Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Revolutionary Road: First Step in an Exploration

A 1950s modern home interior.

Earlier this month I read the book Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1926-1992) and then watched the 2008 film of the same name starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. Richard Yates made his name with this book in 1961. A novelist whose novels resided far from the bestseller lists, Yates is being apprised anew, especially with the release of Revolutionary Road and the acknowledgement of their debt to him from more current writers such as Richard Ford.

Winslet, especially, and di Caprio put in fine performances as the central couple of the book, Frank and April Wheeler, who live the life of typical suburbanites: April is a housewife, there are two children, and Frank works in New York City for "Knox Business Machines." Frank, buried somewhere in the public relations or sales despartment, does not do his job well, sloughing off as much as he can out of boredom.

Frank and April Wheeler as played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet

Despite the cast's best efforts, the movie skips over the surface of the book. This is about all it can do, because Yates has written a real novel: we are privy to the inner-most thoughts of the characters, beyond what they say; we learn about April's childhood, which helps to explain why she is so uncomfortable with family life in the suburbs and also hear Frank's reminiscences of his father (who was earlier a salesman for Knox, although Frank never told him he also works for the company) and of his father's strong hands.

The back cover of the Vintage paperback edition advertises Revolutionary Road as "the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs." The novel, it claims, shows "how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves."

Really? Frank and April met at a party in Greenwich Village, she studying to be an actress, and he not doing much of anything but known to be an interesting talker, which trait sweeps April off her feet. There is no indication in the book that Frank was seriously preparing himself for an artistic career in any medium. The two have an affair, and April becomes pregnant. She wants to abort the child, but Frank successfully fights against and proceeds to get a job. They marry and move to the suburbs. This entire pre-episode is missing from the movie.

The young Richard Yates, authoring painful probes into the human condition of the times

April, now a housewife with two children, is restless. Her attempt to play the lead female role with a new community theater proves to be a disaster, and it is in the failure of this effort that the Wheelers come right up to the edge of the canyon that separates them in their marriage. Prompted by her dramatic failure, April insists that they pull up stakes and their children and move to Paris, where she will be a highly paid secretary and Frank will "find himself." It is never clear who is to take care of the children.

Frank reluctantly agrees, but soon the Wheelers run up against two obstacles: One of Frank's bits of off-hand writing has met with high-level company approvals, and there are offers to join a high-level promotional team, with higher pay and greater interest. Two, April is again and very unhappily pregnant. She proposes, again, abortion. Frank strongly fights against this, even to the point of accusing April of being crazy and needing psychiatric help because she does have natural motherly feeling (understandable given her orphaned childhood).

The message from the movie is that April is right--the suburbs are bleak and hopeless; there is no real life, only conformity. Conformity in the suburbs and conformity on the job--conformity which crushes true life. April declares (in the book) that "conventionality and morality are the same thing, aren't they?" But she has no real passion of her own, only a desperate desire to escape from what she perceives as self-suffocation. While Frank toys which such ideas, he not anymore serious about them than he is about his job or the woman he has a brief affair with in the office (after April tells him, in her rage over her dramatic failure, that he is no longer the man she loved and married, he is no longer a man). He does, however, like to attack suburbia and those who inhabit it as a way of exerting his own self-image as a superior, more serious being.

The Wheelers drink a lot, and so do their friends. Their children are entranced by TV. There is no religious faith.

Many families of the 1950s were headed by former GIs of World War II.

The book's center is the sharp knife-edge between the outlooks of these partners in a tortured relationship, although April's are so erratic and often so vicious, it is hard to sympathize with her. Yates never proffers a solution.

Yates also gives us the character of Mrs. Givings, the real estate agent who found the Wheelers their home on Revolutionary Road. Living with an older retired husband, she tries to befriend the Wheelers and wants them to help with her only son, a long-term patient at the local mental hospital. In a meeting with the Wheelers and the Givings' son, Mrs. Givings observed that they all seemed to be enjoying the afternoon, as was she: "the sound of their easy, nostalgic laughter filled her with pleasure, and so did the taste of her sherry, and so did the sherry-colored squares of sunset on the wall, each square alive with the nodding shadows of leaves and branches stirred by the wind"--a thought that comes to someone who is determined to make the best of it. Mrs. Givings, unlike the Wheelers, was also a hard worker.

