Connecticut’s Fairfield County has for many years been a place of contrasts. It has cities that, even in their bustling heydays, were places where poverty and despair lived amidst booming factories. It has also historically been a place where both the fairly well-to-do and the richest of the rich live in towns that, beginning in the 1940s, came to be known as suburbs. Both the industrial cities and the green suburbs of Fairfield County have been the subject of much literature, and Richard Yates’s 1961 Revolutionary Road is one of the best and best-known novels about the latter.
The novel is set in 1955 and is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple with two children who live on Revolutionary Road in an upscale Fairfield County town. Frank commutes by train five mornings a week to Manhattan, where he is employed as a salesman at Knox Business Machines. While he is paid well enough to afford a lovely home (April is a stay-at-home mom), Frank hates his job, feels diminished by it and never passes up an opportunity to make fun of it.
At first, Frank and April are drawn to living in a nice house on a tree-lined street. Before very long, however, they fall into regularly making fun of their neighbors. They come to see there is something hollow at the core of the suburban dream. It becomes important to both of them to believe that they are better than their surroundings, and also to believe their coming to live on Revolutionary Road was a twist of fate they had no control over.
Both Wheelers had previously lived for an extended period in Manhattan and enjoyed many good times in Frank’s Greenwich Village apartment in the early years of their relationship. That experience in the capitol of American bohemia informs the contempt they develop for their suburban town, and out of their unhappiness comes April’s idea that they move to Paris so Frank can “find himself.”
Their neighbors and Frank’s colleagues at Knox greet the Paris idea with shock, skepticism and not a small bit of resentment. The resentment is not so much over the possible loss of friends and a co-worker but over the fact that the Wheelers, in proposing to chuck it all, make clear what they all seem to know: their well-constructed lives in the comfortable Connecticut suburbs have not produced happiness.
A Kindred Spirit Who’s Institutionalized
There is, for example, Shep Campbell. Campbell and his wife Milly are the Wheelers’ best friends and they echo the jokes the Wheelers make about their other neighbors and their surroundings. The Campbells have made their peace with their lot, though, even as Shep lusts after April and is completely unable to connect with his four television-obsessed young sons. It is only from John Givings, the institutionalized son of local busybody Helen Givings, that the Wheelers receive affirmation for their plan.
Frank is never as enthusiastic about Paris as April. He seems aware in a way she is not, or at least is unwilling to accept, that he has “found himself” and what he is is a salesman at Knox Business Machines. Events soon cause the Paris plan to unravel, heated arguments and recriminations ensue followed, ultimately, by tragedy.
No Escape From Unhappiness
The Connecticut suburbs play a crucial role in Revolutionary Road. As they were then and in many ways remain today, any number of Fairfield County towns are held up as the ultimate badge of success for an upper level professional family. They are places where problems are supposed to be absent or at least easily solve-able. While it’s likely no one ever believed that to be the case, the toll unhappiness takes is greater because of the promise.
At the same time, Revolutionary Road is not only about the empty promises of happiness in the Connecticut suburbs. It is easy to imagine similar dramas such as the Wheelers’ taking place in Greenwich Village; easy to imagine because they happen there all the time. Yates seems equally to be getting at something bigger about the emptiness of life in the United States at the moment it had attained, within its very real self-defined limits, the best for the most. Fairfield County represents all that the country as a whole aspired to be in the 1950s, and the people in Revolutionary Road who live there find it is seriously lacking.
Not so much as we might think has changed and that’s why Revolutionary Road is still powerful and relevant. Parts of Fairfield County are wealthier than ever, yet unhappiness, perhaps especially among the young, is an ongoing problem. While those problems are not on the scale of young people in Connecticut’s poorest cities, problems that are often questions of life and death, they remain a blight on the American Dream.
Other novels of the post-war era set in Fairfield County cover similar ground, most notably Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Laura Hobson’s Gentlemen’s Agreement. What distinguishes Revolutionary Road is that it’s an unsparing story that ends in tragedy and defeat. Perhaps for that reason, neither the book or the 2008 film adaptation that starred Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, no less, were especially popular.
A version of this article was originally published at connecticuthistory.org