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Revolutionary Road (Yates)

Revolutionary Road 
Richard Yates, 1961, 1989
Knopf Doubleday
480 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375708442


Summary
From the moment of its publication in 1961, Revolutionary Road was hailed as a masterpiece of realistic fiction and as the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs.

It's the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright, beautiful, and talented couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.
(From the publisher.)

The book was adapted into a 2008 film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.



Author Bio 
• Birth—February 3, 1926
• Where—Yonkers, New York, USA
• Death—November 7, 1992
• Where—Birmingham, Alabama
• Education—World War II


A native New Yorker, Richard Yates was born in 1926; his first novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award (in the same year as Catch-22). Much admired by peers, he was known during his lifetime as the foremost fiction writer of the post-war "age of anxiety." He published his last novel in 1986, and died in 1992. (From the publisher.)

More
Richard Yates, an American novelist and short story writer, was a chronicler of mid-20th century mainstream American life, often cited as artistically residing somewhere between J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. He is regarded as the foremost novelist of the post-WWII Age of Anxiety.

Born in Yonkers, New York, Yates came from an unstable home. His parents divorced when he was three and much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences. Yates first became interested in journalism and writing while attending Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. After leaving Avon, Yates joined the Army, serving in France and Germany during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Upon his return to New York he worked as a journalist, freelance ghost writer (briefly writing speeches for Senator Robert Kennedy) and publicity writer for Remington Rand Corporation.

His career as a novelist began in 1961 with the publication of the widely heralded Revolutionary Road. He subsequently taught writing at Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, Boston University (where his papers are archived), at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, at Wichita State University, and at the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program.

In 1962, he wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation of William Styron's Lie Down In Darkness. Yates was also an acclaimed author of short stories. Despite this, only one of his short stories appeared in the The New Yorker (after repeated rejections). This story, "The Canal," was published in the magazine nine years after the author's death to celebrate the 2001 release of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.

For much of his life, Yates's work met almost universal critical acclaim, yet not one of his books sold over 12,000 copies in hardcover first edition. All of his novels were out of print in the years after his death, although he was championed by writers as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Yates's brand of realism was a direct influence on writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.

Twice divorced, Yates was the father of three daughters: Sharon, Monica and Gina. In 1992, he died of emphysema and complications from minor surgery in Birmingham, Alabama.

His reputation has substantially increased posthumously and many of his novels have since been reissued in new editions. This current success can be largely traced to the influence of Stewart O'Nan's 1999 essay in the Boston Review "The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety Disappeared from Print." With the revival of interest in Yates' life and work after his death, Blake Bailey published the first in-depth biography of Yates, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (2003). (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
More than two decades after its original publication, it remains a remarkable and deeply troubling book—a book that creates an indelible portrait of lost promises and mortgaged hopes in the suburbs of America.... Writing in controlled, economical prose, Mr. Yates delineates the shape of these disintegrating lives without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. His ear for dialogue enables him to infuse the banal chitchat of suburbia with a subtext of Pinteresque proportions, and he proves equally skilled at reproducing the pretentious, status-conscious talk of people brought up on Freud and Marx. If, at times, we are tempted to see Frank as something of a deluded, ineffectual snob, we are also inclined to sympathize with him—so graceful is Mr. Yates's use of irony. His portrait of these thwarted, needlessly doomed lives is at once brutal and compassionate.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times (4/25/83)


(Refers to Yates's Collected Stories, 2001) At his best, Yates was a poet of post-World War II loneliness and disappointment, creating in his finest stories and in his masterpiece, Revolutionary Road, indelible, Edward Hopperesque portraits of dreamers who have mortgaged their dreams. Trapped in ill-considered marriages and dead-end jobs, they find themselves living on the margins of the postwar boom, the gap between their modest expectations and the even more modest realities of their day-to-day lives leading to rage, humiliation and alcoholic despair.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times (4/17/01)


A powerful treatment of a characteristically American theme.... A moving and absorbing story.
Atlantic Monthly


So much nonsense has been written on suburban life and mores that it comes as a considerable shock to read a book by someone who seems to have his own ideas on the subject and who pursues them relentlessly to the bitter end..... It is reminiscent of the popular [1999] film American Beauty in its depiction of white-collar life as fraught with discontent. Others have picked up on this theme since, but Yates remains a solid read.
Library Journal



Discussion Questions
1. What is the significance of the novel's title, "Revolutionary Road"? In what ways might it be read as an ironic commentary on mid-twentieth century American values?

