“On the Road”‘s Dilemma

12 Sep


“[M]ost people (perhaps increasingly) don’t seem to be drawn to fiction that offers more questions than answers,” writes Rob Roberge in “Literary Fiction’s Dilemma” for The Rumpus. Toward the end of the essay, the MFA professor and author of The Cost of Living writes:

We are messy creatures. Beautiful, flawed, disturbed, at times selfless and at times selfish animals left to attempt to make sense of a world that doesn’t lend itself to easy questions or easy answers. To document a world where we are neither gods nor beasts but often a mix of both is to document a world most don’t like to think about.

Roberge makes an interesting—and beautifully written—point that we are complicated beings made up of good and bad characteristics. I wouldn’t necessarily say we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that we don’t live in a black-and-white, all-or-nothing world because I think it’s a very American trait to want to see the silver lining in something and to want to hear a comeback story. I would argue we even prefer our characters a little flawed. We like Jo March, Rodion Raskolnikov, Jay Gatsby, and Tom Sawyer. But I think Roberge is onto something. Even if we don’t desire perfect, goody-two-shoes characters—and I don’t mean to say Roberge is suggesting we do—I think we want the author’s point of view to be morally clear.

Roberge’s thesis does not mention Jack Kerouac, but it got me thinking about the criticism I’ve read about On the Road. So many articles I’ve read about Kerouac’s novel and the recent film adaptation refer to morality:

David Depsey’s 1957 article “In Pursuit of ‘Kicks’” in The New York Times:

Today, one depression and two wars later, in order to remain uncommitted one must at least flirt with depravity. “On The Road” belongs to the new Bohemianism in American fiction in which an experimental style is combined with eccentric characters and a morally neutral point of view.

Referring to Norman Podhoretz’s 1958 essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Andrew O’Hagan writes the following in the New York Review of Books article “Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line”:

In actual fact the Beats now seem pretty innocent: far from being a threatening group of “morally gruesome” primitives, they were a bunch of college kids with a few new things to offer.

Yahoo! Movies describes the film On the Road saying:

Dean is extremely charming and has a flexible moral code….

Amanda Chen reviewed the film for Scene Creek:

If you have a thirst for adventure and a loose line of morality, you will enjoy all that Walter Salles has to offer in his cinematic interpretation of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road.

Ann Hornaday reviewed it for the Washington Post:

The literary and larger cultural argument that Kerouac’s book ignited and engaged — about formalism, narrative, morality and breaking open new ways of being and expression — is virtually nonexistent in “On the Road,” Walter Salles’s warm but strangely staid adaptation of a piece of literature that was never meant to be tamed as cinema.

Robert Moor writes in “On The Road Again” for the Paris Review:

The moral atmosphere of American life has changed considerably over the past half century; we have moved towards Kerouac’s liberal ideals, which has slackened the tension between the lived and the imagined.

An anonymous poster on Barnes & Noble left this review:

I can give you symbolism for every event in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I can give you the moral, philosophical points of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. I can decode the works of Burroughs. But ‘On the Road’ left me feeling like it was pointless…a good, enjoyable read, but…pointless.

These reviews would make one think that Kerouac was the first writer to ever write about characters with flaws, that somehow literature up until 1957 was devoid of characters who did “bad” things—or at least if they were immoral they were severely punished for their crimes. I get the sense that they want to see Dean Moriarty die in a fiery car crash or repent of his sins and devote his life to helping winos and pregnant teens. But that’s not how life works, and I think the beauty of On the Road is that it is complex.

Roberge says readers have trouble with work that “offers more questions than answers.” Interestingly, despite criticism to the contrary, it would appear that Kerouac believed he found good, moral answers:

Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.

Kerouac’s characters are complex, flawed, blessed, messy, striking, honest, real. They ask questions we might very well be asking ourselves.

You might also like:

Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph O’Niell


One Response to ““On the Road”‘s Dilemma”


  1. Salon Wonders: Is “On the Road” a Classic? | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - February 3, 2014

    […] and therefore challenging in both style and content. It also speaks to eternal verities (notably the search for it, for meaning) and therefore has something important to say and continues saying it afresh to new readers. The […]

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