Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is considered an all-American classic by many critics of literary canon for its influence on jazz, the Beat Generation and just having a wholesome Americana feel to it. The main storyline involves two young men who journey across America in search to find the meaning of their individual existence. Sal and Dean have the opportunity, time, and freedom to roam carelessly. Although Kerouac covers all of these topics in his novel, there is still one thing that makes this book flawed. Kerouac’s On the Road reveals the true American lifestyle. Yes, the boys were having a grand time meandering around the country, but the book makes an interesting point on how they depicted women and people of ethnicity.  On the Road is an accurate American classic because it shows the true colors of the American lifestyle for women and minorities. The non-white and ethnic characters in this book weren’t given the chance to experience the American dream which is exactly why this book is considered a classic. On the Road is a clear representation of the American Male Gaze – a narrow point of view that glorifies freedom and lack of responsibility while simultaneously objectifying women and people of color.

Exactly what is the male gaze? Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” discusses that the male gaze is when an audience is forced to usurp the perspective of a heterosexual man. Perhaps a scene in the movie will focus on the woman’s body parts for an unusual amount of time. This type of visual is not one done by coincidence. Women are mainly sought to be viewed and objectified by the males (and females) that are watching. Women who also view these types of scenes are forced to enjoy and understand the movie from the man’s point of view. In addition, Mulvey makes it a point in her essay to argue that men cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification (2187). This type of claim supports the idea of men being the bearer of the look and women as image because when men see the ideal image of other men onscreen, it is not an image of eroticism; it is an image of perfection, completion. It is an image men want to replicate. The image men see has nothing to do with sex but of being in control and having authority over the subject (women). The male gaze only leads one to believe that women are secondary and delegated to being seen as objects rather than humans. Scopophilia (the pleasure in looking) only leaves the male to venture in his voyeuristic fantasy of women and living out his repressed desires momentarily.

The Male Gaze is prevalent in America. Women are always sexualized in some manner, whether they appear scantily clad on billboards, given sex scenes in a movie, or just pose nude for magazines such as Playboy. What does this say about American society? It says that women are secondary to men and are forced to remain under men as subjects. The American Male Gaze is evident in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road because of its deliberate objectification of women and the main characters treating the females in this book as mere accessories for their boyish and immature lifestyles.

On the Road exposes the dichotomy of following the American dream for white males while purposely silencing women and people of ethnicity. They (women and minorities) receive the short end of the stick of the beautiful American dream so many people strive for in this country. On the Road is a clear representation of the flaws that are present in the American dream for the mere fact that Kerouac’s novel wouldn’t be an American classic if it did not suppress females and minorities and portray white males as the only ones who receive joy from this great American dream.

The women in On the Road are objectified the moment we read the first chapter. We are instantly introduced to Dean’s wife; Marylou who is a representation of the all-American girl. In the very first chapter of the book, the narrator makes it a point to objectify the first female character mentioned in the novel. Sal states, “Dean had dispatched the occupant to the kitchen, probably to make coffee, while he proceeded with his love problems, for to him sex was the one and holy important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to make a living and so on” (2). Here, we can already see the objectification of women, Marylou being a symbol for the repression of American women. The first impression given of Marylou is that she is only there to satisfy Dean’s sexual needs and nothing more.

If we delve even further into the subject matter of suppression of women in On the Road, the institution of marriage is not a stable type of commitment for Dean and Marylou because they hardly get along with each other, and their marriage, full of passion, is short lived. Dean actually cheats on Marylou with another woman named Camille, ends up marrying her, and then leaves Camille for another woman named Inez. Then Dean leaves Inez, who he ends up rearing a child with, only to go back to Camille who ends up having a total of two children for him. Dean has no respect for the idea or marriage and committing himself to one woman. Dean is practically obsessed with women when he shouts, “I love, love, love women! I think women are wonderful! I love women!” when visiting Orleans (140). He just loves them and leaves them, no matter how much pain he has caused the ladies in his life. Dean, a womanizer, doesn’t even manage to take care of his children while he’s running around having sex with numerous women and “with one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed as ever” (247). He leaves the women to deal with the pain, heartbreak and raising a child, while Dean gets the freedom to travel across America, never stopping to think about how he has affected the women in his lives or taking account for his selfish actions.

In fact, the novel hardly displays love and marriage between men and women as something that is cherished and honored, even though it is a part of the American dream-the coveted dream of having a family, with 2.5 children, a dog and owning a home with a white picket fence. The first lines of the On the Road begins with, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up” (1).  Sal whose last name is ironically Paradise is a single man who had just gotten out of a marriage. In his personal life he, like Dean, fails to uphold his marriage, and also fails to keep women around him for long. He sustains his own phallic power by using women and not staying in relationships long enough to make a commitment therefore straying from heterosexual responsibility.

