Title: Revolutionary Road.
Author: Richard Yates.
Genre: Fiction, literature.
Publication Date: 1961.
Summary: In the hopeful 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler seem to be a model couple: bright, beautiful, talented, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. Perhaps they married too young and started a family too early. Maybe Frank's job is dull. And April never did see herself as a housewife. Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ But there wasn't plenty of time, and they all knew it, and a doubling and redoubling of their rehearsal schedule seemed only to make matters worse. Long after the time had come for what the director called "really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen," it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other's eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might lie in wait for them there.
♥ There was nothing to watch now but the massed faces of the audience as they pressed up the aisles and out the main doors. Anxious, round-eyed, two by two, they looked and moved as if a calm and orderly escape from this place had become the one great necessity of their lives; as if, in fact, they wouldn't be able to begin to live at all until they were out beyond the rumbling pink billows of exhaust and the crunching gravel of this parking lot, out where the black sky went up and up forever and there were hundreds of thousands of stars.
♥ Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn't seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing ("Wouldn't you like to be loved by me?"), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear, and his own sour smell.
♥ It simply wasn't worth feeling bad about. Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.
♥ He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field.
♥ This was going to be a bad one; it was going to be the kind that went on for days. But at least they were here, alone and quiet in their own room, instead of shouting on the highway; at least the thing had passed into its second phase now, the long quiet aftermath that always before, however implausibly, had led to reconciliation. She wouldn't run away from him now, nor was there any chance of his boiling into a rage again; they were both too tired. Early in his marriage these numb periods had seemed even worse than the humiliating noise that set them off: each time he would think, There can't be any dignified way out of it this time. But there always had been a way, dignified or not, discovered through the simple process of apologizing first and then waiting, trying not to think about it too much. Now the feel of this attitude was as familiar as an unbecoming, comfortable old coat. He could wear it with a certain voluptuous ease, for it allowed him a total suspension of will and pride.
♥ They were hurrying toward him over the cropped grass, while April slowly and heavily brought up the rear, pulling the lawnmower behind her, blowing damp strands of hair away from her eyes with a stuck-out lower lip. Everything about her seemed determined to prove, with a new, flat-footed emphasis, that a sensible middle-class housewife was all she had ever wanted to be and that all she had ever wanted of love was a husband who would get out and cut the grass once in a while, instead of sleeping all day.
♥ "I love you when you're nice," she'd told him once, before they were married, and it had made him furious.
"Don't say that. Christ's sake, you don't 'love' people when they're 'nice.' Don't you see that's the same as saying 'What's in it for me?' Look." (They were standing on Sixth Avenue in the middle of the night, and he was holding her at arm's length, his hands placed firmly on either side of the warm rib cage inside her polo coat.) "Look. You either love me or you don't, and you're going to have to make up your mind."
Oh, she'd made up her mind, all right. It had been easy to decide in favor of love on Bethune Street, in favor of walking proud and naked on the grass rug of an apartment that caught the morning sun among its makeshift chairs, its French travel posters, and its bookcase made of packing-crate slats—an apartment where half the fun of having an affair was that it was just like being married, and where later, after a trip to City Hall and back, after a ceremonial collecting of the other two keys from the other two men, half the fun of being married was that it was just like having an affair. She's decided in favor of that, all right. And why not? Wasn't it the first love of any kind she'd ever known? Even on the level of practical advantage it must have held an undeniable appeal: it freed her from the gritty round of disappointment she would otherwise have faced as an only mildly talented, mildly enthusiastic graduate of dramatic school; it let her languish attractively through a part-time job ("just until my husband finds the kind of work he really wants to do") while saving her best energies for animated discussions of books and pictures and the shortcomings of other people's personalities, for trying new ways of fixing her hair and new kinds of inexpensive clothes ("Do you really like the sandals, or are they too Villagey?") and for hours of unhurried dalliance deep in their double bed. But even in those days she'd held herself poised for immediate flight; she had always been ready to take off the minute she happened to feel like it ("Don't talk to me that way, Frank, or I'm leaving. I mean it") or the minute anything went wrong.
And one big thing went wrong right away. According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon.
♥ 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. Lurching and swaying under the weight of the stone in the sun, dropping it at last and wiping his sore hands, he picked up the shovel and went to work again, while the children's voices fluted and chirped around him, as insidiously torturing as the gnats.
