The Lessons Of Revolutionary Road

rr-tableThanks to my versatile Kindle Fire, I recently explored the tragic story of Revolutionary Road in both movie and book form. It’s a cautionary tale that seems relevant to anyone trying to balance a creative career with domestic and workaday responsibilities. Originally a novel by Richard Yates published in 1961, the story is set in post-World War II suburban America. It evidently resonates with contemporary audiences, as it became a well-regarded 2009 film reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the equally tragic but much-more-in-love couple from 1997’s Titanic.

The film is quite faithful to the book. It portrays a young couple whose belief that they are too talented and special to endure an ordinary suburban existence ultimately leads to their destruction. Many people strive for this kind of balance, and find it difficult, if not killing. To avoid self-destructing over it, one must ultimately come to a more realistic understanding of what’s achievable.

Frank and April Wheeler’s life in the suburbs is prosperous enough, and would be envied by many. They have a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, friendly (although sometimes nosy) neighbors, and two adorable children. Frank has a decent-paying job with possibilities for promotion. What more could they want?

What they want most is not to be ordinary. Frank hates, or more accurately, disdains the job. April studied to be an actress, but failed at it. She depends on her husband to make their lives special, and resents his inability to do it. They both indulge in affairs, which fail to alleviate their boredom. Then they concoct a much more ambitious plan to blast through the ordinariness. They will chuck everything and move to Paris, counting on the city itself to bestow the specialness they crave. What will they do there? It’s not that Frank wants to paint city scenes or write a novel. They figure that April will support the family with secretarial jobs while he looks after the kids and “finds himself.”

The friends with whom they share this implausible plan are mostly appalled at their lack of responsibility, but are mostly too polite to say so. The only person with sufficient courage to spell out the flaws in their thinking is a recent mental hospital patient whose illness seems to spur his honesty. In the end, the Wheelers’ castle in the air comes crashing down, wrecked by the most prosaic of realities, an unplanned pregnancy. How will they handle that? It turns out they can’t.

19 thoughts on “The Lessons Of Revolutionary Road

  1. This caught my eye today because we just watched Revolutionary Road – and, since neither of us watched Titanic, didn’t recognize Kate Winslett.

    I thought the movie was over the top – exaggerating people who were not that special and had no ability to talk to each other seriously. I didn’t realize it was based on a book, and the book was so dated. It makes more sense now to have that view of the suburbs – also very dated.

    Our tastes as readers have changed, and the same for what we watch. If that’s the way the 50s really were (my parents were the approximate age of the couple), and I have no reason to doubt that, it explains some of the post-war conformity, everyone trying to get on with life.

    I don’t understand the fascination with Mad Men, or making a movie less than a decade ago about how women ran their lives in a more repressive age. Gains are small – but real. I kept waiting for the wife to do SOMETHING.

    1. All good points! My parents were also of that approximate age. I recently wrote a blog post, “Creating the Baby Boom,” in which I speculated about what they expected out of life after my dad came back from the war. Fortunately, they didn’t expect more than they were capable of achieving, like the couple in “Revolutionary Road.” I think after the drama of the preceding years, they wanted a normal, peaceful life more than anything.

      I did enjoy binging on “Mad Men” on Netflix. I don’t think it hurts to remind ourselves how far women have come in a fairly short time.

      1. I won’t watch Mad Men, even though I love Christina Hendricks since Firefly. I keep wanting the women to speak up for themselves, and they don’t. It sets off cognitive dissonance in MY brain, and I stop watching.

        Other people obviously loved it – it went many seasons.

        Which is why I don’t tell other people what to do, not since my kids each turned 25 (my cutting-off point for maternal nagging).

    1. “Revolutionary Road” might be a little heavy for kids, especially young ones, since self-destructiveness is one of its themes. Still, it seems kids are getting more sophisticated in their tastes these days.

  2. I like to put things into perspective. I like things that make me think whether as a criticism of the times, or a reminder of the times, I think it is healthy to react. This is what I liked about movie and book. Good post

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