The road is its own unique space. It is open to everyone. Most importantly the road offers a break from reality. It allows people from all over to leave their everyday lives in search of something different or something better. Jack Kerouac’s characters in On the Road live their lives in constant forward motion. In some ways, his tale subverts the naturalist theme of environmental determinism. Big Slim Hazard turns his back on what life had planned for him by consciously deciding to be homeless. Dean Moriarty has a rough childhood and succumbs to environmental determinism by following in his criminal father’s footsteps, but uses the road as an escape from this fate. Sal Paradise has no determined destiny, and always returns to the road in search of something greater than what his everyday life offers.
Hobo Big Slim Hazard breaks the environmental determinism norm by choosing a transient lifestyle. When Big Slim was young, he saw a homeless man ask his mother for a piece of pie, and from that point on decided he wanted to be a hobo. “But he never forgot the day, and when he grew up, after a short spell playing football at LSU, he did become a hobo” (26). Big Slim came from a seemingly good family and was obviously a talented athlete, and could have made a fairly good life for himself. Instead he chose a life on the road. Kerouac romanticizes this lifestyle throughout the book. With this he suggests that what is normally a negatively fated way of life actually has some sort of lure to those who can otherwise easily escape it.
Kerouac also romanticizes Dean Moriarty’s life of constant motion and freewheeling crime. He shows that Dean uses the road as an escape from his life as well, but he uses it to run away from a much bleaker fate. Nothing ever came easy for Dean. His mother died when he was a child and his father was a wino who was always in and out of jail. Growing up around crime, Dean followed in his father’s footsteps and fell into a similar lifestyle. He never found a car he couldn’t steal or a woman he couldn’t make it with, but at the same time, this is what always got him into trouble. Dean’s constant motion was an attempt to avoid the fate his environment had determined for him – yet he knew that some things were simply out of his hands. “I used to be in reform school all the time, I was a young punk, asserting myself – stealing cars a psychological expression of my position, hincty to show. All my jail-problems are pretty straight now. As far as I know I shall never be in jail again. The rest is not my fault” (120-1). Dean somewhat accepted his fate, but at the same time worked to resist it. Dean says that he cut along in life as it lead him, but Kerouac shows that also he took some side streets and shortcuts along the way (251). Sal believed that Dean’s “native strange saintliness” saved him from his fate (257). Perhaps it was this quality that allowed him to feel comfortable anywhere in the country. He could go on the road and have no constant environment to tie him down. Whenever he stole too many cars or angered one of his ladies, he could always flee. The road allowed him to never have to take responsibility. In the end, Kerouac believes that nothing is truly fated but death. “…and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty” (307). Regardless of what happened in Dean’s life or what fate had in store for him, nothing was every completely determined. His life in constant motion and on the road helped him escape what could have been a very bleak fate.
Dean’s movement around the country and back is the very thing that connected him to Sal. Nothing was really fated for Sal, and thus he was attracted to this life on the road. It allowed him to leave his fairly ordinary life in search for some sort of belonging – some sort of greater meaning and beauty. He knew that there were risks involved with following Dean on the road, but he preferred to push the boundaries of the everyday. “A western kinsman of the sun, Dean. Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and a new horizon, and believe it at my young age… what did it matter? I was a young writer and wanted to take off” (8). Sal felt the road was calling to him, and it became his escape from reality. Whenever Sal got bored, he could get on the move again. Whenever he felt too complacent, he had somewhere he could run away to. It was as though he had a real life where he could settle down and rely on his aunt (his somewhat determined fate), and a separate life where he lived vicariously through Dean.
Jack Kerouac’s characters in On the Road refuse to accept their environmentally determined fates. The road is an escape from the real lives or the lives the world were planned out for them. Big Slim Hazard turns his back on his future by choosing to be a hobo. Dean tries to escape his negatively fated life by being in constant motion. Sal follows suit in search of something greater than his everyday life. Kerouac believes that the road is life, but if this life is an escape, it is also not necessarily reality.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.