Revolutionary Road is set during an era when an intense pressure to conform caused many people to feel depressed and inadequate. Instead of helping the mentally ill cope with a conformist society, however, the profession of psychology was often used to pressure people to stifle their individual desires and submit to social norms. The novel suggests that the fear of being stigmatized for being different often stops people – particularly women – from pursuing the lives they would like to lead. The novel portrays this as a tragic state of affairs, because it is personal freedom—not conformity to a socially approved ideal—that allows individuals to come as close as possible to a happy life.
The lives of the novel’s central characters suggest that it is a lack of personal freedom that makes them unhappy. Rather than childhood trauma or incurable mental illness, society’s conformist strictures limit these individuals to unfulfilling lives.
For April Wheeler, her husband is the primary obstacle to her pursuing a fulfilling life. She wants to live abroad and pursue new experiences, but Frank is determined to keep her under his thumb. When April wants to abort her child so that she might still achieve the life she wants, Frank suggests that this is a sign of mental illness. Abortion might be an emotionally healthy decision for April, who doesn’t want to repeat her parents’ mistake of having unwanted children and failing to care for them. However, Frank parrots society’s view that all sane women want children, and suggests that April’s childhood has left her emotionally scarred. Ironically, Frank doesn’t want another child, either. He and April have the same desire, but only in April—a woman—does this desire seem “insane.”
Shep Campbell’s story demonstrates that the ability to overcome depression in this conformist society is only open to those who can be happy with a life society approves of. Shep grows depressed when he comes to the realization that the life he has chosen is not the one he wants, but because he is a man, and because the life he wants is one that society embraces, he is able to overcome his unhappiness by making socially acceptable changes. He moves, switches jobs, and makes new friends, which doesn’t make him ecstatically happy, but does eliminate his previous woes. Shep’s ability to change his life for the better while still respecting social norms suggests that the ability to overcome dissatisfaction is more readily available to men who fit into traditional gender roles, because they are rewarded for showing initiative and ambition. By contrast, April’s dissatisfaction cannot be resolved in a socially acceptable way, since her bohemian desires are seen as unbefitting of a woman. Thus, April is left mired in her dissatisfaction, her distress escalating until she dies in a desperate attempt to control her life.
John Givings, the novel’s sole certified “insane” person, is an intelligent, intuitive non-conformist. The degree to which he is actually “psychotic” is left unclear. What is clear is that he is determined to rebel against a society that seeks to enforce conformity, especially when it comes to the proper roles for men and women. He sees his mother as the embodiment of this spirit of conformity, mocking her efforts to remain bright and cheerful in the face of his brutal truth-telling and derisively calling her “feminine” instead of “female.” When he holds his parents hostage in their home – an act that could be a true sign of insanity – society strikes back, sending him to a mental institution, keeping him from seeing a lawyer, and subjecting him to painful electrical shock treatments. But it is when he maliciously but accurately describes the Wheelers’ marriage—specifically, Frank’s desire to assert his masculinity by controlling April—that his fate is sealed. After this, his mother decides that he is too destructive to be around other people. The price for telling the truth about the conformity he sees and the unhappiness it causes is an indefinite stay in a mental institution.
Overall, then, the novel presents a bleak picture of the possibilities for those who want something other than a home, a spouse, and children, as society says they are supposed to. In a rigidly conformist society that has commandeered psychology to back up its claims about the only good way to live, especially as these claims apply to gender roles, the pressure to conform is given scientific backing by the discipline of psychology. Those who fail to conform may be subjected to psychological treatment that is more a punishment for bad behavior than a treatment for illness. Meanwhile, the threat of this treatment regimen only adds to the pressure to conform, increasing the prevalence of mental illness and making the conundrum of the dissatisfied non-conformist all the more hopeless.
Conformity, Mental Illness, and Psychology ThemeTracker
Conformity, Mental Illness, and Psychology 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.”
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.
And she'd never been able to explain or even to understand that what she loved was not the job—it could have been any job—or even the independence it gave her (though of course that was important for a woman constantly veering toward the brink of divorce). Deep down, what she'd loved and needed was work itself. "Hard work," her father had always said, "is the best medicine yet devised for all the ills of man—and of woman," and she'd always believed it… [Work] was the substance of her love; it was all that fortified her against the pressures of marriage and parenthood. Without it, as she often said, she would have gone out of her mind.
"You hear wrong. Taught it for a while, that's all. Anyway, it's all gone now. You know what electrical shock treatments are? Because you see, the past couple months I've had thirty-five—or no, wait—thirty-seven…The idea is to jolt all the emotional problems out of your mind, you see, but in my case they had a different effect. Jolted out all the God damned mathematics. Whole subject's a total blank."
"How awful," April said.
"'How awful.’” John Givings mimicked her in a mincing, effeminate voice and then turned on her with a challenging smirk. "Why?" he demanded. "Because mathematics is so 'interesting'?"
