Past Perfect Review: Revolutionary Road
Classic novel by Richard Yates
Review by Alexa Dooseman
Issue No. 9 – September 2015
Revolutionary Road begins with a play. The year is 1955 and the location is a suburb in Connecticut. April Wheeler takes the stage as part of the Laurel Players, an amateur theater company attempting to bring culture and “serious plays” to the suburbs. When the show begins, everything appears fine — April is radiant, a shining talent in the midst of a small community, the audience murmuring how “lovely” she is. Then, slowly but surely, the play falls apart.
Within these first ten pages, Richard Yates sets up the heart of his brilliant, heartbreaking work: a world where an audience of neighbors watches, whispers about and witnesses a
downfall. Where the characters aren’t so much telling their own stories but instead lines they have memorized and performing roles in which they have been cast. The Laurel Players’ performance only lasts a brief moment in the book, but there’s a sense that the acting never ends.
Written in 1961, Revolutionary Road follows the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, a beautiful, charming couple who move their family to a “sweet little house” on the eponymous Revolutionary Road. But lest you believe they are suburbanites, the Wheelers are quick to point out — especially to themselves — that they are not the type of people who move to places like Revolutionary Road. They are somehow different, special. This move to the “sweet little house” is an ironic joke that they are playing.
It is April who recognizes that the joke is on themselves. They are, in fact, no different from those around them. Frank wakes up, takes the train to New York City, works at a boring job; April stays home, cleans the house, cooks the meals. Once believing themselves exceptional, they have undertaken an act of binding normalcy. To April, this outcome will not do, and the only answer is to change, to move on. She concocts a plan: they’ll move to Europe, a place where people are really living.
And here’s where things get incredibly interesting. It is April who puts the move to Europe in motion — and this escape route becomes the crux of the plot — but it is not from April’s point of view that we discover the plan. In fact, it is not from April’s point of view that we discover anything (with one notable exception). Instead, Yates has a zoned-in third person point of view from Frank’s perspective. And then from the Wheelers’ friend and neighbor, Shep Campbell. And then from another neighbor, Mrs. Givings. This shifting perspective creates three different audience members to April’s life. How they view her, what role they’ve assigned to her and what degree of trust they put into the lines she’s reciting depends entirely on how they’re viewing her performance. What this shifting perspective doesn’t create is a grounded center, a sense that someone, somewhere understands just what play they all are in.
To make matters more convoluted, each POV character has cast himself or herself in the wrong role. Frank talks a mile a minute because he fancies himself a genius, yet he has no true interest in anything. Shep Campbell imagines himself in some sort of romantic drama, yet his life is standard-suburbs with a wife, children and a house on Revolutionary Hill. Mrs. Givings believes herself to be a great judge of character, yet her
opinions are, at best, mercurial. It is because of these shaded points of view, these characters’ self-delusions, that they cannot see anyone clearly. So what does it say that it is through these characters that we experience April, that we experience the entire story?
In the larger context, it says something about how Yates saw the time period. These characters have reached the so-call goal of modern living — the house, the suburb, the car, the family — and yet their experiences come across as a kaleidoscope of boredom, regret and desire. Nothing appears genuine. It’s telling that the only character who seems to see the world clearly is the one who owns the least. John Givings, the wayward son of Mrs. Givings, lives in a psych ward, but makes key appearances to lob observation bombs into the mix. He seems acutely aware of everyone’s façades, saying things like, “You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don’t like.” He practically uses the language of the suburbs, except he understands the operative word: “play.”
In the more specific context of April, the characters’ unstable perspectives reveal the impossibility of understanding someone else — especially when that someone else is in a role that is supposed to be understandable. What do these characters do with a housewife who cannot stand to be a housewife? They try as hard as they can to grasp her, but only through the lens of how they want to see her. As would be expected, this leads to failure. There’s a
moment when April tells Shep that she doesn’t really know him and ends with, “You see I don’t know who I am, either.” What April comprehends is that when a person is cast purely as a part (mother, wife, father, husband), the person inside becomes unknowable. These roles make everyone strangers, broadening the distance between what someone has and what someone is, to the point that everyone is a mystery, even to themselves.
It is not until the very end of the book that April finally gets a point of view —and the reader gets a central feeling of authenticity. In this chapter, April’s awareness of how much her life is an act is laid bare. She knows very well that the lines she delivers are false, that she has traded dreams of being an actress on stage for being an actress in her own life. To push this point even further, the scene right before has Frank watching April through the kitchen window, once more casting April’s pain as a piece of performance. Yates saves April’s blast of self-awareness to make all the other versions of these characters’ lives sound even more off-key, even more removed from anything real. It turns out that someone, somewhere did know just what play they all were in — and it’s very different than what they were expecting.
To top off this incredible narrative strategy, after April’s point of view, we barely go back to Frank’s. This is partly for plot reasons that I don’t want to give away, but it’s also because of something much bigger. Throughout the book, April asks Frank to stop talking. She says things like, “Could we sort of stop talking about it now?” and “All right. Can I talk now?” Frank pretends to listen, but inevitably goes on with whatever it is he wants to discuss. What April does in her chapter disables Frank’s talking, his roundabout monologues, justifications and deliberations. By presenting a real portrayal of herself, April silences Frank. She finally pulls the curtain on his performance.
When I picked up Revolutionary Road, I thought that I knew what it was all about. After all, suburban life in the 1950s is a well-discussed subject. But nothing prepared me for just how brilliant this book is and how much it transcends its time period. Yes, it’s about the societal expectations of marriage, neighbors and community. But, for me, the bigger picture is about how people view one another and how people present themselves; how a character can be thinking one thing and say something completely different because that is what a person ought to say. That truth is timeless. After all, the props and roles have changed in the past several decades, but have we really stopped being on a self-imposed stage? In the time of social media when every photo comes with a built-in audience, have we not just traded one version of performance for another? It is for this reason that Revolutionary Road should be read and re-read. Often.
355 pages, $14.10
Alexa Dooseman is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. She writes humor pieces, reviews, essays and is currently at work on a middle grade novel. Her work has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed and more.