Revolutionary Road, cultural cliche?

Revolutionary road @ Dreamworks I haven't seen Revolutionary Road and now I'm wondering whether I want to.  

The film is taken from a novel by Richard Yates. Here's what Yates (now deceased) said about his novel:

I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties  

And this is a way of saying novel bound itself to one of the great cliches of the period.  If this was a desperate period, it is partly because intellectuals, academics and novelists had closed ranks and declared middle class life a kind of wasteland.  

It's hard to calculate the damage done by this cliche.  To be sure, the 50s had a certain sturdy confidence, momentum, brio.  And by this reckoning, the "conformity" argument may be seen merely as a useful corrective and a minority opinion.  By the fact of the matter is that this treatment of American culture helped create self loathing and confusion.  


The quote above is from the Wikipedia website for Richard Yates here.

Allsop, Kenneth. 1964. The Angry Decade: a survey of the cultural revolt of the nineteen-fifties. London: Peter Owen Limited.

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Dickstein, Morris. 1999. Leopards in the Temple: The transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kammen, Michael G. 1999. American culture, American tastes: Social change and the 20th century. New York: Knopf.

LeMahieu, D. L. 1988. A culture for democracy : mass communication and the cultivated mind in Britain between the wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Riesman, David. 1964. The Suburban Dislocation.  Abundance for what?  And other essays. David Riesman, 226-57. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.

Susman, Warren I. 1984. Introduction: Toward a history of the culture of abundance: some hypotheses.  Culture as History: The transformation of American society in the Twentieth century. Warren I. Susman, xix-xxx. New York: Pantheon Books.

Whyte, William H. Jr. 1956. The Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Post script.

It's worth noting that this is director Sam Mendes' second go at the theme.  He is responsible for American Beauty.  

10 thoughts on “Revolutionary Road, cultural cliche?

  1. Beth Dunn

    I love the point you make here. What bothers me about condemning the “banal” is the privilege this point of view implies — who am I to tell anyone that they don’t need cleanliness, and order, and a certain level of safety and security in their lives?

    I’d enjoy seeing you unpack these ideas more. Great blog, by the way.

  2. the communicatrix


    The suburbs as an expression of good citizenry and model ways to life one’s life *were*–*are*–a sort of wasteland.

    And I say this from L.A., one of the worst and most vile suburban wastelands in existence.

    I wish you’d give Revolutionary Road a read. Yates is an equal-opportunity finger-pointer, if other works (hello, Easter Parade! hello, collected short stories!) are any indication. His exhortations are to wake the hell up, and his warning is anything that separates us from our truth starts chipping at our authentic beings, and then…well, god or whomever help us.

    I’m debating whether or not to see the film *because* I’m such a rabid fan of the book. If that makes me a dreadful, urban-liberal cliché, so be it. Revolutionary Road is a wonderful work about the perils of abandoning truth in favor of comfort; that it happened to be set in the suburbs was a matter of convenience.

    One can fall asleep anywhere. I know; I’ve done it.

  3. Mary Walker

    I saw the movie today (haven’t read the book). IMO it’s worth seeing.

    The most striking thing in the movie for me wasn’t the social commentary, was the characters (the actors did a good job). It examined what it means to move almost accidentally into adulthood — get married, have children, get a job — when you’re still young, don’t know yourself that well (much less anybody else, including your spouse) and you’re struggling to figure out what it means to make a good life. And meanwhile, you’re making big irrevokable decisions and deep commitments to people that you and they don’t fully understand, until something cracks.

    Yeah, there was some language about how their current life (corp job, house in suburbs) was stultifying — but in general the movie’s focus was micro, not macro. To the extent there was a condemnation of society, it felt like it was making statements about the social pressures of society/societies in general, not a condemnation of the ’50s or suburbia specifically.

    For me the movie was about the complexities and pain of confronting your adulthood and the inevitable tradeoffs and limitations; it wasn’t about how suburbia sucks. (btw city life and the “hipster” life didn’t look very happy or fulfilled either.) So it’s a hard message and a depressing movie all around — but I didn’t get it as an explicit condemnation of the suburbs and how everything would be so much better if they just lived somewhere/sometime else.

    I don’t want to say more because I’d have to give spoilers but would be happy to discuss further if you decide to see it.

  4. jkh

    grant, yates made this comment in 1972. at that time popular culture was extremely liberal and progressive – it was exploding and exploring every corner of every universe possible. no wonder yates might have found his topic and characters a little dated. – guess he thought the 50s would never come back…
    little did he know… – political correctness anyone??? – and less did the sexual revolution change us than we thought it would.
    watch the movie, read the book! characters and story in their essence and despair all very convincing all very contemporary.

