Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1686
After four novels, including Revolutionary Road (1961) and Disturbing the Peace (1975), and a distinguished collection of short stories, Richard Yates has made it clear what kind of territory he has staked out for himself. It is a narrow world in some ways, but he has explored it in depth...
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After four novels, including Revolutionary Road (1961) and Disturbing the Peace (1975), and a distinguished collection of short stories, Richard Yates has made it clear what kind of territory he has staked out for himself. It is a narrow world in some ways, but he has explored it in depth and with a consistent brilliance and growing sureness. He specializes in characters who are falling apart, who cannot keep a grip on their lives, or those who fail in the struggle to find themselves. In general they are youngish educated professionals; they work for newspapers, magazines, or ad agencies in New York, or they teach; they live in suburbia or the City. They are often self-destructive, tend to drink too much, drift from one affair to the next, go into analysis, have nervous breakdowns, lose their jobs. All in all, it is a bleak vision of life in contemporary metropolitan America—but at least we are in the presence of a novelist with a vision.
The Easter Parade continues to explore some of the themes of Yates’s Disturbing the Peace, whose alcoholic protagonist wound up in an asylum. The opening sentence of the novel sets the tone and suggests the theme: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” A perfect sentence for the grim narrative which follows.
In The Easter Parade Yates explores the failure of marriage in modern America, among other related themes. The novel begins with the divorce of the parents of the Grimes sisters and follows their unhappy lives for the next forty years. Walter Grimes, whom his daughter Emily scarcely knows, is ineffective and a born loser. A college dropout, he had dreams of being a famous reporter, but he is saddled with a job as headline writer for a second-rate newspaper. (It is a conservative paper, and he is a liberal.) He is insecure, drinks too much, has a number of mistresses, and dies in his early fifties—though he continues to haunt the lives of his two daughters. He is a failed writer, and both of his daughters try their hand at writing. They, too, are dismal failures.
Esther Grimes (she insists that her daughters call her Pookie) is a flighty, empty, flirtatious woman who divorces Walter because of her need for freedom. She is unable to establish anything like a stable environment for her daughters, much less a model for them to emulate. Restlessly moving from job to job, always living beyond her means, her life is rootless, instead of free. As she ages, she becomes an alcoholic (like so many of Yates’s characters), a parasite on her hapless daughters. After a stroke she lives out her days in an asylum thinking her youngest daughter has married President Kennedy. The steady downward curve of her life suggests the fate of her two daughters, both of whom inherit her delicate “nerves.”
Sarah, the elder of the two sisters and the beauty in the family, starts off promisingly enough. After a romantic courtship, she marries Tony Wilson, a promising young man who looks like Laurence Olivier, and goes to live at an “estate” (Pookie’s term) on Long Island. However, after her three sons are born, her marriage begins to sour. As she, like her mother, drifts into alcoholism, she seems to bring out a brutal streak in her husband, who begins to abuse her. In the end, after several half-hearted attempts to break away from her marriage, she is confined to the same hospital with Pookie, eventually dying of a fall while intoxicated. Guilt-ridden and unstable, her sister comes to believe that Sarah was murdered by her husband.
Emily Grimes is at the center of the novel; it is through her eyes that we see the death and funeral of her father, the pathetic decline of her mother and battered sister. Though she is aloof and condescending at times toward her feckless kin, the reader realizes that she is no stronger, or better, than they.
Emily provides something of a contrast to Sarah. She is rather plain, skinny, and introspective. She is also jealous of Sarah’s beauty and her close relationship to their dead father—to say nothing of her romantic marriage to Tony Wilson.
Quite early Emily determines that she will not be like her rattle-brained, social-climbing mother or her conventional-minded, romantic older sister. She intends to transcend her grubby, rootless background by becoming an intellectual. In the quest to find herself and maintain her independence, she becomes an English major at Barnard and passes for an intellectual, though it is never clear that she is. (This section is rather thin, for Emily never thinks like one for whom books and aesthetic ideas are really important.) Though mentally superior to them, Emily is as unlucky in love as her mother and sister. Just out of high school she allows herself to be seduced, mostly out of boredom, by a young soldier. She is later involved one summer with a bisexual sailor, who leaves her for a young man. At Barnard she has several affairs, most notably with a philosophy instructor, Andrew Crawford, who is impotent. After a year of analysis, he is cured of his impotency and they marry. The brief marriage is a disaster and they quickly become divorced. For a while Emily stumbles from one affair to the next, resulting in two abortions.
