Below is an essay that I wrote in (roughly!) timed conditions — it should technically be a 50min unseen essay question and it took around an hour, although had I been in a real exam I would have probably written a much shorter conclusion and perhaps cut out some of the points.
The topic was an unseen essay question for a contextual literature paper — where you’re given an extract from a novel that you’ve never seen before, and you have to read and write about it using your knowledge of that time period — in this case, the 1950s and 1960s American US culture.
This is the type of essay that you’ll find at college or university level, as well as A-Level exams such as AQA English Literature ‘Modern Times’, OCR American Literature ‘Comparative and Contextual Study’, WJEC’S Unseen Component 3, and more.
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Explore the significance of the emptiness of modern life in this extract. Remember to include in your answer relevant detailed analysis of the ways that Yates shapes meanings.
Here’s a link to the extract.
In the same way, in which Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ was said to express the ‘ache of modernism’ with its burgeoning modernist sensibilities, we could say that Yates’ Revolutionary Road here expresses a comparable ‘ache of postmodernism’ as postwar America shifts in the mid-1950s to a cultural model of baby booms, nuclear families and individuals are forced to settle for a dampening, tempered and ‘flabby’ version of the once great vision of the American Dream. Though Frank expresses a sense of emptiness exemplified by his extreme distaste for the monotony and predictability of US culture, he does also have flickers of hope that there is some ‘truth’ out there that he and April may yet find, though this is only achievable by disconnecting entirely from the American way of living — which is depicted as spiritually and psychologically deadening — as Yates posits that the loss of national drive has resulted in a bloated and overhyped country that feels as though it is just waiting to die.
Primarily, the extract contains a multifaceted analysis of the emptiness, yet curiously Frank also finds the exact cause difficult to pinpoint. His disregard for spirituality as he casually and humorously throws around blasphemous terms such as ‘My God’ and ‘Christ’ indication the underlying transition in the American cultural mindset of the 1950s from spirituality to atheism, perhaps hinting that Yates feels a lack of spiritual direction may be the cause of the emptiness. Alternatively, it could be suggested that the difficulty of returning to some semblance of ‘normality’ coupled with the pressure of reproduction and economic growth that was placed upon American citizens with the end of the Second World War in 1945 was too much to contend with psychologically, and, as Frank observes, it constituted a kind of insincere propaganda: ‘This whole country’s rotten with sentimentality’. The adjective ‘rotten’, with its italic emphasis, conjures the sense of a metaphor that America was once a bounteous and fruitful nation but that in the mid-20th century it became overripe and started a process of cultural decay that remains to this day. In addition, the abstract noun ‘sentimentality’ is juxtaposed directly later on in the passage with ‘truth’, implying that Frank’s compulsion to feel something — even if it is negative — is preferable to the saccharine and sedate existence that is lived by the rest of suburbia. Finally, this may also be a reference to the concept of post-traumatic stress; towards the end of the passage Frank discusses his experiences as a soldier with a kind of curious reverence: ‘I just felt this terrific sense of life… full of blood. Everything looked realer than real’. This exemplifies the state of shock and adrenaline that soldiers are placed into during war, the way in which their senses are heightened as they come painfully close to the sense of their own mortality; no wonder the contrast of setting between the curiously ‘beautiful’ yet stark ‘shelled-out town’ that had been destroyed by bombs and the repetitive housing and lifestyle of the suburbs is too much for Frank to handle, and leads to a sense of dissociation from his present surroundings. Ultimately, the use of a structural time shift — ‘Another time, quite late’ — in the center of the extract expresses that this feeling of uneasiness is a constant presence that resurfaces at odd moments, particularly in the quiet of night time, as is the niggling emptiness that lies at the center of suburban existence.
The disillusionment with social expectations of the middles classes in 1950s America is a further cause for emptiness, one which lies at the center of the extract. Yates depicts Frank and April as distinctly different from their neighbors and friends, expressing disdain for their peers despite finding themselves in the same position. They humorously derive ‘the Donaldsons’ and presumably could think of nothing worse than being considered ‘the Wheelers’, a collective term that implies that through marriage a couple loses their sense of individuality and instead homogenize into a conglomerate and bland mass of their personalities, throwing children into the mix later along the way. Frank observes that the families around him ‘are all snug as bunnies in their pajamas, for God’s sake, toasting marshmallows’ a humourous simile that conjures a semantic field of ‘safety’ and ‘togetherness’, values which are and which remain commonplace in the modern era, but which Frank and April fear as oppressors of freedom and individuality. The visual image of ‘pajamas’ and ‘toasting marshmallows’ represents the American ideal that is drummed into the brains of individual American citizens through constant media and tv conditioning, one which Frank outwardly rejects and disdains. Furthermore, we could interpret the analogy to ‘bunnies’ as being innocuous and belittling, but also betraying a deeper sinister truth about American society; perhaps Yates is suggesting that the Populus are being numbed and reduced to the level of mindless and proliferating animals as the government decides to push the repopulation agenda following the deaths of so many soldiers in war. Though the novel uses a third-person omniscient narrative perspective to create a distanced portrayal of the scene, the reader also feels like Frank’s scathing intellect and scornful witticisms are direct representations of Yates’ own personality, and that Frank acts at least in part as a mouthpiece for Yates’ own individualist ideas and rejection of the political values of 1950s America. Though the novel is written in 1961, it is set in 1955, and therefore from an audience perspective, Yates was perhaps attempting to catch more of the sentiment and spirit of the socialist and liberated free movements of the 1960s by showing how 1950s conservative beliefs about owning a house with a white picket fence, marrying a housewife, working hard to support 2.1 children and generally being forced into acceptance of suburban monotony was an outdated and unsustainable model of life that only led to feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction.
