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Mothers and "Whores:" The Limited Anti-Conformism of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

In a novel heralded for its anti-conformism, Kerouac’s radicality is limited by his willingness to conform to traditional conceptions of gender roles, consistently condemning acts of sexual liberation while leaving domestic maternity as the only life path available to women.


As the man credited with coining the term ‘Beat generation’ and distilling an entire era of artists into a single label, Jack Kerouac is an icon, the symbol of a cutting-edge literary movement. Shouldering the burden of being the Beats’ standard-bearer, his work encapsulated the frustrations of post-war youth, contributing to a revolution in the depiction of sex, sexuality, and drugs in art. Yet, despite being at the forefront of this era of social and literary transformation, Kerouac’s dissatisfaction with the dominant culture is constrained by the casual misogyny he exhibits throughout On the Road. In a novel heralded for its anti-conformism, Kerouac’s radicality is limited by his willingness to adhere to traditional conceptions of gender roles, consistently condemning acts of female sexual liberation while leaving domestic maternity as the only life path available to women.


Beat Sexual Progressivism?

At certain instances in On the Road, there is a latent gender-progressive inclination present in Kerouac, breaking away from the trope of feminine purity. Merely by writing frankly about female sexuality, Kerouac explores a dimension of women’s lives that had thus far been taboo in public discourse. Kerouac describes the sexual exploits of characters like Marylou and Terry extensively, as sex and sexual desire are integral to the lives of the women who surround Sal and Dean. In this way, Kerouac positions sex--a traditionally masculine pursuit--as a valuable part of women’s lives, worthy of literary examination. Kerouac also uses the sexual dynamics among the group to invert the traditional gender power balance in some, albeit infrequent, instances. The men need the women in their lives in order for their desires to be met, granting the women some--small--control over men like Dean and Sal. This is most evident in Sal’s relationship with Marylou. As he, Dean, and Marylou make their way across the country and Sal anticipates the initiation of a sexual relationship with Marylou in San Francisco, he is at her mercy, with his happiness dependent upon Marylou’s decision to leave Dean. This condition is clear when Sal describes their relationship limbo: “Marylou was driving...She cooed promises about San Francisco. I slavered miserably over it” (Kerouac 160). Marylou is in the driver’s position both literally and figuratively in this instant, as she controls whether she fulfills Sal’s plans for San Francisco. Sal characterizes himself as “slavering” and “miserable,” belying his desperation, unable to guarantee his own satisfaction. Instead, Marylou has the power to deny Sal, destabilizing male relationship dominance.


Women as "Whores:" On the Road's Misogyny

Despite brief moments of assertiveness, the sexual behavior of women in On the Road is constantly policed and condemned, reinforcing the sexual liberation of women as undesirable. In a thoroughly anti-conformist work, women’s refusal to comply with the constraints of conservative patriarchy would be a valuable act of resistance. Instead, women find themselves constantly ridiculed when they exhibit ‘male’ sexual behavior. The viewpoint of Sal is instructive to examine when interpreting attitudes toward women in the novel because, as the stand-in for Kerouac and the first-person narrator, Sal is the character Kerouac invests with the most authority. His are the eyes through which you see the novel, making you feel as though you understand him on a level that exceeds all other characters. Because of this, Kerouac positions Sal as a character whom you should trust, and his judgments of other characters shape how you perceive them. This dynamic is especially pernicious when it comes to the women around him. While Sal celebrates his and Dean’s sexual liberation, any promiscuity seen in Marylou is evidence of a moral failing. The first comment Sal makes about Marylou is that she is “capable of doing horrible things,” and her ‘horrible’ instances throughout the novel primarily revolve around sexual freedom (Kerouac 5). When Marylou leaves a nightclub with another man, Sal remarks that he “saw what a whore she was,” one of many instances where he applies this label to her (Kerouac 171). Sal--and Kerouac--reserve this brutal criticism for women like Marylou; Dean’s flitting from woman to woman is exempt from condemnation. Kerouac situates Marylou’s promiscuity as an act of betrayal rather than liberation, denying her access to the principled rejection of cultural norms that the men claim.

Rather than being liberated, women are overwhelmingly depicted as passive extensions of their husbands, accepting the ways their lives are defined by men. The only woman who Kerouac empowers to criticize male behavior is Galatea Dunkle when she confronts Dean about the harm he causes to the women in his life. This moment, which could have been a powerful moment of female assertiveness, is undermined by the characterization of Galatea. Sal introduces her as a nag who forced the men to waste money on motels, and his distaste for her as an individual is palpable, referring to her as a “tenacious loser” (Kerouac 118). As a result, Galatea’s vocal condemnation of Dean is easily dismissed as the words of a shrewish wife. She is an obstacle around which the men must navigate, not an individual with a viewpoint to be taken seriously. By having the character of Galatea exhibit the behavior of a woman with agency, Kerouac signals that this mode of action is unappealing. Both Galatea and, to a lesser extent, Marylou, are women with a degree of independence, and are respectively labeled a “loser” and “horrible.” This leaves the women of On the Road with a narrow mode of acceptable living.


