Revolutionary Road

I’m 31; I live with my wife and two girls in a pleasant middle-class apartment paid for by a relatively stable office job. As most young adults of my generation in this (privileged) condition, I have a relatively positive outlook on life and about what the future holds, even though – I must admit – the grind of a full-time job and the responsibility of parenting have kicked in, leaving only a small, residual space for personal development and creativity. All in all, however, even if adult life is not what it’s cracked up to be, it’s still pretty good.

The “hopeless emptiness” of Frank and April Wheeler’s existence

Yet Richard Yates, in his wonderful novel “Revolutionary Road”, has made a tragedy out of this condition. His main character, Frank Wheeler – who is 30, has a beautiful wife, two healthy kids, a stable office job and lives in a pleasant middle class suburban neighbourhood – leads an utterly unsatisfactory existence, and so does his wife.

On the professional level, he is frustrated because he feels stuck in a stultifying job, which is monotonous, unchallenging and often alienating in its insipidity: it’s the kind of job where you don’t have a sense of making a difference, of accomplishing anything worthwhile. No room for imagination, for creativity, for amazement.
On the personal level, he is unable to truly connect with his wife and children. His marriage is crumbling: quarrels become more and more frequent and talking – when it doesn’t turn into hysterical shouting -only seems to make matters worst, entangling the couple in a stifling, suffocating web of words. They are in the quick sands, and have no clue how to get out.
And that’s not talking about the children: they are mere “extras”, appearing at rare intervals, and disappearing ever-so-quickly, often to go and play next door. Even here, fatherhood seems to generate little satisfaction; Frank just goes through the motions, such as when, on rare occasions, he reads them “the funnies”. If they are one of the joys of his life, he sure doesn’t show it.
Even his friendships are very limited and unsatisfactory. The couple’s best friends are their neighbours, Milly and Shep, with whom they have a superficial relationship which consists of trite conversations and increasing moments of silence and embarrassment, which suggest that…they have really nothing to say to each other.

Ditto for April Wheeler. She perceives her life as unbearably monotonous… so much so that she tells her husband that he has gotten her “safely into a trap”. Her days are spent the way you’d expect from an American housewife in the fifties: attending to the house and children in the uninspiring and lonely – if deceptively cosy – suburban setting. Just like her husband’s life, April’s is about going through the motions, without really engaging wholeheartedly in any activity.

The best way to sum up their life is “uninspiring prosperity” or, to use Frank’s expression: “hopeless emptiness”.

But what is the cause of this “emptiness”? Is it really “hopeless” or is there a way to break free? Revolutionary Road is about Frank and April’s tragic attempt to answer both questions.

Two different perspectives on the Wheeler’s existential discontent

Is “society” to blame for the Wheeler’s condition, or are they themselves to blame? Is Revolutionary Road an anti-suburban novel, or is it a novel about people who blame their unhappiness on the suburbs? There are arguments for both interpretations.

Blame it on the suburbs

On the one hand, Revolutionary Road presents a rather bleak, stereotypical picture of the fifties in Connecticut, which the film renders very well, by portraying the dullness of conformity through the use of a very limited range of colours and costumes and by giving its characters – including the hundreds of extras – a subtle but very palpable lifelessness… something mechanical about them in the way they move, they smile, they work: its seems as though humans in this type of society are unable to experience sincere and spontaneous feelings. In other words, they are alienated, victims of a de-humanizing way of life which sucks up their vitality and enthusiasm. Contrarily to other negative utopias, such as 1984, there is no totalitarianism to speak of, no secret police, no Big Brother watching. On the contrary, everything is clean, tidy, prosperous, “swell”… which, in a way, makes things even more terrifying, because it is so difficult to pinpoint the cause of such widespread malaise.

Enter suburbia. As the theory goes, Americans have created, in the fifties, an incredibly dull lifestyle which condemns men to boring, meaningless jobs and women to the mundane sadness of domestic life. The spirit of adventure, exploration, self-seeking, creativity upon which the United States were founded had disappeared – as Yates himself commented – and was replaced by its opposite, transforming americans into complacent automatons. In this interpretation, the Wheelers are just victims of this condition. The only difference compared to other couples is that they are aware of this condition, which generates deep frustration and anxiety, and the (futile) attempt to break free from it.

Blame it on the Wheelers

However, most critics nowadays tend to lean toward a very different interpretation: the problem lies much more in the Wheelers’ mind than in “society’s” structure. In this perspective, Yate’s satire is not about suburban life, but about the anti-suburban attitude that was fashionable among intellectuals, writers and artists at the time, and that to some extent still is (the movies American Beauty and The Joneses come to mind).

