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A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Through altered and joyful view of narrator-protagonist Sal Paradise, On the Road gives readers a glimpse of American life during the late 1940s and early '50s. Readers learn geography, as Sal and his companions travel repeatedly from the East Coast to the West, and back. The novel also touches on modes of transportation, cost of living, and urban life in New York, Denver, and San Francisco. Jazz/be-bop music is described at length, too; several real jazz artists of the time are mentioned, and Keroac's poetic depictions of jazz clubs give readers a feel for the Beat Generation's music scene.
This novel teaches beautiful life lessons while it also sets a tragic example for young people. Keeping in mind that the characters in On the Road are basically wasted the entire time, the positive takeaway is to love life, see the world, and find beauty, poetry, and bliss in everything.
Positive Role Models
The characters in On the Road have, in a sense, a beautiful and inspiring worldview. However, their behavior is atrocious by any parenting standard. They're constantly drunk or high or both. None holds a steady job for any length of time; Sal borrows money from his aunt whenever he runs out of dough. Also, the men, and the author, objectify women to an impressive degree. In terms of relationships, Dean has two or more lovers at any given time (not always the same ones); he fathers babies in and out of wedlock, and leaves his women and kids behind at the drop of a hat.
Violence & Scariness
Early in the novel, Sal is working as a security guard, and he mentions that one night he waved his gun at a "fag," but Sal doesn't hurt anyone. Violent events don't really occur "onscreen," but Sal occasionally meets characters who relate violent stories. For example, on a bus ride through the Midwest, an ex-con tells Sal that the reason he was in jail was that he slashed the throat of a boy in a movie theater for "making a crack about my mother."
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
On the Road has no graphic descriptions of sex acts, but sex is mentioned often. Sal talks a lot about "making" girls or wanting them. Women's bodies are described sexually; Sal especially notices when thighs or breasts are partially showing. In one scene, Dean wants Sal to have sex with his (Dean's) wife, Mary Lou, in front of Dean, but Sal can't do it. Sal and Dean have sex with prostitutes while they're traveling in Mexico, and Sal is attracted to a "young girl" prostitute who he thinks is about 16. Dean gets married three times in the course of the book and impregnates two of the women.
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On the Road includes lots of profanity, as well as homophobic language and outdated racial references. Profanity used includes "s--t" (spelled all sorts of ways to reflect different regional accents, such as "shee-it"), "bastard," "sonofabitch," "dammit," 'c--k." Sal refers to gay men as "fags" or "fairies." Sal calls African-Americans "negroes," reflecting language commonly used at the time the book was written.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Characters in On the Road smoke cigarettes and pot, and take Benzedrine; one section, a couple of characters use heroin, and the book describes them shooting up and their demeanor before and after their fix. Most characters also drink alcohol to excess (beer, port, many unspecified "drinks"). Sal and Dean are usually drunk, high, or both.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Jack Kerouac's seminal 1957 novel On the Road is about two friends, Sal and Dean (based on the author and his friend Neal Cassady), who travel around the United States and Mexico, experiencing life fueled and heightened by drugs, alcohol, and sex. This book is revered as the defining novel of the Beat Generation, a post-WWII cultural movement closely identified with jazz/be-bop music, drug and alcohol use, and other forms of artistic, intellectual, and personal experimentation. The novel, not surprisingly, includes numerous accounts of life on the edge involving drug and alcohol use, and in many ways glorifies substance abuse. Many sexual encounters are mentioned but not graphically described. There's also a fair amount of profanity used ("s--t," "sonofabitch," "dammit," "bastard," "c--k"), as well as outdated racial references ("negroes") and homophobic slurs ("fag," "fairy"). The novel was made into a film released in December 2012.
Is It Any Good?
Music and language, and the way Kerouac's writing grew from the sounds of jazz and be-bop, are even more important than the wild events in the novel. Kerouac's novel is an ecstatic literary masterpiece, in which nearly every sentence is worth reading over and over. This is a book that changed literary language, with rapid-fire phrases seeming to follow a syncopated musical rhythm. Yet, Kerouac's clarity is never given over for poetry; the author is ever a clear communicator even while he's accomplishing that rare feat of writing the way music sounds. but This novel glorifies drug and alcohol use, so it is not for immature readers. but for young adults with decent judgment and a love of language, On the Road is a must-read eye-opener.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.