On the Road and The Bell Jar
On the Road was written by Jack Kerouac and is about the adventures of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, two friends that meet while in New York City. During a span of three years, the two men spend their time making their ways back and forth across the country, shaking up each other’s lives and discovering and understanding who they are as people, as individuals. The Bell Jar was written by Sylvia Plath and is about a poet who finds herself trapped in a world that is not accepting to her desires to be a writer. She sets out on a journey of her and, with the unwilling help of other people, she begins to understand who she is as a person. However, a lot of this self-discovery is spent in a mental hospital, though she allows herself to grow from the experience. The common theme found between the two novels is discovery through one’s self and by the unbidden help of others.
David began his adventure on his own, yet quickly runs into Sal. They were both desperate to leave, especially Sal, who was growing tired of his cold New York friends (OR 8), so they set off for a trip around the country, only slightly aware that the trip would greatly benefit who they were as a person. They began to grow on each other, and they began to break free from the hold that America had on them, yelling their anguish for everyone to hear (OR 55). There were many times when the two men split up to be with women they had met, and it was during these times that they realized that the other meant something to them – each person they met was vital to the growth of the other (OR 101).
Just as in One the Road, Esther’s character in The Bell Jar owed a lot of her personal growth to the people that she ran into during her lifetime, during her journeys. Within the early pages of the book, Ester met Doreen, a woman who quickly shaped Esther’s thoughts about herself, allowing her to feel that she was “that much sharper than the others (BJ 5).” Esther became dependent on the feelings that Doreen provided for her, feeling a certain growth that had taken place in her time of knowing her. After Doreen left, Esther could not figure out why she was staying, not doing what she wanted to do; then she could not decide why she was not doing what she wanted to, thinking of Doreen as she considered her reasons (BJ 30). When she discovered that her boyfriend had cheated on her, Esther felt that that was the perfect time for the change that she wanted to see (BJ 61). Esther’s growth was influenced heavily by those that she associated with.
Likewise, in both books with both protagonists, they each added to their own growth, their own understandings of themselves. Sal, during his trips, began to understand how his mind functioned in regards to what he liked and what he didn’t; he felt that he liked too much, and he grew confused. “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop (OR 126).” During his traveling, Sal welcomes with open arms every new adventure and defining moment for him, giving himself the chance to grow as someone, not holding back within his life (OR 156). He even began to notice that he was changing, comparing it to dying and coming to life once more (OR 173); again, his changes were obvious, he understood them, and he embraced them.
In the same sense, Esther recognized her personal growth and strength for what it was, and understood that she was a part of it. One of the quarrels in her life was that she wanted two entirely different things in life, coming to the conclusion that she must be neurotic (BJ 94). Throughout her personal journey, Esther started to stop underestimating herself; the beliefs in herself that had at first been so dull were now a new and obvious part to herself. This was seen as she chanted to herself, “I am I am I am (BJ 158)” as she vowed to swim until she could swim no further. One of her final moments when she was able to fully comprehend herself as a person, Esther began to think about how she had been born twice, and how there should be a ritual to commemorate the big moment (BJ 244).
Through the help of others, people are able to discover new things about themselves. Sometimes these discoveries take place long after the other person has left the picture, providing the individual the opportunity to learn something new, or many new things, about their personality and choices. As seen in both On the Road and The Bell Jar, both the protagonists set out on journeys that they knew not the outcome of. They were each influenced by the people they surrounded themselves with, as well as themselves as individuals.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 1955.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1971.
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