America as the Hero of On the Road
In class, we discussed what makes Dean the hero of On the Road. I don't think it comes down to how likeable or nice he is. Frankly, I don't like Dean, but that still makes him the hero. The fact is, Sal, the narrator of the book & Kerouac, the author of the book, made Dean the hero. Dean is the hero because he is Sal's hero, and On the Road is Sal's book.
In this way, it's similar to the Great Gatsby. When I read Gatsby first I felt a kinship towards Nick, the narrator and not towards Gatsby. I had similar questions: why isn't Nick the hero? Nick is so likeable, and Gatsby is borderline despicable. It took me a few reads to understand that Gatsby was the hero because of what he represented.
It's the same with Dean. Dean is the hero of the story because of what he represents. He is the "West," he's "America," he's the "Road." The character of Dean, taken from Neal, has been romanticized into what Kerouac/Sal's idea of a hero is. It's what Sal wants to be, what he thinks of when he thinks of the West and America and the Road.
At the end of the book, I find Sal's disillusionment with Dean interesting. In the second to last chapter, after Sal gets sick in Mexio and Dean leaves him, Sal says, "When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes. 'Okay, old Dean, I'll say nothing."
This little passage is funny, because I think the reader has realized long before what a "rat" Dean is. As I read it, I thought, at first, 'yes, Sal, it's about time you realize,' but then, he just forgives him. Maybe not fully, but enough. He still admires him, Dean is still Sal's hero. The way that he says he understands "the impossible complexity of [Dean's] life," makes me feel that maybe he admires him even more for abandoning him. This abandonment fits with Dean's persona, of the rough and tough west, the womanizer, the cold-hearted road.
At the very end of the book, he's still the hero. This time, he's blowing away with the wind, like sand through Sal's fingers. Sal continues to romanticize him the whole way through the very last lines. As he speaks of America and his experiences (in the longest sentence ever written?) he says that when he thinks of America, "I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty." This repetiveness of Dean's name solidifies his heroic status. Sal cannot even distinguish between "America" and "Dean Moriarty." To him, they are one in the same. And as Gatsby represented 1920s America to Nick, Dean represents Beat America to Sal. It is a bitter-sweet, love-hate relationship that they each have with America, just as it's a bitter-sweet relationship they have with their heroes.