Term Paper: Futile Quests of Sal Paradise

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¶ … futile quests of Sal Paradise in on the Road and Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild

Into the Wild and On the Road simultaneously function as deflations and celebrations of the American dream. On one hand, both protagonists are extremely anti-materialistic in their orientation. On the Road depicts Kerouac's hero Sal Paradise (a stand-in for Kerouac himself) heading into the bowels of the American West, simply driving, with no apparent purpose and certainly no desire to 'strike it rich' like conventional explorers in American Westerns. Into the Wild celebrates the protagonist Christopher McCandless' giving away of his entire fortune and future in a quest to strip himself down to the barest elements of his existence. Like his hero Henry David Thoreau, McCandless wished to eke out an existence living on virtually nothing but the land itself. Yet both men were on a quest of self-discovery in the open wilderness, one of the classical ideals of the American dream. Furthermore, both men were intensely individualistic in their quests. Both shirked family responsibilities and obligations to others and ultimately McCandless died of his individualism and his desire to escape American capitalist society.

On the Road is a thinly-disguised autobiography of Jack Kerouac and the lives of other 'Beat' poets like Alan Ginsberg. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is an aspiring writer who is bored with bourgeois life and becomes embroiled in the existence of Dean Moriarty, recently released from reform school. Even New York City feels confining to Paradise, and he longs for Moriarty's more authentic and carefree existence. At the beginning of the book Moriarty is recently married but a noted womanizer and marries several times over the course of the narrative. Upon listening to Dean, Sal Paradise says: "I was beginning to get the bug [to travel] like Dean. He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him" (Kerouac 4). Moriarty does not embody the Western ideal of plain-spoken honesty but he does embody another American 'type' -- that of the classic con-man who will say anything or do anything to get his way yet is somehow fiendishly attractive.

Paradise knows that much of what Dean says is puffery yet is somehow compelled by Moriarty all the same. "All my New York friends were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love" (Kerouac 7). Rather than talking about existence, Moriarty truly lives, something that Paradise himself is seeking. "Dean's intelligence was every bit as formal, shining and complete, without its tedious intellectualness" he notes (Kerouac 7). This anti-intellectualism, the idea that doing is better than thinking, is also a critical component of American culture, although eventually Paradise will find that the ideal of hard work being good for the soul is much more attractive as an ideal than reality.

In contrast to Moriarty's charming falseness, Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild is focused obsessively on leading an authentic existence. Like Paradise, he was bored with the ideals of stability and money of the conventional American dream of success. But rather than aimless wandering for adventure's sake alone, McCandless seemed fascinated by an ascetic ideal. "An extremely intense young man, McCandless had been captivated by the writing of Leo Tolstoy. He particularly admired the fact that the great novelist had forsaken a life of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute" (Krakauer, front matter). Also, rather than idealizing friends living in the here and now, like Sal initially idolizes Dean, McCandless strikes even his friends and family as relatively remote. His closest friends never feel close to him because he is so fixated on the concepts he learned in books about how surviving in the wilderness is good for the soul.

McCandless came from a privileged background -- his parents paid for his college and even gave him $20,000 to begin life after graduating from a prestigious university. McCandless donated the money instead to Oxfam, a hunger relief group, and rather than building upon the ladder of success he was poised to climb, he turned away entirely. "Then, without notifying any friends or family members, he loaded all his belongings into a decrepit yellow Datsun and headed west without itinerary, relieved to shed a life of abstraction and security, a life he felt was removed from the heat and throb of the real world. Chris McCandless intended to invent a new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience" (Krakauer 23). McCandless identified nature itself as experience, versus the world associated with other human beings in society. Even when he met fellow outdoorsmen, he pulled away, preferring to do things on his own.

Not unlike McCandless, Paradise leaves everything to follow the path to truth, righteousness and authenticity out West. At one point, he says he sees the world split "at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future" (Kerouac 14). The East is stagnant, mired in doubt, and is stultifying, while the West is full of possibility. Although some people might see the barren roads he travels as lacking culture, through drinking and meeting strangers Paradise suddenly gets a sense that he is 'really living.' Having experience after experience in bars and with strangers who get drunk and engage in outlandish behavior is 'feeding' him as a writer he believes, versus just sitting and wallowing in discussion. Paradise even eats nothing but apple pie and ice cream, suggesting a longing for pure, unaltered Americana.

The fact that McCandless' definition of authenticity is quite different from that of Paradise, even though he heads out West, can be seen in the fact that unlike Paradise, McCandless disdains rather than embraces human contact. Rather than seeking out jazz clubs and bars, McCandless' Western journey involved wandering about in the wilderness. When the confines of the continental U.S. grew too smothering, McCandless decided to head out to Alaska. To make money for the trip (most of his money he gave away or destroyed), he offered to help out a grain farmer named Wayne Westerberg with his harvest. Impressed by his work ethic, Westerberg said "once Alex [the pseudonym Chris gave to himself] made up his mind about something there was no changing it. I even offered to buy him a plane ticket to Fairbanks, which would have let him work an extra ten days and still get to Alaska by the end of April. But he said, 'No, I want to hitch north. Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip'" (Krakauer 67).

On numerous occasions, McCandless rebuffed offers of charity, warmer gear, and assistance from others. He wanted to 'go it alone,' although ironically his fondness for hitchhiking depended upon other people. In some ways, McCandless' disdain for accumulating any monetary rewards was startlingly in contrast with the conventional ideals of the American dream. Yet he was also a hard worker, unafraid to get his hands dirty, and in love with what may be the last American frontier, that of Alaska. McCandless' pursuit of 'the real' and his refusal to accept handouts may be admirable, but the single-minded nature of his quest seemed suicidal to many who knew him, even cruelly disdainful of the feelings of his family. Despite Krakauer's idealistic portrayal of his subject, McCandless' pursuit of inner truth is seen as more important than the worries of those who loved him, even his mother and father whom he cut out of his life. He was ruthless as an American capitalist in his pursuit of success, even though that path took him on a very different road than that of his professional, ambitious father.

Despite Krakauer's idealism of McCandless as a frontiersman, there are clear signs that in some ways he was a frightened adolescent, both resisting his parents' way of life while still desiring their approval. "He was almost crying, fighting back the tears, telling Dad that even though they'd had their differences over the years, he was grateful for all the things Dad had done for him. Chris said how much he respected Dad from starting from nothing, working his way through college, busting his ass to support eight kids"( Krakauer 118). His father represented the conventional definition of American success that his son despised -- his son was willing to work hard, yet refused to embody the dream of fatherhood and financial stability.

And much like his father, the quintessential American capitalist, once McCandless had an idea in his head, he refused to let it go or share it with others (Krakauer 119). While he seemed to flirt with the idea of going to law school while in college, in reality he was likely plotting his great escape… [END OF PREVIEW]

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