The opening scene of the 2008 film adaptation of Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes, recounts the first meeting between Frank Wheeler and April Johnson at a party in New York City. Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a former soldier who now lives as a bachelor in Greenwich Village. Striking the right poses from across the room and delivering the right lines, Frank quickly convinces April of his potential as an intellectual with his rebellious nature. April appears to Frank to be an "exceptionally first-rate girl," the kind that has always eluded him. However, the narrator of the novel notes that "a week after that, almost to the day, she was lying miraculously nude beside him...whispering: 'It's true, Frank. I mean it. You're the most interesting person I've ever met.'" Kate Winslet, who plays April Wheeler in the film, later recalls this line while reminiscing on this former image of Frank and his past ambition to return to Paris. Frank initially utilizes this image of himself in order to persuade April that he is, in fact, an intellectual and rebel - an identity in which April fully believes.
These idealized images of Frank and April are soon undermined. In the opening of Yates's 1961 novel, the Laurel Players, an amateur theatre company with which April is involved, put on their first performance of American playwright Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest. The scene portraying this performance is condensed in the film adaptation, emphasizing Frank and April's reactions to the play. On opening night, the Laurel Players leave much to be desired when April and the other actors' mounting fears that "they would end by making fools of themselves" are confirmed. The "hopeful nudges and whispers of 'she's good'" among the audience turn into a recognition that April has "lost her grip." The narrator notes that soon members of the audience "were all embarrassed for her." In the film, the scene depicting the failure of the Laurel Players immediately follows the first meeting between Frank and April. The film juxtaposes their first encounter, in which each confirms the idealized image of the other, with the disastrous outcome of the performance by the Laurel Players approximately ten years later, following Frank and April's marriage and move to the suburbs with their children. This juxtaposition draws attention to the contrast between the seemingly stable identities that Frank and April initially project and the reception of such images later on in adulthood.
Following April's performance in The Petrified Forest, Frank and April exchange insults in a bitter fight that takes place on their way home, emphasizing the contrast between the idealized images of Frank as "the most interesting person [April] has ever met" and April as an "exceptionally first-rate girl," and their lives as married adults. Frank's role as a suburbanite and white-collar worker draws attention to the gap between the idealized image of the self as a rebellious youth and the reality of his life with April. As an adult, Frank does not become the rebel that both he and April thought he was. Instead, his rebel identity has been compromised by his role as a husband, father, and white-collar worker. Although Frank expresses his discontent with what he sees as a nation of conformity and consumerism, he ultimately follows the social norms of containment that he criticizes. In Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity, Leerom Medovoi asserts that developmental psychologist Erik Erikson's conception of identity posits rebellion as a crucial stage during the formation of a conformist adult identity. The image of Frank as a rebel, then, exists as a necessary stage in the process of identity formation that balances rebellion with conformity. While Medovoi argues that the concept of identity in the 1950s was emerging as a useful vehicle for identity politics, Revolutionary Road presents this process of identity formation as a source of anxiety. As Frank attempts to form a stable, unified identity, he faces competing notions of American masculinity that disrupt his ability to reach the final stage of adulthood.
In this article, I examine the ways in which both Richard Yates's 1961 novel and the 2008 film adaptation of Revolutionary Road explore the anxiety caused by the tension between competing notions of white middle-class American identity. These texts present images of American identity as, on the one hand, rebellious and concerned with the potential of suburbia and white-collar work to erode a rebellious national character and, on the other, an image of the adult male as a family-oriented consumer, the epitome of a free and democratic nation. I argue that the gulf between Frank's understanding of himself in relation to the fantasy of a national identity based on rebellion and that which he experiences in suburbia and while working at Knox Business Machines is a point of contention and source of anxiety in the negotiation and maintenance of a process of identity formation that becomes complete in adulthood. The idealized self-image of the rebel is central to the process of identity formation throughout Revolutionary Road. Male characters desire an idealized image that allows for the maintenance of an imaginative self-image as a rebel. While Erikson presents identity as a process in which rebellion is a necessary stage in the transition to adulthood, Revolutionary Road presents this final stage of identity formation, which is - as Medovoi explains - an "accomplishment and positive good," as a source of anxiety because it entails the end of youthful rebellion. Although the "Eriksonian drama of adolescence" allows for an adult identity to be attained after sufficient rebellion, Revolutionary Roadsuggests that the capacity to rebel must be acknowledged and asserted even after reaching adulthood in order to maintain a masculine American identity on both an individual and national scale.
The Concept of Identity in the 1950s
Medovoi argues that the very concept of "'identity' as it is commonly understood today was a new one in the 1950s." For him, the emergence of identity politics came to overshadow analyses of class among the left in the decades after the Second World War. Using Erikson's concept of identity formation as he presents it in his 1950 book entitled Childhood and Society, Medovoi provides an account of the way in which the rebel came to play a crucial role in the formation of both individual and national identities. According to Medovoi, Erikson's theory posits adolescence, which is commonly a stage of rebellion, as the point at which one distinguishes the "psychopolitical" self from the other. This theory of identity formation is a helpful means of explaining how the adolescent rebel fulfilled the need to project an image of the United States that conveys its defining characteristics of liberty and freedom during an era with unprecedented consumption, mass production, and the imagined threat of communism. Because the concept of identity applies "to collectivities as well as to the individuals who comprise them," as Medovoi reminds us, it can be used to explain the ways in which the individual functions as a counterpart of a nation that is also in the process of forming an identity.
