You are on page 1of 5

Final Essay on The American Nightmare in Jack Kerouacs On The Road

Glenn Ruitenbeek
Lecturer: Gaston Franssen

Jack Kerouac wrote his most discussed, read and beloved novel On The Road
in the 1950s. The New York Times stated that it was the most beautifully executed,
the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac
himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is. Longing belief
and meaning of life, which were, or are, the main ideas of the Beat Generation, are
major themes in this novel. The American Dream is a crucial segment of Sal and
Deans travels and adventures. But there view on life goes against the American
Dream, in which every one has equal chances and equal rights to a good life. Dean
and Sal do not see women as equals, as was fairly common. Jack Kerouacs novel
shows the dichotomy of following the Dream for Caucasian males while silencing
people of ethnicity and women in general on purpose.
When reading the first chapter, women are immediately objectified. The main
characters are men, living in hedonistic and bohemian lifestyle. The objectification of
women for sexual pleasure of men becomes an essential part of Dean, Sal, and all the
others life. This outdated phenomenon can literally be detected throughout the novel
in Sals description of women: Dean had dispatched the occupant to the kitchen,
probably to make coffee, while he proceeded with his love problems, for to him sex
was the one and holy important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to
make a living and so on (2). Here, we see that Marylou is only there to satisfy Dean.
It is not that Kerouac himself was for unequality, but [t]he desired effect () is a
perpetuation of the unequal power relations between men and women (Hans Bertens,
97-98). This passage is only the first clue of women objectification in On The Road.
Digging deeper into the events that involve Dean and Sal and the subject of
matter that is the suppression of women, marriage does not seem to be a steady
institution for Dean and Marylou. They fight, do not get along, and Dean even cheats
on his wife with a woman named Camille, with whom he marries, and then dumps for
his third girl, Inez. Inez he leaves later on, leaving her with a child, to get back with
Camille, with whom he ends up having another two children. Dean has no respect for

Final Essay on The American Nightmare in Jack Kerouacs On The Road
Glenn Ruitenbeek
Lecturer: Gaston Franssen

women and does not think before he acts. He practically lets the whole world know he
is obsessed with women when shouting I love, love, love women! I think women are
wonderful! I love women (140). They are like toys to him. He plays with them for a
while and then tosses them aside for the newest issue. He does not even stop and think
about his children when sleeping around with a bunch of other women. In fact, with
one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean had four little ones and not a cent,
and was al trouble and ecstasy and speed as ever (247). He leaves the women with
the pain an burden, while he himself gets the fun of travelling around through
America without a care in the world. The novel itself does not even seem to display
love and marriage as a holy matrimony, but a game, something that is not sacred but
fun to do and easy to forget. This seems odd, when having a family and a job and a
place to live is part of the American Dream. Sal himself fails in love and marriage. I
first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up (1). He sustains the
phallocentric (Bertens, 161) image by using women and ditching them after a short
while, which means he strays from his responsibilities as a heterosexual.
Phallus, the symbol for the male sexual organ, is the signifier that signifies a
patriarchal character (Bertens, 161). [I]n Lacans conception of things male
dominance is a cultural construction and not a biological given (Bertens, 161).
Phallic power is therefore the power of the male sex over the female sex. Dean and
Sal are symbols of this mysterious power, which is seen when they order Marylou to
make coffee for them in the kitchen, which is, how clich, the right place for her. And
if that is not enough for Marylou to be objectified, used, Dean nervously got up,
paced around, thinking and deciding the thing to do was have Marylou make
breakfast and sweep the floor (2). The American Dream for women in On The
Road is a nightmare. They have to obey, comply, when they are ordered by men. The
main characters of Kerouacs much-praised novel are just small drops on the big blob
of oil that is the prejudice that presented itself in the American Dream.
Laura Mulvey provides another point of view, a literary theory one. She introduces
the male gaze, which basically means that when we watch a movie, we are forced to
see the events in the movie from the male perspective to understand and enjoy the
movie that is being displayed. This theory can be applied to Kerouacs story. Readers
are forced to take on Sals, who is of course male, point of view.
Final Essay on The American Nightmare in Jack Kerouacs On The Road
Glenn Ruitenbeek
Lecturer: Gaston Franssen

Woman, then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other,
bound by a symbolic order in which man can live our his fantasies and
obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing them on the silent image
of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning not maker of meaning.

This is exemplified by Dean ordering Marylou, who is voiceless (Sal, the narrator,
does not let her speak), to make breakfast and sweep the floor, which demonstrates
Marylous place as a bearer because she obeys the law that is set by her father
figure, Dean. This is the actual American Dream for woman.
As a last example, On The Road is also a racial themed novel. It downplays all
people of ethnicity. Sal meets Mexican Terry, and after Dean had sex with her, she
thinks Sal is a pimp. Sal, then frustrated, says: I realized that I was pleading with a
dumb little Mexican wench (85). Sal implicitly says Mexican, as to really insult
Terry. Sal wants to hurt her to the extreme. Throwing her nationality into the insult
seems to be the best way. And another example of this racial behavior is when Sal
decided to help Terry and her kid out by picking cotton amongst colored people with
them. This is an insult to the hard-working Afro-Americans, who were forced to pick
cotton during slavery to help the white mans dream become easier to achieve, and
Mexicans. He could easily have picked another job, but chose this one, and he can
leave it just as easily, while the others will probably have to keep on picking cotton
for the rest of their lives. Adding to the insult, when he is a little tired of all the hard
work he has done on the plantation (yeah, right), he sits down, sighing like an old
Negro cotton-picker (97). Sal bins the history behind cotton picking, not appreciating
what it means for Afro-Americans. It is the Dream for minorities, in order to
survive, they will have to keep on laboring, while the white man takes a rest.
In final consideration, we can clearly state that Jack Kerouac does everything
that he can with his novel On The Road to bare the problems of American society.
When people hear of or read about the American Dream as it is, the white male is
always the first to obtain the ideal, which is the American Dream. Women or
minorities are not amongst those who will have the opportunity to achieve it. For
minorities, it is because white was seen as supremacy. For women, it is because of
Final Essay on The American Nightmare in Jack Kerouacs On The Road
Glenn Ruitenbeek
Lecturer: Gaston Franssen

the phallocentric society they were a part of. This can not be unseen in Kerouacs
novel. Characters as Inez, Camille and Marylou represent the bench sitters of the
American Dream team. To the white males it may be a dream worthy to pursue, but
for non-white males, it is The American Nightmare. Women are pushed into
following the dream of men, while being shoved aside and stereotyped. The American
Dream confines women to patriarchy; it sees people of ethnicity as nothing but a
hindrance to achieving the ultimate goal. White males can run freely in their pursuit
of happiness. On The Road demonstrates this once more.

Final Essay on The American Nightmare in Jack Kerouacs On The Road
Glenn Ruitenbeek
Lecturer: Gaston Franssen

Bibliography of the additional readings
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema. The Norton Anthology of
Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York. 2001. 2182-2192.