Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fashioning Himself a Hero: Death of Another Salesman

Revolutionary Road
By Richard Yates

The Laurel Players is an amateur theater group with high hopes of establishing a loftier cultural standard in their Connecticut suburb, but their short-lived attempt to put on a play is an utter failure. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, and the author's exploration of the themes of social aspirations, the desire the project oneself, and role-playing to meet or consciously balk social expectations.

Like the Laurel Players, everyone in the story knows that they are merely putting on a performance. They resent the trappings of middleclass life. Frank and April Wheeler get together with friends Shep and Milly Campbell to drink and put on a veneer of sophisticated and jaded ennui as they rail at the failure of the American dream and its lack of "authenticity." So long as they can scoff at society and speak of it with derision, they can remain above it and be untouched by it. But no one really remains untouched or unaffected.

The story is told from Frank's perspective and he is the master of play-acting and self-image. Yates adeptly uses imagery to convey this. One of the prevalent images is that of mirrors. Frank is constantly checking his reflection in the mirror and adjusting his expression so that it reflects what he wants to project. The book also contains extensive descriptions of Frank's clothes and how he feels in them. Apparently, in this case, the clothes DO make the man. Frank literally fashions himself into the image he wants to project, always conscious that his projection in insincere. He feels that his scorn is heroic, that he can see things to which others are blind, he can understand things that are beyond their comprehension. His understanding, however, is limited to the extent to which he can control his world.

The façade of toughness hides the fact that he has a basic need. What Frank seeks most of all, from his father, from his wife, from society, is affirmation of his manhood. April is aware of this and when she suggests her plan make it possible to move to Paris so that he can realize his dream of the artistic, intellectual life he has always claimed to want, she appeals to the logic that means the most to Frank: "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… You're the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man." He accepts this argument and is buoyed by it, feeling that "Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he triumphed more completely over time and space… He had taken command of the universe because he was a man."

Frank's elation, however, is short-lived. Although he had always purported to want to move to France to pursue the dream of the intellectual and cultured life, in fact he is horrified because actually trying to succeed would leave him vulnerable to failure. April unwittingly comes to his rescue again, when it turns out that she is pregnant. Frank now has the excuse he needs not to go ahead with the plan. April is devastated, and the events that unfold as she tries to keep their dream alive spiral into tragedy.

Richard Yates's writing style is rich in images and character contrasts. Revolutionary Road explores a lot of the same themes as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: the sham of the middleclass dream, the ordinary man as hero (at least in his own mind), infidelity, entitlement, social convention and morality, rejection of and by family, a lack of affect. The difference is that whereas Willy Loman embraces the American Dream, Frank Wheeler attempts to disavow it, even as he is being sucked into it. Both eventually end up being destroyed by it. This is the sort of future that one could foresee for Willy Loman's sons. In fact the timing would be about perfect, with Death of a Salesman being written in 1947 and Revolutionary Road coming out in 1959.

Even a lot of the imagery that Yates uses is a tactic nod to Miller's original. Both works contain symbolic references to: seeds (DOAS), plants (RR); diamonds (DOAS), golden (RR), the rubber hose (DOAS), the rubber syringe (RR).

For all that is borrows from Miller's masterpiece, Revolutionary Road stands up on its own as an independent piece that is still relevant today. The book's Revolutionary Road leads to the suburbs, and there is no escape.


"He's a man"

In a conversation with a couple I know, she is black and he is white, she was telling me that some of her friends had asked her what it is like to have a white man as a partner. She answered them with a shrug and a languid, offhand, "He's a man." Her answer, although blatantly obvious, caught me off guard in the way that it succinctly encapsulated so many clear social expectations, while also being a tactful way of saying MYOB. I guess I was mostly surprised because it would never have occurred to me to describe a guy by saying, "he's a man." I had always thought of those members of the opposite sex as people. Maybe I should start thinking about them as men.

"No revolution, maybe someone somewhere else…"

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