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The Presentation Of Social Aspirations In The Great Gatsby And Revolutionary Road

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Critic Kurt Vonnegut pronounced that Richard Yates’ ‘Revolutionary Road’ was the Great Gatsby of his time. As genre-defining American novels there are definite similarities as authors present post-war societies, with characters coming to terms with newfound lives outside of warfare. As Fitzgerald and Yates’ characters struggle with fresh existences, often they cannot project into the future, portraying a single aspiration socially, yet truly desiring something else. The authors use of a second genuine aspiration allows for complex, layered presentation of characters, creating conflict as some are unable to see the others ‘true’ aspiration. Hence, the nature of social aspiration is ambiguous across both novels, leading to endings tainted by unfulfilled aspirations.

F. Scott Fitzgerald uses narrator Nick’s aspiration to move away,as a means to illustrate his real desire for freedom. Nick’s aspiration is introduced in the opening pages of the novel, as a part of Nick’s ‘foreword’ in the ‘present’. Because of the position of Nick’s desire to move, Nick’s attitude to his previous desire is tinged with cynicism, perhaps acting as Fitzgerald’s comment about naive Americans aspirations. Nick comments on his reasoning for moving being that the Middle West has changed in what it represents for him, how he ‘left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees’ This illustrates how Nick no longer feels the previous comfort associated with his home, through adjectives such as ‘friendly’ with that previous homely solace now being substituted for boredom, describing how he ‘came back restless’. Nick’s boredom with the Middle West is complemented by the suffocating nature of it also, as Fitzgerald touches upon how Nick’s family have been ‘prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations.’ This evokes a nature of legacy, however, also creates an essence of suffusion, as if Nick’s family are present in every aspect of Nick’s life. Moreover, Nick implies the pressure imparted on him by his family, expressing how his family discuss his decision to move East ‘as if they were choosing a prep school for me’. Thus, readers can gather the amount of pressure Nick is under to maintain social standards for the reputation of his family, portrayed in how it appears Nick is being reduced to a child. Hence, it is plausible to conclude that Nick has a desire to move as a means to escape his family, but also the Middle West and the dullness he believes is now synonymous with it. There is no doubt that Fitzgerald drew on inspiration from contemporary America, with the population of New York increasing from around 3.4 million in 1900 to 5.6 million in 1920. Migration to cities became increasingly popular, due to mechanisation of American industry, meaning many were forced to seek job opportunities outside of their small town.

In Richard Yates ‘Revolutionary Road’, the main characters April and Frank Wheeler plan to move from their Connecticut suburb to Paris. The idea is largely April’s concoction, and she implicitly expresses similar desires to Nick for wanting to leave behind her suburb. The Wheeler’s contempt for their home and fellow residents is made no secret. At one of their soirees with The Campbells, it is commented upon how they’re able to fascinate themselves in the ‘elusive but endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs or Madison Avenue, or American Society today’ Yate’s paradoxical presentation of the subject of effectively their lives as being ‘elusive but … absorbing’ perhaps illustrates this perceived feeling of superiority from them. This feeling of cultural superiority and awareness of their position within American society, is a defining factor in Frank and April’s move; which is touched upon by critic Lionel Shriver, who states that The Wheeler’s are afflicted by ‘the angst and dissatisfaction that teems beneath the placid suburbs’. This idea is proven true as it oftentimes appears Frank and April’s aspirations, especially to move, feel naive and almost petulant mimicking the ‘angst’ which is expressed in flashbacks to Frank and April’s younger days. Furthermore, it can be argued that April’s dissatisfaction is a key part of her aspiration to move, similar to the contempt felt by Nick for the Middle West. April expresses that she feels Frank wants to move because she believes it’s unrealistic for him to continue ‘coming home to a house he can’t stand in a place he can’t stand either, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things’. Whilst April’s reasoning for her aspiration to move is made clear here, it is notable that Yates tends to illustrate April as projecting her aspirations onto Frank, exhibited here through her relegating herself to the role of ‘wife’. This could be interpreted as Yates describing the attitudes of 1950s society, where it was social convention for women to act as subservient wives, Alternatively, this could be read as Yates implying April’s intelligence, as she makes it seem as if Frank shares this reasoning, appeasing his egotistical selfishness. This aligns with the ending of the novel, as April is able to fulfil her own aspiration of freedom through the abortion, without Frank knowing, similar to the way she is able to convince him to commit to moving to Paris. So, similarly to Nick, one of April’s main reasons for wishing to fulfil her aspiration to move is her contempt for Revolutionary Road.

