“What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning of the purpose of a life like this?”
I read Revolutionary Road for the first time in high school, and I can honestly say this lifestyle is my biggest fear and worst nightmare: the suburban family. Franzen’s novels just added salt to the wounds afterwards, and it gave me the impression that people still live this way. The good news: not all people do, and we don’t have to anymore. It’s a choice, not an imposition.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is a modern classic, and widely-known, even more so after the cinematic adaptation featuring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The novel is set in 1950s New York and follows April and Frank Wheeler, a couple with two children who live on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs. The couple appears happy from the outside—April stays home, while Frank commutes into the city every day, but they love each other, and they are both beautiful. In reality, the couple is absolutely miserable, and April experiences the worst of it. Her disposition creates discord in their marriage. She tries to participate in the community by attending a theater group’s small performance, which fails miserably, she tries to talk to the neighbours, and finds that no one has anything interesting to say. April fondly remembers how exciting Frank was when the two had met. He traveled the world, and made grandiose promises of the adventures they would have together, while she herself was a young, beautiful, aspiring actress. Day in and day out, the couple is shrouded by extreme boredom, and they feel the hopelessness and emptiness of their situation. April proposes that they break this lifestyle, quit everything and leave. She suggests Paris, knowing it’s where Frank had traveled in his youth, hoping his nostalgic feelings towards Paris would inspire him to agree. This idea brings joy and hope into their lives—while everyone around them thinks they are making the wrong choices in life, trying to stop them from leaving. The only person who understands them is John, the son of the real estate agent, who used to be a bright mathematics teacher, and has recently come out of a mental institution. This trigger puts a series of events in motion, and there are lots of twists which pull at the reader’s heartstrings.
A simple Google search for the author states that he is associated with the mid-century ‘Age of Anxiety’ coined by W.H. Auden in his Pulitzer-prize Winning poem. Both Auden and Yates emphasize the struggle of man’s quest to find substance and identity in a rapidly changing, industrialized, Capitalist world.
The way Yates sets up the narrative, it feels as if everything done in suburbia is a game of pretend—grown adults pretending that everything is okay, when really, everyone is aware that every little thing they do is irrelevant, and a distraction from the rich, fulfilling lives they should be living.
“[play director:] any play deserves the best that any actor has to give…we’re not just putting on a play here. We’re establishing a community theater, and that’s a pretty important thing to be doing…[narrator:] the main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company—the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves.”
Everything around the play sparks pity, and is the catalyst for April to stop pretending. There are many layers to this pretense. Acting in itself isn’t real, and yet, acting in a small suburbian, amateur production, for April, isn’t real acting—not at her age.
“No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying”
Time and pretense are entwined, things that would have seemed fine years ago, no longer work at this age. April might have had a chance to be a real actress, but now it’s too late for her, and it’s too late to start over. Her age, and her disposition are constant reminders throughout the text, particularly in the ways that Frank sees her:
“[April used to be:] A girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’) and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”
Time is passing, resentment builds up, and pretending everything is fine no longer works. Another point that Yates touches on in this work is the incredible loneliness felt on an individual level by everyone in this kind of world. Everyone thinks the other is better off, while each character experiences an extreme, forceful loneliness—while at the same time longing for a spiritual solitude in which you can find your truest self, and the source of your honest actions.
“if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”
“Being alone has nothing to do with how many people are around.”
What I particularly love about Yates’s narrative is the way in which he touches on sensitive topics regarding women and the ways they were trapped by their womanhood. Had April not kept the two children, she would be chain-less. Choices as such weren’t as readily available in the ‘50s, and in many ways continue to be limited today. I was also somewhat struck by the way in which John discusses “female” versus “feminine” with the Wheelers. He says:
“’I like your girl, Wheeler,’ he announced at last. ‘I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there [his mom] is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here.’”
John compliments April for her resilience and strength, while simultaneously directing the compliment at Frank, as if he needs to take credit for ‘[his] girl.’ I don’t know if “female vs. feminine” as a topic for discussion would stand a chance today, and I see the term ‘female’ be used in a medical realm more than a conversational one.
Everything in Revolutionary Road clashes, people want things and do the opposite, and characters continuously say things that are innately contradictory, and paradoxical. Even the road which is supposedly ‘Revolutionary’ has nothing but the ‘ordinary,’ on it. This work truly is a masterpiece, and I can see why it’s a modern classic. There is a lot to discuss about this novel, and it’s a perfect book for a reading club, or close study. It is quite depressing (so read cautiously).