2. Why does Yates begin the novel with the story of the play? In what ways does it set up some of the themes—disillusionment, self-deception, play-acting, etc.—that are developed throughout the novel?

3. Frank rails about the middle-class complacency of his neighbors in the Revolutionary Hill Estates. “It's as if everybody'd made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The hell with reality! Let's have a whole bunch of cute little winding roads and cute little houses painted white and pink and baby blue; let's all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimentality...and if old reality ever does pop out and say Boo we'll all get busy and pretend it never happened” [pp. 68-69]. Is Frank's critique of suburbia accurate? In what ways does Frank himself live in a state of self-deception? Why can he see so clearly the self-deception of others but not his own?

4. What ironies are involved in Frank going to work for the same firm his father worked for? What is Frank's attitude toward his job and the fact that he's walking in his father's footsteps?

5. Describing a Negro couple holding hands at the mental hospital where John Givings has been confined, the narrator writes that “it wasn't easy to identify the man as a patient until you noticed that his other hand was holding the chromium leg of the table in a yellow-knuckled grip of desperation, as if it were the rail of a heaving ship” [p. 296]. What do such precise and vivid physical descriptions—often highly metaphorical—add to the texture of the novel? Where else does Yates use such descriptions to reveal a character's emotional state?

6. Revolutionary Road frequently—and seamlessly—moves between past and present, as characters drift in and out of reveries. (April's childhood memory [pp. 321-326] is a good example). What narrative purpose do these reveries serve? How do they deepen the reader's understanding of the inner lives of the main characters?

7. What roles do Frank's affair with Maureen and April's sexual encounter with Shep play in the outcome of the novel? Are they equivalent? What different motivations draw Frank and April to commit adultery?

8. Twice Frank talks April out of an abortion, and both times he later regrets having done so, admitting that he didn't want the children any more than she did. What motivates him to argue so passionately against April aborting her pregnancies? What methods does he use to persuade her? Is John Givings right in suggesting that it's the only way he can prove his manhood?

9. What role does John Givings play in the novel? Why is he such an important character, even though he appears in only two scenes? How does he move the action along?

10. How do Frank and April feel about Shep and Milly Campbell? What do they reveal about themselves in their attitudes toward their closest friends?

11. Before she gives herself a miscarriage, April leaves a note telling Frank not to blame himself if anything should happen to her. But is he to blame for April's death? Why, and to what extent, might he be responsible?

12. The narrator writes, after April's death, that “The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy” [p. 339]. In what ways is the novel tragic? What tragic flaws might be ascribed to both Frank and April? Why are the Revolutionary Hill Estates ill-suited to tragedy?

13. What is Yates suggesting by the fact that the only character in the novel who sees and speaks the truth has been confined to an insane asylum? Does John Givings's‚ outsider status give him the freedom to speak the truth, or has his natural tendency toward telling the truth, however unpleasant it might be, landed him in a mental hospital?

14. Near the end of the novel, the narrator says of Nancy Brace, as she listens to Milly's retelling of April's death: “She liked her stories neat, with points, and she clearly felt there were too many loose ends in this one” [p. 345]. What is the problem with wanting stories to be “neat”? In what ways does Revolutionary Road circumvent this kind of overly tidy or moralistic reading? Does the novel itself present too many “loose ends”?

15. The novel ends with Mrs. Givings chattering on to her husband about how “irresponsible” and “unwholesome” the Wheelers were. What is the significance, for the novel as a whole, of the final sentences: “But from there on Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid”? [p. 355]. What symbolic value might be assigned to the plant that Mrs. Givings mentions at the end of the novel?

16. Revolutionary Road was first published in 1961. In what ways does it reflect the social and psychological realities of that period? In what ways does it anticipate and illuminate our own time?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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