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Submitted Literature

The Subterraneans

By Jack Kerouac


Jack Kerouac's novella is fictional confessional account of an interacial love affair between an aspiring alchoolic writer, Leo Percipied, and a black woman, Mardou Fox. Partly autobiographical, the text is informed by the love affair between Kerouac himself and Alene Lee, a woman who hung out with The Beats for a while and by the writer's own limitations (in his words a "confession of [his] most wretched and hidden agonies") towards issues such as race and mental illness.

Written in 1958, it predates the Civil Rights movement that brought national attention to the the issue of racism and it is in fact one of the few novels from this period who dares to address such themes. 

The background for this tender and tragic love affair is the alchool and drugs infused folly of a whole generation of writers, poets and artists, known as The Subterraneans, of which Leo plays a central role. Constantly getting drunk, Leo finds it difficult to maintain a relationship with Mardou, who he finds "dangerously mad". Mardou, on the other hand, criticises Leo for his excessive drinking and the disruption he brought to her life, making her miss her psychoanalysis.

Leo are Mardou are two poles of distinct "madness". This polarity is even marked by Leo's surname "Percipied" (or pierced foot), hinting at the static nature of his addiction, that paralysing damage of alchool, and Mardou's nickname "Wanderfeet", a subtle reference to her restless nature and the madness that afflicts her. This also hints to a key moment described in the book, when Mardou has a breakdown and wanders naked in the streets of San Francisco.

The polarity manifests itself in the troublesome love affair and in the various episodes of excess involving the members of The Subterreaneans, and is the central dynamic of the novella. 


Descriptions of binge drinking and drug taking are a constant in the book as are Leo's somewhat paranoid descriptions and self deprecating stream of consciousness thoughts when he is under the influence. The hotchpotch aspect of the writing is done on purpose, in an attempt to portray the raw material of the mind and the free flowing of thought, but also reminds the reader of the ramblings of drunkness. Ultimately, along with the tenderness of Mardou's character, it is this that elevates this book as a necessary, painful and illuminating reading experience.      

Key Themes:

  • Addiction

Significant Quotes / Pages

(p.21) - "She had no clothes on, she'd risen out of his satisfied sheets to stand in the wash of grey gloom-time thinking what to do, where to go. - And the longer she stood there finger-in-mouth and the more the man said, 'What's the matter ba-by' (finally he stopped asking and just let her stand there) the more she could feel the pressure from inside bursting and explosion coming on, finally she took a giant step forward with a gulp of fear (...) she ran out of the room." 

(p.22) - "And to myself: 'My God, this girl, Adam's right she's crazy, like I'd do that, I'd flip like I did on Benzedrine with Honey in 1945 and thought she wanted to use my body for the gang car and the wrecking and flames but I'd certainly never run out into the streets of San Francisco naked (...)"

(p.55) - " (...) Mardou had (drunk) danced around the floor, puffing and pooshing and flupping it up with dance interpretative gestures and said something that not only made me fear her madness, her hospital type insanity, but cut my heart deeply (...)" 



Reference: Jack, Kerouac. 1958. The Subterraneans. Penguin, 2001


Mr Ricardo Rato Rodrigues
Date Review Submitted: Monday 4th February 2013