There is also a sense of the tension between individuality and collectivism present in the extract, which Yates neatly links to emptiness by concluding that any attempt to efface one’s individuality for the sake of adopting a collective identity is inevitably going to lead — for any intelligent being at least — to feelings of apathy and boredom. In a scathing critique of cultural monotony, Frank has an outburst in his dialogue where he condemns the ‘insistent vulgarizing of every idea and every emotion into some kind of pre-digested intellectual babyfood; this optimistic, smiling-through, easy-way-out sentimentality’. The extended, complex sentence with its multiple and compounded adjectives exemplifies his exasperation and frustration at the fact that no one else he knows seems to be as upset or affected by the cultural dilution that is occurring all around him. Though we may be inclined to feel that an ‘optimistic’ attitude is a good approach to life, Yates here points out that a ‘smiling-through’ and ‘easy-way-out’ approach to existence only yields at best mediocre results, where the most we can hope for is quiet, repetitive family life. The noun phrase ‘pre-disgested intellectual babyfood’ is intentionally oxymoronic as it juxtaposes the concept of ‘babyfood’ — a simple and blended down form of nutrients, with the adjective ‘intellectual’. The overall effect is to suggest that the focus on excellence that Americans once strove for has now been replaced by the values of simplicity and easiness, which in themselves engender a bland cultural output. Frank is bored with such an output, commenting on the simplicity of the media and ‘tv shows… where daddy’s an idiot and mother’s always onto him’, succinctly summarising the mundanity of the American sitcom and the way in which it spoon-feeds the nation its bland values. In some ways, therefore, it could be argued that the sense of emptiness is tragically localized to individuals which are able to see beyond the repetitive propaganda of the nation, in an almost dystopian Huxleyesque notion that the vast majority of Americans are passively accepting the dilution of their culture, and it is only a distinct few individuals that can actually see and resist the cultural erosion of their once-great nation.
Though emptiness is inherent in so many aspects of the extract, these are all outwardly focused and Frank and April are portrayed as having a refreshingly close and loving relationship as if they are lucky to have found each other amidst the masses. The extract ends not in words and outburst, but in an ‘overpoweringly tender’ moment between the couple, exemplifying love’s capacity to nullify forces of emptiness as the dialogue dissolves into abstract prose: ‘The coffee table tipped absurdly and banged straight ….he .. took her in his arms, and the evening was over..’. The use of an ellipsis at the end provides the couple with a private, quiet moment that brings a sense of peace and closure to the chaos and anxiety of earlier conversations, and the ‘table tipped absurdly’ implies not just a shift in the mood of the extract, but a shift in tone too, suggesting that the stress of engagement with the wider world can be eased by the support of a loved one. The postmodern concerns of the emptiness engendered by a breakdown of American society are also inherent in the couple’s wish to start a new life in ‘Paris’, an interesting conversion of the disillusioned ‘American dream’ into the concept of a ‘Parisian dream’, the idea that a new, fulfilling and truthful life could be made elsewhere if the cultural milieu itself has changed. Ironically, however, this is also somewhat undermined by Frank’s post-traumatic stress as the reader can’t help wondering whether his compulsion to relocate to Europe is erroneously bound up with his experiences in War, the landscape where he found ‘truth’ is also inevitably going to be different from the mid-20th Century experience of postwar Europe.
In conclusion, emptiness manifests itself as a postmodern condition in the extract as Yates encapsulates the scattered and diluted sentiments of postwar America: Frank is bored with the sedateness of life, he finds a lack of fulfillment in having ostensibly achieved the American dream of living a middle-class lifestyle in a suburban house of a nondescript American town or city, which is partly due to the displacement of individuality in favour of an illusory collective optimism and ‘sentimentality’ that seems forced upon the society, rather than true and natural, as an effort to repopulate and kickstart the economy following the devastating effects of the Second World War. There is some hope that a change of scenery and social milieu may provide the characters with the fulfillment which they so desperately seek, though this remains to be seen, and maybe tied up with his own nostalgic reminiscence of the vividness and intensity of being a soldier in a war.
Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full Unseen Prose and Poetry course.