Friday, July 31, 2009

April Wheeler and Tessie Hutchinson

Read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" HERE.

I'm the internet's least consistent blogger. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, on to this post!

Revolutionary Road spoiler alerts ahead!

Almost immediately in both Revolutionary Road and "The Lottery", the reader realizes she's entered a world populated by characters wrestling indoctrinations, by people timid but eager to slough the burden of dated, sometimes dangerous, groupthink.

In Revolutionary Road, a suburban complicity, a "tacit agreement to live in a total state of self-deception" is quickly established, especially amongst the four characters, young married couples The Wheelers and The Campbells, struggling hardest to imagine themselves as separate from the environment that defines them, "as members of an embattled, dwindling intellectual underground", "painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture". The novel opens to reveal a changing town, consolidated and newly industrialized, and a group of culturally aware young adults, The Laurel Players, to which The Wheelers and The Campbells belong, but with which they refuse to be lastingly associated. With the lips of this chasm
, one separating traditional expectations from new sensibilities, The Wheelers and Campbells flirt cautiously; still bound by the customs and proprieties of the community they resent, the young revolutionaries find solace in only the smallest, most private rebellions.

Similarly, in "The Lottery", a village of people governed by habit are introduced. The villagers gather on a particular day, what the reader quickly gathers is an annual tradition, every year "of course", and fall into place almost instinctively, while we adjust our feet to their rhythm, to conduct the eponymous lottery.

Like The Wheelers and Campbells of Revolutionary Road, there are those among the villagers prepared to quietly question the status quo.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

Old Man Warner snorted. "Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery," he added petulantly. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."

In both stories it is made clear, even before any consequences are explicitly defined, that dissenters will not have an easy time publicly rejecting accepted norms - which brings me to April Wheeler and Tessie Hutchinson: two women who meet tragic ends after (bravely? foolishly?) deciding to act against expectations. Each woman steps beyond her role as wife, mother, woman and pays for these usurpations with her life.

April Wheeler, wife of Frank Wheeler, decides, against her husband's will, in a defiant "denial of womanhood" to abort the couple's third child, because the pregnancy hinders The Wheelers' plan to abandon suburbia in favor of Europe, the universal panacea of unsatisfied Americans in the world of Revolutionary Road, and because she realizes, from her end at least, that her marriage is truly loveless. Tessie Hutchinson, wife of Bill Hutchinson, decides to make a spectacle of herself before her entire village, by protesting the lottery's proceedings, which, as she is promptly reminded, is not how things work.

"Be a good sport, Tessie." Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, "All of us took the same chance."

"Shut up, Tessie," Bill Hutchinson said.

For her noncooperation, Tessie wins the lottery... whose prize is death by stoning. The morality of this (centuries old?) practice is as resolute as is it horrific and archaic. No, the lottery isn't fixed - and Tessie is not chosen by any artful design of her peers, but her punishment, if judged against the expectations of the world she inhabits, is fitting. April too dies at the end of Revolutionary Road, due to complications of her the late term abortion she secretly performs on herself. And the story couldn't have ended (as successfully) any other way. The message is that women who step out of traditional roles are exposing themselves to criticism, risking social isolation, and in Revolutionary Road (1961) and "The Lottery" (1946), committing a most literal form of self-sabotage. It's important to include that, while ironic, and in the case of "The Lottery" allegorical, both of these stories provide valuable commentary on and insight into not only the historical roles of women, but the unattainable standards and unbearable pressures associated with attempting to shed blindly accepted traditions.

Despite all of their protestations and aspirations to conquer the depths by which they're swallowed, The Wheelers, Campbells, and Hutchinsons are very much defined by, and in some cases, content to behave within (or afraid or unable to disobey) the limits assigned them.

Watch a short film adaptation of The Lottery and the trailer for the Revolutionary Road feature film below (I've got to see this movie eventually!):

My sole issue with Revolutionary Road

I loved Revolutionary Road, have had the paperback for 6 months and completely destroyed it; it's been written in, dog-eared, ripped, wrinkled, taped, and devoured. I'm not even the 1000th person to believe this, I'm sure, but, Richard Yates created a masterpiece - and Tennessee Williams agreed, according to his quote on the book's back cover.

In my blog header, I announced that I'm making a(n independent! thanks FAFSA!) study of great writing in my hopes of becoming a great writer. What I can't decide, though, is if that means I'll be focusing more on the matter of the things I read, or the manner in which they're written - if it makes ANY sense to separate the two. Most of the things I have to say about Revolutionary Road deal with themes, character development, correlations I discover between elements of the novel and other things I've read, etc - and very few with the intricacies of Yates' masterful prose.

I know I like the book and there's no doubt that it's beautifully and expertly written, but it's proving difficult to dissect and understand (mechanically?) WHY I enjoy this book as much as I do. Perhaps, I've taken the J.V. Cunningham quote (also in the blog banner) too literally. Yates isn't given to syntactical or descriptive indulgences, and if I had breezed through the novel, I may have even thought that Revolutionary Road was written plainly or that it read coldly - and I would have been wrong.

I could probably fill a month's worth of posts with the things I liked about Yates' writing (have I just contradicted myself?): the anthropomorphic descriptions of cars in the first chapter - "foolishly misplaced", "unnecessarily wide" that "crawled apologetically" to their destinations - illuminating character experiences, the story's setting paralleling character developments, synesthetic descriptions and sense triggers - the "yellow smell" of sawdust causing Frank to recall the humiliation of his father's scolding, the "bright yellow pain of [Frank's] real awakening" -, the use of questions and indirect discourse to create group identities, highlight character conflicts, and act as a Greek chorus or supplementary narrator. And I could go on and on and on. And will in future posts.

