On the Road by Joan Didion: Analysis

Didion starts her essay with the question; Where are we heading? She never gets its answer. The broadcast discourse lengthens but still the question remains as it is. Afterwards, her journey to different parts of America changes her attitude. Though she is still in confusion, she comes to a conviction that "they were heading into an era" of whatever the clock seemed to demand. In all the television and radio studios, she was asked the same question before.

Joan Didion

Now, in her journey, too, she has similar experience. She was sitting on a comfortable seat under the focus of cables and cameras. She was served coffee and asked the same question — "Where were we heading?" Now, the question was in past tense. The second part of the essay deals with this question in past. Naturally, it indicates the entire change that has been seen in America quite different from the past. In business, advertisements, politics, transports, communications and other fields the present American has forgotten the past America. Unfortunately, social and cultural progresses have been also affected badly. They are heading into the whirlpool of progress that has been brought by the time.

Didion details her own witness to the unstable culture of contemporary America in her essay ‘On the Road.’ She writes that American life is changing rapidly all the time. Besides, America has become multi-cultured, business-oriented, progressive but indefinite and intense country which is powered by particular illusions of mobility, where time is money; motion is progress; decisions are made and snapped. Most important thing was system - everything was running under a system. However, one place varies from another. This has been pointed out symbolically in the statement -"If rain fell at Logan we could find sun at Dulles." As a citizen, she loves America as her own. However, the given extract relates one event of her experience. She was travelling in different states of America. She was invited at different studios and they asked her -where America was heading. Naturally, it was difficult for her to judge or guess, but she was sure for one thing, - everywhere they were having confusion. 'They' refers here to the writer and her daughter. Both of them were in travelling trip to many states. Everything was at random. All were flying. All were living in a system, but sudden break in system was a trouble to everyone. She started to study the map of America and her daughter accompanied her to skim and light different locations in the map. They spoke not of cities, probably because they had already seen crowd and confusions in cities. They were talking about the airports, probably looking for some harmony and clarity, something interesting because they were on flights, most of the time, during her travelling, and naturally expecting new experience of American culture in air.

Didion was diverted to the rising culture and tendency of American people. She found that they were ascending into the air and then jumping from height. She was surprised to see that people were jumping from the air. They were jumping from windows of the tall buildings. She began to see the country itself as a projection on air, a kind of hologram, an invisible grid of image and opinion and electronic impulse. There were opinions in the air. There were planes in the air. There were even people in the air. Her interview which was to be broadcast was ignored. Cameras and cables moved toward the jumpers. They had to catch a jumper in the act to make the paper. She was asked, "What did that say about the Americans as a nation?" She was obliged to think where they were really headed. She realized that everything was absurd. There was a vague vogue everywhere. People were highly fashionable. They were getting all kinds of progresses. Yet life was being led to uncertainty, and absurdity, rather to the void. She was in dilemma. She was confused. She was unable to decide where they were heading. There was only one truth and it was that she was heading home. It is also an 'irony to think that she didn't miss her way of her house in such abyss.

Being a witness to the unstable culture of contemporary America, Joan Didion presents her experience in the form of travelling. Wherever she went, she was asked the same question— "where are we heading?” Yet she never learned the answer, nor did the answer matter, because the broadcast discourse always lengthened when they started discussion on this matter. She took different things with her and travelled from one state to another, but she had no use of these things because different cultures that she experienced on the way entertained her better than those things. Without confidence, once she expressed her conviction that the Americans were heading "into an era" of whatever the clock seemed to demand. She may be referring to the uncertainty of the age. Illusions of mobility power America. Time was money. Motion was progress. Decisions were made and snapped. Nothing was certain. Most funny event that she saw was jumping. Jumpers were jumping from air. This jumping was more important than the interview with her. Moving to many places, flying high in the sky, and giving interviews in different studios, she found herself with her daughter again on the road. When she was asked again the same question towards the end of her tour, she said that she did not know where the Americans were (are) heading. She was still attentive to the neon lights of radio stations and her mind was active to think about uncertain and vague destination of the Americans.

Everyone is on the road. Every person has aim. Every era has run in certain direction. Only the post-modern era has been an exception. Every nation has been aimless in this era. Every person is uncertain in his life. America is not exception anyway. They are also asking a question to themselves— "Where are we heading?" Joan Didion, best known for her intensely personal essays that bear witness to the unstable culture of contemporary America, writes her intensely personal experience in this essay, too. Being associated with the Vogue magazine, she criticizes the multi-coloured culture of America which is leading them into uncertainty. In all the television and radio studies, they asked her the same question — "Where are we heading?" She travelled to different parts of America— New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and everywhere she found that people were themselves in confusion. They were busy in conversation which had no ending and no answer came to them for the raised question. They were losing their original and the arbitrary initials. They were losing their self-identity. They were fully diverted to the changes that the time had brought. The question had itself become a mystery.

Joan Didion

Summary of "On the Road"

Commentary of "On the Road"

Biography of Joan Didion