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Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road

Have you ever shouted at your favourite novel because you felt like its characters were being held back? What caused it? Was it the limitations that society imposed on them? The pressure of keeping up? Their own character flaws? Manipulation from others? In the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, you can tick all of the above! The allure of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road (1961) lies in its harrowingly honest exploration of gender roles, marriage, the pressure of conformity, and the effect that these confinements have on individuals and their values.

Revolutionary Road (1961): overview

Richard Yates introduces us to Frank and April Wheeler, hopeful suburbanites who insist they are different from their neighbours. They believe that happiness and contentment are just around the corner. They relocate to their new home in Connecticut, following the 1950s suburban migration that distinguished post-war America. Frank and April quickly find that suburban life is monotonous, hard to escape, and about to take a huge toll on both their marriage and sense of self.

The 1950s suburban migration involved the relocation of many Americans from the cities to the suburbs. This was made possible because of a boom in the American economy after World War II, so people had more opportunities to relocate.

Revolutionary Road: author

Richard Yates was born in New York in 1926, as the child of an unhappy marriage. Yates began to write in school before joining the army, where he had a miserable experience. Afterwards, he married, had two children, moved to Paris, and eventually divorced before he married again. He always struggled with alcoholism and wrote during moments of sobriety.

With Yates' two unhappy marriages, time in the army, relocation to Paris, and alcohol trouble, it's not hard to see where he found inspiration for characters like Frank and April in Revolutionary Road!

He wrote Revolutionary Road at a time when he believed America's desire to conform was at an all-time high. Although considered seminal today, his novel was not always as well-received. In fact, publishers stopped printing it both within Yates’ lifetime and after his death. Its popularity has steadily increased in recent years alongside a recent film adaptation, and it is now considered a modern classic.

Revolutionary Road: summary

The novel opens in Connecticut with a failed performance of The Petrified Forest by an amateur theatre company, of which April Wheeler is the lead actress. Although April’s initial performance is up to scratch, once she perceives that the show is failing, she quickly becomes embarrassed and the show flops. Afterwards, Frank attempts to console April – which only reduces to fighting – leading to a vicious argument on the side of the road. At home, April decides to sleep on the couch and Frank stays up drinking.

The rut of American suburbia takes its toll, and frustrations increase. Downcast at the reality of spending his thirtieth birthday at Knox Business Machines, where he works as a sales associate, Frank improves his mood by pursuing office secretary Maureen Grube. After spending the afternoon at Maureen’s, Frank returns home bearing conflicting emotions about his affair. He is shocked to receive affection and warmth from April, who has prepared him a birthday meal and is keen to suggest a plan to escape their monotonous suburban life.

April proposes that the Wheelers relocate to Europe for a fresh start. She claims that, once she became pregnant with Jennifer, Frank was forced to take control and solely provide for the entire familyprimarily to convince her not to have an abortion. In doing so, April insists that she stifled his opportunity to find himself and his true direction in life. Europe, she believes, would be the solution to all their problems; April could work as a secretary while Frank would have plenty of time to find his true purpose in life. Frank initially resists her idea but eventually sees it as an opportunity to save their marriage and agrees. With April seeing Paris as the most promising option – in part because of her false notion that Frank learned French during World War II – the Wheelers begin to plan their big move.

The promise of a better life brings excitement and anticipation back into the Wheeler’s lives, and their relationship temporarily returns to a happy contentment. Frank breaks off his affair with Maureen, and the Wheelers immerse themselves in their plans, spending hours discussing the details of their move. However, once Frank gains recognition at the office for a brochure he created, he worries that April is moving the plans along too quickly. More doubts, disagreements and stand-offs ensue, and the Wheeler’s children become confused over the constant changing of plans, leading Frank to raise concerns over how well they would adjust to the move, and for April to question whether he is trying to back out.

The agent who initially sold the Wheelers their home, Helen Givings, begins bringing her institutionalised son, John Givings, around for regular visits. John speaks openly and honestly about his condemnation of the American suburban lifestyle and agrees with the Wheeler’s desire to escape to Europe. Afterwards, Frank and April claim that John must be the only person who truly appreciates the reasons for their move.

With the prospect of promotion looming near, Frank begins to feel more hopeful about his work, and the distance between him and April widens. When April tells Frank in dismay that she is pregnant with their third child, their plans to leave America start to dismantle. Frank is relieved that he will no longer need to move to Europe. However, April intends to abort the pregnancy, and Frank attempts to convince her to keep the child, claiming that life in suburbia isn’t all that bad. He implies that April’s own upsetting childhood without her parents may have psychologically impacted her and her desire to have the child. Eventually, April gives in, agreeing to keep the baby and stay in America.

