Is Dean a hero, a failure, or both?
To everyone except for Sal, Dean is a failure. On the Road is Sal's story, though, and his attempt to make everyone else understand in what way Dean is a hero. In fact, to Sal, Dean is more than a hero: Sal sees something saintlike about Dean, and doesn't think that Dean's moral flaws conflict with this. On one occasion, he refers to Dean as the "HOLY GOOF"; on many occasions, he speaks of Dean as an angel terrifying in his energy. Sal knows Dean's flaws but seeks to celebrate his talents, to Sal, the most precious being his passionate relish for life, his capacity for great joy, and to give joy to his friends.
What is Sal's attitude toward America?
He loves his homeland, especially the grandeur of its landscape, the variety of its people. But it is changing, and he is disappointed by the change at times, like when he tries to sit on the banks of the Mississippi River and is stymied by a chain-link fence. There is also a darker side to its vastness which he acknowledges. There seem to be two sides to everything. The vast emptiness of the American West can either fill the spirit and be the epitome of loneliness. On one side is Terry, the pretty Hispanic worker Sal spends a couple weeks with in California, and on the other are the suburban teenagers who shout at her from their cars. There is Dean, who Sal thinks of as the spirit of the West, and the suspicious policemen with power complexes who eternally pursue him. Sal's dreams of America are both realized and parodied, as in his first trip to the West, when he is happy to see real cowboys, but also sees the hokey Wild West festival in Cheyenne, and the tourist town of Central City. All the gold that was mined out of Central City is being returned to it in the form of tourist dollars. It is an America which is still plagued by class and racial divides, but changing rapidly.
What is Sal's idea of the West compared to his idea of the East? Does this change during the course of the novel?
At first, Sal thinks of the East as intellectual, wrapped in the old, stultifying, and the West as open, uninhibited, and new. Similarly, he is bored with his Eastern intellectual friends and infatuated with Dean, the free Western spirit. However, as he travels west and is lonely in Los Angeles, he sees the East as "brown and holy" and the West as whitewashed, empty; it all depends on his emotional state.
How is On the Road written that is different from earlier, more traditional novels? What kind of effect on does this have on traditional plot? Does the form help to express the themes of the novel?
Discuss the theme of race in the novel. Is Sal prejudiced?
Discuss the women in On the Road. What kind of problems do Sal and Dean have with women, and how does this affect their actions?
Is Sal an honest narrator? Are there any inconsistencies in his narration? If so, what effect do they have on the story?
Discuss the theme of jazz music in On the Road. How does jazz music relate to the novel thematically? Formally?