In Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, the narrator, Sal Paradise offers up to us what seems to be a very optimistic view on life. He is forever singing the praises of how wonderful his adventures will be and his high expectations for the future. To Sal, the novel is defined by youthful exuberance and unabashed optimism for the new experiences that he sets out to find. A deeper look into the novel, as well as a look at some of the critics who have written on it, reveals a much darker side, a more pessimistic and sad aspect that Sal simply fails to realize until the very close of the action. Whether Sal is hopped up on the optimism of jazz music, secure in his belief that he is off to find IT,’ or just excited about the promises of a night out in a new city, he is consistently selling the reader on the positive nature of the situations.
To be more honest though, On the Road is a novel in which Sal, and the people with whom he surrounds himself, find themselves steeped into a near constant cycle of enthusiastic optimism for the future, which is then followed by a disparaging pessimism for the situation’s reality. While Sal might note that he desires the freedom and happiness of the open road, Ann Douglas says that ;this is the saddest book that I’ve ever read” (Douglas, 9). While Sal attempts to show a exuberant and triumphant story of youthful optimism, critics and the actual events of the novel alike seem to point towards the fact that this same optimism turns the novel into a pessimistic story showing the actualities of life. Sal’s optimism can be defined by hopeful, often unrealistic, ambitions for the future. Without any real knowledge of what they will encounter, since the road often lands them in cities and towns where they have never been, the characters almost exclusively hope for the best, think everything will work out just fine – never considering the clear possibilities for disappointment. High expectations for parties or a hope to make it across the country using only one road are just two example of the blind optimism seen throughout the novel.
While the headstrong characters of the novel run about the country thinking that everything will be all right, the actuality remains that most situations end in sorrow or adversely affected lives. Picking up hitchhikers who ultimately fail to have the gas money they promised, parties that end in disaster or argument, and emotionally abused wives and lovers almost always win out over the brand new car that might take them to Mexico or exultation that is sure to find them within the walls of a jazz club. The influence of Dean Moriarty on the novel, in terms of everything from plot to general tone to the thoughts and dreams of Sal, is immeasurable. Most importantly though, he is the catalyst for much of this blind optimism – for in a sense, he personifies blind optimism. During the long introduction of Dean in the first chapter, Sal shows the vast impression that Dean will have on the tone of the novel: all my New York friends were in their negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their bookish or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or the other (Kerouac, 7). Dean’s refusal to look at the world with a disapproving eye and always having hope for simple things like food and sex exemplify his personification of optimism.
This early passage of the novel shows that Dean will – and eventually does – become the driving force in the optimism that marks much of the book. Dean’s lust for life guides himself and Sal to places such as jazz clubs, old friends’ houses, and even Mexico. But with Dean as well as the cohorts that follow his madness, (Sal, Ed Dunkel, Carlo Marx and many more) the result ends up being much less than ideal, despite the fact that they sometimes happen to receive that ;bread and love; along the way. Adventures such as Dean’s continually failed .