Housewifery as the Only Life Path

The limitations of the ‘right’ way for a woman to live are established when Sal pits Camille and Marylou against one another; after meeting Camille, he calls her “a relief after Marylou; a well-bred, polite young woman” (Kerouac 174). Sal’s description of Camille as “well-bred” indicates that she exhibits ‘proper’ behavior for a woman, and this behavior is closely associated with maternal domesticity. She is the mother of Dean’s children and assumes the totality of child-rearing responsibilities as Dean flits from coast to coast--she does not partake in ‘the road’ like Marylou. Camille is not the only woman lauded for her domesticity; Sal’s aunt is another maternal presence whom he respects, and the wives who escape Sal’s criticism--like Jane Lee or Mrs. Wall--happily carry out wifely homemaking duties. When Sal and Dean approach Ed Wall’s ranch, Sal describes the landscape as drenched in total darkness “except the light of Mrs. Wall’s kitchen” (Kerouac 228). Sal assigns the ranch to Ed, but the kitchen is his wife’s, cementing that space as the natural wifely domain. Moreover, Mrs. Wall never has a first name--her only identity is wife-hood. By constantly having his central character regurgitate and affirm the righteousness of female domesticity, Kerouac contributes to a patriarchal culture where this is the only acceptable avenue for female life. Even Marylou, the character closest to the independent mold, is remarried and expecting a child by the novel’s end. By ending Marylou’s arc with an acceptance of domestic life, Kerouac refuses each possibility to apply the value of anti-conformism to female life, deliberately reserving it as an endeavor for white men.


Men and Maternity

While Kerouac certainly seems to endorse maternity as the ‘proper’ role for women, the relationship between men and the idea of maternity is much more fraught. Here, it is instructive to bring in the real-life figures who provided the inspiration for many of the characters of On the Road, as these lives shed insight on Kerouac’s thought process as he grappled with this relationship. Kerouac’s relationship with his own mother is fascinating--with many of his contemporaries characterizing the relationship as one of co-dependence, and letters from Kerouac’s mother express extreme displeasure with his first wife’s ability to ‘take him away’ from her. This first marriage did not last long, and Kerouac eventually returned to live with his mother, a dynamic reflected in the novel through the relationship between Sal and his aunt. It is notable that Kerouac changed his mother into an aunt for the purposes of the novel, a figure that remains maternal but with more genetic distance, belying a discomfort with publicly claiming this intimate maternal bond. In doing so, Kerouac deliberately distances himself from maternity--a decision he would repeat when his relationship with his second wife ended acrimoniously over his demand that she terminate her pregnancy. While Kerouac was content to write female characters who accept the merits of domestic life, he repeatedly took pains to keep maternal domesticity at bay for himself, both publicly and privately.

Discomfort with maternity is also on display through the character of Dean, as both he and his real-life counterpart Neal Cassady impregnated and essentially abandoned multiple women (and subsequent children). Dean, unlike Camille or Inez, enjoys the liberation of sexual freedom without being saddled with any of the responsibilities of the inevitable pregnancies (given the lack of legal abortion, readily accessible birth control etc.) that would result. Lauri Umansky argues in Down with Motherhood? Ambivalence in the Emerging Feminist Movement that “Beat philosophy linked women and the family with the deadening of a free, male, pioneer-of -the-open-road spirit,” and perception of ‘deadening’ is certainly evident within Dean’s behavior (Umansky 19). By resigning himself to domestic life, he would forfeit the freedom of the road or his strident Beat rejection of traditional American culture. While the curtailment of freedom inherent within domesticity is an acceptable outcome for women, it is not a compromise a ‘free’ man like Dean is willing to make, placing his individualism over the desires of Camille, Inez, or his children. As a result, Dean is willing to impregnate women and bestow upon them the constraints of post-war motherhood while proceeding to immediately remove himself from any association with these constraints, assuming that the women in his life will fulfill the domestic role that society demands of them.


The Point--On the Road and Anti-Conformism

Because Kerouac largely fails to question the ‘natural-ness’ of female domesticity, his anti-conformist critique of post-war America is weakened, failing to question the legitimacy of entire swaths of the American social system. While white men are made all the more fascinating and free by their rejection of a nine-to-five job or stable home, their drug use, and their promiscuity, Kerouac denies women the ability to participate in this new way of living. As a result, his anti-conformism is tepid, rather than radical. By assigning this nomadic existence to those at the top of the social hierarchy, condemning any women who mimic male behavior and relegating them to wifely domesticity, Kerouac chooses the safest possible route, attempting to broaden the scope of life available to those with the most social power while leaving the narrow confines of female life intact. This choice is made more obvious by the instances where women are empowered to be assertive or sexually liberated; they demonstrate that Kerouac possessed the ability to endow his female characters with independence, yet repeatedly chose not to. Looking at On the Road from a cultural standpoint where this independence has been increasingly championed, Kerouac’s moments of conformism, rather than anti-conformism, are striking--an aspect of the novel that demands discussion. As a result, Kerouac’s rejection of dominant culture becomes muddled, championing it for himself but denying it to those who don’t look like him. This makes Kerouac’s anti-conformism relatively conservative, content to expand white male life while expecting others to continue to adhere to a narrowly prescribed and traditional ‘correct’ way of living.

This rigid conformism to patriarchy limits the ability of On the Road to claim the mantle of anti-conformist six decades after its publication. Perhaps this is to be expected--the radicality of any one work is bound to diminish as society evolves, what was once radical is now status-quo. However, it is undeniable that this evolution will shape how current and future generations approach On the Road, forced to imagine themselves living in Kerouac’s time to appreciate its radicality because it no longer resonates as it once did.


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