Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road, written by Richard Yates in 1955, presented a portrait of a youngish all-American Fifties couple (April and Frank Wheeler), with two small children, six-year-old Jennifer and four-year-old Michael, living in a New England suburb of the big city in the 1950s. On the surface, the Wheelers are a perfect suburban family and the embodiment of the American Dream. Frank commutes from their nicely appointed home to a well-paying job in New York City while April looks after the house and their two adorable children. But instead of being content, they see themselves as better than their ordinary neighbors and their dull Connecticut surroundings. They feel trapped, suffocating under grinding conformity. Despair quietly moves in as Frank finds himself wearing the accepted corporate uniform – a coat, suit and hat, taking off for work each day by car and train and working in the same office building and for the same company his father did. April becomes the blueprint perfect housewife – taking out trash, raising kids to the national cute and adorable standard, and slowly losing herself and her dreams of independence to the stereotype of what is right and proper. Frank concludes that he does not “fit the role of dumb, insensitive suburban husband. “The point is it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so typical. It isn’t only the Donaldsons–it’s the Cramers too, and the whaddyacallits, the Wingates, and a million others. It’s all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares anymore; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.” Frank and his wife need to break out of the suburban rut they find themselves in so that they can achieve the greatness that is only just around the corner. April tries to convince Frank they should move to Paris, where she will work and support him while he realizes his vague ambition to be something other than an office worker. This novel, with its middle-class mentality and lifestyle where “Daddy is always the great man and Mommy always listens to Daddy and sticks by his side” captures how the 1950s scream out for much needed women’s liberation.

Revolutionary Road was made into a 2008 romantic drama film directed by Sam Mendes. The screenplay was written by Justin Haythe.

John Keats’ 1956 best-selling book called “The Crack in the Picture Window was a journalistic screed against postwar Levittown-style development. Houses that were being built in the Levittown subdivisions had picture windows; Keats saw many problems in those subdivisions, thus the “crack in the picture window.” Keats found social alienation in these neighborhoods, engendered by the replacement of the local markets with the supermarket, the inward-turning impetus of the television, and other changes, takes a psychological toll on the new suburbanites. The man of the house now commuted to the city in an automobile he did not own, to earn enough money to make payments on gadgets he did not own, to come home to a house he did not own. And, every other development resident did the same thing.

Keats’ used the travails of the fictional couple John and Mary Drone to illustrate how the segregation of young couples of similar background, income bracket, and outlooks into homogeneous neighborhoods makes for a stultifying unnatural community. The Drones, who like their neighbors, “bought” a nothing-down, life-time-to-pay box on a slab in Rolling Knolls. Surrounded by neighbors but not true friends, they try to ameliorate their boredom with gadgets such as televisions—which sinks them deeper into debt—or various activities including handicrafts and neighborhood sex. “Each identical house, with its identical picture window, with its identical dwarf cedars, the identical gullies in the eroding lawns, always the same, the same, the same, row on row, would not inspire Mary’s [Drone] personal skylark to pour forth its full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art. And there was no way out.” “Whole square miles of identical boxes are spreading like gangrene throughout New England, across the Denver prairie, around Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, New York, Miami—everywhere. In any one of these new neighborhoods, be it in Hartford or Philadelphia, you can be certain all other houses will be precisely like yours, inhabited by people who age, income, number of children, problems, habits, conversation, dress, possessions and perhaps even blood type are also precisely like yours.”

Here is another description of the Drone’s suburban life from a review in Esquire, 1/1/57: “Housing developments—those grotesque clots of look-alike huts perched on concrete slabs, overpriced and undersized, corrosive of the soul and unfit for human habitation—are spreading like gangrene around the edges of our cities. In these vile new worlds, men lose their identities to become nameless neuters, children lose their fathers and women lose their minds…. The fate awaiting the well-bred, creative woman in a housing development is hideous. First, of course, she’s trapped there. Her husband has taken the car to work, the bus line is a mile away; besides, she has to mind the children. All this is not bad, per se, for a woman’s place is in the home. But the development home is oppressively small. Therefore, she ventures outside at all opportunities, and when she does, the physical monotony of the look-alike streets overwhelms her, unless, of course, she has spent her formative years in the barracks of the Women’s Army Corps. In search of human companionship, she joins a gaggle of neighboring chatelaines on an adjacent plot where, while their teeming kids seethe about their legs, the ladies chat. It is a conversation that makes the mind reel. The ladies first whip through a quick discussion of toilet-training before warming up to the major theme, which is husbands. Through a network of spies, all traitors to their sex and hence absolutely reliable informants, we learn the ladies speak tenderly of The Boy I Almost (or Should Have) Married, and then spew forth their loathing of My Jerk of A Husband. Bitterly, they revile their soul mates as beasts possessed of Byzantine lusts, going into clinical detail. They indict their husbands as useless fools who can’t fix the plaster, as thoughtless cads, as inept providers.”

Ginia Bellafante described The Crack in the Picture Window as “the book version” of Malvina Reynold’s 1962 protest song Little Boxes (See section on Suburbs and Suburbanization above).