In the 1950s, the individual identities of American men were forming anew while the United States fashioned a national identity in response to the Cold War. As Medovoi points out, Erikson's theory appropriates liberal theory, which "reenacts a classical political metanarrative of the enlightened individual entering into full possession of his/her right to self-determination." Erikson explains that during adolescence, "all sameness and continuities relied on earlier are more or less questioned again, because of a rapidity of body growth." The youth, then, undergoes a process that causes him to question an earlier established sense of self. Erikson continues: "The growing and developing youths, faced with this physiological revolution within them, and with tangible adult tasks ahead of them are now primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are." In order to be recognized by the other as an autonomous individual, Medovoi explains, "the self must be capable of formulating a satisfactory self image that is determined by neither blind acceptance nor unthinking rejection of the image offered by the other."
Frank's attempt to establish an individual identity involves a process of mediating between images presented by the other and his previously established conception of self which has been called into question. April calls into question Frank's image of self as a suburban rebel when she devises a plan to move to France, where Frank will spend his time "finding himself." On the one hand, Frank is confronted with an image of himself as a rebel and intellectual, and, on the other, he has formed an image of himself as a suburbanite and white-collar worker, at odds with his surroundings. His life as a white-collar worker and suburbanite disrupts the coherence of April's understanding of his essential identity as a rebel and intellectual. Frank shows his concern for how April sees him as he attempts to affirm her conception of him as a rebel, rather than the suburbanite and white-collar conformist he has become. While the policies of containment championed the role of the suburbanite and white-collar worker, a competing image of the nation came into being. Medovoi describes how the attempt of the United States to form a national identity involved "a Cold War fantasy of a postcolonial revolutionary American character," which would oppose the policies of containment that relied on the position of American men in the home. The image of a national character based on rebellion and liberty in adolescence, then, Medovoi believes, would provide postcolonial nations with a model for forming a sovereign national identity. He notes that it is the need and ability to reconcile these two images of American character that makes Erikson's concept of identity most useful. He states: "The patent appeal of the Eriksonian adolescent's 'character' is that she enacts the requisite dramas of rebellion prior to adulthood. Thus, if an adolescent exhibits a properly rebellious spirit before growing into a conforming suburbanite or an Organization Man, then she has effectively displayed the American self 's sovereignty without necessarily sacrificing the eventual conformity of the adult." Erikson's concept of identity accounts for the competing images of the self and demonstrates that both are necessary in order for a national character to reach a final state of sovereignty that balances an image presented by the other with an in image that the self forms.
Revolutionary Road and the Crisis of Identity
Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962. The novel also won acclaim from critics at The New Yorker as well as The New York Times. The successful reception of the novel, in part, may be a result of the way in which it engages with the cultural climate of the United States following the Second World War and the onset of what is often referred to as the age of anxiety. The 2008 film adaptation is largely faithful to Yates's novel. Screenwriter Justin Haythe explains the way in which Yates's style lends itself to film as he notes: "There are scenes in Revolutionary Road written with such brilliant dramatic staging they can be transposed to the screen almost intact." Like the novel, the film portrays Frank and April Wheeler's anxieties about how other see them. While Yates taps into concerns that were prominent in the 1950s, the film adaptation suggests that such concerns are not specific to the immediate postwar era. Nick James notes that Mendes pushes the 1950s social setting "into the background." Mendes himself has said that this is in order to focus on Frank and April as a couple; however, Chris Richardson notes that "the concepts Yates introduced fifty years ago remain relevant, timely, and possibly central to the existential crisis Americans continue to face in the twenty-first century." I would agree with Richardson and add that the choice to focus primarily on the relationship between Frank and April, rather than emphasize the 1950s setting, reinforces this idea that the anxieties about identity that Frank and April face are not specific to the decade. Instead, the 1950s ushered in an era in which the position of the United States as a world power gave rise to discourses of American identity that remain today. After tracing the origins of the concept of identity in the Cold War era in his conclusion to Rebels, Medovoi asserts: "As the Cold War ended in the early nineties...the very basis of identity politics began to erode," yet the 2008 film adaptation of Revolutionary Road conveys the way in which the concept of identity continues to inform notions of the self and the nation even after the Cold War.
