The Quest For Identity In On The Road
In Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, the protagonists embark upon a long, arduous quest for human identity. Their aim is to uncover who they truly are, where they fit in the ‘scheme of things’ and what the meaning of life is. They articulate this desire by speaking, during the novel, of the search for ‘IT’, ‘IT’ being human identity. This ‘IT’ is an intangible thing; something that holds a different meaning for every individual. It encompasses all the things humans yearn for – life answers, the meaning of the universe, happiness, enlightenment, self-fulfilment, ‘beatification’ (as articulated by Kerouac). ‘On the Road’ is the story of a desperate search for ‘IT’, in which the protagonists finally come to realise that ‘IT’ is unattainable and time cannot be defied.
The human search for ‘IT’ is never-ending. Even when we know that the search is virtually impossible, that ‘IT’ is unreachable, that our longing will never be satisfied, we go on looking. Some people search for ‘IT’ through purchasing innumerable material items, some follow a religion, some turn to music, art and literature, and some frantically travel the world, longing to experience that something that will define and enlighten them.
Throughout history, musicians, artists, writers, actors, scientists and other prominent individuals have been deeply absorbed with the human desire to locate ‘IT’. Many have concluded that without ‘IT’, life is empty and futile – some even going so far as to suggest that ‘IT’ is non-existent and therefore life is meaningless. “The worlds revolve like ancient women, gathering fuel from vacant lots” (Eliot 1954:24). Throughout ‘On the Road’, the protagonist, Sal Paradise, and his friends, refuse to accept this notion, driven by the belief that ‘IT’ does exist, and that they will somehow find it by journeying from place to place, by experiencing the effects of alcohol and drugs, by searching for some alternate way of living and perceiving life.
In the beginning of ‘On the Road’, Sal Paradise is a naïve young man, who has lived a relatively sheltered life, marrying, divorcing and completing university. He is filled with the inherent human yearning for self-fulfilment; that emptiness that haunts every one of us in our day to day lives, and feels that he must search for some kind of life defining experience. “…he was waiting to see the face of God” (Honan 1987:ix). Then Sal meets Dean Moriarty (a.k.a Neil Cassady), the “…saint of freedom who values experience, movement, and the beauty of loose, easy readiness” (Honan 1987: xix), and is in awe of his carefree life, seeing him almost as superhuman “…he’s the best in the world” (Kerouac 1955:192). This leads to Sal’s following Dean around the country for years, hoping to find ‘IT’ but finding the task more and more difficult as he goes.
There are moments during the journey that Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and their friends make back and forth, East to...