It is noteworthy that for both Frank and his friend Sean Campbell, who lives next door with his family, their self-images of greatest potency and competence were wrapped up in their experiences as GIs in World War II. Perhaps these men were less discontent, because they had already experienced something they knew they could never achieve again. I don't know.

I am not recommending this book as a pleasurable read. (Read a good review of it at Booksnob and read a good review of the movie atLetters from a Hill Farm.) I read it because I am, in a snail-like pace, looking at thethe 1950s, through literature produced during the decade and soon thereafter. Yates was considered a chief chronicler of this era, along with John Updike, whom I have not yet read.

Although the 1950s is often indicated as the high point of the housewife, real life in the 50s, I believe, was far more fraught with psychological difficulties. It was during the 15 years after the World War II that the seeds of the 1960s cultural rebellion were sown. What was really going on inside the homes of America? I started thinking about this when I observed the startling differences between 1938's film Four Daughters and its 1954 remake Young at Heart.

If you know of books that explore the inner life of this era, I'd be very grateful for any recommendations. And if you have any thoughts on this era, from your own readings and experience, I would love to hear them, either through comments or email. Many thanks.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post, Linda. Revolutionary Road is one of my favourite books, and Richard Yates is one of my favourite writers. It's such a complex and profound look at the essential meaningless of life when we are always looking for external pleasure/approval to give us our happiness and sense of achievement. I look forward to hearing more!

Nan said...

Wow, this was wonderful. Really. As one who grew up then, I think there were great differences between suburban America and small-town America. My life was in the latter, and there just weren't those same issues that the more affluent people in the suburbs had. I know there were people with troubles but I don't think they were quite the same sort.

I am one of the few who saw the movie, loved it, and couldn't get into the book. Amazing, isn't it? :<) I wrote some here:

and here:

Linda said...

Nan, Thanks for those links. I am glad you liked the review, or rather inquiry. Thanks also for your insight on the difference between the suburbs and small towns, which I have been thinking about lately. If you come up with more on that line in your thinking, let me know. It would be a lot more fruitful to have conversation on all of this topic, I think. I think that the Wheelers get caught because their high-falluting dreams of what they think they should be and want to be in some way overpowers their actual life--which they both trash in different ways, with the resulting tragedy. I say this because I do not think that either of them were serious about their dreams. But that is too simple an explanation; the reality is far more subtle and complex. I also appreciate your noting that they had no extended family in their lives at all. In the book it is made clear that April was an orphan raised by aunts, which makes family life very difficult for her. Thanks again.

Nan said...

I wrote a little bit about this here:

From what I've heard of the suburbs, then and maybe now, too, is that there isn't anything else. There's no town or shopping within walking distance. Unless you know the people in your neighborhood you are alone in your little house. And now of course with both husband and wife working no one is home. Even in the small towns that is the case. For a while I used to walk our daughter's dogs in town in the morning, and it felt like a ghost neighborhood. No cars in the yard. No people on the lawns. Probably very different in the evenings and on weekends, but quite chilling in the daytime. It reminded me of the scene I mentioned in the movie like after a nuclear war.

Cheever writes about these suburbs and these people. Maybe his characters are a bit richer, but their lives are similar, I think.

Linda said...

Hi Nan,
Love your post on women at home. Thanks for leaving these links. I am excited about reading Cheever. I saw an interview with both him and John Updike together, but I think likely that Cheever achieved more. I am anxious to read him.

Linda said...

Dear Booksnob,
I really like your characterization of why the Wheelers think their lives are meaningless. They seemed to have ignored reality in favor of their self-vision--I guess this is a a form of narcicissm. Yates gives them a fair hand I think, because they are very much alive in the book and therefore evoke compassion.

Nan said...

You might also like to read Susan Cheever's book about her dad, Home Before Dark. I haven't read it, but I know from reading her American Bloomsbury that she is a very, very good writer. And though he hasn't written about his father, Ben Cheever wrote a book I really liked called Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy. Talented family.