As the United States engages in conflicts in the Middle East, conceptions of American identity continue to be negotiated and disseminated in popular culture and political rhetoric. Some consideration of the rhetoric of former president George W. Bush demonstrates the way in which American identity continues to rely on the notion of the United States as a model for democracy and sovereignty via rebellion. In a speech Bush delivered to the American Enterprise Institute on February 26, 2003, on the future of Iraq, Bush constructed the U.S. as having a history of providing a model for self-determination dating back to the postwar era: "America has made and kept this kind of commitment before - in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments...In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home." Bush relied on a legacy of postwar foreign policy by presenting America as an arbiter of democracy in order to justify military intervention in Iraq. More recently, Barack Obama utilized a similar rhetoric when he addressed the role of the United States in Afghanistan. In a speech he delivered from Kabul on May 2, 2012, he noted that the United States has signed "an historic agreement...that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries – a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states." He presented the United States as being in a position to recognize Afghanistan as a sovereign nation. By recognizing Afghanistan as such, the United States plays a role in the formation of Afghan identity. Moreover, the role of the United States abroad shows a concern with how other nations perceive American identity. In a speech on revolutions in Libya and North Africa, Obama drew a parallel with the formation of the United States. He said: "Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa." By aligning revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa with the American Revolution, Obama linked these regions with the notion of America as a nation born by rebellion and defined by liberty. In doing so, he reconstituted an American identity based on a model of self-determination for nations that have been freed from oppressive regimes. The attempts to reconstitute this identity suggests anxiety related to the way in which the U.S. appears as a world power. Such rhetoric constructs the US not as an advocate of empire, but as a formerly oppressed people who gained independence by rebelling. Such concerns about national identity (and the identities of individuals within a nation) have become prominent since the events of September 11, 2001, recalling a Cold War discourse of American identity that relies on notions of revolution and rebellion as a means of obtaining sovereignty.
The idea of a crisis in manhood is a well documented aspect of the concern with American identity in the postwar era. The reasons for this perceived crisis of masculinity remain open for debate; however, scholars have suggested that, in part, it was the result of attempts to reconcile changes in American culture following the Second World War with earlier notions of a masculine American identity that relied on the myth of rugged individualism and the frontier. James Gilbert notes that the anxiety about American manhood expressed by the most widely read contemporary commentators, including C. Wright Mills, William Whyte, and David Reisman, can be attributed to their attempts to return to models of manhood that emphasize individualism. The use of flashbacks in Yates's novel introduces these past notions of American manhood. Frank vividly remembers his father's hands, associating them with masculine pursuits of business, woodworking, and hunting. The narrator notes that "it wasn't only their strength he envied, it was their sureness and sensitivity - when they held a thing, you could see how it felt - and the aura of mastery they imparted to everything Earl Wheeler used: the creaking pigskin handle of his salesman's briefcase, the hafts of all his woodworking tools, the thrillingly dangerous stock and trigger of his shotgun." James Woods points out that Frank "feels outdone by the surpassing competence of his father's hands." However, while Frank envies what he sees as his father's stable masculine identity, he makes it clear that the definition of manhood that applies to his father does not also apply to him. Frank's job at Knox "started off as a kind of joke," suggesting that Frank sees any close ties between his own identity and that of his father as a source of humor and irony.
In many ways, Frank displays the new "American character" that Reisman saw as being responsible for the erosion of traditional American values of individualism and self sufficiency. According to Reisman's 1950 sociological study The Lonely Crowd, the character of American men was undergoing a shift from "inner-directed" to "other-directed." Reisman states: "Other direction is becoming the typical character of the 'new' middle-class," which is characterized by "an increase in the numbers and the proportion engaged in white-collar work and the service trades." In his foreword to The Lonely Crowd, Todd Gitlin points out Reisman asserted that "the new American no longer cared much about adult authority but rather was hyperalert to peer groups and gripped by mass media." Frank appears to be an "other-directed" personality type as he adopts the pose of a rebel and intellectual for April and shows a concern with how others see him. He appears more concerned with projecting an image of a unified self, rather than embodying the earlier ideals of American manhood that value individualism and self sufficiency. Frank, then, envies not the specific aspects of his father's masculine identity, but the way in which his father appeared to be a unified self. Moreover, Frank's conception of self relies not on his ability to model his identity on his father, but on his conception of self as a youth. Yates's novel makes this connection explicit. Following April's performance in The Petrified Forest, which fails to affirm the Wheeler's idealized image of themselves, Frank recalls his conception of self around the time he and April first met: "And now, as it often did in an effort to remember who he was, his mind went back to the first few years after the war to a crumbling block of Bethune Street...In his very early twenties, wearing the proud mantels of 'veteran' and 'intellectual' as bravely as he wore his carefully aged tweed jacket and washed-out khakis." Frank locates his identity not in a mythical past, but in the years during which he came to see himself as an intellectual and youthful rebel. Although he has conformed to the expectations of suburban culture and white-collar work, he maintains a self-image as a rebel, which will become a site of anxiety as he enters adulthood.
Frank maintains an imaginative and idealized self-image as a rebel as he distinguishes himself from the conformity and monotony that he experiences while living in a Connecticut suburb and commuting to Knox Business Machines. Regardless of this idealized self-image, he remains immersed within the homogenizing environment of suburbia and the corporate workplace. A scene from the film depicts Frank among countless other men who travel from the suburbs to New York City each day. A close shot of Frank shows him among other commuters awaiting the arrival of their train. Like the other men in the shot, Frank is dressed in a gray suit and fedora. A wider overhead shot follows in which Frank is no longer distinguished from a large crowd of men in similar dress. This crowd of men is shown again as Frank travels to work and then departs from his train to enter Grand Central Station. A shot then shows this crowd of men in gray and brown suits, carrying briefcases as they uniformly descend steps inside the station. The camera is positioned in front of the crowd of men. As they approach, their uniformity does not fade. The monotonous unity with which the crowd of commuters moves from the train platform to the streets of New York City in this sequence of shots emphasizes the way in which Frank has adapted to the social norms of the middle-class suburban male. The close proximity of the men in the shot suggests that there is little room for individuality or variation. Frank, then, appears to be a faceless man in a crowd of suburban commuters.
