Monday, January 17, 2011

A Revolution That Wasn't

Over the weekend, I read Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road, and no--I haven't seen the film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. (I would say, though, that I wouldn't have cast either of them in the lead roles of Frank and April Wheeler.) So I'm not going to be talking about how well the film meshes with the book or differing impressions of 1950s America.

But there's something important to get from the characters of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple living in their house on Revolutionary Road. The novel opens with Frank watching April, who once attended a New York acting school, in an embarrassingly awful rendition of Robert Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest. At the start of the play, April was the only good thing going, but everything eventually wanes and the performance goes to pot. This doesn't go beyond Frank's notice.

And here's where entitlement begins to kick in: We can imagine, with how Yates directly yet sympathetically describes the Wheelers, that these are intelligent young adults in the post-war years who think that they are too clever for the suburban life. And, reading this novel, we get the impression that Yates would genuinely like to help these people. When the Wheelers begin planning an escape to France, a return to their intellectual roots, Frank listens to April outline the plan with some reticence, a hint of the tensions mounting:
But [Frank] knew better than to interrupt [April] now. She must have spent the morning in an agony of thought, pacing up and down the rooms of a dead-silent, dead-clean house and twisting her fingers at her waist until they ached; she must have spent the afternoon in a frenzy of action at the shopping center, lurching her car imperiously through mazes of NO LEFT TURN signs and angry traffic cops, racing in and out of stores to buy the birthday gifts and the roast of beef and the cake and the cocktail apron. Her whole day had been a heroic build-up for this moment of self-abasement; now it was here, and she was damned if she'd stand for any interference.

But the Wheelers refuse to help themselves, and that's the problem. All they do is think and still assume that they can overcome a suburban existence. Without trying to spoil too much of the novel, I'll say this much: The above quotation is a pretty good parallel to the novel--lots of build-up, leading ultimately toward self-abasement. And Frank, of course, listens to all of this, his reticence creating an insurmountable obstacle.

The Wheelers assume that they are entitled to cleverness, to a life in Europe, to all the benefits that a post-war life should bring. But they aren't willing to work toward that end, and so their many plans seldom move beyond talk. Revolutionary Road is a strong example of how, even with resources and access to art and wisdom, nothing comes about without a bit of elbow grease.


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