The Wheelers are seen as “spoiled brats” who have it all and are unable to appreciate anything. We could use the word “affluenza” to describe their ailment. Their life is so full of good things – health, youth, children, money – and yet everything feels so empty and depressing to them. While most people around them have learned to appreciate what the American dream has to offer – homeownership, a steady well-paid job, the joys of parenthood, drinks with friends, promotions – they somehow are unable to draw any satisfaction from it. If we follow this interpretation, we believe that the cause of their predicament is psychological, not sociological, and the Revolutionary Road tells the story of two frustrated individuals, which form a frustrated couple, who cannot find a way out of the misery their mind has put them into.

Frank is frustrated because he sees himself as a stifled genius. His life should be about finding himself, about being a writer, or an artist of some sort, yet he is stuck in a job he doesn’t like, perhaps for the rest of his life (and he is only 30!). April, on her part, dreams of being an actress, of making it big. Yet she is a housewife, doing monotonous chores during the day and taking care of the kids, with scarce enthusiasm, in the afternoon. As a couple, they only redouble their respective frustrations; they aren’t able to provide themselves with the comfort and warmth that would allow for a more rational and sensible attitude towards their life. As Adelle Waldman observed in her excellent analysis for The New Republic,”their love is utterly poisonous for each other” and – I would add – they deliver themselves the last blow.

Two possible ways out

If there are two possible causes, there are two possible solutions. If the problem lies with American society, the solution is to move out: it’s the revolutionary road. If the problem lies with the Wheelers, the solution is to seek psychological counseling, and to learn to accept and appreciate what life is offering: it’s the road of conformity. In other words, either you try to do what you like, or you try to make yourself like what you do.

The Revolutionary Road

The Revolutionary road is, conceptually, the easiest way out. It’s much more simple to believe that all your problems are a function of geography, and that they can be solved by relocating to the other side of the Atlantic. Suburbia thus becomes the scapegoat, and Paris the panacea. The complexity of their psychological predicament is erased, just like when you cannot troubleshoot a serious computer problem, and you resort to the ultimate, infallible formula “format and reinstall the operating system” (also referred to as nuke and pave or wipe and reload :-)).

April concocts this idea, and all of a sudden she breathes new life. It doesn’t take long for her to convince her initially incredulous and reluctant husband, and before they know it they are making preparations to move to Paris and restart afresh. April will finally get a job, and leave the “trap” of the suburban home, and Frank will finally be able to “find himself”, to find exactly what his talent is and unleash his creativity. This is the most pleasing and heart-warming part of the novel, where we see the Wheelers “in love” again, united in the pursuit of a common goal, defying the canons of society.

There is a key scene when they tell their neighbors Millie and Shep they are moving to Paris, explaining the reasons (“to escape the emptiness”) while they are holding hands, smiling and winking at each other like newfound lovebirds. So powerful is the impression they make on Millie that she is overcome by anxiety and despair: are the Wheelers on to something? are we really leading such hopeless lives? Her husband quickly comforts her and reassures her that it is they who are insane, not the whole of American society.

Critics differ in their interpretation of Frank’s degree of commitment to the project. Adelle Waldman even goes as far as to say that he has never really believed in it, but decided to temporarily go along with it because it provided a well-needed boost to their marriage. One thing is certain: whatever his initial degree of commitment was, the unexpected pregnancy will make him backtrack and steer away from the revolutionary road: no more Paris.

It is this polarization between husband and wife that makes the epilogue of Revolutionary Road so interesting. April stays committed to Paris, and she consequently resolves to have an abortion, a very powerful metaphor for the determination to eradicate the values that society imposes upon her: motherhood and the rights of the unborn child. By destroying the fetus, April is trying to get back at Society for putting her in such a condition and, at the same time, she is seeking a new birth for herself. She sees no other way out: it’s either Paris or death.

The road of conformity

Frank will do everything in his power to prevent his wife for having an abortion… even try to be a “good husband”: he will quit complaining about his job, take his wife on dates, help out at home… This is the second “happy” interlude of the novel, and for a while it seems to bring about in the reader the illusion that perhaps things can work out after all. Frank gets an opportunity to get promoted and starts deriving a degree of satisfaction from his job.