And I didn't even want a baby, he thought to the rhythm of his digging. Isn't that the damnedest thing? I didn't want a baby any more than she did. Wasn't it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn't really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn't been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it. Proving, proving; and for no other reason than that he was married to a woman who had somehow managed to put him forever on the defensive, who loved him when he was nice, who lived according to what she happened to feel like doing and who might at any time—this was the hell of it—who might at any time of day or night just happen to feel like leaving him. It was as ludicrous and as simple as that.
♥ If a really good, really serious community theater could be established here, wouldn't it be a step in the right direction? God knew they would probably never inspire the Donaldsons—and who cared?—but at least they might give the Donaldsons pause; they might show the Donaldsons a way of life beyond the commuting train and the Republican Party and the barbecue pit. Besides, what did they have to love?
Whatever it was they had lost it now. Blame for the failure of the Laurel Players could hardly be fobbed off on Conformity or The Suburbs or American Society Today. How could new jokes be told about their neighbors when these very neighbors had sat and sweated in their audience? Donaldsons, Cramers, Wingates and all, they had come to the The Petrified Forest with a surprisingly generous openness of mind, and had been let down.
♥ "It's as if everybody'd made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The hell with reality! Let's have a whole bunch of cute little winding roads and cute little houses painted white and pink and baby blue; let's all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimentality—Daddy's a great man because he makes a living, Mummy's a great woman because she's stuck by Daddy all these years—and if old reality ever does pop out and say Boo we'll all get busy and pretend it never happened."
♥ At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a big open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking out across the room, was that of the wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, some treading water, others seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.
♥ "Whatever it is, though, I think you'll have to agree it isn't very realistic; that's all I meant."
"In order to agree with that," she said, "I'd have to have a very strange and very low opinion of reality. Because you see I happen to think this is unrealistic. I think it's unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working like a dog year after year at a job he can't stand, coming home to a house he can't stand in a place he can't stand either, to a wife who's equally unable to stand the same things, living among a bunch of frightened little—my God, Frank, I don't have to tell you what's wrong with this environment—I'm practically quoting you. ...
..."It was way back on Bethune Street," she said. "It was when I first got pregnant with Jennifer and told you I was going to—you know abort it, abort her. I mean up until that moment you didn't want a baby any more than I did—why should you have?—but when I went out and bought that rubber syringe I put the whole burden of the thing on you. It was like saying, All right, then, if you want this baby it's going to be All Your Responsibility. You're going to have to turn yourself inside out to provide for us. You'll have to give up any idea of being anything in the world but a father. Oh, Frank, if only you'd given me what I deserved—if only you'd called me a bitch and turned your back on me, you could've called my bluff in a minute. I'd probably never have gone through with the thing—I probably wouldn't have had the courage, for one thing—but you didn't. You were too good and young and scared; you played right along with it, and that's how the whole thing started. That's how we both got committed to this enormous delusion—because that's what it is, an enormous, obscene delusion—this idea that people have to resign from real life and 'settle down' when they have families. It's the great sentimental lie of the suburbs, and I've been making you subscribe to it all this time. I've been making you live by it! My God, I've even gone as far as to work up this completely corny, soap-opera picture of myself—and I guess this is what really brought it home to me—this picture of myself as the girl who could have been The Actress if she hadn't gotten married too young. And I mean you know perfectly well I was never any kind of an actress and never really wanted to be; you know I only went to the Academy to get away from home, and I know it too. I've always known it. And here for three months I've been walking around with this noble, bittersweet expression on my face—I mean how self-deluded can you get? Do you see how neurotic all this is? I wanted to have it both ways. It wasn't enough that I'd spoiled your life; I wanted to bring the whole monstrous thing full-circle and make it seem that you'd spoiled mine, so I could end up being the victim. Isn't that awful? But it's true! It's true!"
♥ "It's got nothing to do with definite, measurable talents—it's your very essence that's being stifled here. It's what you are that's being denied and denied and denied in this kind of life."
"And what's that?" For the first time he allowed himself to look at her—not only to look but to put down his glass and take hold of her leg, and she covered and pressed his hand with both of her own.
"Oh, don't you know?" She brought his hand gently up her hip and around to the flat of her abdomen, where she pressed it close again. "Don't you know? You're the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man."
