Read from October 15th to 22nd 2014
I was always suspicious about the reasons an author might have to disambiguate the title of his book – I saw it rather as a sort of mocking warning to the reader not to look further, for there are no hidden meanings, it is just a name – of a character, or a house, or a street.
And in Revolutionary Road the disambiguation comes soon enough, in the second chapter of the first part, right after the first encounter with the main characters and the information of the timeframe:
He started the engine and drove carefully away, down to the turn at the base of Revolutionary Hill and on up the winding blacktop grade of Revolutionary Road.
Right. Stop seeking symbolism, metaphorism or any other crazy idealism, that is, stop investing the title with unnecessary depths, the narrative voice seems to argue, it is only about a street, with a pretentious name, true, and that’s all.
But is it? The joker of this domestic tragedy, the Shakespearian fool who always speaks the truth, John Givings, begs to differ, in an intentional qui pro quo that cruelly displays the full irony of the title:
“Old Helen here’s been talking it up about you people for months,” he told them. “The nice young Wheelers on Revolutionary Road, the nice young revolutionaries on Wheeler Road…”
The irony of noble feelings that become only labels, or stereotypes, or street names, with no other significance, for not only the famous road leads to a stagnant, standardly boring suburbia, but also the characters’ names are misleading – their wheels, so to speak, stopped spinning a long time ago and are not likely to start again, despite their increasing (and fruitless) efforts.
In fact, the whole book is about the power of self-deception: Franklin Wheeler, the main character in the novel, has an image of himself as he thinks he is (a tragic figure trapped in a meaningless life), and an image of himself as he wishes he was (“an intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man”), together with many other images, not necessarily consistent with each other, created by his wife, his friends, his acquaintances, his colleagues and his boss, images he works to improve or to change even when he is not sure what they show anymore.
Like a broken mirror, all these images have a pathetic quality: they reflect but they cannot restore the ideal unity of the superior being Frank feels he should have been, if only… Again, it’s John role to shatter this illusion too, by pointing mercilessly his weaknesses and shortcomings, sneering almost gleefully at him when he learns about the cancelled trip to Europe where Frank was supposed to find himself:
“What happened? You get cold feet, or what? You decide you like it here after all? You figure it’s more comfy here in the old Hopeless Emptiness after all…”
I think Kurt Vonnegut’s comparison of this novel to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece (“…The Great Gatsby of my time…”) is brilliantly appropriate. Here you have the perfect American family, beautiful people, living in beautiful houses, spending their time with trustful friends, in a word, living the American Dream. And like in the other novel, the American Dream is only a beautiful phrase, a label hiding the sense of failure, the dissatisfaction with yourself and the world. The question is: Is the Wheeler’s tragedy (and any other heroes’ crushed by modern civilization) generated by society or by an overinflated opinion of themselves? In other words, is the society that does not live up to their expectations or is the other around?
Like in the dialogues Frank has with his wife in his mind and which are often different from the real ones, or like in Howard Givings’ habit to silent his wife by turning off his hearing aid, maybe, in the end, the real tragedy of the characters is the failure to communicate, both ways that is, to hear and be heard.
Anyway, after all is said and done, there remains a certitude: the street and its surroundings with mocking name, perennial proof of the lasting power of mediocrity, the boring but oh-so orderly reassuring mediocrity, which does not have place for sublime, it is true, but neither does it have for tragic:
The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. Proud floodlights were trained on some of the lawns, on some of the neat front doors and on the hips of some of the berthed, ice-cream colored automobiles.