Reflections on Jack Kerouac's In Vain

Jack Kerouac through his poem In Vain asks the question, "Of what use are the best things in the world?"  It seems that some of the best things in the world, like the stars in the sky and the life of buddha are of no use because people are after materialistic things.  This reminds me of Guru Arjan's Durlabham where the Guru rejects all the material things in the world for the name of oneness. The repetition of "in vain" also reminds me of the repetition of "kood" or "false" by Guru Nanak in his poem kood raajaa rejecting materiality of the world. The repetition of "in vain" also creates a beautiful meditative lament. 

First the poem, and then analysis:  

In Vain

The stars in the sky
In vain
The tragedy of Hamlet
   In vain
The key in the lock
      In vain
The sleeping mother
      In vain
The lamp in the corner
         In vain
The lamp in the corner unlit
            In vain
Abraham Lincoln
                        In vain
The Aztec empire
                           In vain
The writing hand: in vain
(The shoetrees in the shoes
         In vain
The window shade string upon
            the hand bible
   In vain—
   The glitter of the green glass
In vain
The bear in the woods
         In vain
The Life of Buddha
         In vain)

- Jack Kerouac


According to, “in vain” is defined as “without real significance, value, or importance; baseless or worthless.” In this poem, Jack Kerouac uses this phrase to emphasize how society has lost its meaning. In the beginning of the poem, he writes “The stars in the sky/ In vain” (lines 1-2). Stars are a symbol of the misunderstood. Stars also symbolize distant or unattainable things because of their magnificent distance from Earth. These lines show how, in this time period, society yearned for progress and change. But since Kerouac was part of the Beat Generation, he and his fellow Beats completely opposed society’s materialistic goals. Kerouac is trying to get the point across that these materialistic goals are meaning. A message that comes from this is that nothing has a value unless we give it one. This directly relates to Kerouac’s perspective on how society, often values things not worthy of having one.

Human beings take a lot for granted. Kerouac shows this through the repetition of the line, “in vain” throughout his poem. Another way Kerouac displays this idea of society being unappreciative is when he writes, “Abraham Lincoln/ In vain” (lines 13-14). It is ironic Kerouac includes the allusion of Lincoln in his poem because Lincoln was the President that outlawed slavery and in the time period the poem was written, the Civil Rights Movement was going on. It shows how we fought a Civil War to end slavery in vain as there is still on going denial of equal rights to blacks. This expresses how society is claiming to progress but actually not progressing at all. A message that could be derived from this is that you have to learn from the past in order to progress. Kerouac believes society is too self-absorbed and too focused on moving forward to learn from the past. 

The Beat Generation believed in the rejection of mainstream American values, the exploring of alternate forms of sexuality like homosexuality, and the experimentation with drugs. The Beat Generation lived a relaxed lifestyle without any worries. This poem is a critique of society and illustrates to how the Beats rejected society’s goals. This connection is shown when Kerouac writes, “The sleeping mother/ In vain” (lines 7-8). Kerouac writes this to show how society in this time period made something as important as a mother figure irrelevant. This relates to why Beats did not like society’s direction. The Beat Generation thought society in this time did not appreciate anything The Establishment was doing. This theme is demonstrated throughout this poem.

This reminds me of the W.H.Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts which shows how major painting masters portrayed human nonchalance to major happenings like the birth of Jesus Christ and the fall of Icarus; we find seemingly important things in vain, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things, they are in vain.