One way for the men to suppress women in On the Road is for them to maintain phallic power. Dean and Sal gain phallic power when they command Marylou to make coffee. She does not speak while Dean and Sal are conversing, but is “dispatched” to the kitchen to fulfill their needs. In this event, the female has no voice, no say in manly discussions and is ordered into the kitchen, “her rightful place,” to make coffee for the men. Sal and Dean are clear symbols of phallic power. In order to feel like men, they can’t have a discussion in the room while there’s a woman present, so they banish her to the kitchen, and like a subservient woman, Marylou obeys. As if it isn’t enough to send Marylou off into the kitchen, “Dean nervously got up, paced around, thinking and decided the thing to do was have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor” (3). The American dream for women in On the Road is to be compliant and acquiescent when given rules by the males. They are prisoners of the phallocentric world and are only there to carry out orders; Marylou, Sal and Dean are just small representations of this prejudice that is constructed in the American dream that Kerouac is being praised for in On the Road.

If we look even further into this short scene of patriarchal submission by Marylou, Sal also describes Marylou’s appearance and mentions how beautiful and dumb she is; the quintessential portrayal of the American woman. Sal describes Marylou as a “pretty blonde with ringlets like a sea of golden tresses” and having “smoking blue country eyes” (2). This is the typical image of a white American woman. She is beautiful, with ringlets of blonde hair and blue eyes; the Aryan prototype. To compliment Marylou’s physical beauty, Sal states, “Outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things” (2).  Once again, the males gain phallic power because in order for them to feel superior to the woman, they have to make her seem dumb in order to be dominant. It would be too much for Sal if Marylou was beautiful and educated. He and Dean would both be intimidated, and it just wouldn’t be right because women cannot have phallic power.

From an outside point of view, literary theorist Laura Mulvey’s topic on the male gaze is constructed throughout On the Road. From a psychoanalytic appeal, her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” explains that when we go to the movies, we are forced to take on the male perspective in order to understand and enjoy the film that’s playing. Mulvey’s theory can also be attributed to Kerouac’s novel because readers (male and female) are initially forced to take on the male narrator’s point of view from the moment we read the book. Mulvey states, “Women then stands in patriarchal culture…bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker of meaning”(2183). This type of behavior is seen in On the Road because Dean is living out his personal fantasy by linguistically commanding voiceless Marylou ( notice that the narrator does not let her speak at all) to sweep the floor and make breakfast, thus perpetuating her position as bearer because she obeys the law of the father. She does not make commands, but follows them. This is the actual American dream that On the Road portrays for women.

Also, Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” touches upon the idea of scopophilia aforementioned in the previous paragraph. She explains that through the male gaze, women are subjected to being looked at by men. They are objectified because men obtain pleasure and phallic power by just staring at the women. Women are held captive under the male’s controlling gaze because they do not hold any type of power by being the image. Mulvey states, “…pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female….The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure” (2186). Sal is the “bearer of looking” and Marylou is the “image.” He holds all the power because his gaze is fixated on Marylou when he describes how she looks and she has no choice but to be the victim of Sal’s controlling gaze. Once again, the male gains power by looking at the female (Sal looking at Marylou in this case) and is in total dominance of the female because she has no freedom in this triangular patriarchy. This scene is a representation of the American dream because it reveals that women are suppressed within patriarchal society because the male always holds power over the female; she is always the subject of the male’s “erotic contemplation” (2186). This is the ugly side of the American dream because it has no graceful role for women to take part in. They are trapped in a box only constructed on the sexist and phallocentric ideology of the American dream.

On another note, one can surmise that Sal and Dean’s homosocial behavior is another way of sustaining their phallic power by isolating women around them and not having any type of lasting relationship with them. Sal, a prototype of the all-American boy, is a young, fresh, white male who wants to be a writer and uses Dean, a more rugged version of Sal (Sal compares Dean to Gene Autry), as his muse. These two are the center of the story and the women they encounter on their journey are regarded as just mere tokens of their traveling experience with Dean as a reflection of Sal’s flaws. Sal even refers to Dean as his “long-lost brother” which just adds evidence towards their strong friendship (or Sal’s friendship with Dean because Dean isn’t concerned with their relationship as much as Sal is) (7).

In one scene of the On the Road, Dean asks Sal to have sex with Marylou while Dean watches.  Scopophilia is present in this scene because we have one male, Dean, watching and engaging in his voyeuristic fantasy while he has his friend make love to his ex-wife, Marylou. This type of homoerotic bonding suggests that Sal and Dean are two friends who share more than just homosocial and brotherly bonding. They share (or attempt to share) women. Marylou is once again the subject of scopophilia. She is the one that is held under the male’s controlling gaze in this sex scene. Although Sal could not go through with having intercourse with his friend’s ex-wife while Dean watches, the act of trying to have sex with Marylou suggests that these men still hold phallic power over Marylou. She agreed to have sex with Sal while Dean watched; she serves as a pawn in Sal and Deans “sexcapades”, nothing more and nothing less. Marylou holds no power.  It was Sal who held most of the phallic power because he was the one who decided against the threesome because “his heart wasn’t in it” (132).