After announcing that they will not be moving to Paris, Frank realises he would rather not have another child. He reignites his affair with Maureen, and April has sex with family friend Shep Campbell in the back of his car. After this, April begins sleeping on the couch, and eventually confesses she doesn’t love Frank. Frank admits his affair with Maureen, and April denies caring at all. After drinking heavily Frank aggressively states that he wishes April had carried out the abortion.

When Frank leaves for work the next day April leaves a note and attempts a self-abortion. She dies that very day from blood loss in hospital. Frank is left traumatised with guilt and can no longer take care of his children. They are sent to live with his brother while Frank moves to New York. Revolutionary Hill is sold to another young couple. Believing that John had a pivotal role in April’s death, Helen Givings insists John must be kept in a mental institution permanently. She then adopts a puppy, and life goes on.

Revolutionary Road: genre

Revolutionary Road is an example of a tragedy.

A tragedy is a genre that shows the slow downfall of one or more characters, usually as a result of human flaws (greed, lust, jealousy). The genre often teaches the reader a moral lesson by showing how simple flaws can cause dangerous problems for the protagonists.

Revolutionary Road follows the Wheelers and their downfall. Character flaws like insecurity, manipulativeness, and desire for control are the main contributors to their problems, and Yates uses the crumbling of the Wheeler's lives to critique his own society and deliver moral lessons.

Revolutionary Road: key characters

Frank Wheeler

An articulate 30-year-old sales associate and husband to April, Frank struggles with insecurity regarding his sense of self and worries about how others perceive him. He compensates for his internal feelings of weakness by projecting a confident, outspoken and masculine outward appearance. Despite stating otherwise, he begins to enjoy his job and the comforts of suburban life and attempts to convince April to stay in America.

April Wheeler

April is a smart, talented, amateur actress who is dissatisfied with her suburban life and longs for something new. Raised by her aunts as a result of her parents' party-oriented lifestyle, April was seduced by Frank’s intellect and the belief that he could introduce her to the glamorous lifestyle she imagined her parents living. She gives up her career as an actress and becomes a mother to two children. With her marriage falling apart, she aspires for change and sees Europe as the perfect opportunity to escape the monotony of the suburbs.

Helen Givings

A prim, proper, and sociable realtor, Mrs Givings strives to maintain appearances and social normalcy at all costs, even forcing conversation in uncomfortable moments. She is afraid of change and focuses intently on her work to avoid any disappointments she feels over her unhappy marriage to Howard, or the hospitalisation of her son, John.

John Givings

John is a smart, candid, former mathematician who refuses to conform to expected social norms and mocks his mother for her insistence on maintaining a perfect appearance. Institutionalised as mentally ill for holding his parents hostage for several days, John only gets to leave the hospital briefly. He speaks in a straightforward manner to everyone he meets and understands the Wheeler’s desire to escape suburban life, leading Frank and April to label him as the one person who understands them.

Howard Givings

Helen’s husband, Howard Givings, lives a bland life with very little stimulation. Although he has power over John and Helen, he is quite content to turn off his hearing aid when he isn’t inclined to hear what they have to say.

Shep Campbell

In order to appear strong and masculine, Shep rejects his past as a well-nurtured child with considerable wealth, instead joining the army and embracing a tough lifestyle. After marrying Milly he begins to regret this alienation from his past, and instead tries to reconcile with it, moving his family to Connecticut to embrace a new intellectual life. Although he appreciates Milly, he is more attracted to April, who he believes is more representative of the East Coast culture he wants to embrace.

East Coast Culture

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, people were tired of routine and felt restricted by the traditional American lifestyle. In protest, Counter-movements began to pop up – spreading throughout East Coast cities like New York, Boston, Washington, DC and Atlantic City – as a counter to suburban living. This generation wanted to be rebellious, throw lavish parties, speak intellectually about art and literature, and celebrate sexual liberty free from restriction. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were key members of this generation, and created a lot of influential literature that spurred on what would eventually become known as 'East Coast Culture.'

Shep sees April as closer to this culture than she actually is. Although the Wheelers' may believe themselves to be more intellectual and liberated than their neighbours, they are trapped in the same situation as them.

Milly Campbell

The content, happy wife of Shep – Milly is likeable and keen to gossip over others’ affairs. She and Shep are good friends with the Wheelers, but as a result of her impoverished upbringing she often feels out of place and finds them to be too self-important. This is only exacerbated when the Wheelers begin to distance themselves from the friendship.