The sense of conformity and uniformity that Frank feels was, in part, the result of efforts to establish a strong national character that would display the triumphs of capitalism and democracy in the face of an enemy who was associated with communism and a totalitarian regime. The changes to masculine character that Whyte, Reisman, and Mills identify reflect the way in which containment positioned not only white-collar work but also the home as a central component of American culture during the Cold War. According to Elaine Tyler May, containment functioned at the domestic level by positioning the home as a safeguard against contaminants that would weaken the nation and leave it vulnerable to communism. In Homeward Bound, May sketches a model of containment that complements foreign policy: "More than merely a metaphor for the cold war on the homefront, containment aptly describes the way in which public policy, personal behavior, and even political values were focused on the home." The suburban home, then, provided a space in which notions of a stable and unified national identity were reworked in the 1950s. Alan Nadel argues that containment led to a conformist culture that attempted to "reconcile the cult of domesticity with the demand for domestic security." A model of masculinity based on domestic containment as a means of combating those who subvert the ideology of the nuclear family exists in tension with a perception that the domestic has the potential to make men effeminate and readily willing to conform to the norms of a consumer culture or to the imagined threat of communism. Michael Kimmel notes that in the 1950s the suburban home became the new arena for proving one's masculinity via fatherhood. However, men in the postwar era faced contradictions as they were told to be tough and aggressive, yet nurturing fathers. The sons of men who failed to fulfill the contradictory demands of manhood, it was feared, would become communists, delinquents, or homosexuals, Kimmel explains, putting the national identity of the United States at risk.
April Wheeler and Adolescence
Frank balances his roles as suburbanite and white-collar worker with his ideal self-image as a rebel - that is until this self-image is challenged by April. Initially, Frank seems to be the unified self that he values in his father, yet the potential for this image to appear fragmented remains. While he is no longer the rebel he was when he and April first met, Frank has formed a stable identity based on his critiques of suburbia, allowing him to appear rebellious. In her study of twentieth century suburban novels, Catherine Jurca notes that alienation is a central aspect of white middle-class identity. In Revolutionary Road, this alienation becomes a central component of the image of himself that Frank presents to others. He complains to April about "having to live among all these damn little suburban types" after April's part in The Petrified Forest. Frank emphasizes his lack of communion with American institutions and those he sees as typical suburbanites as he attempts to maintain a rebellious aspect of his identity. However, while Frank criticizes conformity, he remains immersed in the very institutions that he criticizes. His ability to maintain the appearance of a rebel, while conforming to the containment model of masculinity is not permanent.
It is April's plan to move to France that threatens the formation of Frank's identity. The fight between Frank and April following the performance of The Petrified Forest illustrates April's role in forming Frank's identity. She explicitly challenges his masculinity when she exclaims: "Look you, and tell me how by any stretch...of the imagination you can call yourself a man!" Frank's immediate reaction is to reject this image she presents, demonstrating that he is proceeding through the process of identity formation that Erikson describes. This process is, according to Erikson's theory, as explained by Medovoi, "partially agonistic" because it involves the rejection of "'roles' and 'self-images' offered up by others," providing an opportunity for rebellion. Frank, having already formed a self-image on his way to adulthood, now faces a self-image that he rebels against. He tells April: "I don't happen to fit the role of dumb, insensitive suburban husband; you've been trying to hang that one on me ever since we moved out here, and I'm damned if I'll wear it." However, April demands that Frank re-evaluate his identity when she questions his capacity for rebellion. She attempts to reaffirm Frank's rebel character as he enters adulthood - a stage that hinges on conformity. According to April, a "real" man must continue to display his rebellious character in all stages of identity. For her, Frank's anti-suburban and anti-corporate rhetoric are not proof an essentially masculine and essentially rebellious character.
April presents her plan to move to France as a means of allowing Frank to express his potential as a man and a rebel. For her, rebelling against their positions in suburbia will provide an opportunity to affirm a past image of Frank, which he once accepted and which she feels is an essential aspect of his identity. She tells him: "It's your very essence that's being stifled here. It's what you are that's being denied and denied and denied in this kind of life." She continues on to claim: "You're the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man." This past image of Frank as a rebel also works to construct the revolutionary character of the United States. In this sense, Frank and April come to represent competing images of American identity.
In an interview published in Ploughshares in 1972, Yates explains how the title of the novel addresses the conflict between revolution and conformity inherent in the notion of American identity in the 1950s. He states: "I think I meant [the title] more as an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties. Because during the fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs - a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price...Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that - felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit - and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties."