In Hawthorne’s essay on “Homoerotic Bonding as Escape from Heterosexual Responsibility in Pynchon’s Slow Learner”, he states that Sal Paradise “retreats from women and social responsibilities by seeking the safety of intense male bonding” and that although the Kerouac does not directly suggest that the bonding may become genital, the text calls for decoding even while Kerouac may insist that the sub textual eroticism is illusory (Short Story Criticism, Hawthorne). Sal seems like the passive male in this relationship because anything that Dean does, no matter how reckless it is, Sal always has it in his heart to forgive Dean. At one point in the novel, Marylou states, “You see what a bastard he [Dean] is? Dean will leave you out in the cold anytime it’s in his interest” (170). After Dean leaves Marylou and Sal stranded in Mexico without any money. Sal still found it in his heart to forgive Dean like any person who is in love would easily forgive his/her partner. In addition, Dean met Sal not too long after Sal and his wife divorced, so Dean serves as a “rebound” one might say, to help Sal forget about his wife. Dean was Sal’s friend during a tender moment of losing a loved one which is one reason why Sal might value their friendship more than Dean does. Overall, Sal and Dean’s relationship seems questionable for their intense male friendship, and Hawthorne makes it a valid point that these two young men are involved so much with their own relationship that they stray from commitment to women. This can be seen as an extreme way for Sal and Dean to gain phallic power because the more they bond, the less it would be likely for them to have successful and stable relationships with women. Sal and Dean would continue to strengthen their male bond by downplaying women and gaining agency by treating women as subjects and never having meaningful relationships with them because they’re too concerned with their homosocial relationship.

Moving on, Kerouac’s On the Road also downplays people of ethnicity. Sal meets a Mexican migrant worker named Terry, who was recently separated from her abusive husband. Terry and Dean both decided to have sex in a hotel. However, after conversing for while, Terry is convinced that Sal is a pimp. Sal frustrated says, “I got mad and realized that I was pleading with a dumb little Mexican wench, and I told her so” (85). Sal makes it a point to insult Terry by not calling her a dumb wench, but a dumb Mexican wench. Terry’s heritage and nationality has to be hurled into the mix of insults mainly because Sal wants to hurt Terry’s to the highest degree, and bringing up her nationality seems to be the best way to do it which is disrespectful and particularly offensive.

Another example of the depreciation of the hard work of minorities in On the Road is when Sal goes to work with Terry in the cotton field. Sal works this temporary job because he wants to feel like a man supporting Terry and her child; Sal only appreciates this job for personal gain. Sal could’ve had any job during his adventure on the road, but picking cotton was what he chose. How ironic and questionable that the white man wants to pick cotton when it (picking cotton) was a requirement for black people during slavery. It was an order given by white Americans for white males to carry out their dreams of a better America. An America where the pains and trials of a black man and his family helped better the white man’s dream of being free, and here Sal was only doing it as a temporary job. The people around him were stuck there picking cotton for the rest of their lives while Sal could easily walk away from it. He is mocking the dedication and lifestyle of African-Americans and Mexicans by just working this job because he has the option to leave whenever he wants,  a choice that the other workers wish they had, and to add insult to injury, when he’s tired working, Sal takes a seat,” sighing like an old Negro cotton-picker” (97). Sal doesn’t appreciate the sentimentality and history behind picking cotton. It is a history of black Americans who never had the chance at freedom. It is a story told by the hands of black Americans (and Mexican-Americans in this case) whose only way to survive is by picking cotton. It is the “American Dream” for minorities. They must stay and work for in order to survive while Sal can just walk away from it all, which he did. He left his lover Terry behind, and continued on his own white “American Dream.” Sal “prayed for a better chance to do something for the little people he loved” (97). The little people such as the Mexican workers (Terry, her kid), that he abandoned when things became too much for him to handle.

Also Sal refers to Terry’s native language as jabber. Why does Terry’s language have to be considered jabber? Can’t it be considered as a language? Perhaps it’s considered “jabber” because it isn’t American English. Once again Kerouac is downplaying ethnicity by Sal referring to Terry’s native tongue as mere “jabber” simply because he cannot understand what she’s saying and it has nothing to do with American culture.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road does a lot to expose what is wrong with American society. When people hear or think about the “American Dream, white males are first to be on that list of obtaining that dream. There is no room for women or minorities when there is talk of the American Dream, and it is clearly evident in On the Road. Such characters as Marylou, Terry, Inez and Camille show how the American dream has bypassed the women and non-whites in this country. To the white males, it may be the American Dream, but for all others it is an American Nightmare. Non-whites and females are forced to live through someone else’s dreams while being marginalized, stereotyped and forgotten. On the Road is a clear example of the American dream confines women to patriarchy and downplays people of ethnicity while the white male runs free, exploring his dreams that were founded and brought to life by the hands of the very same people who don’t fit into the American Dream.

Works Cited

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York, NY. Penguin Classics.2003

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” The Norton Anthology of Theory        and Criticism. Ed.                   Vincent B. Leitch. New York. 2001. 2181-2192.

Hawthorne, D. Mark . “Homoerotic Bonding as Escape from Heterosexual Responsibility in Pynchon’s Slow Learner.”                2006. Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 84. Detroit: Gale, 2006. p512-529. Literature Resource Center. 7 December 2009. 

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