Revolutionary Road Analysis: themes

Three of the key themes that Revolutionary Road explores are gender roles, marriage, and the pressure for conformity. Let's take a look at all three of them in more detail...

Gender Roles

Let's start by looking at male gender roles!

Male Gender Roles

Yates depicts the rigidity of gender roles in post-war America and the devastating effects they have on individuals and their relationships. Frank feels insecure about his masculinity and attempts to justify his own manhood in harmful ways. When attempting to build a stone path in the yard, he acknowledges that he will never live up to his father’s physical capabilities – a thought that leads to feelings of inadequacy. He also admits that the manual work makes him feel more like a man, linking masculinity to internal feelings of power and strength. Shep abandons his previous upper-class life in order to appear more masculine, but after marrying a lower-class girl and becoming an engineer, realises he has given up his previous sense of self in an effort to feel powerful.

Frank becomes obsessed with finding ways to feel masculine: his projection of self-assuredness; his seduction of Maureen, and convincing April to keep his child all provide Frank with a feeling of power.

And it seemed to him now that no single moment of his life had ever contained a better proof of manhood than that, if any proof were needed: holding that tamed, submissive girl and saying, "Oh, my lovely; oh, my lovely," while she promised she would bear his child" – Frank Wheeler, Part 1, Chapter 3

Female Gender Roles

Female gender roles are seen to be particularly confining, as women are expected to be subservient and to allow themselves to be controlled by men. April’s natural individualism and talent is in direct contrast with Frank’s desire to maintain power and control. In coercing April to have his child, Frank succeeds in pushing her into the maternal role that society expects her to play, weighing her down with responsibility. John Givings reads April’s dismay and labels her different from other women – like his mother – that conform to the expected norms of femininity. He also insinuates that Frank attempts to control April, and likely wanted to get her pregnant in order to prevent the move to Europe.

Marriage

No couples within Revolutionary Road are satisfied, and Yates carefully scrutinises the confines of poor marriages as the destroyer of individualism. April falls in love with the idea of Frank as an intellectual who will guide her to the glamorous East Coast life she desires to live. As she idealises Frank, she finds it difficult to accept his flaws and imperfections.

When linking ideas together in Revolutionary Road, think about how each theme confines the characters to a life they don't want to live. How do gender roles, marriage and the pressure to conform restrict the characters?

On the other hand, Frank needs April's approval to boost his esteem and therefore plays a manly, confident character to gain her admiration. As this dynamic unfolds, Frank is unable to communicate his desire to stay at Knox Business Machines because of fear April will judge him harshly, and April begins to see through the façade Frank has created to impress her. A lack of effective communication deepens the rift between them, leading to the two feeling trapped within the confines of marriage. In an attempt to regain her sense of control, April aborts their child, losing her life in the process.

It's not just the Wheelers that have marriage trouble. Shep finds it difficult to bond with his children, and is more sexually attracted to April than his own wife, leading to a crisis of identity after his brief affair. He is, however, able to channel his energy into his appreciation of Milly and see the good in his marriage, helping him sustain his relationship. Helen Givings can tolerate the drawbacks of her marriage by throwing herself into her work. Whereas Shep can balance the bad aspects of marriage by appreciating the good, Helen can distract herself through her busy schedule.

Whilst the Campbell's and the Givings' also have difficult marriages, they are better able to find compromises with their difficulties through coping mechanisms. Yates implies that Shep finding the good to counteract the bad, and the lack of time Helen spends with her husband, are the key reasons they can sustain their marriages.

Although not every marriage is as self-destructive and co-dependent as the Wheeler’s, Yates shows that even when the balance between marriage and independence can be maintained, it is rarely easy, and comes at the cost of frustrating compromises.

Conformity

To conform is to match your own beliefs, ideas, and behaviours, to the norms of something else. The pressure to conform to others' ideas can have a major impact on how people live their lives.

To conform within your neighbourhood is to match the way you act with how your neighbours act in keeping with their expectations of what is normal.

Yates shows ways in which the fear of being harshly judged prevents people from leading the life that they want. Frank and April live in an identical house to their neighbours, entertain their friends with local gossip and fill traditional gender roles. Both are deeply unhappy, with April in particular wanting to step away from the need to conform, but when the couple tries to move to Europe they are met with resistance from others, belittling the idea for being immature or impossible.