"No," she said. "Because the shocks must be awful and because it's awful for anybody to forget something they want to remember. As a matter of fact I think mathematics must be very dull."
He stared at her for a long time, and nodded with approval. "I like your girl, Wheeler," he announced at last. "I get the feeling she's female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here's a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there is feminine as hell. I've only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here. Course, come to think of it, that figures. I get the feeling you're male. There aren’t too many males around, either."
"I think we can assume, though," he said, "just on the basis of common sense, that if most little girls do have this thing about wanting to be boys, they probably get over it in time by observing and admiring and wanting to emulate their mothers—I mean you know, attract a man, establish a home, have children and so on. And in your case, you see, that whole side of life, that whole dimension of experience was denied you from the start…"
She got up and walked away to stand near the bookcase, with her back to him, and he was reminded of the way he had first seen her, long ago…a tall, proud, exceptionally first-rate girl.
"How do you suppose we'd go about finding one?" she asked. "A psychiatrist, I mean. Aren’t a lot of them supposed to be quacks? Well, but still, I guess that isn’t really much of a problem, is it."
He held his breath.
"Okay," she said. Her eyes were bright with tears as she turned around. "I guess you're right. I guess there isn't much more to say, then, is there?”
And that, of course, was the other really important difference: it didn't upset him. It annoyed him slightly, but it didn’t upset him. Why should it? It was her problem. What boundless reaches of good health, what a wealth of peace there was in this new-found ability to sort out and identify the facts of their separate personalities—this is my problem, that's your problem. The pressures of the past few months had brought them each through a kind of crisis; he could see that now. This was their time of convalescence, during which a certain remoteness from each other's concerns was certainly natural enough, and probably a good sign. He knew, sympathetically, that in her case the adjustment must be especially hard…Next week, or as soon as possible, he would take whatever steps were necessary in lining up a reputable analyst; and he could already foresee his preliminary discussions with the man, whom he pictured as owlish and slow-spoken, possibly Viennese ("I think your own evaluation of the difficulty is essentially correct, Mr. Wheeler. We can't as yet predict how extensive a course of therapy will be indicated, but I can assure you of this: with your continued cooperation and understanding, there is every reason to hope for rapid . . .").
And almost, if not quite, before he knew what his voice was up to, he was telling her about Maureen Grube. He did it with automatic artfulness, identifying her only as "a girl in New York, a girl I hardly even know," rather than as a typist at the office, careful to stress that there had been no emotional involvement on his part while managing to imply that her need for him had been deep and ungovernable. His voice, soft and strong with an occasional husky falter or hesitation that only enhanced its rhythm, combined the power of confession with the narrative grace of romantic storytelling.
"And I think the main thing was simply a case of feeling that my—well, that my masculinity'd been threatened somehow by all that abortion business; wanting to prove something; I don’t know. Anyway, I broke it off last week; the whole stupid business. It's over now; really over. If I weren't sure of that I guess I could never've brought myself to tell you about it."
For half a minute, the only sound in the room was the music on the radio.
"Why did you?" she asked. He shook his head, still looking out the window. "Baby, I don't know. I've tried to explain it to you; I'm still trying to explain it to myself. That's what I meant about it's being a neurotic, irrational kind of thing. I—"
"No," she said. "I don't mean why did you have the girl; I mean why did you tell me about it? What's the point? Is it supposed to make me jealous, or something? Is it supposed to make me fall in love with you, or back into bed with you, or what? I mean what am I supposed to say?"
He looked at her, feeling his face blush and twitch into an embarrassed simper that he tried, unsuccessfully, to make over into the psychiatric smile. "Why don’t you say what you feel?"
She seemed to think this over for a few seconds, and then she shrugged. "I have. I don’t feel anything."
"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."
"All right, John," Howard was murmuring. "Let's get on out to the car now."
"April," Mrs. Givings whispered. "I can't tell you how sorry I—"
"Right," John said, moving away with his father. "Sorry, sorry, sorry. Okay Ma? Have I said 'Sorry' enough times? I am sorry, too. Damn; I bet I'm just about the sorriest bastard I know. Course, get right down to it, I don't have a whole hell of a lot to be glad about, do I?"
And at least, Mrs. Givings thought, if nothing else could be salvaged from this horrible day, at least he was allowing Howard to lead him away quietly. All she had to do now was to follow them, to find some way of getting across this floor and out of this house, and then it would all be over.
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."
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, cut 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.
As he clambered out onto asphalt again at the base of the Hill he allowed his dizzy, jogging mind to indulge in a cruel delusion: it had all been a nightmare; he would round this next bend and see the lights blazing in his own house; he would run inside and find her at the ironing board, or curled up on the sofa with a magazine ("What's the matter, Frank? Your pants are all muddy! Of course I'm all right. . .").
But then he saw the house—really saw it—long and milk-white in the moonlight, with black windows, the only darkened house on the road.