More importantly, he becomes all of a sudden convinced that the Paris project – the revolutionary road – is pure folly, for various reasons. The most obvious one is that they may not be able to make a livelihood in France (they don’t even speak the language). But, as the supporting character John Givings says, “money is a good reason, but it’s never the real reason”. The real reason, I think, is that Frank becomes more and more aware that the problem is not suburbia, and that consequently Paris is no cure-all. His colleague at work makes him think: “if you need to find yourself, wouldn’t you just as well do it here?” (after all, if you can’t find yourself in New York, where can you? :-)). It then perhaps dawns upon Frank that, all along, he has been using suburbia as a way to hide his mediocrity and to ennoble his frustrations. As James Woods brilliantly put it in his article for the New Yorker “he is terrified that there is perhaps no Frank to find”: he understands that it would be better for him to continue living a mediocre life in New York – cultivating the illusion that he is somehow superior to others – than to go to Paris and wake up to the fact the Frank in New York was “as good as he gets”.

For Frank there is thus no other solution than to stick to “conformity” and make the most out of the life they have, perhaps with the help of… a shrink! If society is not insane, then it means that it is they who are insane, and only a psychologist (or even a psychiatrist) can help.

Two deaths

The novel famously ends with the death of April, who tries to give herself an abortion. It is of course a suicide, preceded by the “last supper” ritual, which Yates aptly substitutes with a “last breakfast”, given the iconic importance of “family breakfasts” in the fifties, served by loving wives and mothers. In the wonderful final dialogue of the book between the couple, April professes interest in her husband’s work, and Frank rewards her with a detailed account of what he is set to accomplish. She has unexplainably transformed herself into the “perfect wife”, as if she had decided to abandon the revolutionary road and commit wholeheartedly to the road of conformity. He seems to appreciate it immensely, even though something tells him that it’s too good to be true.

This last episode is the final goodbye between Frank and April, who stresses that she “doesn’t hate” Frank. Her tone conveys resignation rather than anger: the realization that they have taken divergent paths, and that she wishes him well in his endeavor to blend in and pursue the kind of success that suburban life calls for. In the movie, the screenplay adds a line of dialogue that is absent in the book, but which aptly captures April’s state of mind: “You have to value your work Frank”, i.e. “you who have chosen this path, pursue it as best you can”. I don’t think there is anything sarcastic or insincere about this statement.

I believe that there are two deaths in the novel: a physical one, April, and a spiritual one, Frank. The rest of the book depicts Frank even more lifeless than before, even though his commitment to his job seems to increase (the book says he is always talking about work). This makes Revolutionary Road a tragedy, as no main character really survives. Both roads, the revolutionary and the conformity, have proven to be dead ends, and the reader is left with a bitter aftertaste which, I’m afraid, contributed to the novel’s disappointing sales record.

My interpretation

As it has become apparent throughout this article, I think both interpretations are possibile: Revolutionary Road is a strong critique of American society in the fifties, but manages at the same time to transcend the boundaries of the anti-suburban novel by developing a strong psychological undercurrent, which becomes the plot’s driving force. In a way, it ends up being a bit of a mystery, for we will never really know who the real culprit is: how much is society to blame for their misery, and how much are the Wheelers, with their psychological weaknesses and frustrations?

If I were asked to give some advice to Frank – with whom I empathize a lot – I would tell him to break free from his unsatisfactory life by getting a different job and encouraging his wife to get a job (and life) of her own. The couple is unhappy, it’s a fact, and they need to change something very quickly, by using their imagination to envision a credible plan. In order to do that, Frank needs to overcome the fear of change – the fear of being a disappointment to himself and to April – and have the courage to reinvent himself.
Much has been made of Frank’s fear of discovering, in Paris, that “there is no Frank to find”, that he is indeed no better than the average Joe, and that he can’t accomplish much more than what he is doing now. Many people have said that, at the end of the day, Revolutionary Road is a novel about coming to terms with one’s own mediocrity. I’m not sure I agree. I do recognize that there is a gap between the characters’ aspirations and their capacity to realize them; however, I believe that what the Wheelers are really searching for is not necessarily a successful and prestigious life, but an interesting and meaningful one. This is not a novel that focuses on the characters’ obsessions about climbing the corporate ladder, making a fortune or becoming famous. Rather, it’s about filling your day with rewarding activities – both at work and at home – so as to feel fulfilled. The thirty year-old Wheelers are darned right to philosophize about this and to ask themselves “is this what it’s all about”, before it’s too late.

I can think of no better way to conclude my reflections on Revolutionary Road than by quoting the late Steve Jobs, a man who realized very early on that he could never endure a life such as Frank’s:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

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