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‘On the Road’ and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ Analysis

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Published: Wed, 06 Sep 2017

Referring closely to literary and linguistic features, explore the presentation of hopes and dreams within ‘On the Road‘ and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’

Hopes and dreams are presented as a means of escape and an opportunity for external and internal discovery for the characters of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty seek rather juxtaposed dreams; Dean is punished for his lavish and overindulgent wants whereas Sal uses his time on the road to fulfil more rewarding and spiritual objectives. Similarly, Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas takes a journey of discovery to find the true American Dream in Las Vegas, Nevada.

To some extent, the pursuit of hopes and dreams is a method of escaping the realities of everyday life for characters from both texts. In Kerouac’s novel, the dreams of where the road might take them provide an escape for both Sal and Dean from a mundane East Coast lifestyle, and a way to forget the mistakes of the past. Similarly in Thompson’s piece, a voyage of revelation fueled by an underlying desire to understand the American Dream offers a chance to escape for Raoul and his attorney using somebody else’s money. Jack Kerouac employs a proper noun in the utterance “fifty dollars from old veteran benefits, I was ready to go to the West Coast”. Here, the West is presented as a symbol of great opportunity and freedom like it had been for the pioneers who settled there from America’s east and across the world over a century earlier. For Sal, this escape is from a miserable divorce whilst also having recovered from a serious illness.

The writer uses hyperbole and plosive alliteration through Dean’s wants of “innumerable girls and sex parties and pornographic pictures” suggesting at Dean’s apparently unlimited thirst for sexual encounters with as many women as possible, and highlight that a reason why he goes on the road is to fulfil his sexual needs and desires as part of his American Dream. These wants contrast with his more simple needs of concrete noun “bread” and abstract noun “love” later in the novel which indicate at the aimlessness of Moriarty’s quest to find “it”. In contrast, Duke and Dr Gonzo are shown to be more driven in attempts to find truth and happiness. Thompson uses a metaphor and abstract noun in the exclamative “I tell you, my man, this is the American Dream in action!” to give a suggestion of Duke’s belief that the American Dream is about living a hedonistic life of indulgence. Unlike Sal, who is forced at times to ration his food, the pair spend excessively throughout the novel, especially on alcohol and gambling, but despite such wild attempts Raoul is still unable to attain the happiness he strives for. Duke repeatedly indicates at the journey’s purpose being a discovery of the 1970s American Dream and is preoccupied with it throughout the book. The writer uses a present and past-tense dynamic verbs “we’re looking for the American Dream, and we were told it was somewhere in this area”. This perhaps suggests at Raoul’s misunderstanding of and confusion with the concept of the American Dream for he appears to believe that it is something tangible, serving to highlight his dream’s elusive nature.

Throughout both texts, hopes and dreams are presented as ripe opportunities for the characters to capitalise on. Kerouac employs a metaphor and grammatical repetition in the declarative “new call and a new horizon“, the abstract noun “call” and concrete noun “horizon” here present a hopeful new beginning for Sal and a fundamental change in how he will live his life. This is what Dean offers at the start of the book to Sal, an opportunity to leave his life as a newly-divorced and miserable man in the East behind and escape to what is hoped to be a better life in the West. Dean’s use of grammatical repetition in the utterance “man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write!” presents the excitement brought on by the allure of the adventures that await once they get out on the road, and the promise of a better life thereafter. This is to show how to truly live you must break free from the shackles of conventionality and day-to-day life, and that the world is rife with opportunities for those who can achieve such freedom.

An example of litotes from Dean is when he says “so long’s I can get that lil ole gal with that lil sumpin down there tween her legs” highlighting that his one need is a woman with whom he can he can have sex. For Dean, being on the road is a way to achieve his ambitions of achieving as many sexual encounters as he can, with Moriarty growing increasingly sexually sybaritic throughout the book. Similarly but in a far less literal sense than Kerouac, Thompson uses personification in a sexual metaphor of his own when Duke is wandering through at 4:30 AM he notes that the gamblers are “still humping the American Dream”. This use of vulgar colloquialism indicates how with a luck America will provide the economic and social success that is wish for. These people hope that gambling will be a way to achieve the American Dream through winning big and getting rich, their chance of weakening their finances however are greater. In contrast with Sal’s attainable and clear spiritual search on his journey, Raoul’s quest for the specific whereabouts of the American Dream concludes with a further metaphor used in Las Vegas when Raoul states that “we’ve found the main nerve”. The concrete noun “nerve” here likens the city to the body’s nervous system and Raoul hopes now that he has discovered the true physical American Dream at this location. At this point he will not let his attorney leave yet, because their expectations of the American Dream were that it would be remarkable but soon the realisation sets in that it is not as magnificent as once anticipated.

How hopes and dreams are realised varies wildly between the different characters and books. Dean’s continued equivocation quickly begins to kill off Sal’s hope of real discovery. He wishes to find answers and meaning to what the American Dream and therefore Dean truly means by his use of the exclamative fragment “it!”, but Dean cannot provide anything more than an abstract and vague definition. From this point on, Sal begins to see Dean as his true and shallow self has a realisation that “it” and the American Dream can never be attained for neither truly are real. The use of pre-modifying adjectives in the phrase “wonderful Technicolor visions” likens the epiphanic moments of spiritual enlightenment that he is starting to feel to being in a movie filmed using the Technicolor colour process commonly used in Hollywood from the 1920s to 1940s, this indicates that Sal has used his travels of the road as a means of self-discovery. His perspectives change as a result and he becomes a changed man upon realisation of his insignificance as a lone individual in the vast United States. Whilst writing the novel Kerouac increasingly was fascinated by Buddhism after losing the strong Catholic faith instilled in him as a child, this rebellion against religious norms is echoed here.

Thompson uses of pre-modifying adjectives contrastingly when Raoul and his attorney are searching for a location called American Dream all they can find is “a huge slab of cracked, scorched concrete in a vacant lot full of tall weeds”, the burned down physical American Dream that they find is symbolically representative of Thompson’s belief that the ideal now has been destroyed, and therefore is unattainable. A further use of the “main nerve” metaphor is Duke’s utterance that “we’re on the main nerve right now”. He now reveals ere that he believes that he has found the American Dream here in Las Vegas at the casino Circus-Circus for its manager “has his own circus, and a license to steal, too”. Here Thompson mocks the concept of the American Dream in a large city like Las Vegas with the only circumstance of successfully achieving it is this small instance, as well as its unconventional nature as for most joining the circus and owning a casino are not the obvious embodiment of the American Dream.

To conclude, hopes and dreams are shown to be a powerful force that empower those who have them to search for the truths of life. While Sal’s search is a more metaphorical and ultimately more attainable one of inner discovery, Raoul’s instead is a largely futile one. Both Kerouac and Thompson use how the characters’ hopes and dreams materialise as innate criticisms of American society and its value systems. Through Sal, Kerouac presents how the American Dream is corrupted and how true self-actualisation can come from a better understanding of one’s self and the world around us. Similarly, Thompson is critical of the typical capitalist ambitions inherent in the American Dream of great wealth which so few are able to actually achieve.

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Kerouac, J., On the Road (Penguin Classics, 2000)

Thompson, H., Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Harper Perennial, 2005)

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