Domestic Identity in Richard Yates’ and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road as well as Ian McEwan’s and Joe Wright’s Atonement
by Konstantina Spyropoulou
Set against the picture-perfect background of the Revolutionary Hill Estates, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Mendes’ adaptation illuminate the Wheelers’ struggle to lead a revolutionary life in suburban America of the 1950s, which results in conformity and sameness. The Wheelers’ domestic life lacks the idyll and lustre of the ideal smiling suburban family seen on billboard advertisements from coast to coast, on television commercials, and on milk cartons. Unlike the normalized post-war image of the happily married couple, Frank Wheeler is not a content husband working at the perfect job, and April Wheeler is not a wife doing household chores dressed in pearls and high heels. On the contrary, the nuclear family of Revolutionary Road demolishes normalized ideals since Frank and April find themselves restricted by a conventional life over which they have limited control. Despite their eagerness to rebel against the status quo, both Frank and April battle with feelings of worthlessness, unfulfillment, and defeat, despising the kind of life they lead while their “sweet little house” in “a sweet little setting” becomes a prison (Yates 29). As one of the novel’s most prominent motifs, the Wheelers’ house exerts a great influence of normalcy and conventionality over Frank and April who stagger between rebellion and conformity to sameness.
While it expresses different pressures and motivations, the domestic setting in Ian McEwan’s Atonement is just as central to the major conflict and crucial in understanding the protagonist’s desires. The domestic space is a source of great power for young Briony Tallis, as she spends her childhood and the novel’s exposition marking her territory at the Tallises’ grounds. The legacy of the grand and imposing “Adam-style house” devoured by fire in the late 1880s that used to preside over the landscape lives on through Briony’s writings and her dominance over its remnants: “the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway” and the “crumbling stuccoed temple” (McEwan 19). From the nursery to the servants’ quarters, to the house’s many rooms and to the temple at the outskirts of the property, Briony lays her claim of ownership and control. As the time when she barges into the library interrupting a moment between her sister, Cecilia, and her romantic interest, Robbie, reveals, Briony’s relationship to the domestic space is closely linked to her desire for empowerment and control, which she achieves by presiding over her kingdom in the Tallis household.
Overall, the representation of the domestic space in Yates’ Revolutionary Road and McEwan’s Atonement as well as their filmic adaptations is of great interest. These domestic spaces are clearly central to the characters, and so what is their relationship to them? How does it influence them and their actions? On the one hand, it seems that the domestic space influences Frank and April’s confinement and their reactions against social conventions and spurs—but fails to realize—their quest for self-fulfillment; on the other, it enables Briony’s emergence as an author and becomes a tool for empowerment and exercise of control in her hands.
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road paints Frank and April’s disillusionment with their family roles against the confinement of their house’s four walls. Instead of a shrine of a successful and happy family life, the Wheelers’ house is a place of conflict and disharmony. Despite the performance of the happily married couple they put up for friends and neighbors, Frank and April struggle with communicating their emotions and with finding a true sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. April’s desire to relocate her home to Paris where she would be able to work and acquire a measure of freedom translates as a means of escape from the social and mental pressures she faces as a suburban American housewife and mother. April’s containment in the house does not resonate with her free-spirited character and she tries to convince Frank of her decision by explaining “what’s wrong with this environment” they live in, where both she and Frank “[come] home to a house [they] can’t stand” (Yates 110). April bravely acknowledges their domestic space as a source of conflict and misery when she describes the house as a place that is equally unrealistic and frightening (110). In the same scene, April’s monologue reveals her reaction to the restrictive model of the suburban housewife when she realizes that Frank and herself “are just like the people [they were] talking about,” being eroded by the pressures of the roles they should perform despite their efforts to appear different, sophisticated, and revolutionary (110). Just like April, Frank finds the domestic space and his responsibilities as a husband and father confining and burdensome, as he stares “at the house as if it was going to bite [him]” in the morning before going to work (110). In other words, the pretended success and happiness among the tenants of Revolutionary Hill Estates that Frank and April criticize are equally present in the Wheelers’ home. Frank and April seem to be entangled in the fallacy they scorn, and just like the Donaldsons, Campbells, Cramers, and Wingates, the Wheelers are unable to escape “the great sentimental lie of the suburbs” (112); they must stay put and accept containment within their socially acceptable roles of husband-provider and housewife.