While April's plan for France allows her and Frank to imagine themselves as "new and better people," these identities remain idealized images. Rather than an affirmation of Frank's masculine American identity, April's plan provides a fantasy that allows this image of Frank to exist. Although Yates asserts that the revolutionary spirit of the United States was waning in the 1950s, April's belief in Frank's masculine identity suggests that the imaginative potential of this spirit remains crucial to conceptions of American identity. However, it is the image of Frank as April saw him when they first met, Frank as someone "special and superior" to men who would become suburbanites and white-collar workers in adulthood, that he ultimately rebels against.
John Givings, the mentally disturbed son of the Wheelers' real estate agent provides a model for a rebel identity. John, played by Michael Shannon in the film, forms a self-image that contrasts sharply with the containment model of manhood that relies on the role of the American male as husband and father within the home. He openly criticizes and rejects the suburban ideal of the postwar era when visiting the Wheeler's home with his parents. In the scene showing the first meeting between John and the Wheelers, John begins a conversation with Frank about his legal rights regarding the incident with his parents that placed him in a psychiatric hospital. Helen Givings stands in front of the Wheeler's picture window urging John to look at the sunny view and expresses her hope for a rainbow. She appears in bright light at the front of the room, while John appears at the opposite side of the shot in less lighting. The contrast here emphasizes John's opposition to the social niceties in which his mother engages, positioning John as a rebel. He initially thinks of Frank as blindly adhering to the ideals of containment after Frank claims that he has never liked his job at Knox. John states: "You want to play house, you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house then you got to have a job you don't like." However, once John hears of the Wheeler's plan to move to France, he sees Frank as being distinct from the majority of suburbanites who conform to the containment model of masculinity. April's plan to move to Paris acknowledges the need to rebel against passive acceptance of the self-image offered by the other, providing an opportunity to rebel against the model of masculinity John initially attributes to Frank. Recognizing that the Wheelers are on the verge of fashioning new self images based on rebellion, John sees in them a character that is in accordance with his own identity. Following the Givings' visit, April tells Frank that John is "the first person who's really seemed to know what we're talking about," suggesting that she identifies John as having the type of rebellious character that she desires in Frank. By supporting April's plan for France, John endorses an American identity that relies on the ability to rebel and dissent from the ideals of containment.
John's identity as a rebel appears firmly established throughout Revolutionary Road. However, despite the appearance of his rebel identity, he exhibits the need to reaffirm a fantasy of the revolutionary character of the United States. Without the offer of such a fantasy from another, he risks conforming to the norms of a psychiatric institution, an institution in which the presence of those who do not adhere to social and cultural norms is the norm. Just as April offers Frank her ideal image of him, she also offers John an idealized image of himself. Despite the fact that John is removed from society as a result of being institutionalized, April suggests that his identity is tenable in the society of the United States. In a scene from the film, Frank, April, and John walk through the woods surrounding the Wheelers' home. As they discuss the electric shock therapy that John has received April explains why she feels that John's loss of his ability to remember mathematics, a subject he once taught, is "awful." When John presses her to explain her reaction in the film, she states: "It's awful not be able to do what it is that you want to do." With these words, April provides John with hope for a culture in which one can show agency by doing what he or she likes, negating John's earlier claim that if "you want to play house, you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house then you got to have a job you don't like." This action leads John to express his fondness for April, as he tells Frank: "I like your girl." April appears rebellious to John, as she confirms his view of the United States as a nation of conformists and rejects her place within this nation by opting to move to France with Frank. John, then, requires April in order to see that his identity as a rebel is comprehensible. She provides John with the prospect of re-entering society by understanding that the role of the rebel is not confined to the psychiatric ward. However, this interaction appears to be only another manifestation of the fantasy of a rebellious American character. There is nothing to suggest that John will be deemed sane. Once the Wheelers abandon their plans for Paris, John no longer appears in Revolutionary Road.
In an attempt to revive a former self-image and adhere to the model of rebellion that April associates with John, Frank once again comes to see himself as a rebel. Feeling that he will soon escape the monotony of the suburbs and his commute to Knox, he casts off the image of the white-collar suburbanite. A scene from the film presents Frank as a man with a newfound sense of freedom as he arrives on the fifteenth floor of the Knox building. After announcing his upcoming move to Paris to his fellow white-collar workers, Frank loosens his tie and lights a cigarette as he begins his work. He begins to wrap up loose ends by responding to earlier complaints about a brochure on one of Knox's products. What was previously a hindrance to Frank's ability as an intellectual now becomes a minor obstacle that he must overcome as he returns to an idealized self-image. Frank no longer shows his affinity with the uniform rows of cubicles that occupy the fifteenth floor of the Knox building in the film, as he appears relaxed and able to think of his life outside of this setting. April too acts with the notion in mind that they will soon come to be new people, unaffected by the pressures of conformity found in the suburbs and the Knox building as she makes arrangements for Paris in the scene following Frank's changed attitude at work. As she obtains passports and tickets for their move to France, both Frank and April have a renewed sense of Frank's identity as a rebel, which they feel will be affirmed in Paris.
