerouac was trying to show that a person can only live such a fragmented life for so long before it catches up with them.

Throughout the book, differences between Sal and Dean come to light. Even though neither found personal meaning through capitalism, they were different. Because Dean did not believe in an afterlife and Sal did, they had different views on temporality.

  • (Sal speaking) “Death will overtake us before heaven”…
    (Dean Speaking) “We only live once. We’re having a good time” (Kerouac, 124-25).

Sal’s view of temporality was not fragmented. He saw past, present, and future because he did not have to hide in the moment like Dean did. I believe that Sal’s view of heaven and God gave him the absolute standard over time that he needed to ensure his stability and happiness in time.

Thank you very much for reading!!!

Works Cited

Kaplan, Fred. 1959: the Year Everything Changed. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2009. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1957. Print.

Mortenson, Erik. “Beating Time: Configurations of Temporality in Jack Kerouac's ‘On the Road’”. JSTOR. 28.3 (2001): p. 51-67. Web. 5 July 2012.

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