This novel is most often described as an anti-suburban tract, a condemnation of the life of conformity and veiled unhappiness that flourished in the U.S. after World War II. And it is that. But it’s also much more, because that vision is too simplistic. The serpent in the paradise where Frank and April Wheeler buy a house on Revolutionary Road arises from the geography of the human heart as much as from its suburban Connecticut location, where a serpent of cars continually moves along nearby Route 12.
Frank and April met in New York City, where they enjoyed a carefree life together while planning their ideal future. “According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon” (p. 65). To accommodate their altered lives, they found a starter home in a western Connecticut suburb, but the serpent has already entered their lives: “The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees; and what if it did take time? Who could be frightened in as wide and bright, as clean and quiet a house as this?” (p. 41).
The novel begins in 1955, two years after the Wheelers’ move to the house on Revolutionary Road. Frank and April are both about to turn 30. They have the requisite two children: Jennifer, age 6, and Michael, age 4. Frank has a corporate office job that he hates and, like most men in his neighborhood, takes the train into Manhattan every morning while April stays home and cares for the children and the house.
In the novel’s opening vignette, Frank attends a community theater group performance in which April, who attended “one of the leading dramatic schools of New York” (p. 9), stars. When one of the male players becomes so nervous that he can’t go on and the female stage manager has to stand in for him, the performance falls apart. Even April can’t save it. The incident becomes a source of humiliation for April and foreshadows the collapse of their lives.
This theatrical failure is significant because both Frank’s and April’s lives are based on acting. Frank in particular is always posing as someone, assuming a particular persona. He spent his early twenties “wearing the proud mantles of ‘veteran’ and ‘intellectual’ as bravely as he wore his carefully aged tweed jacket and washed-out khakis” (p. 27). His face has “an unusual mobility: it was able to suggest wholly different personalities with each flickering change of expression” (p. 15). He performs life according to his own mental projections of how he should speak and act, as if seeing himself on stage or in a movie. After an afternoon assignation with a woman from the office, he wonders if he should apologize to her: “the very last thing in God’s world he wanted to do was apologize Did the swan apologize to Leda? Did an eagle apologize? Did a lion apologize? Hell, no” (p. 138). And April vacillates between a vague desire for something more satisfying from like than the role of the sensible middle-class housewife that she simultaneously works at projecting.
The serpent eating away at the Wheelers’ suburban lives is unfulfilled desire, the inability to make their everyday lives conform to their grand yet vague dreams of themselves. In his twenties Frank
“hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit. Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways? He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field” (p. 29).
After moving to the suburbs Frank continues to locate what’s wrong with the world in others, never in himself: “It’s all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity” (p. 81). He never loses the sense of his own superiority:
“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were” (p. 27).
It’s April who comes up with a new plan to allow Frank to discover the as yet unarticulated self he dreams of becoming. They will move to Paris. She will get a secretarial job to support them and leave Frank free to find himself. Ironically, April sees her getting a job as a way both to free herself from her housewifely existence and to allow Frank to escape the drudgery of his job. But, like their earlier grand plans, this one, too, proves impossible.
In the end, suburbia is not the cause of their unhappiness but rather the place where it unfolds. There’s a remarkable ambivalence here, for who of us has not had bigger plans that we’ve been unable to fulfill. Between the imagined vision and its achievement snakes reality. We understand the Wheelers’ dreams at the same time as we foresee the inevitability of their downfall.