Revolutionary Road portrays parents and children as locked in an imbalanced and damaging relationship. Adult characters spend their lives alternately rebelling against and seeking to fulfill their parents’ wishes for them. On the other hand, these same characters feel disappointment and disconnection when it comes to their own children. Parents, in Yates’s portrayal, are not as deeply impacted by their children as their children are by them, and they generally either neglect or try to change their offspring.
For all the characters, relationships with their parents are crucial, and the feelings of anger or love that motivate the desire to emulate or rebel against one’s parents are portrayed as illogical, but visceral. The novel focuses on two adult characters whose youthful rebellions are slowly replaced with the desire to live lives similar to their parents’. Although Frank sees himself as a rebel and intellectual, when it comes time to get a job, he gets exactly the one his father always wanted: a desk job in Knox’s home office in New York City. Initially, Frank tells himself that he has taken this job ironically, but eventually he finds that doing it well gives him satisfaction and pride. Shep Campbell rebels against his wealthy mother’s coddling, deciding to renounce his upper-class roots and pursue the middle-class track of mechanical engineer. Only later, when he suddenly realizes he is unhappy with his life, does he regret his rebellion against his mother’s lifestyle. He then moves back to New York and cultivates the life of a man of good taste. Neither Frank nor Shep feels sure that he has chosen the right path in life once he begins to emulate his parents, but both find that they are more at peace than they were while trying to shape their lives entirely in rebellion against their parents.
Yet these characters have little ability to treat their children in the way that they wish their parents had treated them. Instead, they often feel aggrieved by the way their children inconvenience and fail to gratify them. The Wheeler children, Jennifer and Michael, fail to stir much interest in their parents, who hardly consider how their decisions impact their children. On the one occasion when Frank suggests to April that their planned move to Paris might be disruptive for the children, he is more interested in assuaging his own fear of moving to Paris than sparing Jennifer from the fears she has expressed. Shep Campbell likewise feels little connection to his four sons, looking down at them for seeming “middle-class.” And while there is no detail given about John Givings’s upbringing, when his mother ceases to visit him and instead adopts a puppy, she finds great satisfaction in training it. This suggests that in raising her son, she saw him as a project, like a house that needs redecoration, something she could control and perfect.
Even as adults with children of their own, the characters in Revolutionary Road continue to react to the facts of their childhoods, remaining preoccupied with their upbringings rather than with bringing their own children up. As April Wheeler prepares to give herself a dangerous late-term abortion, she realizes that she may die in the process. Indeed, it is left somewhat unclear whether she intends to die in the course of this abortion. At this moment she does not reflect on the possibility that she will soon abandon her children, but instead considers her abandonment by her own parents when she was a child. She thinks back on a visit with her father, which the novel hints was the last time she saw him before his suicide. April now seems to be emulating her father, either in suicide, if that is what she intends, or by refusing to care for a child she does not want, as her parents did by giving up her care to her aunts. The children April already has hardly broach her thoughts. And for Frank, after April’s death, his own fulfillment is far more important than his childrens’. When he visits the Campbells, he tells them about his work and about how he is exploring his feelings about his father in psychoanalysis, but he hardly mentions Michael and Jennifer. Further, although Frank abhorred April’s parents’ decision to allow her to be raised by aunts and resented his own middle-aged parents for having been so tired out by life by the time they had him, he takes Jennifer and Michael to be raised by his own much older brother after April’s death. In this way, he provides his children with a life that combines the worst of both his and his deceased wife’s upbringings.
As in its portrayal of marriage, Revolutionary Road presents childhood and parenthood in a bitter, pessimistic light. The novel suggests that most childhoods are painful and most adults are haunted by their childhoods. Children generally sense that they disappoint or fail to interest their parents, and will likely go on to repeat the same cycles of rebellion driven by resentment of their parents, or emulation out of a desire to feel they have finally earned parental approval. The novel rejects the possibility that having children will be redemptive or fulfilling, suggesting that what we all want is our parents’ love, not to provide a parents’ love to our own children.
Parents and Children ThemeTracker
Parents and Children Quotes in Revolutionary Road
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."
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."
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.
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.
"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.
He drew out a long brown bottle with the picture of a horse and the words "White Horse" on its label. Something very small was attached to its neck by a ribbon, but he concealed it from view until he opened his penknife and cut it free. Then, holding it by the ribbon, he laid it delicately in her hand—a tiny, perfect white horse.
"There you are, my darling," he said. "And you can keep it forever."
The fire was out. She prodded the blackened lumps of paper with a stick to make sure they had burned; there was nothing but ashes. The children's voices faintly followed her as she carried the wastebasket back across the lawn; only by going inside and closing the door was she able to shut them out. She turned off the radio too, and the house became extraordinarily quiet.