Revolutionary Road

by Richard Yates

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The portrayal of sanity and insanity in Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road


In Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates explores the thin line between sanity and insanity through his characters' struggles with societal expectations and personal dissatisfaction. The novel portrays how the pressure to conform can lead to mental instability, as seen in the protagonist's descent into despair and the ultimate tragic outcome.

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How does Richard Yates use insanity as a theme in Revolutionary Road?

Insanity is used thematically in Revolutionary Road to draw attention to the thoughtless conformity of the suburban lifestyle.

In the novel, Frank and April Wheeler develop a rapport with John Givings, a former mental hospital patient and the driving force for the theme of insanity in the novel. As John’s mom says to his dad, “They do seem to—to like him, don’t they?” Indeed, John listens to their complaints and seems to understand where they're coming from. Thus, the theme of insanity is used somewhat ironically. It’s as if the sane are insane or unreasonable and the insane are sane or reasonable.

Although the Campbells criticize the Wheelers for wanting to move to Paris, it seems like a sane choice considering their complaints. Frank complains of “hopeless emptiness,” while April feels unfulfilled by the duties of domesticity. As both appear unhappy, a change seems like a wise idea. Yet their friends don’t think so. They call their plans “immature.”

Eventually, Frank comes around to staying put, so the theme of insanity is further tied to thoughtlessness and conformity since not conforming is viewed as insane or immature. Near the end, John asks Frank, “You figure it’s more comfy here in the old Hopeless Emptiness after all?” Later, Frank fumes about John, “I just wish he’d keep his God damn opinions in the God damn insane asylum where they belong.”

The quotes reflect the irony of insanity and how the theme is used to symbolize honesty. It unexpectedly symbolizes truth because Richard Yates uses the topsy-turvy idea of insanity to expose the superficiality and mindlessness of contemporary American life and its absurd—borderline insane—conventions and expectations. Indeed, it is the complacent couples who acquiesce to dissatisfying conventions who are insane and delusional, not John, as might be expected.

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What does sanity look like in Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road?

Revolutionary Road deftly dramatizes the disconnect and disappointment of a suburban marriage in the 1950s. One of the most ironic parts of the Wheelers' lives is their relationship to the "insane" son of their neighbor, Mrs. Givings, whose name may be a play on the "misgivings" the Wheelers have toward her. John Givings has spent the bulk of his time shut up in Greenacres asylum; upon his release, his mother hopes that the company of the Wheelers will help him become better adjusted to normal life. Throughout his interactions with both these families, John instead points out that "normal" life is not worth adjusting to.

He refuses to dress in the clothes his mother picks out for him—preferring instead to wear his "hospital things"—and flouts social customs like being deferential to hosts. He acts as a foil to the normalcy and "sanity" of the Wheelers, who, as the course of the novel proves, are devastatingly unhappy. Even in his "insanity," John emerges as a figure who isn't afraid to tell the truth and live authentically. In the end, readers are left to question whether sanity is something worth aspiring to after all, particularly when it requires adjusting to such doleful conditions and pretending to be happy.

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