Revolutionary Road takes place during a period after World War II when the American economy was booming and millions of Americans who grew up in poverty during the Depression were joining the middle class. Yet even with money-making opportunities being so plentiful, the novel’s characters are not content with run-of-the-mill success, and they seek other ways to prove their worth and cement their status. For many, this status became dependent on showing “good taste.” Having a creative or intellectual profession could compensate for a moderate income, and a tastefully decorated home—even if modest—connoted more intellect and sophistication than an extravagantly decorated one. In a counterpoint to the characters’ fear of being labelled psychologically abnormal, they also fear being exactly like everyone else. In order to prove to themselves that they are “exceptional,” all the characters seek to demonstrate their good taste, but the significance of good taste varies depending on the characters’ class background.
The characters in Revolutionary Road were born into different backgrounds, but all inhabit the same economic station during the events of the novel. Still, the social class of each character’s parents remains the primary influence on what they see as a desirable way to spend their lives. Frank and Milly, who grew up poor or lower-middle-class, pretend to shun conventional, materialist values to fit in with their partners. They do this to cement their status as “exceptional” people by proving that they have refined taste. In reality, however, both draw happiness from the comfort and security of their material success. Frank believes he wants a creative career unlike his father’s out of a mistaken belief that his father was ordinary while he is exceptional. He sees himself as a rebel, giving long, impassioned speeches denouncing the sentimentality and conformity of his neighbors and coworkers. But Frank is a born salesman, and he eventually finds that his skills suit him to working, as his father did, explaining complicated products in simple terms. He also finds that he enjoys the very normal pleasures of relaxing at home in the suburbs, sipping brandy and reading comic books to his children. Similarly Milly, who was raised in poverty, adapts attitudes that convey wealth and unsentimental “good” taste because she sees that this is important to Shep. But deep down, Milly wants to be a homemaker and raise children. Their house has a “spare, stripped-down, intellectual” look that Milly cultivates to impress others. Only in their bedroom does Milly allow her décor to reveal her true feelings: she is happy to be a homemaker living in the suburbs.
Those characters who came from wealthier backgrounds, like Shep and Helen Givings, see themselves as more refined and interesting than the other people living in their suburban community. Helen has found an occupation that expresses her belief in her own superior taste. When she renovates homes and then resells them at a higher price, she finds proof that her taste is superior to the taste of those around her. Shep is satisfied to have befriended the Wheelers, who make him feel like he is connecting to a world of monied, East-coast elites.
But while Helen and Shep have made their peace with their surroundings (all the while still signaling that they look down on their community), for April taste is more than a hollow status symbol, but an aesthetic experience which makes her feel truly herself. Those around April can sense that she has real taste, not the kind of taste that they feign for status. Shep aspires to have April praise Milly’s design of the Campbell house, while Frank sees her as a trophy wife because she is “first-rate.” Yet Frank also finds her expressions of taste infuriating, because they are a sign of April’s continued existence as an independent thinker. He gets angry at her for her snobbishness, and fears that she will escape his attempts to control her with her ability to continue to speak independently. While Frank’s fluent speech wins most people over, he can never keep April from reserving judgment until she has truly considered what he is saying. Despite her environment, and despite Frank’s attempts to control her, taste sets April apart.
In a world in which taste differentiates the banal middle-class from those who are seen as “exceptional,” April Wheeler stands above and apart from the other characters. Born into a wealthy background, she is not concerned with proving that she comes from the upper class. Further, she is not interested in defining herself by signaling that she has a higher status than those around her. She feels utterly sure that she is better than those around her because of her capacity to think independently, and she sees no need to prove it to others. For her, neither class nor status are as important as the freedom of thought that she is denied in her suburban world.
Class, Taste, and Status ThemeTracker
Class, Taste, and Status Quotes in Revolutionary Road
"It strikes me," he said at last, "that there's a considerable amount of bullshit going on here. I mean you seem to be doing a pretty good imitation of Madame Bovary here, and there's one or two points I'd like to clear up. Number one, it's not my fault the play was lousy. Number two, it's sure as hell not my fault you didn’t turn out to be an actress, and the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera the better off we're all going to be. Number three, I don’t happen to fit the role of dumb, insensitive suburban husband; you've been trying to hang that one on me ever since we moved out here, and I'm damned if I'll wear it. Number four—”
She was out of the car and running away in the headlights, quick and graceful, a little too wide in the hips. For a second, as he clambered out and started after her, he thought she meant to kill herself—she was capable of damn near anything at times like this—but she stopped in the dark roadside weeds thirty yards ahead, beside a luminous sign that read NO PASSING. He came up behind her and stood uncertainly, breathing hard, keeping his distance. She wasn’t crying; she was only standing there, with her back to him.
"What the hell," he said. "What the hell's this all about? Come on back to the car."
"No. I will in a minute. Just let me stand here a minute.”
She'd 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 office 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 Villager?") 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.
By the end of the first year the joke had worn thin, and the inability of others to see the humor of it had become depressing. "Oh, you mean your father worked there," they would say when he tried to explain it, and their eyes, as often as not, would then begin to film over with the look that people reserve for earnest, obedient, unadventurous young men. Before long (and particularly after the second year, with both his parents dead) he had stopped trying to explain that part of it, and begun to dwell instead on other comic aspects of the job: the absurd discrepancy between his own ideals and those of Knox Business Machines; the gulf between the amount of energy he was supposed to give the company and the amount he actually gave. "I mean the great advantage of a place like Knox is that you can sort of turn off your mind every morning at nine and leave it off all day, and nobody knows the difference."