  5. alsomike


    “The suburbs as an expression of good citizenry and model ways to life one’s life *were*–*are*–a sort of wasteland.”

    Yes, but what if that perspective is only available to you once you’ve lived in the suburbs and wrung it dry of what it has to offer? And the authentic & gritty life in the city is only appealing when you have the safe blandness of the suburbs to fall back on should city-life get a bit too “authentic” for comfort – a luxury many other residents of the inner city don’t enjoy.


    “It examined what it means to move almost accidentally into adulthood — get married, have children, get a job — when you’re still young, don’t know yourself that well (much less anybody else, including your spouse) and you’re struggling to figure out what it means to make a good life. And meanwhile, you’re making big irrevokable decisions and deep commitments to people that you and they don’t fully understand, until something cracks.”

    But didn’t it also (help to) invent the idea that one *ought* to figure out for oneself what it means to make a good life? And also help to spawn the contemporary phenomenon of putting off any major life decisions until mid to late 30s, the better to keep your options open in the hopes that something better comes along. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but the further I get from this, the better I feel. The idea that I can and therefore *should* figure it all out and plan it all out ahead of time is a crushing weight.

  6. Mary Walker

    Hi Alsomike — Oh, I agree that the expectation that one has one’s life all planned out to a T early on in one’s life is stressful.

    But that said — IME most people feel more comfortable when they have *some* idea/plan of their life direction. Only a few people (in the US at least) seem to be truly psychologically comfortable just enjoying life and taking things as they come.

    Note this comfort is very different from aversion, fear of failure, and the other emotional blocks that hinder people from making life decisions. Sometimes “keeping one’s options open” are code words for “I’m scared to make a significant decision, so I’ll just stall.” But the world moves on and opportunities come and go, permanently. “Putting things off in case something better comes along” — that too is a life choice, and has its own consequences.

    While most people don’t feel the pressure to get married and have kids by their mid 20s — people today still make lots of life-changing decisions in their childhood and young adulthood. How to approach school, what to put one’s energy into, what college/grad school to attend, what discipline to study, what job to take, what person to date/live with/marry… these are life-changing decisions which can’t easily be revisited.

    And there are some decisions that can’t be delayed, even if one wants to. For example, if you want to be a mathematician, chess champion, a professional sportsperson, or investment banker (if there are any of those left) — you’d better be well on track by your early 20s or it’s not going to happen. There are decision points that happen early in life — and part of the difficulty is, that you aren’t always aware of their significance at the time. And sometimes when the long-term consequences become clear, people do regret their earlier decisions but have to learn how to live with the outcome.

    Back to the movie: for me, the age issue was a bit irrelevant. Yes, these were relatively young people (29-30) — but the issues of knowing one’s true self, how to craft a good marriage, how to choose a job that fits — these are things that people confront at all ages. I see plenty of people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who struggle with the tradeoffs and impacts of decisions that they made years ago, when only now do they fully understand where those decisions have led them.

    IMO, this is one of those hard facts of life that makes many people (esp Americans) uncomfortable. Americans like to think that we’re each completely unlimited, that we can do anything and be anything, that there’s no decision that we make that can’t be undone. But that’s not how living works. Every choice we make opens some doors and closes others.

  7. Alexandra

    I agree with Mary. It’s really not a pop-corn film for every one. it makes you think and analyse the deeds and thoughts of the characters long after the final’s about what a person wants in his life, his having guts to realise it in reality in proper time.because if you postpone your dream now, it can easily haunt you years after and evoke the feeling of deep regret and impossibility to change the situation, to fill in the emptyness you have inside. It’s about the importance to speak with each other, to see the needs of the person you leave with. I liked it and believed Kate and Leo. Real masters!

  8. agleader

    I’ve been thinking about this hostility to the ‘burbs of creative artists, and I was wondering about the way ‘Diderot Unities’ for creative artists have been fixed since the 19th century (at least) in terms of the lifestyle elements that artists can coherently have. Being an artist in the burbs is like driving a BMW but wearing a Casio watch. So the choice is generally either the urban studio/warehouse/workshop or its something much more pastoral (Henry Miller in Big Sur). This would imply that it’s not fundamentally about contempt for the masses, but a desire to avoid a Diderot unity which would prevent them becoming or remaining artists. So the fact that suburbs are built around kids makes it another case of ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’

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