However, for both characters the authors present similar ideas about other reasons for wishing to leave their suburban existences. Within April and Nick, there seems to be an aspiration to fulfil their ideas of what each place represents, through both New York and Paris’s cultural capital. Fitzgerald presents this very paradoxically through Nick, as upon retruning from war Nick describes how he wanted the world to be ‘at a sort of moral attention forever’. This seemingly acts as foreshadowing as Nick eventually returns West disgusted by the moral degeneracy he experiences, eventually explaining how the East had always had ‘a quality of distortion’. Foreshadowing exacerbates Fitzgerald’s use of perspective to illustrate the more mature, retrospective Nick reflecting on aspects of his time in the East. However, it is also at this point where the question of Nick as an unreliable narrator comes into question. At the beginning and end of the novel, Nick frames himself as a moral, upright character who transcends the corrupt nature of Eastern life. Yet within the middle of the novel, the readers see Nick begin to indulge in this behaviour, as he comes to like the ‘racy, adventurous feel of [New York] at night’. This presentation of Nick as an almost moral saviour at the opening of the novel, becomes increasingly ironic as the readers see Nick partake in this behaviour, arguably a conscious choice by Fitzgerald to encourage readers to doubt the testimonies of Nick. And with that, New York is typified as this place where there is a looseness of righteous behaviour which could arguably be represented in the symbol of alcohol. Following the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1920, manufacture and sale of liquor was outlawed and hence consumption of alcohol comes to represent a certain loosening of morals and of the very behaviour which drives Nick away from the East. Nick himself indulges in alcohol and other aspects of immoral behaviour, yet is ironically driven away by things such as Jordan’s dishonesty and Tom’s infidelity. Thus Nick’s aspiration to move is triggered by his willingness to partake in a new cultural and moral milieu, which paradoxically forces him to leave.

April of ‘Revolutionary Road’ has similar sentiments, motivated to leave behind her home in suburban Connecticut for the opportunity to experience the cultural implications of Paris. For April, Paris seems to represent the chance at financial freedom, a subversion of gender roles. April’s dreams about Paris involve her becoming the breadwinner for the family, becoming a secretary for ‘NATO and the ECA and those places’. Frank can see the absurdity, as she chastises him ‘Don’t laugh’. Frank’s doubt would have been plausible in 1950s society, as in 1950 there were roughly 32% of women in the workforce in America; but he can recognize the cultural capital associated with Paris, how he can picture ‘her coming home from a day at the office - Parisian tailored suit, briskly pulling off her gloves’. Financial freedom seems fairly key in April’s aspiration, as well as cultural prominence, a key point in the plan she creates. Furthermore, financial liberty seems pertinent in April’s wish to break away from Frank, as she acknowledges ‘“Just because you’ve got me safely in a trap”’ It could be argued that April’s true aspiration is freedom from the constraints of her husband, children and suburban life, a freedom which she invests in the dream of Paris. Her fulfilment of freedom is illustrated in her final moments as the narrator states that April knows ‘that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone’. Yates’ uses a similar method to Fitzgerald to present Nick’s real aspiration which involves using an almost regressive character arc. Both characters have thoughts in the opening pages which illustrate their true aspirations - Nick’s need for moral cleanliness and April’s desire for freedom - both come close to fulfilling these aspirations, yet in some way drift from it, before finally fulfilling it through their own inhibitions.

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Gatsby and Frank’s real aspirations are closely linked to themes of masculinity. Throughout the novel, Gatsby has the unattainable aspiration of being with Daisy, visualized through the motif of the green light. The green light is situated at the end of Daisy’s dock in East Egg and is ‘minute and far away’, hence illustrating how Gatsby’s dreams are inevitably unachievable. Fitzgerald conveys the nature of Gatsby’s aspiration through the use of colour imagery, with green signifying envy, perhaps portraying Gatsby as almost more jealous of Daisy’s lifestyle. Along with this, green is the colour of the American dollar, evident of what Daisy comes to represent, as Gatsby almost admits ‘“Her voice is full of money”’ . This conflation of Daisy and status and wealth represent this blurring of Gatsby’s real aspirations. Some critics have attempted to engage with this, such as Robert Berman who states ‘‘His [Gatsby’s] idea of the good life seems to merely to be the acquisition of money, things, property.’ Whilst status and wealth seems to be integral to the concept of the life of the conceptualized Gatsby, there is no doubt that Daisy pays an intrinsic role too. A definite part of Gatsby’s aspiration is to relive his days pre-war with Daisy as he tells Nick ‘“Can’t repeat the past?”... “Why of course you can!”’. Arguably, it is only to attain Daisy that Gatsby begins to earn money, in order to facilitate his aspirations. Despite the place of status and Daisy within Gatsby’s aspirations it can be suggested that Gatsby’s aspirations are tied strongly to his masculinity. When Tom begins to question Gatsby, he becomes defensive ‘denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made’, as he knows it threatens the facade he has created to entice Daisy but also the legitimacy of his place within society, clearly entwined with his perception of masculinity. It is possible that Gatsby interprets this closeness of masculinity and status from Dan Cody, ‘a product of the Nevada silver fields’. Cody seems to act as Gatsby’s inspiration, and represents a man who has achieved some fledgling of the ‘original’ American Dream - the belief that if anyone worked hard enough they could achieve greatness. This link between masculinity and status has a clear impact on Gatsby’s aspirations, causing him to aspire to something wholly unattainable.

