There would be a vast amount of truth in the statement that every single character in the book, Revolutionary Road¸ is constantly trying to master the art of playing out characters they wish they could be. Theatricality is internalised in the lives of these characters, making them virtually cardboard-thin. Richard Yates has used a vast amount of literary imagery to juxtapose their lives as they appear with what each character really is. There is a constant effort on the part of every character to present a façade that is what they would like other people to see, believe and appreciate. Most of the characters: April and Frank Wheeler, Mrs. Givings, the Wheeler neighbors and friends, would be glad if their lives had a little more zing and excitement. Most of them seem to be caught in a kind of a time warp that causes them to be pale imitations of what their dreams demand. It is this inadequacy that has been portrayed with finesse in the book.
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In the case of the suburban American, there is a palpable kind of tug-of-war, a troubled air that is reminiscent of the political relations that existed between the (then) superpowers. This is a post-World War syndrome which seems to draw everybody into a vortex of pretense, both in the personal as well as their professional lives.
Hitherto, the rules for living were fairly simple: gender roles were clearly defined and every emotion and course of action had its own established time and place, with little chance of deviation. It is into this secure milieu that Yates introduces his characters, moving them through the pangs of having to change with the times. How they emerge at the end of the journey is what forms the narrative.
April Wheeler is the quintessential 50’s woman eager to be a good wife and mother as per the accepted social code of conduct… or is she? There is a latent desire to break free and be an actor, a role she always aspired for. What characterises her behavior is this constant drama that she puts up for all those she comes into contact with. She yearns for a time “to go out and do something that’s absolutely crazy and marvellous,” an event that will make her “sparkle all over” (Yates, 8). When the story unfolds, she is on stage trying to perform in a play along with a group of similar minded young men and women who would like to make drastic changes in their otherwise monotonous lives. She has spent the better part of her life trying to find the right balance between her present existence and what she would like to be, all the time coping with a husband who is also wearing a mask to hide his actual self. Now, she is totally dejected to find that she is a failure even in the one thing she aspired to do well – acting. “She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck” (Yates, 13). It is heart-wrenching to see the disaster the play turns out to be, only reiterating April’s determination to break free of well established rules of American suburbanite social etiquette. While she is entertaining, there is this façade that makes her guests believe that they are wanted, while all along she is actually bored stiff with their dull witticisms and party talk.
Her final act of defiance costs her dearly. She is unable to convince her husband Frank that not having an abortion is no longer an option. Her self-induced abortion causes her to haemorrhage and bleed to death. All her brief life, April has been subjected to some sort of constraint or the other, thereby making it quite difficult to be her “real” self. The biggest challenge she faced was the identity she craved, she really did not know what she wanted to be – a dilemma that created rifts in her marriage and with the rest of the world. Her husband does little to alleviate this situation, because, to a great extent he is in the same boat as she is – caught at a juncture where he does not have a clear idea about his own identity. “It’s just that I don’t know who you are…. And even if I did… I’m afraid it wouldn’t help, because you see I don’t know who I am, either.” (Yates, 360).
To say that Frank Wheeler was a man too full of himself, would be stating the obvious. He is unaware of what it is like to think and act differently, in the face of all the changes that seem to be happening within his family in particular and in his country, in general. He is so blissfully ignorant of this fact that he continues to behave like an unfeeling male chauvinist who thinks that having an extra-marital affair is perfectly condonable by everyone concerned.
During the course of his existence, he tries to downplay the efforts of his wife to create beneficial changes in their lives as husband and wife. He has no intention of improving his lot as he is convinced that he does not need to in any way. Right through the novel he is portrayed as a selfish but commonly found individual who tries to adopt a Teflon-coated personality to perfection.
The theme of theatricality in the book is interwoven into the lives of all the characters of the book. There is no dearth of dramatic situations in the book that are actually well positioned covers for mundane daily happenings. Being actors, acting out parts we find as we move through life, is probably acceptable to all of us at some stage of our lives, or the other. However, when this acting becomes more of a reality and blocks out the real self, one needs to take a re-look as to where and how, real gives way to reel. There is an overpowering urge for the reader of Revolutionary Road to lift the veil and look into the minds of its principal characters. For instance, Mrs. Givings has no qualms whatsoever in blatantly lying about her son John, who is mentally challenged and hence has to be institutionalised. She is fully aware that her son could never lead a normal life and his very appearance is indicative of his mental condition. “… an old woman was combing the tangled hair of her son, whose age could have been anything between twenty-five and forty. (Yates, 282). Instead of coming to terms with this, she is determined to make people believe that he is a teacher in a university, leading a successful, normal life, just like anybody else. This is yet another example of euphemistic thought, one that is of no help at all, in the long run.
There is an invariable theme that courses through the whole novel and this is one of theatricality in the lives of all the characters. For instance, in order to sound like one of the crowd, Frank constantly complains that suburban fathers are alienated and hence do not have a chance to prove their paternal capabilities. In spite of this constant complaint, the truth is quite the opposite – he would not want to be one such suburban Dad. He is certainly quite similar to “all the men (who have been) emasculated” (Yates, 129) by their blending into the changes that are the offshoots of the Cold War and the changing scenario in media and films in the early Fifties.
Shifting blame, in most cases on to unsuspecting spouses, mistresses and (so-called) friends, characterises the fragile relationships that exist between the characters in the novel. The underlying tensions among these characters gain momentum, which is in many ways similar to the political strains that were felt in America, at the time. There is a momentary respite from all this in the form of the proposed move to Paris: there is a possibility that Frank will “(have) a chance to find (himself)” (Yates, 114). However, the reality is that this no longer presents itself as an option for just one simple reason – there is no urge for taking on the responsibility of such a change.
With characters playing out parts, predestined or otherwise, there is a sense of morbid futility that envelops the novel, towards the end. Yates has opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box of masked emotions and falsehoods, with a fervent plea that the last to flutter out of the Box – Hope, will make life more livable for the likes of Frank and Anne Wheeler.
Yates, R. Revolutionary Road. Vintage, 2000.