A friend of mine told me he was reading On the Road and couldn’t figure out what the point of the novel was. He was only partway through and wanted to know if the characters ever grow.
I thought it was such a fascinating question!
As I’ve posted before, I do believe that the narrator, Sal Paradise, grows. He is exceedingly complicated. He’s zigzagging across America, refusing to conform to society. And yet he keeps stating that’s what he so desperately wants. He wants the house and the wife. Likewise, he’s Sal Paradise—oh what a name!—is out cavorting with a car thief, and yet he’s constantly thinking about God and heaven and the holy.
I guess I can kind of relate to Sal Paradise a bit, and maybe that’s why I feel like the whole notion of whether his character grows is a complicated one. I so often feel torn between two things that don’t seem to fit together.
I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a contemporary reader thing, or both, but it seems like we have this notion that characters have to change, grow, evolve. We want them to become people by the end of the story. …I guess that’s because we want that for our own lives. We like inspirational stories—be they self-help books or Hollywood movies. We think if this lowly character can overcome this-or-that, maybe we can too.
But how often does life play out like an inspirational book or movie? Isn’t it more often the case that life is pretty mundane? That we continually struggle with the same issues over and over again? Aren’t we always searching for meaning? Significance? Trying to understand ourselves better?
I suppose if I’m honest, I do want to like the characters I read about, and I do want them to grow. But I don’t think they have to. I think part of what I love about On the Road has more to do with the language. I’m not a huge fan of Kerouac’s poetry—though I do enjoy a few of his haikus—but I love the poetry imbued in On the Road. I love reading his novel because of how sensual, visual it is. I feel like I’m looking out the car window with him. I don’t really care whether he’s in California or Mexico, whether he’s picking cotton or hitchhiking. It’s all just so beautiful.