And of all the capitulations in his life, this was the one that seemed most like a victory. Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he triumphed more completely over time and space. The past could dissolve at his will and so could the future; so could the walls of this house and the whole imprisoning wasteland beyond it, towns and trees. He had taken command of the universe because he was a man, and because the marvelous creature who opened and moved for him, tender and strong, was a woman.
...He was on his back, taking pleasure in the slow rise and fall of his own chest, which felt broad and deep and muscled enough to fill the modeling of a medieval breastplate. Was there anything he couldn't do? Was there any voyage he couldn't undertake and any prize in life he couldn't promise her?
♥ She cried because she'd had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who'd ever asked her to marry him, and because she'd done it, and because her only child was insane.
♥ "I don't mean to be dense, but what exactly will you be doing? I don't see you languishing indefinitely at sidewalk cafés while your good frau commutes to the embassy or whatever—but that's the point, you see. I don't quite know what I do see you doing. Writing a book? Painting a—"
"Why does everybody think in terms of writing books and painting pictures?" Frank demanded, and then, only partly aware that he was quoting his wife, he said, "My God, are artists and writers the only people entitled to lives of their own? Look. The only reason I'm here in this half-assed job is because—well, I suppose there's a lot of reasons, but here's the point. If I started making a list of all the reasons, the one reason I damn sure couldn't put down is that I like it, because I don't. And I've got this funny feeling that people are better off doing some kind of work they like."
♥ "I don't think I've ever met an insane person before, have you? A real certified insane person, I mean."
He poured out two glasses of the very dry sherry he liked on Sunday afternoons. "How much you want to bet," he said, "that he turns out to be pretty much like all the uncertified insane people we know? Let's just relax and take him as he comes."
♥ The rain had stopped but it was still a wet, gray day and good to be indoors. The radio was dimly playing Mozart and a gentle, sherry-scented repose settled over the kitchen. This was the way he had often wished his marriage could always be—unexcited, companionable, a mutual tenderness touched with romance—and as they sat there quietly talking, waiting for the sight of the Givingses' station wagon to appear through the dripping trees, he shivered pleasurably once or twice as a man who has been out since before dawn will shiver at the feel of the first faint warmth of sun on his neck. He felt himself at peace...
♥ "No, but I got to hand it to her this time; this isn't what I pictured at all. This is nice. I don't mean 'nice' the way she means 'nice,' either; don't worry. I mean nice. I like it here. Looks like a place where people live."
♥ The practical side of the Europe plan didn't seem to interest John Givings, but he was full of persistent questions about their reasons for going; and once, when Frank said something about "the hopeless emptiness of everything in this country," he came to a stop on the grass and looked thunderstruck.
"Wow," he said. "Now you've said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that's all we ever talked about. We'd sit around talking about emptiness all night. Nobody ever said 'hopeless,' though; that's where we'd chicken out. Because maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness, but it takes a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that's when there's nothing to do but take off. If you can."
♥ "Frank, a lot of people tend to look down on plain old-fashioned selling today, but I want to tell you something. Back when I was first breaking into the selling field a very wise and wonderful older man told me something I've never forgotten. He said to me, 'Bart, everything is selling.' He said, 'Nothing happens in this world, nothing comes into this world, until somebody makes a sale.' He said, 'You don't believe me? All right, look at it this way.' He said, 'Bart, where the hell do you think you'd be if your father hadn't sold your mother a bill of goods?'"
♥ "Frank, maybe it's the old-time salesman in me, but I've always had one conviction, and that's this: when you're trying to sell an idea, I don't care how complicated or what it may be, you'll never find a more effective instrument of persuasion than the living human voice."
♥ Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.
