If there is one book that has literary critics literally falling over themselves as they try to give their two cents worth about it, it has to be Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Written in 1961 it has been hailed as literary gem. But it was not until the late 90s that the book cross to the public domain. Richard Yates brings out his characters in eerily real sense. A simple but devastatingly beautiful prose is employed by Yates. But it did not make the book fly off the shelves, not until after 1999 anyway.
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In 1992 Richard Yates passed away. How sadly he will miss seeing his work finally attain a whole new appreciation after Stewart O’Nan’s critique was published in Boston Review in 1999. Unfortunate as it is, Richard Yates can now enjoy his success posthumously and take cold comfort in the fact that he won’t be the only artist to go down this road alone. While writers saw the potency of Richard Yates work from the word go, the public took an awfully long time in discovering it Revolutionary Road, but thankfully it has made that discovery now.
Much has been said about Revolutionary Road. In our discussion we will dwell on its literary qualities and how the author deployed them in the writing of the book. The discussion on the history, psychology or even sociology that might have influenced Yates has bee tackled countless times and that debate is worn out.
The book is set in White America suburbia in Connecticut a few miles shy off New York City. The book’s main characters are Frank and April Wheeler, a young married couple with two kids. The book has tragedy written all over it. The biggest tragedy, of course, being the impending failure of the Wheelers to achieve the dreams they sincerely believe are meant to be had by the likes of them.
The first tragedy for Wheelers is the fact that they live in the suburbs, a representation one aspect of life that the Wheelers detest: conformity. To the Frank and April the people living in Revolutionary Hill Estates are nothing like them. The Wheelers see themselves too enlightened for the slow life of the suburbs. For people who have been exposed to city life and a taste of bohemian existence, life is excruciatingly slow in the suburbs. In fact so unbearable is their existence that it has the effect of poisoning their marriage. It has also reduced them into and dreamers with each one practically holding on to dreams of grandeur about the possibility a more rewarding existence outside of the suburbs.
Unfortunately for them they seem to have taken too many wrong turns to be able get ambitions back on course for this ultimate journey. As the novel shows it is not only the Wheelers who are battling inner demons of inadequacy up Revolutionary Road. Plenty of characters have their own unique challenges which puts paid the long held notion of suburban bliss.
Everyone suffers here. In fact the book may be about suffering in its deepest psychological level. The Wheelers suffer from dreams unfulfilled; the inactivity of what should otherwise be life on the go for them is unbearable to this couple who once lived in the city.
We are subjected to a most painful scene in the book when April performs a play so badly in the community theater. The worst bit being that it was painfully obvious to the audience that her acting skills needed working on yet this is a person who believes to be a thespian work is her calling. This momentous failure of would be actress on the stage is reflective of the Wheelers’ real life failures. For a people who know what where station in life ought to be, they are stuck in a rut and can only pray for salvation. Of the two April seems to be the only one with practical solutions to their predicament. She reckons a move across the Atlantic to Europe would do them immense good. Frank unfortunately is not as practically minded like his wife. It turns out he does not have the courage relocate to Europe where he has always viewed as home for an enlightened man as he.
The conflicting attitudes spell doom for their marriage. Frank a domineering man by nature does not like it when April takes the leading role in trying to chart the course out of their unfulfilling lives. So instead of being of assistance, he becomes her biggest stumbling block devising endless plots in his head to stop her. When April announces that she is pregnant with their third child he sees this as an answer to his prayers. There is however the little matter of convincing April who, keen on her Paris trip, wants to procure an abortion so the pregnancy won’t stop it. This attempt by Frank will unearth his true self to the readers. As it is Frank lacks the nerve to follow his dream and the lengths he goes to convince April are sometimes laughable.
Of the themes in the book, loneliness takes the cake. There are many lonely souls in Revolutionary Hill. They are many shattered dreams and many lead drab existences. The fact that Frank and April cannot connect to each other’s aspirations is a searing indictment of this so-called enlightened couple’s oneness. They are so close yet so apart. Their everyday life composed of lies. Lies, so the other person is spared the pain of having to hear the unflattering truth. Frank watches April’s worst performance in Laurel’s Theater but is unable to at least politely inform her that she did not put on her best performance. He goes on to lie that they will leave for France yet, secretly he looks for ways dissuade April out of the trip.
Frank unable to reach for his stars is determined to bring everyone down with him. We can say that were Frank and April able to communicate their insecurities to each other a compromise might have been reached.
The Wheelers seem to have grabbed the attention of their neighbors, more so the Campbells. Mrs Givings the realtor is also fascinated by this couple and believes them to be just what her schizophrenic son, John, needs so he can overcome his condition. The fact that everyone wants a slice of the Wheelers is a clear indication of the deep-set loneliness in suburbia. The Campbells still do not believe they belong with the suburbia crowd even after working so hard to get there. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the fruits of their labor they are left feeling alienated and this is the reason they crave the company of the Wheelers so much.
Mrs. Givings loneliness is even more telling as her husband who is hard of hearing takes off her hearing aid so he does not have to listen to her rave about the Wheelers.
Beneath the façade of manicured lawns the suburbia dweller is a lonely person battling a myriad of disappointments and unfulfilled ambitions. When Mrs. Givings contemplates her aging looks on the mirror she is so disappointed by what she witnesses she has to turn away from the mirror quick.
Lack of communication and communal aspects in suburbia is a grounding for a troubling and frightening society. Loneliness seems can overwhelm human beings. Yates is quoted by Steven O’Nan saying of the central message in Revolutionary Road: "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy." ( O’Nan, par. 32)
And as O’Nan points out: The Wheelers are thwarted at every turn. Confronted with the painful truth of their ordinary existence and conflicts in their crumbling marriage, their frustrations and yearnings for something better represent the tattered remnants of the American Dream. (O’Nan, par. 33)
On style, Yates uses a rather uncanny device, introspection of a different sort which characters to hold imaginary dialogues with each other. Through this a glimpse into what might have been had the characters the courage to say so. This style also speaks volumes of what the inability to hold real discourse with fellow human beings does to us. We detach ourselves from reality as Frank finds out the bitter way when she holds an imaginary talk with a dying April (Mullan, par. 2)
The suburban setting in which the writer chose is a perfect setting because its quiet environs are but backdrops to so much turmoil. An irony, if you will. It was assumed that once in the suburbs, you have made it, alas, life likes to burst everyone’s bubble. The thing with suburbia which many Americans who had been to Europe then resented is conformity which they thought was perpetuated by the suburbia dweller. (Ford, par 5, 10, 24, 36)
The writer is showing us that our ambitions can become our nightmares. The thing is to go for them and not conform to the standards the world has set for us. We should also be carefully who keep for company as they may become millstones around our necks as April’s tragic death illustrates. The message is still as loud as it was written four decades ago: which aim to lead our lives in the way that we think is best for us not have to compromise for still we will an unhappy lot. Go for your dreams and be careful the dream does not finish you off. In Revolutionary Road it turns out that there is no revolution after all and this is so sad for all the characters.
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