Skip to main content

'Revolutionary Road' and the Elegiac Form

Revolutionary Road as Elegy


The circularity I identify as so central to Revolutionary Road is both aesthetic, manifested in recurring motifs and a narrative that flits between retrospection and the present moment, and affective. The cyclical structures at work in the text tie the characters into a repetitive emotional experience, and they become locked into a process of mourning that follows the circular emotional pattern of elegy. The novel’s affective elegiac quality is most immediately apparent in the novel’s representation of despair and sorrow - that ‘hopeless emptiness’ that John Givings uncovers at the heart of suburbia (Yates 189) – and radiates through the text as the Wheelers lives play out in a series of disappointments. In a particularly despondent assessment, Richard Price even suggests that ‘Yates pities his characters, but has no choice but to doom them’ (9), creating a sense that the novel is driven by an ineluctable path of grief. Yet both Price and Vickery seem more concerned with mood than form due to their linear conception of mourning, one that has an inevitable developmental movement across consecutive events that ignores Yates’ circling narrative technique. However, by hearing this circularity in the poetic, rhythmic inflections of Revolutionary Road, I offer a restored reading of the text’s emotional quality. Both the cyclical (poetic), and linear (prose-like), aspects of the text tie it to elegy, but it is in the text’s circular form that Yates is able to elegise the experience of the Wheelers in a closed and healed way. Therefore, the ‘elegiac temper’ of the text becomes controlled and worked through via Yates’circular form, rather than existing as a by-product of narrative events. This formal control is first made manifest in motifs that recur and frame the narrative, , keeping it tightly contained and measured through a process of recapitulation, as I will now demonstrate.


Recurring motifs measure and control Yates’ narrative in a distinctly poetic manner, creating rhythms within the text that reflect the elegiac experiences of Frank and April Wheeler. The lives of the Wheelers are continuously measured and controlled through and in form, and Yates creates an environment apposite to this constraint in his descriptions of their suburban surroundings. The description of the Wheelers' house, for example, has a significantly strong resonance when read as a metaphor for Yates’ own formal technique:


a sparse, skilful arrangement of furniture would counteract the prim suburban look of this too-symmetrical living room. On the other hand, the very symmetry of the place was undeniably appealing- the fact that all its corners made right angles, that each of its floorboards lay straight and true, that its doors hung in perfect balance and closed without scraping in efficient clicks (30).


Here the house, the centre-point of the Wheeler’s lives in the suburbs, is portrayed as a balanced, symmetrical structure. It is secure and comforting in its formal precision, and this architectural framework becomes a model of textual craft as Yates structures Revolutionary Road in a careful and symmetrical way. The first and third sections of the novel, in which a series of particularly emotionally laden memories are recalled, contain textual echoes that render the narrative cyclical, a recapitulation of events that allows for a change in emotional perspective. The emotional depth of these memories is communicated by Yates through a layering of recollection in Frank’s remembrance of April’s recollection of two moments of significance from her childhood. The first recalls a conversation between Frank and April about her parents. Frank’s memory reveals that the relationship between April and her parents was difficult, her being the child of “flickering caricatures of the twenties, the Playboy and the Flapper, mysteriously rich and careless and cruel”; both of them, he remembers, died whilst she was still young: “her father had shot himself in a Boston hotel room in 1938, and…her mother had died some years later after long incarceration in a West Coast alcoholic retreat” (38). However, Frank’s remembrance of April’s childhood memories is in conflict with April’s own: “The only real fun I ever had was when one of my parents came for a visit. They were the ones I loved” (39).


This disparity becomes symbolically represented through the ‘souvenirs’ that April received from her parents, particularly a ‘tiny white plastic horse, the size of a watch charm, which had a net value of two or three cents and had been saved for years because “my father gave it to me”’ (39). April hoards these tokens out of an elegiac impulse, a wish to remember her parents after they have died and feel an emotional connection to them. The way she handles the items, “picking up and putting away again” is itself a small rhythm of comfort, measuring her feelings in the repetitive action of handling and releasing each item (39). This small repetition expands outwards in the narrative as Yates treats this white horse as a recurring motif in the novel. It appears here, in Frank’s memory of April’s recalled childhood, and then again, in the third section, when their marital bond has unravelled and April is making final preparations before undertaking the abortion that will end her life. As she burns her attempts at a farewell letter to Frank and hears the sound of her children in the Campbells' garden, this time it is April who recalls the white horse, and the return of this memory brings with it a resurgence of her sense of loss. The previous disparity between April’s affectionate recall and Frank’s blunter version of events becomes resolved in this present moment, as her memory circles around the excitement she felt at seeing her father - “she forced herself not to start running down the path” (308) - only to again finally rest upon the white horse. The horse itself is given to her as a farewell present by her father, and so indicates a loss in that sense, yet the recurring memory of it also implies a loss of the illusion of loving parents she clung to previously: the horse, treasured for so many years, resurfaces and is stripped of its sentimental value as we learn that it came from the neck of a “long brown bottle” as her father hastily searches for something to give her in the back of his car (309). Here, as Yates recapitulates the memory of the white horse, April is caught in a cycle of grief as she loses her father all over again. This loss recurs with a new sense of finality as it infiltrates her present moment and foreshadows her own leaving: the horse thus represents an endless cycle of loss and brings the reader’s attention back to April’s burning letters: “The fire was out. She prodded the blackened lumps of paper with a stick to make sure they had burned; there was nothing but ashes” (311). The image of the ashes has strong elegiac connotations here, as it is suggestive of funeral and cremation. It is even more pertinent because it precedes the beginning of her self-inflicted abortion, an episode that is also structurally foreshadowed in section one of the novel and recurs again in a cyclical motion. It is as though April mourns and buries one loss, only to immediately trigger another as she completes another narrative and elegiac cycle in her abortive act.


