First published in 1961
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’s first and greatest novel, has not always been considered a classic. During his lifetime Yates sold very few books and by the time he died in 1992 he had been largely forgotten. Over recent years the book has been rediscovered by a new layer of readers who are drawn to a novel that is a powerful and disturbing account of a family in crisis.
April and Frank Wheeler are a young married couple in 1950s America who decide to buy into the post-war promise and move, with their two young children, away from the city into the suburbs.
The estate they move to – Revolutionary Hill – acts as the stage where their tragedy is played out. The novel opens with April performing in an amateur play where at first she seems perfect for the role. But as the scene unfolds it becomes clear that she can’t act and the audience find themselves embarrassed for her. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as the Wheelers try to write their own script but constantly find they don’t fit the roles they have imagined for themselves.
As their frustrations become more pronounced the suburban dream turns into nightmare and they search for ways out. They plan a move to Paris, where April can take up a job so that Frank can pursue his interests, free from the monotony of his city job. April persuades Frank of the idea telling him “It’s your very essence that’s being stifled here. It’s what you are that’s being denied.” Paris comes to symbolise somewhere they can fulfil their potential, free from the rigid conformity of American suburbia.
Frank and April are deeply alienated from their children (who are rarely mentioned), each other, and themselves. This is illustrated when Shep, the neighbour April has an affair with, tells her he loves her and she can only reply that she doesn’t know him, and even if she did it wouldn’t matter, as she doesn’t know herself.
But April isn’t a pawn in anyone’s game. Her offer to take up work is not a sacrifice for Frank, but a way of freeing herself from the chains of being a passive mother and housewife, a role she fits as badly as her character in the amateur play. When she finds herself facing another unwanted pregnancy the couple’s problems come to a head. Frank uses the pregnancy to put the final nail in the coffin of the Parisian dream, which he has become increasingly disillusioned with. But April is horrified and her desperate attempts to claw back some control over her own life end with devastating consequences.
Revolutionary Road is an undeniably bleak novel but Yates’s writing saves us from despair. The characters are never reduced to passive victims of their fate; it is precisely because we see the different paths they could have taken which makes the book tragic. Yates charts each and every act or decision which leads to the Wheelers’ downfall, showing not only a belief in human agency, but an understanding of the ways in which it is compromised or hindered. It deserves to be regarded as a classic American novel, not only as an indictment of the American dream, but also as a haunting commentary on the institution of the family.
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