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Conformity During the 1950s in American Society

Thesis Statement

Suburban life was always a kind of perfect starting base for further success in life in the view of American society. This topic has always been extremely popular in literature and art, however, the art of the 1950s is full of suburban protagonists, and the mentioning of life in a downtown a megalopolis is minor. This approach had essentially changed the views of the Americans on the American dream and the way of life. People became more confident in their future; they started feeling themselves powerful and hopeful. The honesty, sincerity and confidence were read in their eyes. People got the dream.

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Introduction

The fifties were regarded as the period of life restoration after the WWII, and this period in the western society is often considered totally conservative. This conservatism was especially observed in social sphere. The Cold War had essentially impacted the lives of the average people, as every effort was aimed at the victory in this confrontation. Decolonization process in Africa and Asia has originated the social movements closely linked with further social rights changes of the 1960s.

Social sphere of this period was featured with high juvenile delinquency rates. These rates were rapidly increasing, however, stayed comparatively low in comparison with the following periods. This was the period of unionization in the world arena, as in the internal life of the USA. Trade unions were appearing everywhere: it was regarded as the reaction to witch hunt.

Prosperity of the Americans was rapidly increasing, and the beliefs in happy future got stronger, and the American dream no longer seemed to be unachievable. The automobile industry grew; Americans bought nearly 60 million cars during the period of 1950s. This had caused the growth of the number of motels, gas stations with fast-food cafes, and, surely, suburbs. It is stated that American suburban population increased at least two times, as suburbs offered a clean homogenous safe, and child-friendly environment. There was no need to live the downtown, as people had their own cars, and had an opportunity to live far from their workplaces. People were downshifting, and moved from centers to suburbs intentionally.

Life in ‘Burbs’

In 1961 “Revolutionary road” seemed like a very sarcastic novel, touching upon the post war period in the United States. It was the story of and for hopeful souls, who were searching for a life balance, who followed their call to the suburbs looking for rough rural life and urban opportunities. Frank Wheeler is a war veteran, he is 29, he had graduated from a University, and he may be considered as a man on his way up. However, Yates describes him as a compromised, self-important “suit” with “the kind of unemphatic good looks that an advertising photographer might use to portray the discerning consumer of well-made but inexpensive merchandise.” (Yates, 2000)

As for April, it may first seem that she has unclear and a bit distorted imagination of the ideal of perfect life. However, in comparison with the ideals of the others, her imagination is the closest to real ideal. She dreams of artistic and intellectual lifestyle, she wishes to live carefreely. In spite of her wish to become a drama actress, Yates had endowed her with the feature of neurotic drama queen, while Frank admires her melodramatic nature, as he is the only who has an opportunity to observe it. Struggling against her ostentation, April highly estimates the real honesty, thus, it is absolutely necessary for her to inform Frank that she does not love him anymore, in spite of the fact that it may seem too selfish.

‘What a subtle treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way! Because once you’d started it was terribly difficult to stop; soon you were saying “I’m sorry of course you’re right,” and “Whatever you think is best,” and “You’re the most wonderful and valuable thing in the world,” and the next thing you knew all honesty, all truth, was as far away and glimmering, as hopelessly unattainable as the world of golden people.‘ (Yates, 2000)

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Honesty is one of the few things that link Wheelers and the characters by Rockwell. Honesty and sincerity are the feelings that overfill the backdrop of the paintings. This sincerity is felt in every picture, independently of the original message. Honesty “infects” the viewers. Unfortunately, this can not be said of the readers, as honesty and sincerity of April are jammed by more powerful emotions and feelings.

Wheelers consider themselves to be a family with great potential; however, this consideration does not have any basis. Frank works for Knox Business Machines, and he calls this job “the dullest one you can possibly imagine,” but thinks of himself as an intellectual, an “intense, nicotine-stained Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man” (Yates, 2000). Yet we also get imaginary dialogues: exchanges that only take place in Frank’s head. We see the unraveling of the marriage largely from his point of view and hear the conversations that he imagines, quoted as if direct speech. The device is an uncommon one in fiction. Rarely are whole non-existent exchanges laid out on the page like this: “He would say – She would say – He would say. (Nelson, 1995). As for the potential, it is felt in the sight of every character by Rockwell. These characters give real confidence that they will achieve their aims, independently, if this is a small white boy, or an African American girl, or an aged man.

April has a strong wish to become a theater actress; she is imagined as a dreamer, as she is the only, who seeks the remedy for their depressions. She dreams that their family will move to Paris, she will get a highly paid job, until Frank will be able to find something that would suit him. Frank, meanwhile, starts an affair with a young lady in their office, and April becomes too anxious about it, as their marriage gets endangered. There is a tension observed between April and Frank, and from this moment and further, the book is mostly showing the thoughts and feelings of humans when they are talking the opposite of what they think. Their entire life in the suburbs turns into a dopey and boring story. There is no necessity for Frank and April to search for consolation, as she starts realizing that she does not love Frank, and the third child has ruined their plans to leave America. April attempts to abort the child herself; however, she falls and dies in her effort to struggle with the forces that were keeping her in her suburban housewife lifestyle. Frank mourns, however soon gets stuck with the work he had once disdained, and “dies” an inward death.

As for the paintings by Norman Rockwell, it is necessary to mention that Rockwell’s picturing of the epoch, he lived in, may be regarded as genius. There is no narration in his paintings; however, these images are the stories of art. The function of these images should not be dismissed as the issues of artistic power and creativity, as these are the signs of aesthetic failure and general cultural debasement. There is a great contribution to the American art made by Norman Rockwell, and it is emphasized that his images are the epoch itself, as the hopes, the estimations and the moods of people pictured on the paintings clearly explain the spirit of the epoch. (Moffatt, 2000) There are no skyscrapers, businessmen, luxurious interiors etc. He pictured the lives of the suburbs: men and women, adults and kids, whites and African Americans. All of them have a job he or she likes, they are happy with their social position, however, they are looking for better life and happy future.

