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Richard Yates was self-destructive, manic depressive, and an alcoholic. He was repeatedly hospitalized but no treatment was very helpful to him. His novels and short stories were often based on his person experience. In his first novel, Revolutionary Road, (1961), several of the main characters are in need of psychiatric treatment. For those such as myself who had never heard of Yates, the novel will be an astonishing discovery. It is a depiction of middleclass misery in the 1950s Connecticut suburbs, fueled by hypocritical public standards of morality, the stupidity and barely hidden desperation of everyday life, the social forces making people conform to generally shared expectations, and the awful weakness and of individuals and the lies they tell themselves. The utter bleakness of Yates's depiction of modern life is offset by the richness of his writing, making his characters psychologically convincing and putting them in memorable scenes, and his accomplished use of language.
Revolutionary Road features a couple who have recently moved to Connecticut from New York City. Frank Wheeler still works in sales promotion for an electronics company in the city, and his wife April stays at home with their two children. Frank was in the armed services during World War II, and he enjoys his time in the city for extra-marital activities. Back in the suburbs, the women gossip and talk about who really fits in. (The parallels with Mad Men do not end there either.)
Frank is bored by his life and does not really think that his neighbors are in the same intellectual class as him. Yet he stays in the same job, getting increasingly frustrated by his life. April also feels that she has sacrificed something important to her current suburban life. When she participates in a local theatrical production and it goes badly, she is crushed beyond all proportion. After the production, she and Frank have a terrible argument in their car on the way back, bringing up months of stored resentments. It looks like their marriage is in a terrible state.
But in a few days, April suggests that they leave their current existence and move to Paris, with her earning the money and Frank working on finding himself. She slowly wins him over to the idea. For a while, the couple is thrilled to have found a solution to their problems. Their friends and neighbors are shocked and a little unsettled by Frank and April's willingness to give up their supposedly ideal lives. However, little by little, Frank loses confidence that he could take this drastic step, and he finds ways to undermine April's determination. In particular, he gradually comes to get her to accept that her unstable childhood has left her neurotic, and that she needs psychoanalysis.
Yet the most mentally ill person in the book, John Givings, who is the institutionalized son of the Wheeler's neighbors. He visits the couple one weekend, on day release, and he is the only person who understands their alienation from suburban life. Furthermore, in an antipsychiatric theme, it seems the main reason he is labeled mentally ill is that he tells the truth about people's lives and gets upset when people stop him from talking. When he goes back to the Wheelers for a second visit and finds that they have shelved their plans to get out of the suburbs, he becomes very upset because he feels that they have betrayed the values that they shared with him. Both Frank and April also get upset because they are uncomfortable with someone calling them on their failure to carry through on their plans. As a result, John is sent back to hospital with no possibility of any more days away.
In being critical of the social structures of the time, Revolutionary Road also addresses gender in many ways, and shows the flaws in patriarchy. This is no great surprise, since many other novels, plays, and movies had already highlighted issues to do with the crisis for masculinity after the Second World War: the films featuring James Dean in the early 1950s were a good example of this. John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was produced in London in 1956 and was made into a movie in 1958; Beckett's Happy Days was produced in 1960. Kerouac's On the Road was published in 1957. It was a time when at least some artists were portraying ordinary life as unlivable, although it took until the later 60s for people to start coming up with suggestions for different kinds of lives that would be better, and many of those suggestions were basically untenable. In his depiction of a dysfunctional marriage, Yates is especially tuned into the problems of gender, even if he did not see the problems in such a light.
Yates's book is utterly compelling, and certainly deserves a wide readership, which it may now get with the release of Sam Mendes's new movie version. The unabridged audiobook performance by Mark Bramhall is excellent.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.