The song "Count Every Star" by the Ravens accompanies these scenes, providing an element of renewed romance between Frank and April. The lyrics, however, also indicate the renewal of an image of Frank which April desires. The lyrics raise the idea of longing for a missed lover: "Count every star in the midnight sky/ Count every rose, every firefly. For that's how many times I miss you/ Oh, heaven knows I miss you." Frank responds to the sense of longing presented in "Count Every Star." In order to provide April with the young, rebellious man for whom she longs, he begins his transformation in order to bring the two lovers together again. A shift in the tense of the lyrics indicates that the lover has returned. The conclusion of the following verse states: "Heaven knows I have missed you," indicating this longing has been vanquished. Frank begins to appear to be the intelligent rebellious man with whom April fell in love at the party in Greenwich Village. The opportunity to confirm an idealized image of Frank has presented itself, providing them with a sense that they will soon, once and for all, substantiate the idealized image of manhood to which Frank aspires. The final verse, however, disrupts the romantic reunion of the lovers, stating: "You'll know the times I have cried for you,/ Oh, darling, for you." The change in tense here indicates that the speaker will ultimately remain in a state of longing, providing a sense of the permanent separation of Frank and April that will come as a result of their attempt to reconfigure Frank's identity according to a fantasy of rebellion. This stage in which Frank and April feel as though the future they envision for themselves is attainable is the closest they come to living out their ideal lives. Frank and April's desire to form new identities remains unfulfilled as a result of April's death.
While April's death leaves her desire to affirm Frank's rebel identity unfulfilled, her death also leaves Frank with an idealized image of April for which he will continually long. In adulthood Frank no longer shows a desire for his initial idealized image of April. Instead, he is left to desire an image of April that corresponds to the ideals of containment. A scene from the film following another intense fight between Frank and April portrays April constructing Frank's ideal image of her. Prior to Frank coming down the stairs to the kitchen, where he finds April ready to prepare breakfast, a sequence of shots shows the Wheelers' home in perfect order, effacing the chaos of their fight the night before. April greets Frank, saying "Good morning," as she turns from the kitchen counter in a maternity dress and apron. The kitchen appears bright and sunny. Frank sits down at the table, which April has set for breakfast. As he looks at her with a degree of disbelief, the scene cuts to a close shot of April's face as she stands at the sink, scrambling eggs. April fulfills her domestic role within the home, while also fulfilling Frank's ideal image of her in adulthood. As they sit eating breakfast, April states: "I thought you'd probably want a good breakfast today...I mean it's kind of an important day for you, isn't it? Isn't this the day you have your conference with Pollack?" As she takes an interest in Frank's work, April acknowledges his intellect, affirming an image of Frank as more than a conformist white-collar worker while no longer threatening his stable identity within the home and workplace. She no longer demands that Frank return to adolescence. Moreover, she acknowledges Frank's "satisfactory self-image," as Medovoi phrases it, indicating that Frank has reached his identity in adulthood. While he also acknowledges the image of April as a suburban wife, for her this image is not a source of satisfaction. Following breakfast, April proceeds with her plan to abort her pregnancy which allows them to carry out her plans for France, fulfilling the fantasy of an American identity that rebels against containment.
While April's death, which comes as a result of the abortion, leaves Frank with his adult identity, it also leaves him with little capacity for rebellion. Not only does he no longer have April to challenge this conformist identity, but the idealized image of April with which he is left only reaffirms his conformist adult identity. Similarly, April has been unable to rebel against her identity as a suburban wife and mother without asking Frank to efface his own identity by moving to France. April's final attempt to rebel allows for the maintenance of Frank's identity, yet her identity is completely effaced with her death. She exists only in Frank's memory. Her death, then, represents the loss of an imaginative framework for rebellion for Frank. In order for him to maintain his identity in adulthood, he must relinquish his attempt to exhibit a revolutionary American character and remain in the United States, where he can reconstitute an American identity that relies on his advocacy of distinctly American values of capitalism and democracy by conforming.
The idealized image of Frank as a rebel that provides the Wheelers with an opportunity to escape what they feel are the monotonous conditions of suburbia also becomes a source of unfulfilled longing. Although Frank attempts to project the image of manhood that April offers, he is never able to form an identity that is based on this image. Instead, he becomes a fragmented subject as he negotiates between the image of manhood that April offers and the image he has generated. This discrepancy between the appearance of a unified identity and Frank's struggle to form this unified sense of self appears in both the novel and the film, but in different ways. The omniscient narrator in the novel provides the reader with access to Frank's idealized image of himself, showing the discrepancy between the extraordinary life he imagines and the way in which it actually unfolds. After completing a brochure for Knox, Frank plans to dismiss any recognition he receives from April, who he thinks will see his newfound success at Knox as an affirmation of his potential. He imagines her saying: "I think it proves you're the kind of person who can excel at anything when you want to, or when you have to." However, April does not provide Frank with the recognition he expects. Instead, "she hadn't said anything even faintly like that; she hadn't even looked as if thoughts like that could enter her head." The difficulty for Frank to assume the role that April offers becomes visible.
