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.
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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.
- Ford, Richard. “American Beauty.” New York Times April 9, 200.Retrieved July 13, 2008 from: http://www.tbns.net/elevenkinds/richardford.html
- Mullan, John. “Elements of Fiction.” The Guardian September 18, 2004. Retrieved July 13, 2008 from: http://books.guardian.co.uk/elements/story/0,,1447612,00.html
- O’Nan, Steven. “The Lost World of Richard Yates.” Boston Review October/November 1999.
The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and a wonderful group of people to work with.
"It hasn't been an easy job," he said, his glasses glinting soberly around the stage. "We've had a lot of problems here, and quite frankly I'd more or less resigned myself not to expect too much. Well, listen. Maybe this sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time." He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was; then he made the same hand into a fist, which he shook slowly and wordlessly in a long dramatic pause, closing one eye and allowing his moist lower lip to curl out in a grimace of triumph and pride. "Do that again tomorrow night," he said, "and we'll have one hell of a show."
They could have wept with relief. Instead, trembling, they cheered and laughed and shook hands and kissed one another, and somebody when out for a case of beer and they all sang unanimously, that they'd better knock it off and get a good night's sleep.
"See you tomorrow!" they called, as happy as children, and riding home under the moon they found they could roll down the windows of their cars and let the air in, with its health-giving smells of loam and young flowers. It was the first time many of the Laurel Players had allowed themselves to acknowledge the coming of spring.
The year was 1955 and the place was a part of western Connecticut where three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous highway called Route Twelve. The Laurel Players were an amateur company, but a costly and very serious one, carefully recruited from among the younger adults of all three towns, and this was to be their maiden production. All winter, gathering in one another's living rooms for excited talks about Ibsen and Shaw and O'Neill, and then for the show of hands in which a common-sense majority chose The Petrified Forest, and then for the preliminary casting, they had felt their dedication growing stronger every week. They might privately consider their director a funny little man (and he was, in a way: he seemed incapable of any but a very earnest manner of speaking, and would often conclude his remarks with a little shake of the head that caused his cheeks to wobble) but they liked and respected him, and they fully believed in most of the things he said. "Any play deserves the best that any actor has to give," he'd told them once, and another time: "Remember this. 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."
The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it. At first their rehearsals had been held on Saturdays—always, it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white, the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shriveled snow. The Players, coming out of their various kitchen doors and hesitating for a minute to button their coats or bull on their gloves, would see a landscape in which only a few very old, weathered houses seemed to belong; it made their own homes look as weightless and impermanent, as foolishly misplaced as a great many bright new toys that had been left outdoors overnight and rained on. Their automobiles didn't look right either—unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that led from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel—KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT—but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road that led to the central high school; they had to pull up and stop in the quiet parking lot outside the high-school auditorium.
"Hi!" the Players would shyly call to one another.
"Hi!...""Hi!..." And they'd go reluctantly inside.
Clumping their heavy galoshes around the stage, blotting at their noses with Kleenex and frowning at the unsteady print of their scripts, they would disarm each other at last with peals of forgiving laughter, and they would agree, over and over, that there wasn't plenty of time, and they all knew it, and a doubling and redoubling of their rehearsal schedule seemed only to make matters worse. Long after the time had come for what the director called "really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen," it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other's eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might lie in wait for them there.
And now tonight, with twenty-four hours to go, they had somehow managed to bring it off. Giddy in the unfamiliar feel of make-up and costumes on this first warm evening of the year, they had forgotten to be afraid: they had let the movement of the play come and carry them and break like a wave; and maybe it sounded corny (and what if it did?) but they had all put their hearts into their work. Could anyone ever ask for more than that?
The audience, arriving in a long clean serpent of cars the following night, were very serious too. Like the Players they were mostly on the young side of middle age, and they were attractively dressed in what the New York clothing stores describe as Country Casuals. Anyone could see they were a better than average crowd, in terms of education and employment and good health, and it was clear too that they considered this a significant evening. They all knew, of course, and said so again and again as they filed inside and took their seats, that The Petrified Forest was hardly one of the world's great plays. But it was, after all, a fine theater piece with a basic point of view that was every bit as valid today as in the thirties ("Even more valid," one man kept telling his wife, who chewed her lips and nodded, seeing what he meant; "even more valid, when you think about it"). 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. This was what had drawn them, enough of them to fill more than half the auditorium, and it was what held them hushed and tense in readiness for pleasure as the house lights dimmed.
The curtain went up on a set whose rear wall was still shaking with the impact of a stagehand's last-minute escape, and the first few lines of dialogue were blurred by the scrape and bang of accidental offstage noises. These small disorders were signs of a mounting hysteria among the Laurel Players, but across the footlights they seemed only to add to a sense of impending excellence. They seemed to say, engagingly: Wait a minute; it hasn't really started yet. We're all a little nervous here, but please bear with us. And soon there was no further need for apologies, for the audience was watching the girl who played the heroine, Gabrielle.
Her name was April Wheeler, and she caused the whispered word "lovely" to roll out over the auditorium the first time she walked across the stage. A little later there were hopeful nudges and whispers of "She's good," and there were stately nods of pride among the several people who happened to know that she had attended one of the leading dramatic schools of New York less than ten years before. She was twenty-nine, a tall ash blonde with a patrician kind of beauty that no amount of amateur lighting could distort, and she seemed ideally cast in her role. It didn't even matter that bearing two children had left her a shade too heavy in the hips and thighs, for she moved with the shyly sensual grace of maidenhood; anyone happening to glance at Frank Wheeler, the round-faced, intelligent-looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience, would have said he looked more like her suitor than her husband.
"Sometimes I can feel as if I were sparkling all over," she was saying, "and I want to go out and do something that's absolutely crazy, and marvelous..."
Backstage, huddled and listening, the other actors suddenly loved her. Or at least they were prepared to love her, even those who had resented her occasional lack of humility at rehearsals, for she was suddenly the only hope they had.
Excerpted from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates © 1961, 1989. Reprinted with permission by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
by Richard Yates
Paperback, 368 pages
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