The Fragility of Masculinity:
Revolutionary Road Characterizes the Fracturing of the Male Identity in the 1950s
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates takes place in 1955, in the
suburbs of America, and examines the inner life of an unhappily married, middle-class couple—Frank and April Wheeler. This novel highlights some of the key issues of this era; including the need for perfection within the American family, the shift to life in the suburbs, as well as the changing face of masculinity. Throughout the story, Frank purports to disdain the traditional American suburban lifestyle: where each family is expected to be identical, they dress the same, live in the same style of home, do the same things, and each aims to appear perfect. However, his outward contempt is actually a camouflage to hide his lack of confidence in his own masculinity and deflects his fear—his inability to fulfill his role as a man within the traditional family. Frank is insecure about his own manliness, but he is not experiencing this doubt in isolation; instead his reactions and responses reflect the prevalent uncertainty about masculinity during this post-war era. The suburban lifestyle and male expectations were encapsulated in television shows during this time with the longest running show being The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Both Frank’s and Ozzie’s struggles with their masculinity embody the changing face of masculinity in the 1950s.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet epitomize the lifestyle that Frank scorns because they depict the perfect, traditional, conservative American family where everyone appears happy. Originally a radio show, it first aired in 1944 and was broadcast for a decade with the final few years running in tandem with the televised rendition. For fourteen years-from 1952 until 1966—this television program starred the real life Nelson family: Ozzie as the husband and father, Harriet as the wife and mother, with David and Ricky as their two sons. Although the show aims for realism, and many of the episodes are loosely based on their own life, the storylines sanitize their lives and unrealistically portray them as the perfect American family (Weinraub). They model the expectations placed upon the American family in the 1950s.
The episode “The Window Pane,” exemplifies the changing face of masculinity and underscores the foundation of masculinity—a man uses his hands to produce. This particular show, which aired in 1952, concerns Ozzie’s inability to complete repairs within his home and this leads him to believe that he is useless and inadequate (“The Window Pane”). Ozzie questions his own competence and portrays to the audience that he is not really a man, because he is unable to fulfill these manly tasks. This demonstrates that both Revolutionary Road and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet define masculinity based upon a man’s mechanical prowess. Ozzie’s doubts in “The Window Pane” mirror Frank’s insecurity about his masculinity and expose the source of Frank’s inner turmoil.
The underlying message of “The Window Pane” is: a man who can not repair his home is inept. Harriet wants to call in a handyman for the small job of replacing a broken window pane but Ozzie objects even though he is incapable of doing the job. His response of, “For goodness sakes, I’m not a hopeless incompetent,” and his attempt to redeem himself by claiming he can repair it, display that his masculinity is threatened on (“The Window Pane”). Additionally, Harriet’s response of, “You’ve been promising that for weeks now, besides its not an easy job” exhibits that she has no confidence in him. She is clearly stating that it is a simple task for the handyman, but a difficult job for Ozzie and she is once again re-enforcing that Ozzie is incapable. He is not enough of a man to fix a broken window pane. This concept that manliness equates to strong and capable hands is shown by his neighbour’s response that Ozzie is “all thumbs.” The neighbor tries to placate Ozzie when he says, “I don’t mean to be unkind but you know some people just aren’t naturally mechanically minded” (“The Window Pane”). The neighbor is relaying that it is “unkind” to tell Ozzie he is not naturally inclined to use his hands or to operate tools. This is the crux of this issue, masculinity is determined by the strength and ability of a man’s hands.
This theme of manliness, which comes from a man’s ability to use his hands, to perform manual labor and to display physical prowess, was implied in the 1950s in books, television shows and in the hearts of the men living during that era. It is echoed throughout Revolutionary Road by Frank’s concerns about his own manliness. Frank questions his masculinity and this stems from his childhood with his inability to master the workshop. As a child, Frank’s father continually dismissed Frank with contempt after he demonstrated his inability to handle tools. Frank remembers that, “things had always ended that way in the woodworking shop, and even today he could never breathe the yellow smell of sawdust without a sense of humiliation” (Yates 36-37). Hands symbolize strength and ability which Yates portrays through Frank’s memories of his father’s hands, with their “massively quivering grip” and the “aura of mastery they imparted.” Frank’s obsession with hands is one of the themes of Revolutionary Road because hands represent “the symbol of a true laborer and an icon of masculine strength and power” (Moreno). Yates repeats this theme in the novel when Frank takes on the job of installing a stone pathway, and this act allows him to feel he is a man performing “man’s work” (45). While working at this manual labor, he notices his “heavily veined forearm,” and feels that his own hand is “a serviceable, good-enough hand” although he knows that it is “not to be compared with his father’s hand” (45). Frank feels he can not stand up to the image of a man that his father imparted because his father was the strong, capable man that Frank could never become. Additionally, frank only feels his hands are serviceable once he starts to perfom the physical work. Previously to that he felt that his hands were “bloated and pale” in fact useless, as if “all the bones had been removed” (35). The motif of strong hands in the novel symbolizes the hard work performed in the past through manual labor.
The belief that a man is required to use his hands to protect and feed his family developed over time. This mindset continued to impact the 1950s view of manhood, despite the drastic shift in society that was ocurring. The atomic age helped to produce new technology and a new way of doing business which caused the face of masculinity to morph during the Cold War era of the 1950s. One factor that aided in masculinity’s divergence away from physical prowess was the creation of “a new identity for the American laborer in the form of the organization man“ (Moreno). This shift in masculinity developed through the change in the workforce where men’s jobs moved from manual labor to work in the organization. No longer were men working with their hands in the fields or performing manual labor in order to feed their family, instead the majority of men were working in corporate offices, selling products. “By the 1950s, organization men comprised the broad labor force for America’s growing middle class and marked the social and economic landscape with their suburban sensibilities and gray flannel suits” (Moreno). There was a “male transformation from the old image of the rugged, individualistic, self-reliant entrepreneur to the….organization man. (Moreno). “Revolutionary Road typifies this displacement experienced in the 1950s between the waning era of manual industry and the emerging computer age” and, in the process, re-manufacturing the suburban male into “an emasculated body –an anonymous, gray-flannelled consumer” (Moreno). Frank embodies the organization man and is lost between the world of the rugged, strong, capable man and the effeminate pencil pusher. He fears that he falls closer to the emasculated office worker than the macho laborer and tries to hide this fact from the world around him.