.."Oh, let me see now," says the ancient man, tilting his withered head to wince and blink at the sun in bewildered reminiscence, "my first wife passed away in the spring of—" and for a moment he is touched with terror. The spring of what? Past? Future? What is any spring but a mindless rearrangement of cells in the crust of the spinning earth as it floats in endless circuit of its sun? What is the sun itself but one of a billion insensible stars forever going nowhere into nothingness? Infinity! But soon the merciful valves and switches of his brain begin to do their tired work, and "The spring of Nineteen-Ought-Six," he is able to say. "Or no, wait—" and his blood runs cold again as the galaxies revolve. "Wait! Nineteen-Ought—Four." Now he is sure of it, and a restorative flood of well-being brings his hand involuntarily up to slap his thigh in satisfaction. He may have forgotten the shape of his first wife's smile and the sound of her voice in tears, but by imposing a set of numerals on her death he has imposed coherence on his own life, and on life itself. Now all the other years can fall obediently into place, each with its orderly contribution to the whole. Nineteen-Ten, Nineteen-Twenty—Why, of course he remembers!—Nineteen=Thirty, Nineteen-Forty, right on up to the well-deserved peace of his present and on into the gentle promise of his future. The earth can safely resume its benevolent stillness—Smell that new grass!—and it's the same grand old sun that has hung there smiling on him all these years. "Yes sir," he can say with authority, "Nineteen-Ought-Four," and the stars tonight will please him as tokens of his ultimate heavenly rest. He has brought order out of chaos.
♥ "Is there any other kind?" she asked. "Don't 'moral' and 'conventional' really mean the same thing?"
♥ "I mean things that have nothing to do with Europe," he said, "or with me. I mean things within yourself, things that have their origin in your own childhood—your own upbringing and so on. Emotional things."
There was a long silence before she said, in a pointedly neutral tone: "You mean I'm emotionally disturbed."
"I didn't say that!" But in the next hour, as his voice went on and on, he managed to say it several times in several different ways.
♥ He had won but he didn't feel like a winner. He had successfully righted the course of his life but he felt himself more than ever a victim of the world's indifference. It didn't seem fair.
♥ "It's not that. Honestly. It's just that I don't know who you are."
There was a silence. "Don't talk riddles," he whispered.
"I'm not. I really don't know who you are."
If he couldn't see her face, at least he could touch it. He did so with a blind man's delicacy, drawing his fingertips from her temple down into the hollow of her cheek.
"And even if I did," she said, "I'm afraid it wouldn't help, because you see I don't know who I am, either."
♥ His dread of seeing her in the office the next day was so intense that he was in the act of stepping off the elevator before he remembered that she wouldn't be there. She was on vacation. Would she follow Norma to the Cape? No; more likely she would use her two weeks to look for another job; in either case he could be fairly certain he would never see her again. And his relief on realizing this soon turned, perversely, into a worried kind of dismay. If he never saw her again, how would he ever have a chance to—well, explain things to her? To tell her, in a level, unapologetic voice, all the level, unapologetic things he had to say?
♥ The house looked very neat and white as it emerged through the green and yellow leaves; it wasn't such a bad house after all. It looked, as John Givings had once said, like a place where people lived—a place where the difficult, intricate process of living could sometimes give rise to incredible harmonies of happiness and sometimes to near-tragic disorder, as well as to ludicrous minor interludes ("That's All, Folks!"); a place where it was possible to feel lonely and confused in many ways and for things to look pretty bleak from time to time, but where everything, in the final analysis, was going to be all right.
♥ "Money's always a good reason," John said. He began to move around the carpet, hands in his pockets. "But it's hardly ever the real reason. What's the real reason? Wife talk you out of it, or what?" And he turned the full force of his dazzling smile on April, who had moved across the room to stab out her cigarette in an ash tray. Her eyes looked briefly up at him and then down again.
"Huh?" he persisted. "Little woman decide she isn't quite ready to quit playing house? Nah, nah, that's not it. I can tell. She looks too tough. Tough and female and adequate as hell. Okay, then; it must've been you." And he swung around to Frank. "What happened? ... What happened? You get cold feet, or what? You decide you like it here after all? You figure it's more comfy here in the old Hopeless Emptiness after all, or—Wow, that he did! Look at his face! What's the matter, Wheeler? Am I getting warm? ...Boy!" John broke into his braying laugh. "Boy! You know something? I wouldn't be surprised if you knocked her up on purpose, just so you could spend the rest of your life hiding behind that maternity dress. ... Big man you got here, April," he said, winking at her as he fitted the workman's cap on his head. "Big family man, solid citizen. I feel sorry for you. Still, maybe you deserve each other. Matter of fact, the way you look right now, I'm beginning to feel sorry for him, too. I mean come to think of it, you must give him a pretty bad time, if making babies is the only way he can prove he's got a pair of balls."