Despite identifying and experiencing the confinement of suburban domesticity, Frank and April lurch between adopting an unconventional lifestyle in Paris and satisfying their desire for conformity and sameness. From its beginning, the novel depicts April’s attempts to escape her confinement within her role as a mother and housewife as she seeks attainment and self-realization through her involvement with the local amateur theatre company, the Laurel Players. By finding a calling beyond the traditional household chores, April attempts to transcend “the housewife syndrome” of her era, and inevitably places herself in the spotlight of her suburban community. Her failure to portray her part convincingly mirrors her unsuccessful attempts to portray the role of the happy and content wife in real life. Yet the novel’s exposition with the failed play performance adds an extra layer to the discussion of conformity and April’s desire for sameness. As Frank reveals, the desire to conform to sameness and normalcy was the main motivation behind the formation of the Laurel Players. For Frank and April especially, who were “forced” into a married domestic life because of April’s sudden pregnancy, the Laurel Players are a way to connect with the tenants across Route Twelve and to succumb to the standard of a respectable married couple.
Through their involvement with the rest of the Players, Frank and April attempt to be like everyone else, thus foregrounding their shrouded yearning for assimilation despite their resonant protests against conformity. As the narrative highlights, when leaving their “various kitchen doors behind” to attend rehearsals, the Players are confronted with the pressure to belong to a landscape of uniformity which exposes their deviations: “their own homes [looked] as weightless and impermanent, as foolishly misplaced as great many bright new toys that had been left outdoors overnight and rained on. Their automobiles didn’t look right either” ( 5). The comparison of possessions and social performances denotes that as much as the domestic space proves entrapping for Frank and April, it is still used to enforce normalcy: just like children play house with dollhouses and toy cars, Frank and April use their house as a testimonial for appearing content and happy. Frank many times in the novel sees the house as a refuge and an excuse for which it is worth to pretend, as he believes that “the gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms” (30).
Being rushed into a marriage neither Frank nor April was prepared for and with Jennifer’s impending arrival, the couple’s choice of residence is another indication of their desire to assimilate to the accepted standards of married life. Much like the Donaldsons who territorially mark their space with signs in an attempt to appear a “cozy little bunch” (129), Frank and April’s purchase of their house on Route Twelve was based on its picturesque appearance and the suggestion that its occupants could be a happy and content family. The house’s ability to stage such a performance is highlighted in the novel, with its exterior described as “small and wooden” and with its “outsized central window staring like a big black mirror” (30). The parallelism between a black mirror upon which light cannot be reflected and the house’s windows being dark and unrevealing denotes the house’s ability to appear serene and attractive to neighbors and onlookers while its ugly truths lie secretively inside. Without ever breaking character, their house ensures their assimilation into respectable American life to the extent they are viewed as positive influences of normalcy for the deviant John Givings. The house’s appearance as a haven for happiness and success is not even spoiled when, despite being the sole witness to April’s abortion and suicide, it is sold to another “delightful, young […] nice, congenial” couple, the Braces, at the end of the novel (337). All in all, the suburban narrative of Revolutionary Road is both confining and assertive for Frank and April who fail to escape the restrictions of domesticity while longing for assimilation.
