Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, examines the post war suburban life and its conformity. In particular, he focuses on marriage. His main character, April Wheeler is deeply ambivalent about motherhood. The novel takes place in 1955, and describes the lives of April and her husband Frank both before their marriage and after. She is pregnant three times and wishes to abort two of the pregnancies. This is, of course, when abortion is not legal and for dramatic purposes Yates has her rely only on advice from a friend rather than seek medical help. Middle and upper class women were able to access abortions despite its illegality.
Yates portrays April as someone who pregnancy traps. Her first pregnancy propels Frank into a job he hates and eventually they move to the suburbs of Connecticut. They have a second child without comment but a few years later April feels completely suffocated by her life and plans an escape. They will move to Paris and she will work while Frank decides what great thing he will do. April needs to feel there is a point to her life; working in a foreign country appears to fulfill that need. Frank is more ambivalent about this plan but they proceed.
Before they can bring the plan to fruition, April is pregnant again. This third unwanted pregnancy propels the story to a tragic denouement. Throughout the whole story it is clear that April desperately wanted to determine her own life and have autonomy over her decisions.
Although abortion was illegal in all states and only two states allowed therapeutic abortions in the interest of the women’s health, many women received abortions every year. The largest group of women who sought abortions were married and already had children. Thus, Yates’s portrayal of April Wheeler was a very representative one. One fifth of the women Alfred Kinsey interviewed for his study of sexual behavior had had abortions. Middle class women, in general, had access to services including abortion that poor women did not.
When April is pregnant for the third time and wishes, once again, to abort, Frank wages a fierce battle to prevent her from doing so. Eventually he persuades April that she needs psychological help. Although Yates has Frank somewhat cynically use this argument to prevent the abortion, the portrayal of a woman who did not wish to have another child as mentally ill was a very prevalent idea in the 1950’s. Popular psychology decreed that if a woman wanted to both work and be a mother she had to be in conflict. A woman who denied procreation was denying pleasure.
The book is very well written. It has many fans; one is Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. In2008 a movie version of it with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett opened. No one in the book is very likeable but he is trying to show you the trap that the characters are in. In the movie which must externalize much of the novel’s internal drama, April does become more sympathetic because Frank is such a dog.