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Kerouac Essay, Research Paper
The lives and views of the outsiders in society is something that can be overlooked
in literature. In writing focused on outsiders,the writer may not be writing from the position
of someone outside the bounds of society simply having not experienced life in this context.
This is not the case with the writer Jack Kerouac whose life is one situated on the fringes of
society. Through his unconventional styles of writing Kerouac brings the existence of an
outsider, himself, to life. Two such examples of this are the novels On the Road and The Dharma
Bums in which Kerouac tells the stories of men that desire a life inconsistent of societal
demands. Through representation of himself, Kerouac gives a truthful, personal look at the
lives outsiders lead by showing the lifestyle choices that are made by the main characters.
A voice is given to a misrepresented group of people, allowing others in society to look within
themselves and perhaps learn something from examining an alternative way of living.
Lifestyle is a defining factor in determining if someone is indeed a societal outsider.
The choice of behaviour and thoughts that are not considered “normal” or “right” lead a person
to be cast aside and misunderstood. Sal Paradise, the main character in On the Road chooses to
live his life as he wanted as opposed to what someone else told him. Money holds no importance
to Paradise, so career wise he chooses to be a writer. It does not supply much money, yet
writing was something that brings happiness. The pursuit of happiness plays a key role in
decision making. Paradise went on four cross-country journeys which allowed him to experience
life in different ways. In explanation of his decision Paradise said “…it wasn’t only because
I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Dean more, and because my life
hanging around the campus had reached the completion of it’s cycle” (On the Road 9). It was
because of Sal’s lack of traditional responsibilities that he could pick up and go on an
adventure that allowed him to quench his thirst for excitement and discover happiness.
Sal’s lifestyle choice included his beliefs which appeared to be Buddhist in nature.
Reincarnation is a Buddhist belief that is found in the novel. In the narration Paradise says
” I realized that I had died and been reborn numerless times but just didn’t remember
especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy…”
(Road 173). Perhaps because of this belief in being born again the possibility of death was
not something to be feared. Living life for kicks and excitement shows that the characters do
not fear death. This is further explained in Sal’s narration when he says:
“[s]omething, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and
was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it,
this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. …But who wants to die? In
the rush of events I kept thinking about this in the back of my mind. I told it to Dean
and he instantly recognized it as the mere simple longing for pure death, and because
we’re all of us never in life again, he, rightly, would have nothing to do with it,
and I agreed with him then” (Road 124).
This view on death is seen for the most part as being wrong and reckless, so the
people that have this view are misunderstood. The lifestyle choices that Paradise and his
friends choose are ones that make them happy and allow them to live life for the good of
themselves. This way of viewing life is something that can be learned from by those who believe
different and allow those readers to open their minds to a new perspective.
Similarly the main character of The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith lives a life of adventure
that could be looked down upon by some, but ultimately made him happy. Smith and those he
associates with have simple lives, based on Zen Buddhist beliefs. Levi Asher described the
novel as a “Buddhist parable” in the article Beat Topics: Buddhism. Smith and his friends call
themselves the Dharma Bums and they devote their lives to practicing acts of kindness and
understanding as well as learning thruths about themselves and life in general. In Dharma
Bums, Levi Asher describes a Dharma Bum as “a bum because it is the right thing for him to be,
because by being a bum he is fulfilling a spiritual duty greater than himself.” As in On the
Road the characters make lifestyle choices based on what they want. Material possessions are
not important which is shown by the choice of living conditions. Housing is in shacks “…with
nothing but typical Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life- no
chairs at all…just straw mats” (The Dharma Bums 16). This life of simplicity is misunderstood
by those who have not experienced it, yet at the same time Japhy Ryder, one of Ray’s closest
friends, did not understand a life of luxury, “I admit it, I’m scared of all this American
wealth, I’m just an old bhikku and I got nothin to do with all this high standard of living,
goddammit, I’ve been a poor guy all my life and I can’t get used to some things” ( Dharma 74).
The outsiders of society did not understand society themselves, but as in the case of Ray
Smith, some accepted the difference, ” [t]hat’s what’s the trouble with you Japhy, you’re just
an old anarchist scared of society. What difference does it make? Comparisons are odious”
(Dharma 74). Smith’s choice of lifestyle was made for personal happiness, not as a way to
defy a “normal” way of living.
The reader is not only shown the validity of lifestyle choices, but is also introduced
to lessons based on Zen Buddhist beliefs. An example of a lesson is said by Smith, “[p]ractice
charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just
a word” (Dharma 6). Smith puts this lesson into practice when he encounters bums on his travels
by giving whatever food or extras he has to others. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation is
expressed in this novel as well. Smith says “[e]verything is possible…I am empty space, I
am all things. I have all the time in the world to do what is to do…” (Dharma 97). All dreams
have the ability to be accomplished because there is limitless time. Buddhist beliefs such as
these are brought to the reader who may have not been exposed before. The characters of Ray
Smith and Japhy Ryder are easy to identify withbecause they appear very realistic, thus
allowing the reader to experience life in a new context.
Ray Smith and Sal Paradise are alter-egos of the creater of both, the author Jack
Kerouac. Both characters are accurate representations of Kerouac and show obvious similarities.
Smith and Paradise both travel across the country in search of life experience and happiness,
and Kerouac himself went on these journeys, that would be how the novels came about. The
lifestyle choices of Kerouac are shown through the novels, thus allowing people to look at his
life and understand what was happening and how it affected his thoughts, dreams, intelligence
and morale. As expressed through his characters, Kerouac makes choices based on what made him
The role of Buddhism is important in Kerouac’s life as well. As expressed through his
characters, Kerouac wanted to live a life that ventured away from established and conventional
methods of thinking. Buddhism is a good choice of something that was not accepted as
conventional. In Eastern Philosophy and Jack Kerouac’s Postmodern Poetry Christopher Smith
describes another reason for Jack Kerouac’s acceptance and fascination with Buddhism, he:
“saw the life of Buddha as someone like himself, who chose to leave the values of his
home and family behind him to seek a higher truth, who witnessed the suffering of other
people and needed to know why this could happen.Like Buddha, Kerouac was on a spiritual
search to find the truth about the nature of existence and how to bestlive out that
Kerouac used this connection to Buddhism in his novels, allowing the reader to experience a
personal outlook on the beliefs that are expressed.
Through the writing of Jack Kerouac a misrepresented group of people, the outsider
are given a voice. Shown through Kerouac’s personal experiences and lifestyle choices, the life
of someone who chooses to live outside of the boundaries of normality set by society is
accessible to a reader who may have not viewed life in such a context. By allowing barriers
to be dropped, Kerouac challenges the reader to examine his own life and beliefs and to open
his mind accepting alternative lifestyles as being something equal instead of being condemnable.
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