...But John wasn't finished yet. "Hey, I'm glad of one thing, though," he said, stopping near the door and turning back, beginning to laugh again, and Mrs. Givings thought she would die as he extended a long yellow-stained index finger and pointed it at the slight mound of April's pregnancy. "You know what I'm glad of? I'm glad I'm not gonna be that kid."
♥ It was incredible. No morning after a fight had ever been as easy as this—but still, he thought as he unsteadily sipped at his orange juice, no fight had ever been as bad as that. Could it be that they'd fought themselves out at last? Maybe this was what happened when there was really and truly nothing to say, either in acrimony or forgiveness. Life did, after all, have to go on.
♥ So it hadn't been wrong or dishonest of her to say no this morning, when he asked if she hated him, any more than it had been wrong or dishonest to serve him the elaborate breakfast and to show the elaborate interest in his work, and to kiss him goodbye. The kiss, for that matter, had been exactly right—a perfectly fair, friendly kiss, a kiss for a boy you'd just met at a party, a boy who'd danced with you and made you laugh and walked you home afterwards, talking about himself all the way.
The only real mistake, the only wrong and dishonest thing, was ever to have seen him as anything more than that. Oh, for a month or two, just for fun, it might be all right to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what the other most wanted to hear—until he was saying "I love you" and she was saying "Really, I mean it; you're the most interesting person I've ever met."
What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way! Because once you'd started it was terribly difficult to stop; soon you were saying "I'm sorry, of course you're right," and "Whatever you think is best," and "You're the most wonderful and valuable thing in the world," and the next thing you knew all honesty, all truth, was as far away and glimmering, as hopelessly unattainable as the world of the golden people. Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums—earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong; you found you were saying yes when you meant no, and "We've got to be together in this thing" when you meant the very opposite; then you were breathing gasoline as if it were flowers and abandoning yourself to a delirium of love under the weight of a clumsy, grunting, red-faced man you didn't even like—Shep Campbell!—and then you were face to face, in total darkness, with the knowledge that you didn't know who you were.
And how could anyone else be blamed for that?
♥ From a distance, all children's voices sound the same.
♥ But she needed no more advice and no more instruction. She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.
♥ Shep, respectfully keeping his distance, allowed the inner voice to assure him that she couldn't possibly be dying. People didn't die this way, at the end of a drowsing corridor like this in the middle of the afternoon. Why, hell, if she was dying that janitor wouldn't be pushing his mop so peacefully across the linoleum, and he certainly wouldn't be humming, nor would they let the radio play so loud in the ward a few doors away. If April Wheeler was dying they certainly wouldn't have this bulletin board here on the wall, with its mimeographed announcement of a staff dance ("Fun! Refreshments!") and they woudn't have these wicker chairs arranged this way, with this table and this neat display of magazines. What the hell did they expect you to do? Sit down and cross your legs and flip through a copy of Life while somebody died? Of course not. This was a place where babies were born or where simple, run-of-the-mill miscarriages were cleaned up in a jiffy; it was a place where you waited and worried until you'd made sure everything was all right, and then you walked out and had a drink and went home.
♥ The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toy-land of white of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. Proud floodlights were trained on some of the lawns, on some of the neat front doors and on the hips of some of the berthed, ice-cream-colored automobiles.
A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place. Except for the whisk of his shoes on the asphalt and the rush of his own breath, it was so quiet that he could hear the sounds of television in the dozing rooms behind the leaves—a blurred comedian's shout followed by dim, spastic waves of laughter and applause, and then the striking-up of a band. Even when he veered from the pavement, cur across someone's back yard and plunged into the down-sloping woods, intent on a madman's shortcut to Revolutionary Road, even then there was no escape: the house lights beamed and stumbled happily along with him among the twigs that whipped his face, and once when he lost his footing and fell scrabbling down a rocky ravine, he came up with a child's enameled tin beach bucket in his hand.
♥ The whole point of crying was to quit before you cornied it up. The whole point of grief itself was to cut it out while it was still honest, while it still meant something. Because the thing was so easily corrupted: let yourself go and you started embellishing your own sobs, or you started telling about the Wheelers with a sad, sentimental smile and saying Frank was courageous, and then what the hell did you have?