Emily’s next lover is a frustrated poet, who is also divorced, with whom she works on a trade magazine. When Jack Flanders is asked to teach at the Iowa Workshop for a year, Emily gives up her job to live with him in a bleak stone house in the country. (This interlude in Iowa is “fleshed out” and takes on a resonance that is missing in other chapters—no doubt because Yates taught at Iowa for a number of years. In any case, a number of characters, in addition to Flanders, are clearly drawn from life.) Emily is apparently in love with the unstable poet, but his job does not work out. He is suffering from a writing block, seems a failure at teaching, and takes to drinking rather than revising his manuscript. In the end, Emily senses that he is more devoted to his art than to her, and she decides to leave him.
Back in New York, she is able to get a good job, and moves up in the ad agency. Now that she has lost the bloom of youth, her lovers become older, and they are often married men. Finally, she is cast off by Howard Dunninger, who goes back to his young wife. After this Emily seems to be sunk in despair; she loses her job, goes on relief, and needs treatment for her obvious instability. She confesses to her nephew she is nearly fifty years old and that she has “never understood anything in my whole life.”
Yates is obviously primarily interested in delineating the lives of the two Grimes sisters and the changing textures of their pathetic lives. Yet they do not, of course, live in a vacuum; the author is skillful at sketching in the background and changing times. Sarah’s first job is working in the Wendell Wilkie campaign; she later helps raise money for the Chinese. Her husband Tony Wilson is in the Navy, but is returned to his old job building Naval planes. Just out of high school Emily is seduced by a soldier in Central Park. As times goes on, there is talk of the end of the war and, later, of the Kennedy campaign, and women’s liberation. (There is a trendy scene in a studio where women are taught to masturbate.) Toward the end of the novel Emily’s nephew says he always thought of her as the original liberated woman. There is heavy irony here, for Emily’s life has been as messy and as sad as her conventional sister’s. With no real goals or much substance, she has merely drifted, never really making much use of her vaunted freedom, always having to lean on one man or another.
Yates is also quite skillful at suggesting place, though it is never a major concern in this novel. He has a good eye for significant and interesting detail, the ability to suggest with a few brush strokes his scenes in New York, Iowa City, or London. He is especially successful with the Wilson estate, ironically called Great Hedges, at St. Charles, Long Island. After closing the novel, one remembers a visit to the newsroom of the New York Sun, a pub in London, and the winter landscape of Iowa.
Yates’s style has a remarkable economy. Everything is understated and controlled. Although he has taught at the Writers Workshop at Iowa, there is nothing “literary” (the names of his Grimes family is his only attempt at symbolism) or “academic” in his work. He has a good ear for dialogue, a keen sense of irony, and enough humor to lighten this account of almost unrelieved failure. He remains objective, but there is also compassion without the least trace of sentimentality. Moreover, he is a good storyteller; he keeps his narrative going at a crisp pace. All in all, his is an unpretentious, sinewy style, one that is consistently readable.
When one finishes The Easter Parade, it suddenly occurs to one what a tour de force the novel is. For Yates has concentrated on the three Grimes women, and he has brought them totally alive, especially the two sisters—without strain or any literary razzle-dazzle. There is, too, a note of affirmation at the end, for Emily does not succumb to madness as do her mother and sister. Just in time, she is able to reach out for help, and she is taken in by her nephew and his young wife. This is a shaky relationship, to be sure, but there is a new family, new birth. Life, Yates seems to say, in spite of the waste and pain, will go on.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26
Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, October, 1976, p. 114.
Booklist. LXXIII, September 1, 1976, p. 22.
New York Times Book Review. September 19, 1976, p. 4.
New Yorker. LII, September 7, 1976, p. 37.
Publisher’s Weekly. CCX, July 26, 1976, p. 68.