Only John Givings, the intelligent, institutionalised, non-conformist son of Helen, is in favour of the move. He mocks his mother for her conformity and speaks his mind about the hopelessness of suburbia. Once he reveals the truth about Frank’s desire to control April by making her conform to traditional gender roles, his mother permanently institutionalises him – saying he is too dangerous to be released. This is the price he must pay for refusing to conform.

Revolutionary Road Analysis: symbols

Now we will take a closer look and analyse the symbols in Revolutionary Road.

The Stone Path

Frank undertakes the task of building a new stone path. He attempts to compensate for feelings of inadequacy and weakness – left largely as a result of his upbringing – by presenting himself as powerful and capable. The manual labour of constructing the path, in his eyes, is an assertion of his talent and strength. Eventually Frank leaves the path unfinished, showing that he has difficulty following through with the masculine character he plays to impress others.

Paris

To the Wheelers, Paris is symbolic of a better life and the resolution of all their problems. They idealise the city as a centre for art, literature, and culture, and intend to act in a more sophisticated manner in keeping with their expectations of the city. Frank and Shep both spent time in Paris in the war and see Paris as rebellious and free in contrast to their conformist, suburban American lives.

Americans have often believed Europe to be a place of liberty, where art, literature, and high culture can thrive. F. Scott Fitzgerald relocated to France after the First World War because he believed, with its thriving culture, that it would give him the inspiration to create something amazing. He went on to create The Great Gatsby (1925), one of Yates' biggest inspirations for Revolutionary Road.

Howard’s Hearing Aid

Howard frequently switches off his hearing aid to avoid listening to Helen. This gesture symbolises both the miscommunication and lack of understanding that affects all couples in the novel, and the necessity for self-preservation within marriage. Helen’s busy work schedule and Howard’s hearing aid mean that, unlike the Wheelers, they rarely communicate and rarely argue. Although this leaves the Givings unhappy, Yates implies this may be the most successful outcome of marriage in American suburbia.

The Rubber Syringe

The Rubber Syringe is a tool to perform abortions, and, to April, is symbolic of her agency and power. By using the syringe, she is able to take her life into her own hands, and avoid the coercion and manipulation of Frank, who is intent on convincing her to have the child in order to keep her in Europe. To Frank, assuring April gives birth to his child is also a sign of his power, and thus his masculinity, so the syringe acts as a way for April to reassert control over her own life, and resist Frank’s oppression.

Revolutionary Road - Key takeaways

  • Revolutionary Road follows the Wheelers, hopeful suburbanites that relocate to Connecticut following the American postwar suburban migration.
  • The Wheelers encounter problems with societal pressure, power, and selfhood.
  • The key themes within the novel are marriage, gender roles, and the need to conform.
  • The novel focuses on how different constricting factors made it hard to be independent.
  • The novel is filled with symbols that represent issues like masculinity, power, and poor communication.

Frequently Asked Questions about Revolutionary Road

The author of Revolutionary Road is Richard Yates.

The key message in Revolutionary Road is to not allow yourself to be confined by gender roles, the pressure to conform, or unhealthy relationships.

Revolutionary Road follows the stories of the Wheelers, focusing on the breakdown of their marriage and individual lives as a result of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and codependence.

April strives for something new, and proposes the idea of relocating to Europe to her husband, Frank. When the plan falls through and he attempts to prevent her from aborting her third child, she performs a self-abortion, leading to her death.

The key characters in Revolutionary Road are: Frank and April Wheeler; Shep and Milly Campbell; and Helen, Howard, and John Givings.

Final Revolutionary Road Quiz

Question

Who is the author of Revolutionary Road?

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Answer

Samuel Richardson

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Question

Which of these is not a key theme in Revolutionary Road?

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Answer

Marriage

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Question

When is Revolutionary Road set?

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Answer

1930s

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Question

Where do Frank and April Wheeler want to move to for a chance at a better life?

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Answer

Paris

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Question

What is the genre of Revolutionary Road?

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Answer

Tragedy

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Question

In what year was Revolutionary Road published?

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Answer

1961

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Question

What did Frank attempt to build in order to appear masculine?

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Answer

A shed

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Question

What is one of the reasons Frank changes his mind about Europe?

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Answer

He receives praise at work and is in line for promotion

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Question

Which of these is not a symbol in Revolutionary Road?

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Answer

Howard's Hearing Aid

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Question

Who does Frank Wheeler have an extra-marital affair with?

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Answer

Maureen Grube

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Question

Where is Revolutionary Road set?

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Answer

Connecticut

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