The illustrations by Rockwell picture the image of a young, happy, successful and self-confident man. This image is constructed around physical valor in preference with a family oriented picture of a boyhood. According to Eric Segal (1996), this representation of the masculinity coincides with the “strenuous life” explained by Theodore Roosevelt. It sounds like a response to anxiety about manliness, which promoted the salvation of Anglo-Saxons, and the necessity to charge people with energy and power to build their happy lives. The images were aimed to claim for personal transformation and communication that generally takes place when one looks at the artist’s work. That is why Norman Rockwell was aiming to fix the very essence of life, and create a massage for everyone. Rockwell is regarded as a master of delivering such messages to public. He reminds Americans of their humor and humility, happiness and humanity. (Marling, 1998)

Norman Rockwell as an artist had devoted a great part of his art to picturing life in suburbs. He knew this life by his own experience, as in 1953 he moved to Stockbridge with his family. The life which he was painting on the canvass is absolutely identical to the lifestyle by Frank and April Wheeler. To an average reader (or passer-by in the novel), the life of Wheelers will never seem different from the other Americans in 1950s. Their life is not distinctive, and they do not aim to live differently. April’s dream to move to Paris is the only thing that differentiates Wheelers from other suburbians. It is unknown what Rockwell’s characters dream of, however, these dreams are read in their eyes. They in no way dream of leaving their own country, as they aim to build happiness where they do live. This tendency is pictured in most of Rockwell’s illustrations, however, the most notable that may be taken as an example is “the Four Freedoms”, which symbolize the happy life of large families, of workers of different nations represented on the American continent, and, surely, these “Freedoms” symbolize the strong confidence in the happy future.

Wheelers do not demonstrate this confidence. Moreover, sometimes it may seem that they do not have even the will to live. They are no longer a happy family; they do not have any affection for each other. Both of them dislike living in suburbs, and can not stop talking about it. They are bored with their neighbors, April fails as a theater actress, Frank is absolutely not satisfied with his job, and they start drinking heavily.

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Originally, their lives are too different from those pictured by Rockwell.

Rockwell
Rockwell

On the one hand they are free from Want, and free from Fear, on the other hand they are not so happy and careful of each other as it is pictured in the images. In spite of all the failures, the family life of Frank and April Wheelers has something that distinguishes them from everyone in the neighborhood, and gives an opportunity to associate them with the characters by Norman Rockwell. (Teachout, 2001) This is the hope. They both dream of happy future, have a strong will to overcome the circumstances; however, the circumstances appear to be more powerful. It is stated that Frank and April Wheelers’ marriage is one of the greatest among the other unsuccessful marriages in contemporary American literature. They are admired for their youth, their attempts to overcome the problems; they represent everything that may be desired for a happy life. The same things and features are admired in Rockwell’s characters. Wheelers are fearful of being sucked down by the troubles and wrong values, and they aim to get rid of the frustration. The honesty that European style-intellectualism represents is the prized ideal, but this is as damaging to their self-image as the petty attitudes they despise. (Hulugalle, 2005) This honesty is something that sparks in the eyes of the happy suburbians by Rockwell, and this honesty distinguishes Wheelers from other people.

Conclusion

On the one hand, there are absolutely no common features between the main characters of “Revolutionary Road” and characters of the paintings by Norman Rockwell. Originally, these are two extremes, and only the backdrop of the events may be the common feature. On the other hand, there is almost unmentionable, however the most powerful link which can ever exist. This link is the hope for better life, and strong will to achieve this goal. Frank and April do not differ from other Americans by their nature, however, the circumstances make them change their behavior, and, in some measure their vision of life. Their marriage is regarded as the most solid among all the unsuccessful marriages in the contemporary American literature, as Frank and April have the features, what Norman Rockwell’s images are adored for. Frank and April have power of life in their souls, unfortunately, the circumstances and troubles appeared to be more powerful; anyway, this power, the honesty of April, her dreams, Frank’s aims are the features that link the Wheelers and the characters on Rockwell’s images.

If the reader finally sees the Wheelers and their lifestyle during far 50s, realize their aims and values of life, their recollections of youth and a war fast receding, they would still have this book in their personal libraries, and call it a masterpiece of the 1950s.However that epoch has gone forever, and only baby boomers can estimate the cultural value of the novel.

References

Hulugalle, Natasha. “The Revolutionary Road. Richard Yates and the American Dream” Culture Wars. 2005. Web.

Marling, Karal Ann. “Norman Rockwell: Great American Artist?.” The American Enterprise. 1998: 22

Moffatt, Laurie Norton. “Pictures for the American People: The Art of Norman Rockwell.” USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) 2000: 38.

Nelson, Ronald J. “Richard Yates’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Thug: “Doctor Jack-O’-Lantern.”.” Studies in Short Fiction 32.1 (1995): 1

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Ouellette, Laurie. “Painting by Numbers.” Afterimage 23.5 (1996): 6

Segal, Eric J. “Norman Rockwell and the Fashioning of American Masculinity.” The Art Bulletin 78.4 (1996): 633

Teachout, Terry. “Norman Rockwell.” Book Sept. 2001: 71.

Yates, Richard. “Revolutionary Road”. Vintage; 2 Reprint edition, 2000

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