Rigid 1950s gender expectations threaten the happiness of all the characters in Revolutionary Road, both male and female. The pressures and stereotypes of masculinity instill insecurities in men that lead to empty posturing, manipulation, and self-denial. These men live lives they don’t want and are cruel to women to bolster their own self-esteem. And while Yates shows the tragedy of male gender roles, his portrait of gender expectations for women is much more dire. The range of acceptable roles for women in Revolutionary Road is narrow, and women deny themselves to fit into stereotypes meant to repress and control them. While some women may flourish in these roles, others have no way to live a fulfilling life while meeting society’s demands, and it ruins their lives. Thus, Yates shows how rigid gender expectations write a tragic and mutually destructive script for men and women, undermining their abilities to be themselves and have fulfilling relationships.
The novel explores the desire of boys to grow up to become “real men.” Although this desire is motivated by a societal pressure to conform, Revolutionary Road’s male characters find that there is some flexibility when it comes to enacting masculinity while holding on to what makes them individuals. Frank Wheeler wishes to be respected by other men and desired by women. As a boy, he is acutely aware that his father sees him as insufficiently handy with tools and his peers find him overly dramatic. When he grows up, he is surprised and pleased to find that he can earn the approval of others by showing off his intellect. Although Frank is reassured that his eloquence has earned him respect, he still struggles to feel that he is truly manly in the way he hoped to be as a boy. By projecting confidence through his manner, clothing and expressions, by taking on home improvement projects and, most importantly, by manipulating and controlling April and other women, Frank makes himself feel adequately masculine. Shep Campbell, meanwhile, feels that his upper-class upbringing might stifle his masculinity. He abandons the moneyed life his mother wants for him, choosing instead to go to a technical college, become a mechanical engineer, and marry a woman from a different class. He realizes at a certain point, however, that he has given up too much of himself in the pursuit of being what he considers a “real man.”
While the novel’s male characters struggle internally to become “real men,” the women in the novel are expected to be either cheerful, nurturing homemakers, attractive sex objects, or both. Both of these roles are strictly defined by society, leaving little room for individual expression. April Wheeler never wanted to settle down into a suburban life, seeing herself more as a bohemian living in New York City than a mother and housewife, but when she gets pregnant, Frank convinces her to keep the baby. For Frank, having April keep his house and bear his children testifies to his manliness more than anything else. And he further believes that she should be happy to be dominated by his wishes, because they are wishes sanctioned by society. Frank’s mistress, Maureen Grube, tries to live up to a different female archetype: the ideal young, single woman living in New York City. Insecure that she can live up to the role of the sophisticated, sexy, fun woman, Maureen begins an affair with Frank in the hope that his admiration for her will affirm her femininity.
Female gender roles are not only restrictive, they also give men like Frank Wheeler mechanisms for controlling the women around them. Frank suggests that April’s desire to have a life outside of bearing and raising children is perverse, not because he wants to have more children, but because he recognizes that her pregnancies allow him to control her. By stopping April from aborting her pregnancies, Frank saddles her with responsibility for children, diminishing the possibility that she will be able to pursue a life outside of their home and outside of his control. When Maureen’s roommate Norma tries to defend Maureen from being preyed on by Frank, Frank deploys gender roles to defeat her arguments. He accuses Norma of being a “latent lesbian,” suggesting that a “real woman” would not step in to protect another woman from male domination.
The novel’s critique of traditional gender roles is best voiced by the mentally ill John Givings. John says approvingly that April is different from other women who seek to conform to traditional ideas of “femininity.” He also puts his finger on Frank’s reliance on gender roles as a tool of control, saying that Frank probably impregnated April on purpose to sabotage their plan to move to Paris, and so he can “hide behind her maternity dress.” John is the only one who sees the way conformity to gender roles can destroy lives. The fact that he is considered crazy, though, tragically suggests how rigorously this society enforces a specific set of ideas about gender.
