Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road and the recent film version of the same name are interchangeable. The film is just as difficult to watch as the book is to read. Frank and April Wheeler live in a suburb outside New York during the 50s. They have two children, several unfulfilled dreams, and one conflict after another.

Their story is widely seen as yet another critique of life in the suburbs. But it is just as much, if not more so, about the trap that marriage can become regardless of where it occurs--suburbs, city, farm or village. In either place, lives become stuck, hopes are abandoned, and marriage becomes little else but a war zone.

In writing about the film Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com 12/25/08) says “…the people stuck living these lives tend to either shriek at one another or silently, stoned on their own resentment. We’ve seen this sort of thing in movies and in literature over and over again, done well and done badly.” I think Yates, as well as Sam Mendes the director of the film, do it as well as anyone.

In another review of the film James Berardinelli writes astutely: “A lot of marriages are like this, with many of the fundamental problems not having changed in 50 years. Too many unions begun with hope and optimism degenerate into stale existences with two disconnected individuals living under the same roof. Today many such couples divorce. In 1955, divorce was less common, so husbands and wives would argue and find ways to make temporary peace. It’s unfair to claim that the happy suburban family was (or is) an illusion, but the reality is not as perfect as the illusion.”

And in revisiting the Yates novel, James Wood writes in The New Yorker (12/15/08) that the novel is yet another familiar critique of the suburbs. Again, I think the story is much more general than that. Indeed, Yates agrees in saying that he intended the novel to be “an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties.” And later he wrote “I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.” Have the deeper aspects of life in this country moved much beyond that, more than fifty years later?

Wood claims that the “Yates suburban life, with its dreary drunken rituals and stolid neighbors, along with the Yateses’ frequent marital fighting” provided the material for Revolutionary Road. And later that “Yates was playing a morbid joke on himself when he created Frank Wheeler, because Frank is Yates without the writing…”

Many reviewers make claims that the stories authors write reflects their own life, that their fictional tales are in many ways autobiographical. I always find such assertions irrelevant to the appreciation of the story. I say “So what? The story stands alone independently of any conjectures about the writer’s life.

I have selected the following passages from the several I made note of while reading Revolutionary Road. I believe they will convey the intensity of the story and the spirit that Yates brought to its telling.

…larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you go live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.

What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?

The black kitchen window gave him a vivid reflection of his face, round and full of weakness, and he stared at it with loathing.

…an enormous, obscene delusion—this idea that people have to resign from real life and “settle down” when they have families.

…is it any wonder all the men end up emasculated? Because that is what happens; that is that’s reflected in all this bleating about “adjustment” and “security” and “togetherness…

…the hopeless emptiness of everything in this country.

…ordinary Sunday-evening sadness.

What is any spring but a mindless rearrangement of cells in the crust of the spinning earth as it floats in endless circuit of its sun? What is the sun itself but one of a billion insensible stars forever going nowhere into nothingness?

The hell with “love” anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world.

The house looked very neat and white as it emerged through the green and yellow leaves; it was such a bad house after all. It looked…like a place where people lived—a place where the difficult, intricate process of living could sometimes give rise to incredible harmonies of happiness and sometimes to near-tragic disorder, as well as to ludicrous minor interludes…