by Manuel Betancourt
“Who but a maniac or a goddamn fool would sit down and write a novel attacking marriage? And who’d want to read such a novel?” For Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road, these questions were rhetorical. His defensive stance came from what he always saw as a wild misreading of his famous 1961 novel. The tragic story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple who see themselves trapped in their 1950s picture-perfect home, has long been read as an indictment of an insidious type of conformity which postwar suburban married life epitomized. As critic Alfred Kazin put it upon reading Yates’ book, Revolutionary Road “locates the new American tragedy squarely on the field of marriage.” That felt like such a ringing endorsement or, perhaps, like such a titillating promise, that Little Brown decided to use Kazin’s blurb on the book’s jacket cover matched with what Yates later bemoaned, “a cheap, vulgar illustration” of a man and a woman facing away from each other.
Its author may not be a maniac or a goddamn fool, but I’ll gladly admit that I am: what first drew me to Revolutionary Road was the sense that within its pages lay a story about what a crippling institution marriage could be. I sought out Yates’ debut novel at a bookstore in New York City in anticipation of Sam Mendes’ film adaptation. My own copy, sadly, does not have such a melodramatic image on its cover; instead it features a gauzy and faded photograph of an empty red-colored 50s automobile parked on a leaf-strewn driveway. Nor do any of the blurbs on its jacket—courtesy of William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams, truly a bizarre literary trio—match the hyperbolic statement that graced its first edition. No matter, for the trailer for Mendes’ film worked just as well to sell the same conceit. Scored to Nina Simone’s rendition of “Wild Is The Wind,” the two-and-a-half minute spot features idyllic images of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler blissfully staring into one another’s eyes, alongside melodramatic snippets of the depressing life the Wheelers cannot escape within their suburban home. “Love me, love me, love me, love me, say you do,” Simone croons as Winslet’s April delivers the film’s key line of dialogue: “Look at us! We’re just like everyone else. We’ve bought into the same ridiculous delusion.” My 24 year-old self was more than eager to watch a film that tore down that most “ridiculous” of delusions: marriage.
Despite Yates’ protestations, there is plenty of ammunition in Revolutionary Road if one were to launch an attack on the nuclear family’s central bond. Frank and April—whom everyone they know, including themselves, agree once were very special people destined for great things—have calcified into a simulacrum of what a well-adjusted married couple should look like in the mid-1950s. The novel is a story about how their relationship and the many compromises they’ve made to maintain it have crippled them, stunting the potential they once had. Yates’ couple offers the dark underbelly of the bright postwar promise of the suburbs. Neat lawns, white picket fences, and picture windows suggest a comforting sense of order but also an orderly sense of conformity. Frank, like a dutiful husband, ends up taking a job at the same company his old man used to work at while April, leaving behind any ambitions of becoming an actress, hones her homemaking skills. Baffled by having turned into what they'd once decried, they start to look at their house up on Revolutionary road less like an idyllic home and more like a prison.
The first glimpse we get of April is from her soon-to-be-husband’s perspective; it announces her as a “first-rate” girl with the world at her fingertips. The establishing shots of New York’s moonlit cityscape place us in a West Village house party throbbing with beautiful guests, where a youthful Frank is struck dumb by the sight before him. Amidst the crowd is a blond girl in a little black dress. Unaware she’s being watched, April has a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Our eyes, like Frank’s no doubt, are drawn to her red lips as she exhales, then at her eyes as she fixes her stare on us. Here is a girl, as Yates’ narrator informs us, “whose every glance and gesture could make [Frank’s] throat fill up with longing.” The playfully pretentious flirtation that follows (“What are you interested in?” April asks; “Honey—if I had the answer to that one, I bet I'd bore us both to death in half an hour,” Frank quips) fades as Mendes closes in on the anguished face of a slightly older Frank, sitting in the audience while his wife holds back tears as she takes a bow. The local production of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1935 play The Petrified Forest has been a disaster and, as the chatty old lady behind Frank tells her friend, April in the lead role of Gabby “was very disappointing.” In a flash, the glimmer of possibility of that sunny couple has soured into a calcified simulacrum of happiness. The need to conform, to be “just like everybody else,” has stifled them both. Far from being the revelation on stage she once hoped she’d be (“despite the heavy make-up,” Yates tells us, “you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck”), her embarrassing stint as Gabby, in front of her neighbors, reminds her she is no better than the suburban performers around her.
