In part 3 of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the narrator is trying to talk to a pretty country girl at a bus station. He describes her as "dull" when he finds out that her life experience is very limited and that "her heart was not glad". He then asks what she does for "fun" and continues:

I tried to bring up boyfriends and sex. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done--whatever it was, and everybody knows what it was. "What do you want out of life?" I wanted to take her and wring it out of her. She didn't have the slightest idea what she wanted.

I was very struck by the deliberate mismatch here between the mystery of "whatever it was" and the fact that "everybody knows what it was". But I certainly don't know what "it" was, and the book never tells us. What is "it", and why does Kerouac imply it is at once both mysterious and obvious?

1 Answer 1


Whatever it was might implies a mystery about it, but it might also imply a number of unspecified choices.

I can make sense of this phrase by linking it to "a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations."

If we take "whatever it was" to mean whatever it was that she had to do, it does imply that the thing she had to do was unknown. But there's another choice of interpretation here; "whatever it was" might mean whatever it was that each one of her ancestors had to do. One needed to leave home, one needed to divorce her husband, one needed to free herself from the fear of damnation, etc. In the context is a variety of things that needed to be done by different people, I understand this phrase to mean:

A kind of chagrin that reached back through generations and generations of her family, each of whom did not do what was crying to be done; and there were different things that needed to be done; and everyone knew the thing that needed to be done by each one of these people.

  • This is an interesting reading and looking at the phrase again I agree that it probably is meant to apply down the generations. If this is the case, though, how can "everybody" know what the things were?
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 18:33
  • 1
    @MattThrower, I suppose it means that the things they needed to do were obvious to everybody who was around them. If we're strict about the use of that present tense "knows" this reading doesn't quite work. I'm imagining Kerouac being a little loose with the syntax there. But I could also see this as evidence that my reading is wrong.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 18:51
  • Could well be. Kerouac quite purposefully played loose with his syntax as he felt it was more important to capture the moment and keep the sense of fluidity that resulted.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 20:35

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