The absence of a narrator in the film requires a different approach to convey the discrepancy between differing images of Frank. The film continually draws attention to the way in which Frank and April reflect on Frank's image while he attempts to live up to the idealized image of the rebel and intellectual. The film literalizes this process of reflection using scenes in which Frank's image appears in mirrors. This use of a mirror image of Frank first occurs in a flashback scene in which April recalls Frank's ambition to return to Paris. In Frank's Greenwich Village apartment, April first finds a photo of Frank in front of the Eiffel Tower that later urges her to renew Frank's rebel identity by moving to Paris. In the film, he tells April: "People are alive there, not like here. All I know, April, is I want to feel things, really feel them, you know?" This commentary suggests that he refuses to conform to the expectations of American institutions and middle class life. It is at this point in the film that April acknowledges Frank is the "most interesting person" she has ever met. As Frank sits on the edge of the bed and speaks these words, his image is partially reflected in a nearby mirror. His face is not shown in the reflection, only his back. However, April gazes at Frank with admiration, looking up at him as she lays on the bed. This fragmented and incomplete image of Frank in the mirror suggests that April misrecognizes him. She fails to see an image of Frank that is only partially formed in favor of a complete and unified rebel identity. The scene that immediately follows again shows Frank's reflection in a mirror in Maureen Grube's bedroom, a secretary from Knox with whom Frank has an affair. As Frank straightens his tie, he gazes at the image of himself in a white-collar shirt. His face is fully visible as he examines his reflection. As he checks to see that his tie is straight and his shirt is fully buttoned and tucked in, he displays a self consciousness about the image he projects. Frank's attention to his reflection suggests that he identifies with the image of the conformist, rather than the rebel and strives to maintain this image. This scene occurs just prior to April's announcement of her plan to move to France. It is this image of Frank as a conformist that April's plan disrupts as she seeks affirmation of an earlier image of Frank as a rebel, an identity that was never stable and complete.
The Imaginative Possibility of American Character
The conclusion of both the novel and the film suggest that Frank has ultimately come to accept conformity as a central aspect of his identity. Having shown rebellion by rejecting the image of the rebel that April presents, Frank has a fully formed identity. Shep Campbell, the Wheeler's neighbor from nearby Revolutionary Hill Estates, tells the couple who has moved into the Wheeler's former home that Frank now works for Bart Pollack and Associates. Frank's promotion places him firmly within the world of white-collar work. Moreover, in the film, Milly Campbell tells the Braces that Frank is "devoted to those kids. Every spare moment he has, he spends with them." Frank has become fully devoted to his role as a white-collar worker and father, embodying a masculine identity constructed by containment.
While this stable, unified identity appears to ease the tension between competing discourses of American identity, Revolutionary Road is a text that questions the ease with which middle-class men accept Erikson's concept of identity as an accomplished state. Although Frank completes the process of identity formation, the identity that he forms leaves him "lifeless," "mild," and "boring," according to Shep. In the novel, he notes that Frank "spent at least an hour talking about his half-assed job," sharply contrasting with the earlier image of the rebel. Shep feels that Frank has become too willing to conform to cultural norms, leaving him unable to exert the potential for rebellion crucial to a fantasy of a revolutionary American character. The ability to rebel in adulthood remains crucial to a masculine identity. Rejecting the idealized image that April has offered, Frank was able to demonstrate a rebellious character prior to April's death. However, without April to challenge his identity and demand that he continue to exhibit the ability to rebel even in adulthood, Frank's identity ceases to be adequately masculine according to Shep. The fantasy that April once provided remains necessary in order to eliminate anxiety about the loss of self determination, even after Frank has completed the process of identity.
For Shep an American identity based on rebellion and revolution faces the threat of appearing immersed in conformity, consumption, and the collective structures that threaten democracy. Revolutionary Road, then, suggests that identity as a process that comes to completion in adulthood is a source of anxiety because it ceases to provide further opportunities to rebel - a central trait of a dominant conception of American identity. Shep appears to offset the conformity that Frank displays. Unlike John Givings, Shep offers a critique of conformity without becoming alienated from postwar culture.
Throughout the novel and the film, Shep appears to provide the viewpoint of a character who has formed a stable, unified identity as a middle-class suburbanite. The novel describes Shep's past, indicating that he has adequately rebelled against images offered to him by others. He constructs an image of himself as a rebel, rejecting what he sees as a life of effeminacy and decadence as he travels to the West - a landscape imbued with the myth of rugged individualism. The narrator describes how, as a means of escaping the influence of his mother, Shep joined the paratroopers. In order to substantiate the masculine self image formed during his time in the paratroopers, Shep reconfigures himself as a member of the middle class. He rejects his privileged upbringing in the East in favor of learning the "unquestionably masculine, unquestionably middle-class trade of mechanical engineering." While he later attempts to regain the privilege he knew as a child, he ultimately relinquishes his fantasy of the East involving "intellect and sensibility" in favor of his position in Revolutionary Hill Estates and the middle-class trade of mechanical engineering in which he is employed. Having experienced both sides of this East-West dichotomy of the United States, he comes to value a stable identity that can be sustained in the home: "True enough, the job in Stamford and Revolutionary Hill Estates and the Laurel Players were not exactly what he'd pictured in his Arizona visions of the East, but what the hell. If nothing else, the mellowing of these past few years had enabled him to look back without regret."