Revolutionary Road highlights the pressure in the 1950s for perfection in the American family. One aspect of this pursuit for perfection was a conformist culture where people were in fear of being different. All the men wore hats, and grey suits; they were like clones, like working ants scurrying around, all were the same—dull. The narrator describes the “endless desperate swarms” of men “hurrying through the station and the streets” filling up their office cubicles until there was a great “insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones” (Yates 119-120). This depiction of the male worker highlights the change in the work force—from working in the fields to working in the office. Frank’s self-doubts stem from the fact that he does not believe he is enough of a man, but he is desperately trying to prove his masculinity. He is “taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it” (51). He feels he has to prove it to himself, his wife and the world that he is a man. At the same time he doesn’t believe that he fits the mold of a real man, so he ridicules the very life he experiences.
Frank compensates for his insecurities by displaying disgust towards his peers. He states that he abhors the very life he is living within the Revolutionary Road suburbs. He thinks he is above it all, but this is just a front to cover his lack of confidence. He feels he has been forced to live in the suburbs, but he portrays that he is different because he does not believe he can fill the required role. He shows this when he says, “economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing [is] to keep from being contaminated” (Yates 20). Frank rails against the suburban lifestyle and shows this when he says, “It’s as if everybody’d made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The hell with reality! Let’s have a whole bunch of cute little winding roads and cute little houses painted white and pick and baby blue; let’s all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimetality” (pages 65-66). The irony of this statement is that Frank himself is living in a total state of self-deception. He is unhappy in his life and questions “what the hell kind of life was this? What in God’s name was a point or the meaning of the purpose of a life like this? ” (57). He proclaims, that he does not fit “the role of dumb, insensitive suburban husband” (25). But in reality, it is himself that he disdains and Yates shows this through Frank’s observations with “The black kitchen window gave him a vivid reflection of his face, round and full of weakness, and he stared at it with loathing” (66). Frank feels he needs to escape and claims that he wants to run away from “the hopeless emptiness of everthing in this country,” but in reality he wants to escape from himself (189).
The changing face of masculinity is demonstrated on television as noted above with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Yates also addresses it in Revolutionary Road when he has Frank saying, “And I mean is it any wonder all the men end up emasculated?” “That is what’s reflected …you see it everywhere: all this television crap where every joke is built on the premise that daddy’s an idiot and mother’s always onto to him” (129). The paradox is that Frank is the same as these television dads that he feels disparagement for because April rules the home and Frank. Frank only feels whole when she approves of him. Frank is not independent, or self-reliant, he is instead dependent upon receiving acceptance from April.
The men who are floundering to find their new place in the world are seeking confirmation of their manliness and need approval from their wives to validate them. This is reflected in the media, with both Ozzie and Frank looking to their spouses for verification that they are still men. Frank is looking for approval from April to attest his manhood, and that is why when she says to him, “You’re the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You’re a man” he gives her what she wants (115). She has affirmed his masculinity so he not only capitulates, by agreeing to go to Europe, but it feels like his victory. Frank only feels like a man when April both approves of him, and submits to him. That is why he feels the “proof of manhood” is when he is “holding that tamed, submissive girl” (50). This is reinforced when Yates describes Franks as having “taken command of the universe because he was a man and because the marvelous creature who opened and moved for him, tender and strong, was a woman” (115). Ozzie too is seeking Harriet’s approval. First he attempts to fix the broken window pane because ”Harriet doesn’t seem to think [he is] capable,” but Ozzie wants her approval. When the job appears complete, the neighbour tells him, “Harriet and the boys ought to be proud of [you]” (“The Window Pane”). However, he did not do a good job, and the window immediately rebreaks. He is upset because Harriet and the boys did not get to see “the finished product” (“The Window Pane”). During the 1950s, with the flux in manliness, men were dependent upon their wives to help them find their new place in this changing world.
In the 1950s, many men were searching for a new way of navigating the road of manhood. The ending of the Second World War brought about many changes including the birth of the technology age with the introduction of the atomic bomb. These new developments included a new way of doing business and the introduction of the organization man. This lead to a change in the definition of masculinity. Yates addresses the 1950s male insecurities through Frank’s character and by the end of the novel, Frank comes to terms with his masculinity and accepts himself for who he is. He stops trying to prove he is a man, and this is shown by the change in his behavior and he even “has a new way of laughing: a soft, simpering giggle” (330). This more feminine response mirrors the change of masculinity in the 1950s and introduces a solution for the new male workforce. Let go of the past and accept the current path. Revolutionary Road: exposes the fragility of masculinity in the 1950s while showing a vision of a new kind of man.
Moreno, Michael P. “Consuming the Frontier illusion: The Construction of Suburban Masculinity in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 3, 2003. n.p. Web 24 July 2013.
Weinraub, Bernard. “Dousing the Glow of TV’s First Family; Time for the Truth About Ozzie and Harriet“. NYTimes, 18 June 1998. n.p. Web. 24 July 2013.
“The Window Pane”. The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. American Broadcasting Company, 1953. Television. Youtube. n.d. Web. 24 July 2013.
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 2000. Print.