In Sam Mendes’ filmic adaptation of Revolutionary Road, the idea of a restrictive domestic identity is mediated through the several shots of the exterior and interior of the Wheeler’s home. Throughout the film, April and at times Frank, stand in front of “the picture window” and look outside. The composition of the elements in Frame 1 reveals the sense of confinement experienced by April in the house as she watches Frank depart for work every morning (Appendix A). The symmetry created by the three parallel lines of the window grille is foregrounded, while April’s figure is softer and pushed back to the frame’s middle-ground. Additionally, the symmetrical lines across her face give the impression of prison bars, making a more direct reference to domestic confinement. Interestingly, one of the lines falls just above April’s mouth which remains expressionless for the total duration of this scene. As she watches Frank and the outside world, April is reminded of her own silence; either in the form of the countless hours she spends home alone while the children are at school or play, or the silence she is called to uphold with regards to her own personal dreams, desires, and aspirations. In the same frame, the high-key lighting creates a contrast between the darkened room and the bright and colorful outside world, and despite its strength and clarity, it is not enough to permeate the house. Rather, the image of a neighboring house illuminates over April’s figure, serving as a further reminder of the place she is in, along with its roles and definitions.
In a similar way, “the picture widow” metaphor throughout the film represents Frank’s inner struggle with his lifestyle and choices, as April’s decisiveness finds him unprepared for a life where he would not have to hide behind his own insecurities. Michael Moreno explains Frank’s containment in the ordains of domesticity and consumerism and the loss of his identity and manhood in the novel, as he “is caught at the crossroads of his yearning to return to a more bachelor-like frontier world of masculinity, intellect, and adventure and his obligation to perform the blurred roles of organization man, suburban father, and compatible husband” (87). When April explains their change in plans to the children, Frank is framed against the window (Frame 2, Appendix B). While he stares at a candid and colorful world outside, his own image is blurred, dark, and seemingly unnoticed by April and the children as he casually sips his drink. The film, thus, resembles the novel’s description of the house that appeared so enticing and promising to the Wheelers: as a space able to obscure the hidden desires of the owners from the public while remaining appealing on the outside. At that specific moment, relishing in the shadows of his comfort zone, Frank hides his contentment with not having to move to Paris and April as an outside spectator does not realize the fickleness of his feigned disappointment. On the contrary, Frank is finally glad that April’s third pregnancy has made upsetting his whole world unnecessary. In that sense, the house becomes once again a performer in Mendes’ film as it enables Frank to assimilate with rather than challenge the norm.
Regarding Frank and April’s conformity to social conventions despite their constant desire for rebellion, Mendes’ film, much like Yates’ novel, further explores the couple’s assimilation and their use of the domestic space’s performativity. April, in her last performance before she chooses abortion and in consequence, suicide, decides to stage the play of “very nice house, very sweet house” according to the words of John Givings (Yates 188). In her curtain act, she sets the table and prepares breakfast for Frank and herself while she tries to be the normalized attentive, smiling, and content housewife. As highlighted in Frame 3, the house is for the first time neat and organized, with its furniture in place, the chairs in perfect alignment and the pictures on the walls symmetrical with the tables and cabinets below (Appendix C). The absence of any deviation from the scenery is coupled with the diegetic sound of April in the kitchen that adds to the performing effect. The composition of the furniture in the frame creates an overall image of a living room that seems uninhabited by people and could very easily resemble the staging in a play. When Frank leaves for work that morning and takes a look at his house from afar, it is ironic that this time it does not “[make] him think of death” as it should but fills him with hope (Yates 32). Equally ironic is the final shot of the house with the blood stain on the carpet in front of the picture window, as it denotes a failed performance in April’s part to escape confinement and dispels Frank’s illusions of having finally achieved the pristine and perfect family life he always wanted. The exceptionally bright lighting in this scene is crucial in heightening the tension and suggesting that despite the events that unfold inside its walls, the house maintains its performance as an idyllic place that “had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy” and never breaks character as an “invincibly cheerful” place (324).
