If I were to tell you that this novel is great because it’s ‘mesmerising’ and ‘powerful’ and ‘you simply can’t put it down’, you might just smile politely, say you’ll read it and soon forget all about it. Like so many brilliant pieces of writing, Revolutionary Road has often been reduced to a few meaningless (albeit well-meaning) clichés. If I were to tell you that it’s great because it’s probing, suffocating and at times unbearable, you might think twice about reading it. Now, more so than ever, books are a mode of escape. Richard Yates’ book doesn’t give us a warm, comforting literary landscape to flee to when we fall on hard times. Instead, what emerges is an unsettling, topical interrogation into the nature of conformity, set in an ‘age of anxiety’ which seems rather too similar to our own.
First published in 1961, Revolutionary Road is a story of ordinary circumstances. We’re cast into the landscape of the 1950s post-war boom: an age of optimism, consumerism and the growth of the suburban America which we might recognise today. In this shiny landscape of gleaming cars and new housing estates, the protagonists, Frank and April Wheeler, though restless and unwilling to conform to the expectations of small-town life, find themselves falling into the trap of banality. Frank works in a corporate office job in New York; April, falling pregnant seven years earlier than intended, is a housewife and a “mildly talented” drama school graduate. A seemingly comfortable, though monotonous, life is characterized by visits from nosy neighbours and drinks with friends.
From the outset, we sense tragedy. The “final dying sounds” of the opening scene and the toe-curling failure of April’s am-dram performance give an undercurrent of something darker bubbling beneath the surface of their daily life, from time to time rising up and threatening to submerge the characters and readers alike. Yates cleverly conceals how this tragedy might come about, often concealing its lurking presence as the plot winds its way through various false hopes and nostalgic flashbacks. Even after the lights go down on the high school stage of April’s performance, there continues to be a profound sense of actors stumbling about a stage which dissolves all around them, straining to reach a concrete ideal which evades them throughout. The only power they have, it seems, is the pain they can inflict upon each other.
In face of this futility, Frank and April revel in highbrow discussion. The epigraph taken from Keats, warns us of a story where “passion is both meek and wild!”. Frank, envisioning himself as smooth-talking Sartre, appears passionate about the “hopeless emptiness” of modern day America, often descending into empty rhetoric about the “endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity”. They enter into Meaningful, Intellectual discussions, purely designed to illustrate their own superiority which transcends the lowly, wasted existences of those who surround them. These discussions culminate in a grand plan to escape to Paris. The reader, as foolishly as the characters, is briefly caught up in the whirlwind of believing that things could be different, that they could reach Paris and have a whole new life outside of the cage of suburbia. Believing in the characters’ dream is the equivalent to believing in our own far-fetched fantasies. Yet the prose, which continually slips between an impersonal narrator and Frank’s continuous reveries, betrays his true, meek desire. Frank doesn’t want to go to Paris; he wants to live in a society where he understands his prescribed role. He wants to hold a “tamed, submissive girl […] who promised to bear his child”.
There’s never been a shortage of repressed women in literature. Madame Bovary, Yates’ favourite novel, depicts the trials of a woman trapped in provinces. Just like Emma Bovary, April is determined to flee to Paris. And just like Emma, though we see the beauty in April’s dream, the patriarchal structure which defines her husband’s worth and her own lack of independence means this desire is futile. An early manifestation of toxic masculinity, Frank’s insecurities make a life beyond the boundaries of ‘typical’ family roles an acute threat to his very being. April’s own thought process is kept hidden from us until the very end, until it’s too late. When the lurking tragedy suddenly comes to fruition, the reader must witness its transformation into a mere piece of neighbourhood gossip, by the society April despised so much.
In this new ‘age of anxiety’, where we’re increasingly invited to consider our own roles and beliefs, Revolutionary Road reflects on what it means to conform. Along the way, Yates’ disturbingly perceptive prose points us in the direction of uncomfortable truths. As much as we may resent it, we recognise aspects of the characters in ourselves. Though our societies may change and develop, human nature does not.