Although April’s abortion and consequent death occur at the end of the novel, the imagery and description Yates uses to portray the event are recycled from an episode in section one of Revolutionary Road. Walking through the corridor of the high school which serves as the venue for the ‘Laurel Players’ at the start of the novel, Frank is prompted to envision an episode from April’s school years that sets up a pattern of imagery that Yates treats repetitively when reflecting on April’s death in the final section. What Frank recalls is a moment when April began menstruation:


…the school smell made him think of one particular time she had told about, a morning in Rye Country Day when a menstrual flow of unusual suddenness and volume had taken her by surprise in the middle of a class…And he thought of how she must have lurched from her desk and run from the room with a red stain the size of a maple leaf on the seat of her white linen skirt…how she must have fled down the corridor…leaving a tidy, well-spaced trail of blood drops on the floor (19).


Here, I suggest, April’s experience is rhythmically conceived, as the menstrual cycle, a bodily rhythm in itself, is envisioned as a ‘tidy, well-spaced trail of blood drops on the floor’. The periodic, repetitive quality of this image is not only a visual representation of the rhythmic associations of menstruation, but a narrative signpost that contains within it the formal and poetic quality of the text. It is an image that conveys a pattern, and Yates expands this pattern outwards from its linear, momentary conception and turns it into a circular, narrative rhythm that, upon its return, becomes an elegiac measurement of Frank’s grief at April’s death. When Frank returns to the house after April has died in hospital, he is faced with the scene of her abortion. It is in the description of this scene that Yates reintroduces the imagery from the menstruation memory, a narrative gesture that is already laden with pathos as the abortion remnants are devoid of the life-pulse that the menstruation pattern provides:


She had been very careful about the blood. Except for a tidy trail of drops leading out to the telephone and back, it had all been confined to the bathroom, and even there it had mostly been flushed away. Two heavy towels, soaked crimson, lay lumped in the tub, close to the drain. “I thought that would be the simplest way to handle it”, he could hear her saying. “I thought you could just wrap the towels up in a newspaper and put them in the garbage, and then give the tub a good rinsing out. Okay?”…And his head continued to ring with the sound of her voice as he set to work (325).


In this passage the rhythmic return of the menstrual image, recycled as the ‘tidy trail of drops leading out to the telephone and back’, becomes a somewhat comforting experience for Frank. His experience of grief becomes measured and controlled through the form of this image: it works as an elegy for him because it permits him to remember April and her voice whilst he ‘works’ through both the cleaning-up process and his own emotional response to her death. The blood-spots create a sense of order and calm that remove any possibility of hysteria, formally measuring Frank’s emotional response and forging a commemorative imprint of April on him: ‘How could she be dead when the house was alive with the sound of her and the sense of her?’ (325).


Lefebvre and Rhythmanalysis


The recurring imagery in these scenes serves as a poetic, elegiac experience, then, which infiltrates Frank’s physical actions as he works about the house. The relationship between rhythm, here conceived as poetic, and life, the routine act of cleaning and working, suggests that the ‘elegiac temper’ of this novel is also a lived experience for the Wheelers, albeit one controlled through form and structure. Elegy invades their daily lives as its cyclical rhythm leverages their motions and interactions, forcing them to constantly work through loss in a circular way in an attempt at consolation. This relationship between rhythm and action speaks to Henri Lefebvre’s ‘rhythmanalytical project’, the mapping of routine rhythms in everyday life. It is to the relationship between the cyclical and the linear rhythms of daily practice in Lefebvre’s discussion that I now turn to in order to explore the relationship between the poetic and prose elements of Revolutionary Road’s elegiac tendencies. So far I have brought to light the poetic elements of Yates’ text, and shown how its form works cyclically in order to follow a rhythmic, healing elegiac pattern. However, it is, of course, also a novel, and these two forms, poetry and prose, co-exist in the text. Lefebvre’s division of daily routine into circular and linear rhythms provides a framework for this generic co-existing of poetry and prose, one that serves as a site for the conflicting everyday elegiac experience that the Wheelers are caught within. This conflict results in a tension between consolation and despair that becomes increasingly apparent within the novel.


In Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, Lefebvre suggests that our daily lives are made up of rhythms. By understanding rhythm as an inherent factor of everyday life rather than, say, an aesthetic or musical construct, he strives to investigate the relationship we have created between innate natural, biological rhythms and more constructed rhythms, such as quantitative time:


The everyday is simultaneously the site of, the theatre for, and what is at stake in a conflict between great indestructible rhythms and the processes imposed by socio-economic organisation of production, consumption, circulation and habitat (73).


There is a conflict, then, in the rhythms that make up our daily lives. There are natural rhythms, which recur ineluctably and constantly renew, and there are man-made ones, which ‘impose’ themselves upon these natural rhythms and threaten to upset our experience of them. It is Lefebvre’s categorisation of these rhythms that speaks to my reading of poetic and prose rhythms in Revolutionary Road and the way these two forms permit two different emotional experiences of elegy. Lefebvre divides our experience of rhythm into two categories, the cyclical and the linear:


The cyclical and the linear are categories…cyclical processes and movements, undulations, vibrations, returns and rotations are innumerable…passing through the beatings of the heart, the blinking of the eyelids and breathing, the alternation of days and nights, months and seasons and so on. As for the linear, it designates any series of identical facts separated by long or short periods of time: the fall of a drop of water, the blows of a hammer etc…the cyclical is perceived rather favourably…we can all picture the waves of the sea- a nice image- full of meaning- or sound waves, or circadian or monthly cycles. The linear, though, is depicted only as monotonous, tiring and even intolerable (76).


If the cyclical rhythm that Lefebvre defines here is read as the circular, recurring form of Revolutionary Road, one which permits feelings of consolation as it works through the emotions of elegy, then the linear rhythm becomes that of prose. When Vickery conceptualises the ‘prose elegy’, he suggests that the ‘elegiac temper’ lingers consistently over a linear form. It is not worked through, or resolved, but exists as a persistent malaise, akin to the ‘monotonous, tiring and even intolerable’ linear rhythm detailed by Lefebvre. Revolutionary Road, as an elegy, tries to balance two conflicting rhythms, then. There is the circular, poetic, healing rhythm which works through grief via structure and form, and the linear, monotonous rhythm of prose which threatens to allows mourning to linger without resolving it in consolation. As Lefebvre suggests, these rhythms are lived experiences, as I now show by looking at two examples of how Frank experiences a cyclical and a linear rhythm of elegy. In these readings, I conclude my essay by demonstrating how the ‘monotonous’ rhythm of linear prose threatens to undercut and undo the more secure and comforting cyclical rhythm of poetry that runs through the novel. The cyclical rhythm that Frank lives through and finds a degree of solace in can be read through his work on the garden path and the measure and control that he finds in the act of digging in the first section of the novel. In contrast, the linear rhythm that threatens to upset this solace manifests itself in his excessive reliance on the calendar - a clear symbol of sequential time - in the final section of the novel to measure his daily experience and control his emotions within it.


When Frank wakes up the morning after the first long argument with April that occurs in the novel, he takes himself to work on the stone path that runs through the middle of their lawn. During this activity, he reflects on a memory that surfaces about April’s initial impulse to abort their first child. Considering he is remembering the moment when he became aware of his imminent fatherhood, the expectation of new life, it is chilling how much this scenario seems to emulate a burial. It is not a death that Frank is mourning here, then, but the loss of the life that he expected to have with April before the birth of their children tied them into their current existence. His handling of the stones for the path, ‘cradling [them] in the tender flesh of his forearms’ (49), seems to humanise the rocks, transforming them into a baby that you would cradle in much the same way. By placing this rock in the ground then, Frank attempts to bury and mourn the pathway he anticipated his life would take, and the action that accompanies this is rhythmic and restorative. He enjoys the bodily repetition of ‘the muscular pull and sweat of it’ (45), and is able to reach a conclusion about his feelings via the rhythmic measure of his spade: ‘And I didn’t even want a baby, he thought to the rhythm of his digging' (51). Furthermore, the rhythmic act of this digging serves as a backdrop to a cyclical process of remembrance for Frank. Framed by the repetitive motion of his manual labour are Frank’s memories of April’s first suggestion of abortion, and his managing to persuade her against it. The narrative moves in a circle then: Frank mourns the presence of children in his life, only to reflect back upon the moment he may very nearly have lost one, to return to the present reality of parenthood yet again with a refreshed sense of acceptance of his situation. Indeed, this elegiac experience is a despondent one: the conclusion that Frank reaches is not a happy one, or a restful one, but it is sealed and reached through a process that a cyclical, poetic experience makes sure is controlled. Frank’s thoughts can wander and return within a closed structure here, allowing him to elegise freely and work through his emotions in a measured, circular way. However, in the third section of the novel, Frank encounters a different lived rhythm that threatens to undercut this more secure way of working through grief. This rhythm is linear and manifests itself in the calendar that Frank so avidly tries to live by as he again is forced to convince April not to abort their child.


1 . 2 . 3