The all too familiar problem of miscommunication is at the heart of Revolutionary Road; it serves as both symptom and syndrome of a or merely their failing marriage. When Yates first began writing the novel, which he’d always envisioned as one about abortion writ-large— for him, this character-driven piece was all about aborted lives, aborted careers, aborted possibilities— he’d sketched out a rather homely couple at its center, the kind of man and wife whom readers could easily identify with, the kind who always meant what they said. This led to a kind of tawdry sentimental treatment where Frank and April were almost too like the ideal they have come to inveigh against. He soon realized that “the best way to handle it was to have them nearly always miss each other’s points, to have them talk around and through and at each other.” He explained, “There’s a great deal of dialogue between them in the finished book, both when they’re affectionate and when they’re fighting, but there’s almost no communication.” To read Revolutionary Road is to witness two characters failing to understand one another because they so often don’t mean what they say, and, worse yet, rarely say what they mean.
Take the moment we first see them interact in the book. Yates, unlike Mendes, did not wish us to begin with a couple brimming with promise. He begins the novel with the moment when Frank goes backstage to pick up April after her near-disastrous debut as Gabby. Walking towards her makeshift dressing room at the local high school, Frank ponders how he should approach his wife. He’s lived with her long enough that, like many married men, he thinks he can anticipate how she’ll react to everything he says. He better say the right thing, he knows, lest he step on the many landmines he believes she’s come to lay between and around them. He toys with being complimentary—“You were wonderful”— but dismisses such a sentence as possibly coming off condescending, especially once she recoils from a kiss. He opts instead for an attempt at a world-weary wisecrack he hopes will cut through the tension in the air. “Well,” he says to her, “I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?” In the film, this elicits what will become Winslet’s signature gesture: a pained face that is constantly on the verge of betraying her anger, her frustration, her resentment. “Almost anything, it now seemed,” Yates tells us, “would have been a better thing to say than what he’d said.” She chooses a pregnant silent detente over a full-blown brawl. Nevertheless, the grimace she lands on—oh if only Frank were looking at her as carefully as Mendes’ camera is!—tells you just how much disdain she feels for her husband, for herself, for what they’ve become.
April Wheeler may not be a revelation of an actress on the stage, but she’s a consummate performer in her daily life. Her smiles are always tentative, on the verge of cracking open a well of tears, whether in anger, sadness or quite possibly both. Here’s where the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road improves on its source material. Where Yates’ novel attempts to sketch the life of a married couple, its narrative point of view skews towards Frank; it is his consciousness that opens the novel and his inner world we’re made privy to first. Even as his chapters later go on to open up the Wheelers’ life and give us insight into other characters around them—the mousy neighbors across the way, the badgering real estate agent who sold them their house—April’s point of view remains elusive. There is a structural purpose for this, of course. The novel’s climactic episode, a botched abortion, is all the more powerful because it offers readers a real glimpse into this young woman’s mind. In the film, though, we’re not egged on by Frank’s observations about his wife; we know that the descriptions he offers us on the page (she’s a “graceless, suffering creature” who could conjure up “a stare of pitying boredom in her eyes”) are filtered by his own insecurities. Nevertheless, they paint a picture of a wife whose mood swings are inexplicable to the man who’s come to anticipate and evade them. By the time we get a clearer insight into her mood and motivations, Yates intends for us to reassess how much we’ve been encouraged to judge April and absolve Frank. Lines like “I think you're the most interesting person I've ever met” and “You’re the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world… You’re a man,” which Frank takes at face value and April may very well have believed at one point, begin to look (especially when deployed by Winslet in the film) less like the adoring statements of a doting partner and more like attempts at living vicariously the only way the young failed actress could think to do.
If there’s one thing Yates perfectly captures about married life, whether in times of marital bliss or misery, it is the way marriage forces you to live with an ever-present witness. To be married is to always have an audience, one who’s seen this production before and who’s keenly attuned to the nuances of your act no matter how polished you think it may have gotten. Forcing you to face another every morning necessarily affects how you to present yourself. For some this becomes emboldening, getting you to live up to the best version of yourself you see in another person’s eyes. For others it becomes a burden, where one’s daily life starts to depend on quickly-changing performances that attempt to hide a person you’re sure your partner won’t ever tolerate. This is what makes the Wheelers’ marriage so ripe for dissection; when they look at each other, they have a hard time untangling their respective posturings from the real thing.