Unlike Frank, Shep does not attempt to adhere to a past image of his self for his wife. Rather than encouraging her husband to fulfill a potential that he does not have, Milly continues to fulfill the role of middle-class wife and mother. Shep comes to value Milly because "she had stuck right by him through all the panic in Arizona and New York - he vowed he would never forget it - and...she had taken so well to his new way of life." Shep, then, appears comfortable with his domestic identity. The Wheelers' plan to move to France appears "immature" to Shep and Milly in the film, indicating that they have come to accept their adult identities.
While the novel provides an image of Shep as a content suburban father and husband, both the novel and the film also suggest that this unified identity also contains an undercurrent of discontent. Although Shep no longer endures the struggle to form a unified self, the identity he has formed as a middle-class father and husband is a source of anxiety. While preparing to have the Wheelers over for drinks, Shep exhibits this discontent with his place in Revolutionary Hill Estates. As he leans down to hug Milly, he notices "a faint whiff of something rancid." He comes to acknowledge "that it was more than just the smell of sweat." In the film, Shep appears to undermine Milly's image as she prepares for the Wheelers to visit. As Milly sits in front of her mirror applying makeup, he looks at her image in the mirror and asks: "Is that what you're wearing?" Shep gazes at Milly's reflection, rather than looking at her face to face, questioning her image as well as his identity as her husband. After covering up his dissatisfaction with Milly's appearance by telling her that she looks great, Milly is left to contemplate her reflection. Like April, Shep desires an idealized woman, rather than the suburban wife and mother he sees as he peers at Milly's reflection in a mirror, surrounded by family photos. Milly, as suburban wife and mother, may allow Shep to maintain his identity; however, this identity appears to make Shep dissatisfied. Following this scene, he encounters his sons watching television downstairs. As the boys stare at the television and remain unresponsive to their father's inquiry into what they are watching, Shep's face becomes expressionless. The novel provides more insight into Shep's thoughts during this scene. The narrator notes that while Shep's sons usually evoke "a deep twinge of pleasure," his reaction to them at this moment does not: "This was different. This time he had to admit that he'd felt a distinct, mild revulsion." Shep's reaction to his family signals his revulsion to his identity as a suburban husband and father.
In these scenes, the home and those within it who contribute to Shep's identity provide him with a sense of disappointment and even abjection as he sees his adult self. In reaction to the feelings of revulsion and disappointment that his identity evokes, Shep looks beyond the boundaries of his domestic life. In a scene following his encounter with his sons, Shep steps outside of his house into the backyard, where he gazes down at the Wheelers' house. From the perspective of Revolutionary Hill Estates, the Wheelers' home at the bottom of the hill appears as a serene escape from the Campbell's living room where the sounds of Howdy Doody entrap the attention of Shep's children. The camera moves in on Shep from behind as he looks at the Wheeler house. As the camera moves in, the image of Shep facing the back of the Wheeler home becomes more prominent, as Shep's own home and yard are taken out of the frame. This shot suggests his desire to rebel against his identity in favor of one that allows him the opportunity to pursue an idealized self-image as a rebel - the very thing that April offers Frank. For Shep, such an image entails being April's lover. While Milly accepts Shep as he is, she also deprives him of an opportunity to see himself as more than a suburban father and husband. April, on the other hand, offers Frank an image of himself that goes beyond the ideals of containment, causing Shep to idealize and desire her for her ability to affirm his masculine character. In the scene discussed above, the perspective of the camera shifts, showing Shep from the front as he stands before his own house. This reversal of perspectives suggests that despite Shep's desire to rebel, he remains within the suburban environment that maintains his stable, yet restricted identity. Shep awakes from his reverie when Milly calls his name, indicating that his mind has been brought back to his current identity. However, April appears in the doorway behind Milly. As Shep greets her, the imaginative potential to rebel reappears as April's presence in his own home provides Shep with the hope that he will escape his identity even in the confines of Revolutionary Hill Estates.
While Frank conforms at the conclusion of both the novel and the film, his identity does not appear to be a source of anxiety for him. However, Frank's conformity is a source of anxiety for Shep. In the novel, Shep's reaction to Milly's narrative of the Wheelers shows the way in which he conceives of suburbia as a potentially emasculating and conformist environment. He becomes annoyed with the "voluptuous narrative pleasure" in Milly's voice. Instead of the "soap opera" version of a "courageous" man that Milly tells, Shep provides a narrative of "how things had really worked out," which presents Frank as a "walking, talking, smiling, lifeless man." Although Shep expresses a desire for the "real" story of the Wheelers, like Milly, he too self-indulges in their story, "forcing his sobs a little, exaggerating their depth with unnecessary shudders."
For both Shep and Frank, the loss of April entails the loss of the ability to rebel, compromising their masculinity and leaving them with the potential to be seen by others as conformists rather than embodying the rebellious nature of a fantasy of America. The loss of this imaginative framework for rebellion that comes as a result of April's death suggests that the image of the rebel was a continual source of anxiety in the formation of a masculine identity, even in adulthood. The fantasy of an American revolutionary character in both the film and the novel is required not only for the maintenance of male identity, but also provides the only potential for the Wheeler's to become the "new and better people" they desire. Revolutionary Road thus shows the endurance of the concept of identity after the Cold War and into the twenty-first century, while also reflecting the limitations and anxieties involved.
From guest contributor Chris McIntyre, Brock University, Canada