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‘Revolutionary Road’ and the Elegiac Form

Erin Lafford

In an article written for The Independent in November, 1992, Scott Bradfield recalls a short interview he conducted with Richard Yates. The interview is more description than dialogue, and, conducted ‘three weeks’ before Yates died of emphysema, reads like an obituary, as Bradfield writes wistfully, eulogizing Yates and his writing:

After meeting a writer of Yates's talent and integrity, a man who never wrote a scene which didn't at least make a brave attempt at honesty, it was easy to think of him as "tragic", or "neglected", or as someone "who never lived up to his potential". But after all those "slick" observations are exhausted, the facts remain: he wrote some of the best fiction of his generation; it continues to give pleasure to all those readers who are fortunate enough to discover it (3).

This is a warm tribute, one that seems to simultaneously voice a sense of loss and also express a desire to remember and uphold Yates’ writing for future readers. Its double purpose as mourning and memory does, then, read as an elegy. The interview is a timely precedent to Yates’ death, tying it to a traditional elegiac impulse: the wish to lament loss of life, to remember those who have been lost, and commemorate their lives in order to change the grief at their death into positive feeling about the continuation of life. Despite writing with such a strong elegiac tone about Yates, Bradfield concludes by suggesting that “Yates’s books are extremely emotional and not easily summarized. Nor do they fit into any of the convenient critical categories” (2). I argue here that Bradfield unwittingly uncovers this missing critical category: that of the elegy. Focusing on Revolutionary Road (1961), I suggest that the elegiac space Yates’ work fills is more than simply thematic: specifically, I argue that Yates’ first novel works formally, as well as emotionally, as an elegy. As a novel that ends in a death, that of April Wheeler, Revolutionary Road is already tied to an elegiac literary tradition of mourning: the narrative of the text serves as a reflection on this death and the emotional experience of it. The rhythm and pace of the novel’s prose style not only leverages the formal mourning process of poetic elegy, but is also rhythmically and poetically elegiac, I argue: repetitive, cyclical and, as the title of the novel conveys, revolving and revolutionary.

To capture this rhythm of mourning in Revolutionary Road, I explore how the elegiac form works across the novel in both poetic and prose terms. While generically a novel, Revolutionary Road is structured, I argue, by a rhythm of mourning that plays out across the traditional poetic model of elegy as initial lament, confrontation with loss and finally consolation. As a cyclical model, elegy offers a process of emotional and formal restoration absent from the direct and relentless movement of linear narratives of grief. The essay thus will show how Yates brings together the poetic elegy with what the critic John Vickery calls the ‘prose elegy’ in order to stage the central tension that gradually intensifies between the key protagonists, Frank and April Wheeler. While both the poetic and prose-like aspects of Revolutionary Road tie it to elegy, then, I argue that it is through the text’s circular form that Yates can elegise the experience of the Wheelers in a manner that at once consoles and emotionally instructs the reader. In the final part of the essay, I draw upon Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis (1992), a study of ‘space, time and everyday life’, in order to close read Yates’ representation of human life in the novel as an innately rhythmic experience. Before turning to Lefebvre, however, I establish Yates as an author elevated as an elegiac figure in American literature, an association he almost consciously enacts in his fiction. I then outline my understanding of Revolutionary Road as an elegy, one that is informed, but not restricted to, John Vickery’s work on the ‘prose elegy.’ By not restricted I mean that I actively work to draw out Vickery’s ideas in order to read Yates’ novel as a poetic elegy, one that structurally enacts elegy’s formal movement (from lament to consolation) as well as rhythmically performing it. I then turn to a series of scenes from Revolutionary Road that lay bare its cyclical and repeating structure to suggest that, despite the novel’s linear form, its emotional and formal circularity renders it as elegiac as any poem.

Yates the Elegiac Figure

My opening sense of Bradfield’s article as an unconscious elegiac gesture is based on his discovery of an emotional pitch in Yates that speaks to the tradition of elegy. Indeed, the main focus of published work on Yates tends towards the elegiac in tone and style. For while there is little academic writing available on Yates’ fiction, he is not an unfamiliar or unrecognised author, but is celebrated in many minor newspaper articles and essays as a key figure of American literature. However, as in Bradfield’s article, such praise often shifts quickly into nostalgic mourning, celebrating Yates’ prowess as a writer and mourning America’s loss of such an important literary talent. This critical melancholy is especially prominent in discussions of Yates’ work that coincide with deliberate commemorative motives: memorial speeches make up a significant portion of the available commentary on Yates. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, brings together the elegiac impulse and discussion of literary craft in his memorial speech in a way that highlights Yates for consideration within this elegiac framework:

When I made a journey, a forced march, through all his books in preparation for these obsequies, not only did I fail to detect so much as an injudiciously applied semicolon; I did not even find one paragraph which if it were read to you today, would not wow you with its power, intelligence, and clarity. It has been said that even Homer occasionally nodded. As nearly as I can determine, Richard Yates’s concentration when he was writing was so extraordinary that he never did (78).

