Dharma Bums Summary

Jack Kerouac

Dharma Bums

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Dharma Bums Summary

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Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums follows Ray Smith, a beat writer from the east coast. Ray is in his thirties, and his work is just starting to gain national recognition when he travels to Berkeley, California to live with Alvah Goldbook. Alvah, also from the east coast, is a beat poet. He is at the start of his career. In Berkeley, Ray meets Japhy Ryder, who studies Zen Buddhism. Japhy is also enthusiastic about the outdoors. Their friendship strengthens, built on a foundation of common ground, and a love for Buddhist philosophy, the simple life, and poetry.

Japhy and Ray go mountain climbing, and are joined by Henry Morley, who works as a librarian. Japhy, who is an experienced climber, has no trouble reaching the summit. Ray, on the other hand, makes it to a ledge that is one hundred feet from the summit and becomes too afraid to continue. After this adventure, Japhy and Ray continue to share in one another’s lives, even sharing their girlfriends.

When it comes time to go to his mother’s home for Christmas, Ray hitchhikes. He rides trains by climbing into the boxcars and stowing away. He travels this way all the way across the United States. His mother lives in North Carolina; he stays there for a few weeks with her, surrounded by the woods. He spends his time meditating and seeking enlightenment. Following Japhy’s suggestion, Ray accepts a job for the summer working as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountain range.

After that, he hitchhikes his way back across America. He takes the southern route this time and stops in Mexico for a while, where he engages with prostitutes, alcohol, and marijuana. However, he determines that all of these temptations are not as alluring as clarity and meditation in the desert lands of Texas.

When he returns to Berkeley, he lives with Japhy. They share a little shack surrounded by nature, where their friendship hits the ground running, picking up from before Ray went east to his mother’s. They talk about Buddhism and Christianity. They discuss poetry and women. Philosophy and wine also form the center of many of their discussions. Thanks to his progress with his own meditations, Ray no longer seeks to follow Japhy as a philosophical teacher. Instead, he sees him as a peer and delights in the idea of them traveling together toward enlightenment.

Among their shared experiences and adventures are a number of wild parties, after which Japhy leaves the United States. He sails to Japan to study. Ray also leaves Berkeley, heading north toward the state of Washington. As before, he walks and hitchhikes. He goes to Desolation Peak, where he works as a fire lookout and enjoys his isolation. He meditates more and is filled with happiness and enlightenment.

The path to enlightenment is an important theme, as it drives Ray Smith’s personal voyage. He gives up his material goods and experiences of a tangible nature to explore his own spiritual path, often through meditation and solitude. Hitchhiking is another important theme, and Ray travels, on average, more than eight hundred miles each month throughout the course of the The Dharma Bums. This method of travel not only reflects the way many characters in beat novels get around, but it is also an allegory for the spiritual path Ray travels throughout the book. By giving up his belongings and traveling in a self-sustaining manner, Ray feels that he is able to give up his desire, and with that, his pain. Once he has given up his suffering, he feels he is able to attain enlightenment. The third crucial theme of the novel is nature, and Ray’s growing appreciation of it. While being out in nature is commonplace for some characters, such as Japhy, for Ray it is a new experience, one that is filled with excitement. The more time Ray spends outside, the more he loves it. Kerouac’s language about nature is often as sweeping and expansive as the landscapes themselves.

Jack Kerouac was an American novelist and poet who lived from 1922 to 1969. He was one of the pioneers of the Beat Generation, which was comprised largely of authors who sought to explore American culture after World War II. Other examples include Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac wrote a number of notable works, including On the Road, Big Sur, and Desolation Angels. Many musical artists were inspired by Kerouac’s work in literature and poetry, including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, The Doors, and Patti Smith. Kerouac was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 2007, posthumously. The 2009 film, One Fast Move or I’m Gone—Kerouac’s Big Sur took viewers to the places that inspired the author’s settings and characters. On the Road was adapted for the big screen and released in 2012, and Big Sur was made into a film in 2013.