But this post is about the one thing, the sole thing, about that troubled me: Yates' tendency to state, explicitly, through dialogue or narrator(/author?) interpretations, the significance of his own devices, symbols, themes, etc. At first, this absolutely thrilled me! I'd jot down a note, and pages, sometimes paragraphs or even lines later, there would be my note in the novel's very text (of course, stated infinitely more succinctly and eloquently). It assured me I was reading the book the right way - whatever that means. If I came to the same conclusions as the book's author/narrator, my reading was on the right track... no problems, right? RIGHT?

I thought so the first two or three times it happened and resisted becoming alarmed until the third to last chapter, page 320, where I scratched in the margins, and to my surprise - angrily, DO I LOVE OR HATE YATES' STATING HIS DEVICES THE WAY HE DOES?

Hate??? Surely, I couldn't HATE anything about Revolutionary Road. Could I? Well, that's what I wrote. And here is the sentence that prompted my marginal scribblings:

Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums - earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong;...

Maybe it's because it reminds me of what I hated most about certain academic writing - the horrid and forced repetition, the restating of the thesis - which always felt patronizing. Can we not assume the readers of our essays (most likely our teachers or professors) get the gist of the thing the first time around, or the second? Must we subject ourselves and our audience to a superficial rewording of the obviously and already stated? Now, I'm 100% sure this is not what Yates is doing, but flashbacks from my brushes with academia (Full Disclosure: I've left two colleges so far and am headed for a third, Shimer, in the Spring) sprang forward after my ninth and and tenth happenings upon these moments in Revolutionary Road.

The first instance occurred on page 45 - here, April Wheeler has just cut the grass while Frank was sleeping and hung-over from drinking the night after an argument between them:

Everything about her seemed determined to prove, with a new, flat-footed emphasis, that a sensible middle-class housewife was all she had ever wanted to be and that all she had ever wanted to love was a husband who would get out and cut the grass once in a while, instead of sleeping all day.

Because earlier in the book, it's made clear that April has no interest in being a "sensible middle-class housewife" and, in fact, feels "trapped" by her environment, I made this note: ex post facto modification of expectations, to minimize failures – also in this case to make Frank feel the full magnitude of her disappointment in his shortcomings. I'm not embarrassed to say that I was proud of myself for having come up with and noticed this, and more for fitting it into the margin legibly. Imagine how impressed with myself I was when I read this on page 54, a mere 9 pages later: "[Frank] laboriously pried the stone out again and began hacking at the root."

HACKING AT THE ROOT???? (Frank is literally hacking at a root here to make way for a stone path he's installing on his property.) Well, that kind of sounds like moving the goal posts, which parallels that note I just took. Hmmmm, I may be on to something.

To confirm my suspicions that I was, indeed, the most brilliant reader of any novel of all time EVER, this on page 55: " now [Frank's] mind had mercifully amended the facts."

MERCIFULLY AMENDED THE FACTS!???! Exactly! Wow, this Yates guy really has the whole thing figured out!

Honestly, I think this post has helped me come to terms with what was troubling me. My other examples of this, and there are at least a dozen others, are pleasant, and reassuring (I may give them a separate post). I often feel like I'm reading in some isolated wilderness or vacuum - and that I'm posting my thoughts into the infinite void that is the internet - so for Yates to give me a little wink now and then is .... well... it's awesome!

And I'm vaguely aware that I'm probably inventing this entire phenomenon, so if that's the case, feel free to let me know in the comments.
(or that there is a name for what I've written about - echoes, parallels... something.)

We all need a little literary therapy... occasionally. This blog can be mine.

In other news, it's probably time I find a book club. Until I'm back in school, it's the waiting game (and blog posting game) for me.

I'll break up the Revolutionary Road stuff with thoughts on Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jamison, Montaigne's Essays, a few short stories by Black authors from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, and The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, and Sherwood Anderson's Winseburg, Ohio.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"jolts me out of the present, for just a moment"

In Amateur Reader's most recent post at Wuthering Expectations, he writes of a single sentence in George Eliot's Silas Marner that "jolts [him] out of the present, for just a moment."

Such sentences exist also in Revolutionary Road. The opening lines of Part 2:

There now began a time of such joyous derangement, of such exultant carelessness, that Frank Wheeler could never afterwards remember how long it lasted. It could have been a week or two weeks or more before his life began to come into focus, with its customary concern for the passage of time and its anxious need to measure and apportion it; and by then, looking back, he was unable to tell how long it had been otherwise.

Until this point, the narrative relies on events recounted chronologically by a third-person narrator, interspersed with illuminating character histories occurring before the action of the novel takes place. In the two above sentences, "afterwards" and "looking back" jolt me out of the present.

This is the first time in the book the prospect of any future for The Wheelers is made tangible, though Yates doesn't reveal whether Frank is "looking back" on this moment from Paris - or trapped, still, in his house on Revolutionary Road. Even without this disclosure, Yates' measured inclusion of "afterwards" and "looking back" means that Frank persists at least long enough to have forgotten how long the intoxication caused by the mere IDEA of Paris lasted.

Revolutionary Road's characters are given to extended hypotheticals: planning trips that may never happen, imagining lives that may never exist, pining for, fictionalizing, and romanticizing their pasts, insinuating themselves into superior peer groups... most of their vagaries impotent. This, coupled with a looming sense of menace, a "virus of calamity" just waiting to be consummated, provide no guarantee of the characters' survival, emotional or otherwise.

I was THRILLED, upon reading these two sentences, to find that Frank makes it to the future! AND remains lucid!