Revisiting Literary Characters: Dean Moriarty (On The Road)

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Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical On The Road tells the story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they embark upon a journey of hitch-hiking, rampant partying and self-evaluation in almost every corner of the United States. Despite the book being told by Sal’s perspective, the participant narrator seems to accept that Dean is at the epicentre of the book, thus it is more a book about watching Dean’s simultaneous development and deterioration than it is about Sal’s own adventures. Spontaneity and a complete disregard for circumstance best characterise Dean: Out of food? Steal it. Out of money? Then beg. Ironically – despite Jack Kerouac’s writing being intended as a dissident force, pushing the boundaries of American literature – he creates a protagonist so enamoured with chasing the American dream that (ideologically at least) he becomes almost conventional.

If a fictional character could be the embodiment of an oxymoron then that is precisely what Dean Moriarty is. He is childlike, constantly chasing the sun, on the cusp of a new adventure and yet he falls into drunken rages, sedated and incensed as he kicks out at the world he has created. Perhaps it is fitting that Dean is thought to be based upon Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, who died young of a suspected drug overdose. Kerouac had a habit of playing on stereotypes, focusing more on literary technique than stolid character development – thus, the multitude of characters within the book are often almost indistinguishable – therefore Dean stands out as a beacon of complexity, both chasing and shying away from the perceived ‘American Dream’.

Perhaps Dean is best characterised by his fate: after two years of travelling, Sal is world-weary, cynical and in desperate need of some stability. What feels like a lifetime of subverting norms and slashing the fabric of society has taken its toll on him and he begins to see the benefits of normalcy. For Sal, Dean has become a metaphor for all that their hitch-hiking adventures represented: debauchery, frivolity and lawlessness. As Sal bends to convention, Dean’s arms remain outstretched, chasing the adventure that he never quite found.

Despite his incorrigible immorality and volatile nature, in terms of post modernist literature, Dean is perhaps one of the purest symbols of hope. He pursues life so relentlessly, always with a renewed optimism and vigour, and is undoubtedly one of Kerouac’s most nuanced characters. He is an endearing reprobate, undeniably fantastic. 

Words by Beth Chaplow

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