Frank’s aspirations are similar as there is a definite link between his masculinity and his aspirations. Franks masculinity is threatened by April’s aspirations, arguably because of their closeness to April’s independence. However, we see Frank’s fragile masculinity from the onset of the novel as Yates invokes a physical reaction in him as April questions how ‘“by any stretch of the imagination you can call yourself a man!”’ and then as Frank ‘brought the fist down on the roof the car with all his strength’. Frank’s willingness to resort to violence illustrates his inhumane qualites and furthermore, the dysfunctionality of their relationship. Moreover, this portrays how Frank has issues surrounding masculinity - which is exacerbated by the abortion. Frank’s initial aspiration is to ‘find’ himself, as ‘All he would ever need .... was the time and freedom to find himself’, yet when he realizes this dream involves allowing Apil to have financial freedom he begins to detest this. When April becomes pregnant it seems apt to cancel their plans to move to Europe, yet April begins to contemplate abortion which enrages Frank. He himself states ‘that my masculinity had somehow been threatened by all that abortion business’. Yates clearly illustrates how Frank’s masculinity is threatened by April’s true aspiration for freedom, hence potentially suggesting how Frank has a true aspiration to remain in control of April. Yates drew on contemporary attitudes about abortion and masculinity. In the 1950s there was an estimated 200, 000 to 1.2 million unsafe, illegal abortions each year. Despite being dangerous and incredibly unsafe, abortion enabled women to express some form of autonomy over their own bodies, which were socio-politically regulated by men. Within the early 1960s, the time of publication, ‘abortion … transformed into a public problem’ becoming an area of controvesy within the early feminist movement. Amongst many it was felt that female liberties regarding their bodies threatened the patriarchal system of America. Franks aspirations morph based on the position of his masculinity, thus revealing Frank’s true aspiration to be maintaining the essential place of his masculinity.

Both authors delve into the nature of female aspirations with the largely male narrative perspective aiding in portraying the male attitude to these issues Fitzgerald writes from Nick’s perspective with a largely misogynistic view towards women. This is exhibited through the disparaging addressal of Jordan. Nick states how ‘Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply’ after the revelation that at Jordan’s first proffessional tournament there had been ‘a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round’. This perhaps servies as Nick attempting to justify his harsh treatment of her later in the novel, it also serves to illustrate the nature of Jordan’s aspirations and the male attitude to them. Nick assumes Jordan’s reasons for allegedly moving the ball is purely superficial and fails to see how it could be associated with her aspiration to truly succeed at something after years of diligent hard work. This patronising view is similarly held by Tom, who tells Daisy and Nick that Jordan is a ‘“nice girl”’ and that her family shouldn’t ‘“let her run around the country this way.”’. This view is ironic given Tom’s ability to, effectively ‘run around the country’ too. Furthermore, it adds to the diminishing of Jordan’s considerable professional career as a golf player. Tom and Nick may take up this opinion given Jordan’s place within society. Jordan represents a new woman in society - adopting an adrogynous style, taking advantage of the increased liberties for women and taking up a means of income. From this reader’s can presume Jordan has high aspirations, however, due to Fitzgerald’s portrayal of women through men’s perspectives Jordan’s true aspirations are hidden.

Similarly, Yates uses perspectives to diminish the female aspiration, most notably through the female character with the highest career aspirations, Mrs Givings. Mrs Givings aspirations are tied to her job as she states “ I love it,”’. Yates demonstrates the diminishing of Helen’s aspirations through her husband’s questioning of it as he expresses that ‘“it certainly isn’t as if we needed the money”’, as if the only purpose for Helen’s work could be monetary as opposed to her passion. Values like this are expressed by critic Robert Sklar who states that ‘Helen Givings the realtor… [is a] women worker in an era when ideology placed women in the home’, a viewpoint which is largely true. However, it is noteworthy to include that there are aspects other than ideology which kept women in the home, one of which being the fragile male ego. The limiting of women’s careers fits with attitudes of the time which placed heavy belief in the system of patriarchy: a male breadwinner and domestic wife with few alternatives to this rigid system. Perhaps inadvertently, Mrs Gvings challenges this system, suggesting something different about the system or feminism. Despite this Yates does continue to conceal Helen’s true aspiration through the perspective of the piece.

In conclusion, the authors use of social aspirations across the novels, illustrates the paradoxical nature of society in both the 1920s and 1950s America. People were aspiring to new heights socially, yet oftentimes could not shake the past, leading to potentially unfulfilled aspirations. Both Fitzgerald and Yates’ use social aspirations in this way structurally, through an almost height of optimism existing around the centre of each novel. The authors may do this to reflect society, the idea that from this point there is only bleakness.

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The Presentation Of Social Aspirations In The Great Gatsby And Revolutionary Road. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
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