The extract from ‘Revolutionary Road’ insights into the growing anxieties of modern life during the transition from postwar America to the 1950s, through the perception of Frank Wheeler. The feeling of emptiness is accentuated by Frank’s rejection of conformity; which entails the loss of human individuality through nuclear families, original thought and suburban lifestyles. Themes of emasculation and post-war PTSD explored within Yate’s extract further affirm the disconnection felt from American ideals and character.
Towards the end of the extract, there is a silver lining, found in the deadly destruction, a change from the perpetual dullness of modern life shows Frank the “truth”. This realization is what urges Frank and April Wheeler to disengage with their American neighbors, who have already fallen into the pitiful void that is modern life.
Emptiness in the extract is continually perceived through the lack of individuality. This notion is exemplified in Frank’s acknowledgement of ideas becoming “pre-digested intellectual baby-food”; his oxymoronic statement voices the shared opinions of Beat- Literature writers during the 1950s on originality of speech and human life. The metaphor highlights inhabitants of modern life are “baby”-like, unaware of the repetitive information they absorb.
Paired with the unmistakable adjective “intellectual”, Yates’ satirical combination of words signals to 60s readers that what may appear intelligent within modern life, is often empty and mockingly simple. Yates’ criticism through Frank echoes Orwellian themes of mind control and society’s influence on “every idea and every emotion”. Additionally, the need to accept this banal existence with happiness, in a “smiling through and “easy-way-out” attitude, reveals the psychological requirement individuals must meet, to be content in monotony.
The prolonged, complex sentence containing numerous adjectives symbolizes Frank’s grievance for what little is left of the ‘American Dream’. From industrialization to endless suburbia, Yates sarcastically critiques the “optimistic”, lens through which these apparent “intellectual”, progressions in American life are made. Instead, the numbing over-simplicity of modernity backfires, diminishing the need for authentic opinion or “emotion”, thus leaving citizens such as Frank with an internal struggle to remember their individuality.
The banality and emptiness of modern life are specifically emphasized towards the end of the extract. Frank’s description of war with juxtaposing dialogue, includes violent yet peaceful imagery. Amidst the “helmets and overcoats and rifles”, polysyndeton captures Frank’s rapid thinking and the fast pace of society changing. His overwhelming consciousness of “the way my body worked”, and the “sound of breathing in my nose”, are purely basic human functions.
Yet, it requires immense brutality and trauma for Frank to finally focus in the moment. Yates’ addition of this memory symbolizes the collective PTSD and desensitization soldiers during the war felt– the emptiness of immutable modern life is a direct contrast to the bloodshed among “broken walls and rubble”. The GI Bill granted home loans for veterans, effortless and identical rows readily accessible for soldiers to claim.
This extract section also highlights the human tendency to struggle for happiness rather than have it handed to us. Within disfigured and devastated homes Frank reflects “I thought it was beautiful”, finding tranquillity in hostile aftermath. Yates includes this observation to assert that meaning cannot be found in identical houses or boring modern life. Frank experiences “true” reality away from the suburban lifestyle, experiencing life for himself instead of through preconceived ideas.
Emptiness infiltrates many aspects of modern life, such as through new gender expectations reducing people’s identity and pride. Frank opposes the emasculating shift for house signs no longer named after a man’s name or surname. Direct recognition of men’s identity dissolving, Frank remarks, “you picture the whole cozy little bunch of them sitting around snug as bunnies”—the demeaning adjectives of “cozy” and “little”, immediately conjure an infantile and soft image.
The macho ‘man of the house’ trope is diminished in raising women and children to men’s levels. The plural noun for the “Donaldson’s” cements the modern mindset and language alteration— finalized by visible signs outside homes. Due to women’s role in society during the 1950s, becoming more important for factory occupations and producing weaponry inventory; their status advanced beyond the limitations of the housewife.
Resulting in men no longer feeling secure in their own societal position post-war. Frank’s dislike of the signs represents the swift changes in society are built “on the premise that daddy’s an idiot”, men in turn feel meaningless and empty since they no longer fit into a respectable narrative.
In conclusion, the significance of emptiness is an ever-present theme throughout Yates’ ‘Revolutionary Road’, from Frank’s criticisms of original thought and the weakening of men’s identity—readers learn the meaningless in modern life. When Frank is removed from dull surburbia, he is rejuvenated by mass destruction—where he discovers truth, unlike the industrial and mechanized society America became in the 50s.
Frank hopes to follow this newfound truth in another setting, and escape the emptiness post-war; now, in a surreal postmodern society, he is picking up the pieces of his identity to find himself again.
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. Vintage Books, 2011.