The domestic space in Ian McEwan’s Atonement plays an equally important role in defining Briony’s character and her relationships with its tenants. Over the course of the novel, and especially during its exposition, McEwan calls the readers to roam the grounds of the Tallises household and absorb its details from architecture to the furniture and follow Briony’s interaction with and movement around the space. According to Cynthia Quarrie, the house as both a hierarchal structure and the place where the narrative’s action unfolds is modelled after the tradition of the country house novel and grants a rich literary inheritance to the characters (195). That much can be said for Briony Tallis, who, endowed with a grand house equal to the ones featured in canonical English novels, is obsessed with literature and narrative control herself. As Briony explores her surroundings through the eyes of writing and storytelling, her domestic containment constructs the environment that enables the emergence of her authorship.
Apart from serving as a backdrop of Literature and Englishness for the novel’s protagonist, the house and its complex architecture play a defining role in modelling Briony’s character. Much like the house is associated with the cultural legacy of imperial England, Briony fathoms herself the house’s monarch. As the novel reveals, Briony asserts her rule by overseeing her own story-world and dictating her cousins in the rehearsals for The Trials of Arabella in the nursery. The house further empowers Briony’s authorship and strengthens her connection with literature when she expresses her discontentment with simply writing fictional stories and decides to wait “until something significant happened to her” at the house’s temple (McEwan 77). Frustrated with the subject matter of her own writing and with her cousins’ disobedience to her orders, Briony flees to the house’s temple grounds which bear historic and literary significance and become the setting for important decisions in the eyes of a ten-year old: “she was independent now of other people’s opinion” (75). Briony’s wish to wait until something important happens to “[rise] her to challenge and [dispel] her insignificance” is fulfilled as she stumbles upon Lola’s rape at the temple (77). At that time, the structure is not synonymous with a spiritual or a literary awakening, but it reveals the opportunity to exert her influence around the household by presenting herself as a sole eyewitness to the event. The fact that she knows her way around the estate and that she is the one who finds Lola despite the amount of people searching the grounds not only suggests her familiarity with the space but also her ability to use her knowledge of it to her own benefit. According to Quarrie, the temple becomes “a projection of Briony’s childhood desire for a tragedy” which she uses to inspire her fiction and to control others (198). Thus, Briony is in charge, not only of her own narratives, but also takes charge of the events occurring at the grounds of her household.
Briony’s desire to ordain the lives of her family just as she ordains that of her characters is evident in several other instances she behaves as the house’s monarch. When she witnesses Cecilia’s interaction with Robbie at the fountain, which is quite unlike the interactions she is used to around her dominion, Briony identifies an intruder at the face of Robbie. Just like Briony, Robbie bears an attachment to the Tallises home, having grown up in its grounds, and he roams around all of Briony’s sacred places with great ease, being the charlady’s son. Much like the temple becomes a symbol of awakening for Briony’s literary identity, the water fountain becomes synonymous with a threat against her ordained world and potentially the affections of her sister. In shunning Robbie, Briony attempts to protect herself and her family from the machinations of an intruder, territorially fending off all his attempts to become part of the household. In other words, unlike the confining domestic space for April in Revolutionary Road, the Tallises household becomes a dominion over which Briony can exercise her control.
This space thus marks Briony’s ability to exercise control over people, events, and narratives, and this is substantiated during the investigation of Lola’s rape, when the free indirect discourse of the narration reveals metaphors from architecture to assert whether Briony’s claims hold any substantial truth. Much like the walls or the façade of a building, Briony’s “glazed surface of conviction” bears “blemishes and hairline cracks” (McEwan 168). Nevertheless, she assures herself of the truth of her statements basing the facts on elements she is already familiar with, like the symmetry of Lola’s and the rapist’s figures, which “was founded in common sense” (169). Just as she takes control of the interrogation when she presents Robbie’s letter, Briony is able to assert her control over the testimony and the authorities’ decision. The novel, therefore, suggests that in positioning herself as a witness, Briony exerts her influence from a place of narrative, storytelling, and childhood fancy to a more serious world of consequences. As the rest of the narration reveals, Briony had “trapped herself [and] marched into a labyrinth of her own construction”, a confinement of her own making and origin from which she vainly attempts to escape by writing the novel (170). Her return to the Adam-style building much later in life can be interpreted as an attempt to achieve closure and escape her confinement from the labyrinth of guilt, and it is questionable she ever manages to do so as her memory stumbles upon a young Briony Tallis reciting The Trials of Arabella, a “busy, priggish, conceited little girl” (367). All in all, the domestic environment for Briony is a shrine to her controlling youthful nature, crucial to discovering her literary identity, and continues to define her as an adult.
