Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

There is something deeply disturbing about Yates’ ‘Revolutionary Road’ for those who ever seriously dreamt of achieving greatness in their life.  This not merely an angst-ridden tale of middle-America but rather it explores something paradoxical at the heart of the American dream.  It explores both the crux of that paradox and the violent limits of its pursuit.

April and Frank’s angst emerges not just from their ‘middle-life’ but also the expectation of something else; it is the assumption that they are ‘somehow very special and superior to the whole thing’ (p. 110).  For Yates this undergirds their tortured experience of the possibility of achieving greatness.  In a system which promises greatness to those who are truly special what more painful realisation is there than that you are average because you are, in actuality, mediocre.

The opening scenes capture this clearly.  Frank had not foreseen ‘the weight and shock’ (p. 13) of the crashing realisation that (despite some early moments where April seemed like she had talent) she was really only capable of a banal performance.  These initial moments are a stark reminder, for those (like myself) who have definitely been guilty of delusions of grandeur, that they too are possibly only capable of brief flashes of greatness.

With that in mind, navigating the narrative became much more about the lengths we will go to in order to assert our individuality or to realise our (misunderstood) potential.  Frank finds some sense of this at work and through his affair, while April’s similar attempts at adultery fail to fulfill.  She is incapable it seems of navigating the public world in a meaningful way.  This is the tragedy of the film; that April’s greatness is defined through her partner (her opening failure assures us that).  The abortion is so shocking primarily because of its hollow Christology.  April’s sacrifice is willingly made on behalf of a husband who cannot see that what she needs is from him is to not be himself (average).  Her abortion is a self-inflicted attempt to release her husband from the world that binds him down to normality.

Being a woman in this context could be fruitfully explored through Judith Butler’s reading of Plato in ‘Bodies that Matter’. It seems that ‘woman’ is a background, a form that provides the creative space for masculinity to flourish. April declares that Frank is the ‘most valuable and wonderful thing in the world’… ‘a man’.  Yet, these awkward references to the greatness of masculinity merely highlight the necessity of her abortion: it is the sacrificial logic of this form of femininity pushed to its limit.

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