Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

★★★★★ (5/5)

That’s what it is, an enormous, obscene delusion – this idea that people have to resign from real life and ‘settle down’ when they have families. It’s the great sentimental lie of the suburbs, and I’ve been making you subscribe to it all this time

What an incredible honour it is to have come across this gem of a book and be riveted and enthralled by its sheer brilliance. Richard Yates’ masterful depiction of a typical 1950s American household in “Revolutionary Road” is but a smokescreen for the internal hypocrisies played out by an enigmatic young couple, the Wheeler’s, who are too steeped in their own delusions to comprehend the finer intricacies of reality.

He had taken command of the universe because he was a man, and because the marvelous creature who opened and moved for him, tender and strong, was a woman

This is a story of the loquacious, young Frank Wheeler, an enthusiastic and eager thirty-year old man who is mired in professional and personal mediocrity. His wife is April Wheeler, an ardent dreamer, subjugated to a suburban lifestyle of a homemaker and a mother. What appears to be an impeccable match, a seamless living situation, with a nice house and two children, is in fact a façade of the most tragic proportions.

What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way! Because once you’d started it was terribly difficult to stop; soon you were saying “I’m sorry, of course you’re right,” and “Whatever you think is best,” and “You’re the most wonderful and valuable thing in the world,” and the next thing you knew all honesty, all truth, was as far away and glimmering, as hopelessly unattainable as the world of the golden people

On the surface, thematic concerns revolve around the superficiality of a marriage and all its undertakings – sacrifice, compromise, and understanding. On a deeper level, the story cries out for individualism even in an institution as socially binding as a marriage. Thwarted hopes and dreams come clashing with spousal expectations. Add to this the Wheeler’s frantic dependency on a grand delusion that they craft for themselves, that is moving to France once and for all, and their marriage becomes embroiled in chaos and turmoil that torpedoes fast towards an inevitable tragedy.

All he would ever need, it was said, was the time and the freedom to find himself

April insists on moving abroad, in hopes to recapture the lost adventure of a past life she had unlived. But her unforeseen pregnancy shatters her dreams once again. She feels wedged in this suburban lifestyle, fulfilling conventional roles of a mother and a wife. In nudging Frank to agree to her decision to move abroad, she plays on his insecurities too albeit unconsciously. Frank is stuck in an unimaginative job, a career that is dull with no exciting future. Relocation would help him with introspection and enough time to realise what he really wants from his life. She feels responsible for him and uses this as an impetus to facilitate her husband’s shortcomings. And with silent apprehensions, he agrees to her grand designs.

“Don’t you know? You’re the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You’re a man.” And of all the capitulations in his life, this was the one that seemed most like a victory. Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he triumphed more completely over time and space

This is where Frank Wheeler falters. He uses April’s pregnancy as a crutch to get out of a potentially risky situation. He is an active participant in her fantasies and propagates them further, but when the time comes to make a decision, he backs down and instead of being supportive, vindicates April’s condition. His reasons are unjustified; insulting April’s sanity, condemning her first for thinking about abortions and then blaming her for not going through it, accusing her past motivations and doubting her womanhood. Much vile is spewed against each other which only results in simmering tensions that will eventually boil over.

Wasn’t it likely, after all, that a girl who’d known nothing but parental rejection from the time of her birth might develop an abiding reluctance to bear children?

Is April at fault for desiring a radical change in her otherwise boring life? Should Frank feel guilty for wanting to give their monotonous suburban life another chance? Are they to be blamed for wanting an escape from “the hopeless emptiness” of it all? With a third child on the way, economical means hinder their plans but as John Givings aptly puts it, “Money’s always a good reason, but it’s hardly ever the real reason.” Despite being at loggerheads, the monetary question has never come into play in April and Frank’s countless quarrels. They have rarely used it to reinforce their arguments. It can either be deliberate negligence on their parts, a fragment of the illusion they have constructed for themselves or perhaps they are too disinterested to mull such details of a realistic lifestyle.

This was deadlock. If everything he said was “just words,” what was the point of talking? How could any possibility of speech prevail against the weight of a stubbornness as deep as this?

Together, the Wheelers’ have a toxic view of life around them. They belittle the Campbells and Givings’ for their snooty approval to the suburban lifestyle. For the Wheelers’, other families have given up and withdrawn to their tedious routines but only they have the intellectual capacity and spirit to be audaciously in charge of their lives and retake control. This is just another deception they have allowed themselves to believe in. This tendency to ridicule others despite being on the same level as them can be owed to the fact that the Wheeler’s are younger than anyone around them. What has not dawned on them yet is that exceptionality is not a means to happiness.

How decadent can a society get? Look at it this way. This country’s probably the psychiatric, psychoanalytical capital of the world. Old Freud himself could never’ve dreamed up a more devoted bunch of disciples than the population of the United States – isn’t that right?

