Portrayal Of Women in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”
Through diving into Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, one is given the opportunity to relive the culture of the Beat generation as if experiencing it first-hand. Though, with this comes reliving many viewpoints of the time period. One such view that would likely shock most modern-day readers is the portrayal of women. This essay will explore Kerouac’s depiction of women in his book, “On the Road”, including their objectification/degradation and the contrast between the ideal woman (being portrayed as a quiet and obedient housewife), and real women (portrayed as bothersome to the male agenda).
Throughout the book, the reader becomes acquainted with the female characters through a male point of view – namely, through the eyes of Sal Paradise. From this angle, it is evident that the female characters in the book are objectified and their characters are left incomplete. They are not given complete personalities and characteristics as the males but, instead, are described according to their appearances and lack of intelligence, with little other description. Few women are even referred to by their names – removing their human identities and making them out to be sex objects meant for being looked over for male pleasure. In an example of this, upon seeing his temporary lover, named Terry, for the first time, Sal couldn’t help but to mention that the first thing to catch his eye were her breasts that “stuck out straight and true” and that he thought “her little flanks looked delicious”.
This description of Terry takes away her human identity and brings her down to the level of a tender, juicy steak being drooled over by a famished onlooker. Instead of being described by their personality traits or the way in which they conduct themselves, women in “On the Road” are identified by the sexual functions their bodies can provide to the male onlookers. And when they’re not being described as sexual objects, they’re often labeled as having a lack of intelligence. For example, Sal describes Marylou, the wife of his good friend named Dean, as “a pretty blonde”, but “awfully dumb”. And after just meeting a girl and describing the “beautiful sun-tan on her breast tops”, Sal describes her as “dull” when she would not engage with him in conversation about boyfriends and sex. It appears that men in “On the Road” are quick to label women as unintelligent and uninteresting. If they make out the women to be sexual objects that are otherwise tiresome, perhaps they find it easier to leave them when their sexual cravings drive them elsewhere.
In adding to the insults cast upon female characters in the book, women are commonly and casually referred to as whores despite the actions of the accusers – that may make them a more fitting example of the term. Marylou is referred to as a whore several times, including when Sal sees her taking off with several friends and she leaves him alone in San Francisco. In his state of anger, he says that he “saw what a whore she was”. Despite the fact that she had not done anything to accurately embody the meaning of the insult, Sal sees it as a fit label. Later on, after Marylou and Dean had been living apart with new partners, Sal reports that Dean had become obsessed with her once again and “wanted absolute proof that she was a whore”.
Although Dean had previously been the one cheating on Marylou, he felt absolutely certain that it was she that was the whore. Exemplified by this instance, it is notable that a standard is held for women in “On the Road” that is not held for men, which is to abstain from such wild sexual activity as is acceptable for men to partake in. In another example, while Sal claimed to be searching for a pure woman to marry, he himself became involved with numerous sexual partners and used drugs throughout the book. When he finds a woman suitable to his standards, he describes her as having “pure and innocent dear eyes”. Regardless of the fact that he himself had lived a wild life, he felt that the only type of woman fitting for him to marry would be virtuous. In this, Sal illustrates to the reader that he finds it acceptable for men to engage with as many “whores” as they please, but that the only women suitable for marriage are those who remain pure.
In following the trend of high standards held for women, the ideal female partner, according to the male characters in the book, would be quiet, submissive, and without a mind of her own. She would serve only to satisfy a man’s stomach and sex drive, with all smiles and no complaints. When Sal and Dean were welcomed into a man named Walter’s home late at night, his wife simply smiled and did not ask questions. Sal notes, “she never asked Walter where he’d been, what time it was, nothing… She never said a word…”. To this, Dean says, “Now you see, man, there’s a real woman for you. Never a harsh word, never a complaint…”.
Among themselves, the men praise Walter’s wife for her submissive behavior, which they find ideal. In another example, a house wife prepares a large spread of food for her husband and their visitors, and she is described as apologizing for the peach ice cream not being exactly prepared to her liking. This image paints a picture of a meek woman, whose sole purpose lay in preparing food for men. Her apologies for the peach ice cream seemed to serve as an indication that her main desire in life was to prepare food and do the housework according to the satisfaction of men, as it was her only dialogue. On the opposite end, Sal criticizes Remi Boncoeur’s girlfriend, Lee Ann, for being too outspoken and calls her an “untamed shrew”. Again, this goes to show that the men in “On the Road” do not want to hear the opinions of women. Instead, they ideally expect them to be at home taking care of the house without a single opinion – that is, unless it is to do with perfecting a recipe of peach ice cream.
In contrast to the image of the ideal woman, real women in “On the Road” are illustrated as being controlling and bothersome, and who ruin all the men’s fun. While the motley crew of Sal, Dean, Ed, and Galatea are traveling to Arizona, Galatea (Ed’s new wife) is portrayed as a nuisance who “kept complaining that she was tired and wanted to sleep in a motel”. Concerning this behavior, Sal said that “if they kept this up they’d spend all her money”, and when this did occur, Ed and Dean “gave her the slip in a hotel lobby and resumed the voyage alone”.
In another example, Camille (Dean’s second wife), was described as continually throwing tantrums and not allowing him to go out as he pleased. The way in which both Galatea and Camille are depicted as restricting male characters gives off the notion that real women act as a bother. A majority of the women in the book are depicted in ways that illustrate them to be hinderances to a man’s joy, where the men would prefer them to stay quietly at home while they’re free to run wild on the road as they please. Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” depicts women in an objectified and degraded manner – reducing them to objects only useful for sex and maintaining a household. Furthermore, the female characters are underdeveloped – being described by only their physical features and lack of intelligence, they’re casually labeled as “whores”, and they’re depicted as controlling nuisances to the male agenda.
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