Beginning with a quick, audacious dismantling of the Knox Business Machines Corporation, which made her laugh, he moved out confidently onto broader fields of damnation until he had laid the punctured myth of Free Enterprise at her feet; then, just at the point where any further talk of economics might have threatened to bore her, he swept her away into cloudy realms of philosophy and brought her lightly back to earth with a wise-crack.
And how did she feel about the death of Dylan Thomas? And didn’t she agree that this generation was the least vital and most terrified in modern times? He was at the top of his form. He was making use of material that had caused Milly Campbell to say "Oh that's so true, Frank!" and of older, richer stuff that had once helped to make him the most interesting person April Johnson had ever met. He even touched on his having been a longshoreman. Through it all, though, ran a bright and skillfully woven thread that was just for Maureen: a portrait of himself as decent but disillusioned young family man, sadly and bravely at war with his environment.
"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. Just last night when the Campbells were here, remember what you said about the whole idea of suburbia being to keep reality at bay? You said everybody wanted to bring up their children in a bath of sentimentality. You said—”
"I know what I said. I didn’t think you were listening, though. You looked sort of bored."
"I was bored. That's part of what I'm trying to say. I don't think I've ever been more bored and depressed and fed up in my life than I was last night. All that business about Helen Givings's son on top of everything else, and the way we all grabbed at it like dogs after meat; I remember looking at you and thinking 'God, if only he'd stop talking.' Because everything you said was based on this great premise of ours that we're somehow very special and superior to the whole thing, and I wanted to say 'But we're not! Look at us! We're just like the people you're talking about! We are the people you're talking about!' I sort of had—I don’t know, contempt for you, because you couldn't see the terrific fallacy of the thing.”
And Frank was modestly aware that something of the same kind of change was taking place in himself. He knew for one thing that he had developed a new way of talking, slower and more deliberate than usual, deeper in tone and more fluent: he almost never had to recourse to the stammering, apologetic little bridges…that normally laced his speech, nor did his head duck and weave in the familiar nervous effort to make himself clear. Catching sight of his walking reflection in the black picture window, he had to admit that his appearance was not yet as accomplished as hers…but sometimes late at night when his throat had gone sore and his eyes hot from talking, when he hunched his shoulders and set his jaw and pulled his necktie loose and let it hang like a rope, he could glare at the window and see the brave beginnings of a personage.
And she had managed to give every room of it the spare, stripped-down, intellectual look that April Wheeler called "interesting." Well, almost every room. Feeling fond and tolerant as he rolled his shoe rag into a waxy cylinder, Shep Campbell had to admit that this particular room, this bedroom, was not a very sophisticated place. Its narrow walls, papered in a big floral design of pink and lavender, held careful bracket shelves that in turn held rows of little winking frail things made of glass; its windows served less as windows than as settings for puffed effusions of dimity curtains, and the matching dimity skirts of its bed and dressing table fell in overabundant pleats and billows to the carpet. It was a room that might have been dreamed by a little girl alone with her dolls and obsessed with the notion of making things nice for them among broken orange crates and scraps of cloth in a secret shady corner of the back yard…and whose quick, frightened eyes, as she worked, would look very much like the eyes that now searched this mirror for signs of encroaching middle age.
The trouble, he guessed, was that all the way home this evening he had imagined her saying: "And it probably is the best sales promotion piece they've ever seen—what's so funny about that?"
And himself saying: "No, but you're missing the point—a thing like this just proves what a bunch of idiots they are."
And her: "I don’t think it proves anything of the sort. Why do you always undervalue yourself? I think it proves you're the kind of person who can excel at anything when you want to, or when you have to." And him: "Well, I don’t know; maybe. It's just that I don't want to excel at crap like that."
And her: "Of course you don't, and that's why we're leaving. But in the meantime, is there anything so terrible about accepting their recognition? Maybe you don't want it or need it, but that doesn’t make it contemptible, does it? I mean I think you ought to feel good about it, Frank. Really."
But she hadn't said anything even faintly like that; she hadn’t even looked as if thoughts like that could enter her head. She was sitting here cutting and chewing in perfect composure, with her mind already far away on other things.
He leaned back, smiling and cannily narrowing his eyes. "Wait a minute. Let me see how good a judge of character I am. I bet I know what happened. This is just a guess, now." He winked. "An educated guess. I bet you went ahead and let your dad think his name had helped you get the job, just to please him. Am I right?"
And the disturbing fact of the matter was that he was. On an autumn day of that year…Frank had taken his wife to visit his parents; and all the way out to Harrisburg he'd planned to be elaborately, sophisticatedly offhand in the announcing of his double piece of news, the baby and the job. "Oh, and by the way, I've got a steadier kind of job now, too," he had planned to say, "kind of a stupid job, nothing I'm interested in, but the money's nice." And then he would let the old man have it. But when the moment came…with his father doing his best to be benign, his mother doing her best to be tearfully pleased about the baby and April doing her best to be sweetly and shyly proud—when all the lying tenderness of that moment came it had robbed him of his nerve, and he'd blurted it out—a job in the Home Office!—like a little boy come home with a good report card.
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…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 the funny part, he suddenly realized, the funny part was that he meant it. Looking at her now in the lamplight, this small, rumpled, foolish woman, he knew he had told the truth. Because God damn it, she was alive, wasn’t she? If he walked over to her chair right now and touched the back of her neck, she would close her eyes and smile, wouldn’t she? Damn right, she would…Then she would go to bed, and in the morning she'd get up and come humping downstairs again in her torn dressing gown with its smell of sleep and orange juice and cough syrup and stale deodorants, and go on living.