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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

happy.

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

existence.”

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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