Revolutionary Road examines the way codependence can turn a disappointing marriage into a life-destroying one. For Frank and April Wheeler, the novel’s protagonists, the way their spouse reflects on them and reflects them back to themselves defines how they understand themselves. For April, feeling that an exceptionally intelligent and promising man loves her is essential to her sense of self. She sees Frank less as an individual, and more as an archetype—the kind of person whose love makes her feel validated. Unfortunately, since she idealizes Frank, her image of him is easily compromised by the reality of who he is. April wants to have the love of a man with an independent identity, but Frank’s self-esteem likewise depends on April’s approval and his sense of control over her. To control April, Frank pretends to be the kind of man she admires. For instance, when his boring job, which April despises, begins to show signs of developing into an interesting career, his first impulse is to imagine how he will denigrate the job to maintain April’s approval.
As the novel tracks Frank’s effort to maintain control over April’s view of him, it’s slowly revealed that April is actually the stronger, more independent of the two. The bulk of the novel is told from Frank’s point of view, but his fears that he cannot control April’s perception of him are largely borne out at the novel’s end, when the narration shifts to April’s point of view in the moments before she gives herself an abortion. At this moment, it becomes clear that April feels she made a mistake by marrying Frank and having his children. She sees through his attempts to pretend to be the kind of man she admires, and she looks down on him for his lack of independence. April reclaims her independence by attempting to abort Frank’s child, although this leads to her death. Her abortion shows that she believes she cannot wrest control over her life from Frank except by endangering it—a damning portrayal of the confines of marriage.
Although the novel centers on the Wheelers, it also gives access to the points of view of Helen Givings and Shep Campbell, exploring the dynamics of their marriages as well. Shep’s and Helen’s ability to cope with disappointment in their own marriages provides a counterexample to the Wheelers’ toxic codependence. Helen Givings is unhappy with her older, disengaged husband Howard, and she considers herself to be “constantly veering towards the brink of divorce.” While Howard can exert a stabilizing influence on Helen in her frenzied and compulsive moments, the differences in their temperaments leave them incapable of drawing enjoyment from one another’s company. But Howard does not stop Helen from working. Frenzied eighteen-hour days fill her life and allow her to cope with her marital disappointment by maintaining her own, separate interests.
The Campbells’ marriage has also been through many ups-and-downs, particularly after Shep’s mid-life decision to upend their life in Arizona and move to New York. Shep is not sexually attracted to Milly and has a deep crush on April Wheeler. He copes with his marriage, however, by focusing on his gratitude for all Milly has done to support him, and this trumps his desire for more romance and excitement than she provides. While Shep focuses on the good elements of his marriage so he can accept the bad, Helen finds fulfillment outside of her marriage so she can accept its drawbacks.
Each of the marriages Yates examines provides a different critique of the institution, resulting in a cynical, pessimistic portrait of marriage as a whole. Even in marriages that do not lead to either individuals’ destruction, the compromises that are demanded are painful and the disappointments acute. Although the Wheelers’ marriage is held up as a particularly toxic one, the Givingses and Campbells seem to have accepted a life of mediocrity, constant annoyance, and imperfect pleasures. The novel suggests that all marriages, even those in which each partner maintains some independence, require compromise. It does not suggest, however, that this compromise is usually worth it.
Marriage and Selfhood ThemeTracker
Marriage and Selfhood 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.
He found it hard to keep his voice from thickening into a sentimental husk as he began to read aloud, with their two heads pressed close to his ribs on either side and their thin legs lying straight out on the sofa cushions, warm against his own. They knew what forgiveness was; they were willing to take him for better or worse; they loved him. Why couldn’t April realize how simple and necessary it was to love? Why did she have to complicate everything?
The only trouble was that the funnies seemed to go on forever…
"Daddy, we skipped a funny."
"No we didn't, sweetie. That's just an advertisement. You don’t want to read that."
"Yes I do."
"I do too."
"But it isn't a funny. It's just made to look like one. It's an advertisement for some kind of toothpaste."
"Read us it anyway."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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?
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."
There followed a night of vivid and horrible dreams, while he sprawled sweating on the bed in his clothes. Sometimes, either waking or dreaming that he was awake, he thought he heard April moving around the house; then once, toward morning, he could have sworn he opened his eyes and found her sitting close beside him on the edge of the bed. Was it a dream, or not?
"Oh, baby," he whispered through cracked and swollen lips. "Oh, my baby, don’t go away." He reached for her hand and held it. "Oh, please stay."
"Sh-sh-sh. It's all right," she said, and squeezed his fingers. "It's all right, Frank. Go to sleep." The sound of her voice and the cool feel of her hand conveyed such a miracle of peace that he didn't care if it was a dream; it was enough to let him sink back into a sleep that was mercifully dreamless.
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.
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.
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.