Manhood and Womanhood ThemeTracker
Manhood and Womanhood 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.”
Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into each other's weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other's strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint, and strike again. In the space of a gasp for breath it sent their memories racing back over the years for old weapons to rip the scabs off old wounds; it went on and on.
"Oh, you've never fooled me, Frank, never once. All your precious moral maxims and your 'love' and your mealy-mouthed little—do you think I've forgotten the time you hit me in the face because I said I wouldn’t forgive you? Oh, I've always known I had to be your conscience and your guts—and your punching bag. Just because you've got me safely in a trap you think you—"
"You in a trap! You in a trap! Jesus, don’t make me laugh!"
"Yes, me." She made a claw of her hand and clutched at her collarbone. "Me. Me. Me. Oh, you poor, self-deluded—Look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch"—she tossed her head, and the grin of her teeth glistened white in the moonlight—"by any stretch of the imagination you can call yourself a man!"
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.
And the fight went on all night. It caused them to hiss and grapple and knock over a chair, it spilled outside and downstairs and into the street ("Get away from me! Get away from me!")…All that saved him, all that enabled him now to crouch and lift a new stone from its socket and follow its rumbling fall with the steady and dignified tread of self-respect, was that the next day he had won. The next day, weeping in his arms, she had allowed herself to be dissuaded.
"Oh, I know, I know," she had whispered against his shirt, "I know you're right. I'm sorry. I love you. We'll name it Frank and we'll send it to college and everything. I promise, promise."
And it seemed to him now that no single moment of his life had ever contained a better proof of manhood than that, if any proof were needed: holding that tamed, submissive girl and saying, "Oh, my lovely; oh, my lovely," while she promised she would bear his child. Lurching and swaying under the weight of the stone in the sun, dropping it at last and wiping his sore hands, he picked up the shovel and went to work again, while the children's voices fluted and chirped around him, as insidiously torturing as the gnats.
All this was pleasing, and so was the way she had shyly slipped into calling him “Frank,” and so was the news that she did indeed have an apartment with another girl—a “perfectly adorable” apartment right here in the Village—but after a while he found he had to keep reminding himself to be pleased. The trouble, he guessed, was mainly that she talked too much. It was also that so much of her talk rang false, that so many of its possibilities for charm were blocked and buried under the stylized ceremony of its cuteness. Soon he was able to guess that most if not all of her inanity could be blamed on her roommate…The more she told him about this other girl…the more annoyingly clear it became that she and Norma enjoyed classic roles of mentor and novice in an all-girl orthodoxy of fun. There were signs of this tutelage in Maureen's too-heavy make-up and too-careful hairdo, as well as in her every studied mannerism and prattling phrase…and her endless supply of anecdotes involving sweet little Italian grocers and sweet little Chinese laundrymen and gruff but lovable cops on the beat, all of whom, in the telling, became the stock supporting actors in a confectionery Hollywood romance of bachelor-girls in Manhattan.
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.
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.
"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."
When he lit a cigarette in the dark he was careful to arrange his features in a virile frown before striking and cupping the flame (he knew, from having practiced this at the mirror of a blacked-out bathroom years ago, that it made a swift, intensely dramatic portrait), and he paid scrupulous attention to endless details: keeping his voice low and resonant, keeping his hair brushed and his bitten fingernails out of sight; being always the first one athletically up and out of bed in the morning, so that she might never see his face lying swollen and helpless in sleep.
Sometimes after a particularly conscious display of this kind, as when he found he had made all his molars ache by holding them clamped too long for an effect of grim-jawed determination by candlelight, he would feel a certain distaste with himself for having to resort to such methods and, very obscurely, with her as well, for being so easily swayed by them. What kind of kid stuff was this? But these attacks of conscience were quickly allayed: all was fair in love and war; and besides, wasn’t she all too capable of playing the same game? Hadn’t she pulled out everything in her own bag of tricks last month, to seduce him into the Europe plan?
"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."
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.