The marital discord paired with individual confusion and inability to relate or fully comprehend another human being can all be boiled down to absolute discontent – a malaise of a post-war society. Despite all tangible comforts, the Wheelers’ are inherently dissatisfied with their situation. Their indulgences are evident of the fact that despite having it all, they choose to remain unhappy. Their myopic view on life lacks gratitude. This begs the question, are they not entitled to wishing for more? Is this all these is to it – getting married, having kids and then falling in another cycle, waiting for the children to get married and bear grandchildren? When does this all end? The relentlessness of societal norms, its propagation and survival are indeed dismal inquiries. But heartfelt gratitude eases these troubles, or at least gives such queries a disproportionate precedence over other more immediate concerns.

He was grateful that however uneasy the rest of his life had turned out to be, it had once contained enough peace to give him pleasant dreams

The middle class has always been afflicted by ingratitude and self-indulgence. Frank Wheeler epitomises the mercenary attitude of a typical 50s man, with no regard for sincerity. April too is corrupted by thanklessness. Unrealistic desires thrive in such conditions and expectations are built and broken on such foundations. The tragedy that ensues was by no means a revelation; it was in the makings ever since April and Frank unduly committed themselves to grand illusions of what life had in store for them. They fabricated a future and were stifled under its duress of unfulfilled commitments and expectations.

People did change, and a change could be a bloom as well as a withering, couldn’t it?

This is an overwhelming story, a powerful take on individuality in face of capitalism and collectivism. Richard Yates makes compelling arguments in the perpetual debate of choice and fate. With stunning, crisp and beautiful prose, Yates mesmerises us in sadness and grief. We lament the tragic ending but are cognizant of the finer intricacies of life, of the power of communication, of silent understandings and sensible misgivings.

If you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.


Beautifully crafted sentences

  • 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
  • He was neat and solid, a few days less than thirty years old
  • But for all its lack of structural distinction, his face did have an unusual mobility: it was able to suggest wholly different personalities with each flickering change of expression. Smiling, he was a man who knew perfectly well that the failure of an amateur play was nothing much to worry about, a kindly, witty man who would have exactly the right words of comfort for his wife backstage; but in the intervals between his smiles, when he shouldered ahead through the crowd and you could see the faint chronic fever of bewilderment in his eyes, it seemed more that he himself was in need of comforting.
  • The car overtook them, lighting up the sign and the tense shape of her back; then its taillights sped away and the drone of its tires flattened out to a buzz in the distance, and finally to silence
  • He couldn’t even tell whether he was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power to forgive
  • It was turning into mindless, unrewarding work, the kind of work that makes you clumsy with fatigue and petulant with lack of progress, and it looked as if it would take all summer.
  • suggesting that miles of hot sand had been traveled for the finding of this oasis or that living breath itself had been held, painfully, against the promise of this release
  • Instead he shut his eyes and reached out and drew her close against him, crushing her cocktail apron in a desperate embrace, letting all his torment dissolve in pressing and stroking the inward curve of her back while he urged his groaning, muttering mouth into her throat
  • Anything in the world that could even faintly be connected with what his mother called “cultivated” or “nice” was anathema to Shep Campbell in those formative years, and everything she called “vulgar” was his heart’s desire
  • there were hundreds of other rude surprises in the overwhelming fact of New York itself, which turned out to be big and dirty and loud and cruel
  • He took each fact as it came and let it slip painlessly into the back of his mind, thinking, Okay, okay, I’ll think about that one later; and that one; and that one; so that the alert, front part of his mind could remain free enough to keep him in command of the situation
  • Deep down, what she’d loved and needed was work itself. “Hard work,” her father had always said, “is the best medicine yet devised for all the ills of man – and of woman,” and she’d always believed it
  • His whole adult life had been spent as a minor official of the seventh largest life insurance company in the world, and now in retirement it seemed that the years of office tedium had marked him as vividly as old seafaring men are marked by wind and sun
  • And he went on and on, modestly confessing his ignorance of technicalities, disparaging his right to speak as a prophet, earnestly losing his way in the labyrinthine structure of his sentences.
  • Then: “Is there any other kind?” she asked. “Don’t ‘moral’ and ‘conventional’ really mean the same thing?”
  • And that, of course, was the other, the really important difference: it didn’t upset him. It annoyed him slightly, but it didn’t upset him. Why should it? It was her problem
  • I feel sorry for you. Still, maybe you deserve each other. Matter of fact, the way you look right now, I’m beginning to feel sorry for him, too. I mean come to think of it, you must give him a pretty bad time, if making babies is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls
  • Never undertake to do a thing until you’ve thought it through; then do the best you can.
  • The only real mistake, the only wrong and dishonest thing, was ever to have seen him as anything more than that
  • The whole point of grief itself was to cut it out while it was still honest, while it still meant something. Because the thing was so easily corrupted: let yourself go and you started embellishing your own sobs
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