Revolutionary Road: Sometimes the Creepiest Books Are About Domesticity

In honor of Friday the 13th, that most holy of October holidays–perhaps even more so than Halloween–it’s only fitting to explore a “creepy read.” However, as far as The Opiate‘s definition of creepy is concerned, there can be no more terrifying novel than Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Released in 1961, when it also won the National Book Award (pre-when women were dominating the list of nominees), Yates’ pièce de résistance takes place during one of the peaks of American repression and conformity (apart from the one happening now): 1955.

Centered on married couple April and Frank Wheeler, the story begins at a community theater production April is acting in, much to the dismay and embarrassment of everyone watching. Though she’s beautiful to look at (as most depressed and sadness-laden aura’d people are), the continued woodenness of her performance makes the audience increasingly uncomfortable. As the play concludes, the narrator describes, “There was nothing to watch now but the massed faces of the audience as they pressed up the aisles and out the main doors. Anxious, round-eyed, two by two, they looked and moved as if a calm and orderly escape from this place had become the one great necessity of their lives; as if, in fact, they wouldn’t be able to begin to live at all until they were out beyond the rumbling pink billows of exhaust and the crunching gravel of this parking lot, out where the black sky went up.”

Frank, on the other hand, attempts to ignore the poor quality of the performance, instead riveted by the memory of the girl he fell in love with. The one who wasn’t the mother of his two children, but an aspirational dreamer. In their current state of existence, the Wheelers live in Revolutionary Hill Estates (in keeping with the Back to the Future set design research re: Lyon Estates). The quaint Connecticut neighborhood is the very epitome of suburbia, with the overly involved neighbors to match. Shep and Milly Campbell are just one such couple, frequently coming over for dinner and drinks in order for the Wheelers to engage in the mediocre social life that intermittently distracts them from their equally mediocre lives. But even their company can’t distract from the palpable strain between Frank and April after their post-theater performance fight.

While awaiting absolution from his wife, Frank continues his humdrum office existence in sales promotion at a company in the overpowering, stereotypically corporate Knox Building in Midtown. His commute to the city with thousands of other men just like himself adds to the daily horror of what his being is forced to endure. Because the truth was–and still is–“How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their grey-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! There were endless desperate swarms of them, hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting mid-town office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.” And so what greater terror is there, really, then being continuously bound to the routine of coming face to face with your ordinariness in this regard? Worse than that, of realizing that the person you share your life is just as ordinary and restless as you are?

The only distraction–cliche as it may be–is an affair with one of his co-workers: the young and impressionable Maureen Grube. Opting to “turn to her” just when it feels like April might never forgive him, the latter does an about-face when he comes home that night, apologizing for everything and suggesting that they, at long last, pursue the life they deserve in Europe, specifically Paris. April sweetens the prospect by offering to be the breadwinner while Frank explores some erstwhile latent artistic desires. The hope sprung from this sudden escape plan briefly restores bliss to the marriage, yet, as with all dreams inevitably crushed by the oppression of reality, the Wheelers never do make it to Paris. A series of events conspiring to keep the two penned in that damned falsely manufactured neighborhood spells one final and earth-shattering disaster more grisly and appalling than anything out of a Stephen King novel. In point of fact, Revolutionary Road never gets the credit it deserves for being one of the most affecting horror novels of the twentieth century. For more than detailing the loss of the soul and self in adhering to the societal expectation of monogamy and child-bearing, worst of all is having to perpetrate a lie to yourself and therefore everyone around you as a consequence of succumbing to said domesticity, for “if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”

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