April’s performance as dutiful wife and mother strains her every waking moment; it’s no surprise she’s most brutally honest when she allows herself to disown those very limiting roles. After convincing Frank they should pack up and leave to go to Paris (“People are alive there!”) and making the transition from homemaker to travel-planner, finally taking the reins of a life long hijacked by compromises, she eases into a more relaxed mode that comforts and scares Frank in equal measure. That’s because, as he slowly finds out, he too has been living under a guise he worries he may not be able to live without. Whether seducing Maureen, a young secretary at work, or recounting a wartime anecdote to friends Shep and Milly Campbell, Frank’s every move is shown to be painfully calculated. He’s most alive when performing a bolder, smarter, more worldly version of himself. But where his young conquest and his all-too-nice neighbors are all happy to play along and indulge Frank’s posturing, April is an uncaring audience. In a deleted scene from the film, during which Frank obliviously tells the same birthday-during-the-war story to the Campbells, Mendes shows us not just the pitying stare the anecdote elicits but a damning blow that makes explicit that which Yates had kept implicit in his prose: “You told them that story last year,” April informs a stunned Frank who in a blink of an eye sees his charming persona evaporate once she refuses to be an adoring audience. Therein lies the true tragedy of the Wheelers; they’re both born for the spotlight, but while she’s eager to try on new roles, he’s too self-absorbed to see how stale his own performance has gotten.
Yates was defensive about tacking onto the Wheelers the weight of marriage writ-large, but Revolutionary Road, both on the page and on the screen, is a study in how commitment and compromise chip away at our own individuality. To be married is to constantly have to acknowledge another, both as witness and as partner. The emotional work that entails, and in particular their need to perform for each other, is what asphyxiates April and what eventually leads Frank to find solace elsewhere. And while it may be enough to mark these two as “special,” to see their very specific circumstances as not really presenting an attack on marriage as an institution, the couples around them don’t navigate their marital issues all that well either. Shep cheats on Milly—and is, as we find out, obsessed with April, or at least the idea of April—while Mr. Givings often chooses to dial down his hearing aid so as to drown out his wife’s endless droning. (It’s telling that this is the image both Yates and Mendes leave us with). For Yates, perhaps, the failure of these relationships has little to do with the framework that encases them and everything to do with the shortcomings of the individuals therewithin, and there is a kind of loving tenderness in the way we make allowances for those we live with.
Nevertheless, the overall image of marriage in Revolutionary Road is quite despairing. The Wheelers become a cautionary tale, a reminder that traditional institutions offer nothing more than rigid templates. They’re stuck performing roles they long wish they could’ve shed, roles that restrict them from breaking out of the strictures of the traditional marriage institution. If only we were more open with one another and allowed for different configurations—of desire, of success—we might be able to break through the traditions of which April and Frank’s unhappiness is so symptomatic. The challenge, Yates suggests, is to find a way to cut through the noise, to find someone who’ll see you as who you are, as who you want to be, and as who you might become; someone who, better yet, will be able to tell those three things apart. If spouses are to bear witness to our lives, acting at best as endearing audience members who’ll cheer on us and at worst grousing critics who’ll keep us in check, better they be partners open to seeing us evolve as we grow older. This is a challenge the Wheelers are not able to overcome. Like many among their generation they take the thrill of seduction and the comfort of companionship to be that which will conquer all. Yates doesn’t offer us any sustainable alternative models of what a good relationship might look like, though Revolutionary Road, seen as a kind of negative print, offers a clear baseline for what should anchor any successful partnership: a pliable kind of love that will embrace the ever-changing person to whom one is married.
That's why, by the time April admits that she doesn’t love Frank anymore, an admission that fills her with as much relief as him with laughable terror, Gabby’s line from The Petrified Forest—“Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?”— emerges from Yates’ prose as the question that needles at Frank. It is the question both novel and film argue belongs squarely at the center of every marriage. Belying both a level of vulnerability and confidence that feel almost contradictory, it flirts with being rhetorical. But the fact that it needs to be voiced at all, and that it may well require an answer, is what makes marriage such an emotional gamble. It evokes an ideal of marriage Frank imagines towards the end of the novel: “unexcited, companionable, a mutual tenderness touched with romance.” Yates’ deployment of Sherwood’s line as a recurring motif in Revolutionary Road unearths its darker implications. In April and Frank’s hands, the question stops being a mere plea for love and becomes a vanity bargain, as if every time it pops into their heads they feel compelled to add the tacit inquiry that all but precedes it: “Why wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?” It’s a question that only a maniac or a goddamn fool would think to ask.