In his wish to compose an ‘obsequy’ for Yates, Vonnegut immediately falls into an analysis of his formal technique, commenting on Yates’ ability as a novelist to write with precision and attentiveness. Certainly this reading works in relation to Revolutionary Road: the text is a tightly woven narrative full of constant consideration for both formal and emotional detail. In his biography of Yates, A Tragic Honesty, Blake Bailey records Yates’ own comments on his novel, and from the way he describes his method of composition, it is clear that this constancy or repetition informs the aesthetic of Revolutionary Road. Yates writes: ‘“Most of my first drafts read like soap opera. I have to go over and over a scene before I get deep enough into it to bring it off. I think I’d be a slick, superficial writer if I didn’t revise all the time”’ (178).

Cyclical Elegy

The repetitive relationship that Yates establishes in these notes is made manifest through a process of circuitous self-analysis, one that I argue functions in Revolutionary Road in the play between the novel’s elegiac mood and repeating literary form and motifs. Before turning to my close readings of the novel’s orbiting form, however, I will establish how I read elegy here, an understanding that is informed by two literary definitions. The first is a ‘traditional’ definition of elegy as a poetic form that permits mourning and consolation, one that has been thoroughly considered by critics such as Peter Sacks, David Kennedy and Jahan Ramazani. Each of these critics understands elegy as a form that was developed out of its classical origins by poets such as John Milton and P. B. Shelley, as well as many twentieth and twenty-first century poets. The second definition builds on this reading of elegy as critically flexible and open to literary innovation, and derives from John Vickery’s study of a form he calls the ‘prose elegy’. In The Prose Elegy: An Exploration of Modern American and British Fiction (2009), Vickery works from the idea that elegy can signify not just as a form, but also a general mood, an emotional pitch he describes as the ‘elegiac temper’. This ‘temper’ communicates feelings of grief and loss that Vickery argues have become integral to the representation of daily life in modern fiction, without being tied to its previous association with poetry. For Vickery, this temper has permeated twentieth-century prose in such a way as to create an elegiac novel form, one that works through these emotions in narrative, rather than poetic writing. In my reading of Revolutionary Road, however, I seek to bring together these two understandings of elegy - one poetic, the other narrative - in order to show how Yates’ narrative technique and craft can be formally understood as in keeping with the tradition of poetic elegy. While Revolutionary Road is obviously a novel, the metre and pace of its prose style create a rhythm of mourning that is perpetuated and reprocessed throughout the novel, thus creating an ‘elegiac temper’ akin to the emotional pitch of Vickery’s ‘prose elegy’.

Vickery, however, deliberately restricts this elegiac temper to the novel form. As a poetic tradition, he insists, elegy adheres to a strict tripartite structure of ‘lamentation – confrontation – consolation’ in its attempt to map the emotional experience of death. This experience moves from initial grief, into a recognition of mortality in all things, through to a closing and healing acceptance of this and finally consolatory resolution (2). In its measured emotional and formal process, then, this model is cyclical. It is triggered by an event, that of a death, and then works through a series of stages of reactions to that death, only to return to the initial event with a restored reading of it that is emotionally rejuvenating. While the tight form and rhythmic structure of poetry make it the preferred mode for such a neat and contained method of mourning, Vickery is quick to distance prose from this elegiac structure. He reclaims the term ‘elegy’ from this traditional formation and assimilates it into fiction as a mood or tone that cannot be so structurally confined:

How the modern prose elegy differs from its traditional poetic predecessors is a complex subject. Clearly the examination of prose works poses a different set of critical demands and expectations from those of poetic elegies. Thus, fiction’s traditional reliance on a mimetic impetus, a teller or tellers of an extended narrative, and a physically larger text, for instance, obviously create significant variations on any emergent elegiac form (2).

However, I am not convinced that the ‘critical demands’ of prose have to differ so vastly from that of poetry. Can a novel work as an elegy without having to abandon the formal emphasis of its ‘poetic predecessor’? By reading the ‘critical demands’ of poetry as attention to rhythm and pattern, I suggest that Revolutionary Road does function as an elegy, not just in theme but in form. Indeed, its plot builds up to a death (April’s), but it is not just this linear focus on a loss of life that ties the text to this literary tradition. Through the structure and narrative technique of the novel, Yates cultivates a form that is analogous to the circular, cyclical model of poetic elegy that Vickery conceptualises, and it is through attention to these cyclical moments in the text that Yates’ elegiac project comes to light.

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