Joe Wright’s filmic adaptation of Atonement builds upon the novel’s exploration of Briony’s domestic identity from the very first shot. As seen in Frame 5, the film begins with Briony’s dollhouse which, as it is later revealed, mirrors the actual Tallises Gothic-style household (Appendix E). With a soft focus and long shot around the room, Briony’s desire “to have the world just so” is foregrounded, as the toys are positioned behind her back in a manner that resembles the book’s description of them being ready “to break into song” (McEwan 4). The overall neat arrangement of furniture and elements around her bedroom credit Briony with an amount of control and freedom of movement and expression. Unlike Frank and April’s house that looked like every other house on Revolutionary Road, even from the opening scene Wright’s film asserts that Briony’s room is her own, and unlike any other in the house. Young Briony in Frame 2 with her back turned to the audience is far from confined, and in a space of her own volition imposes her own “strict instructions” (5). Her dominance over the space she occupies and the narrative she produces is enhanced with the diegetic sound of Briony’s typing on the typewriter present on Frame 5 and 6, as well as the high-key lighting around her figure that asserts her presence (Appendix E; Appendix F).
Briony extends her control beyond her room and the production of her play to the rest of the house. As she exits, a montage sequence sees Briony owning every step of the distance she travels from the top floor to the servants in the rooms, to the kitchen, and to Robbie in the garden before she finally makes her way to her mother in the drawing room. This sequence consists of several long shots that see Briony climbing down the stairs while being under the focus of high-key lighting. The use of chiaroscuro in frames 7 and 8 to depict the contrast between the image of Briony and her background determines Briony as a figure that stands out as worthy of illumination from the rest of the elements in the frame and establishes her as a protagonist even before the film’s exposition begins (Appendix G; Appendix H). When Briony witnesses Cecilia’s and Robbie’s interaction in the fountain, her face is illuminated with a bright and vibrant color resembling the light that follows Briony’s every move (Frame 9, Appendix I). Soon, however, that light is darkened as Briony’s assertiveness is transformed into shock and worry as Robbie seems to exercise a form of control over Cecilia that makes her dive into the fountain in her underwear and that threatens Briony’s influence over her. The shot then cuts from Cecilia running towards the house triumphantly with the vase in one hand to a clouded version of Briony’s figure in front of the window which is entirely antithetical from the one before. Unlike Frame 9, the low-key lighting in Frame 10 creates shadows over Briony’s face and darkens the background, an overall effect that enhances the emotions of fear and perplexity as she has identified a possible intruder in her dominion. Similarly, unlike most of the scenes that feature young Briony in the film, the lighting in Frame 11 is darker, and for the first time young Briony’s smallness in comparison to her grandiose surroundings is expressed. The arrangement of the elements in that frame, along with the low-key lighting and the zoomed-out camera shot align with Briony’s emotions as she receives Robbie’s letter, and she once again feels threatened and intimidated. Through the employment of cinematic elements, Joe Wright’s Atonement manages to capture Briony’s relationship to the space she occupies and its influence over her identity. Throughout the novel and the film, the house influences Briony’s authorship and authoritarian control as a dominant figure around the house and as a character whose dominion is threatened by Robbie’s claim of a relationship with her sister.
In conclusion, the influence of the house and the domestic space over the characters’ desires and motivations is evident in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Sam Mendes’ adaptation as well as Ian McEwan’s and Joe Wright’s Atonement. Living in the American suburbs of the 50s, Frank and April use the domestic space as a façade that aligns with the socially accepted expectations of domestic life while obscuring their tragic reality and as a performance that enables their conformity. As a woman, mother, and housewife, the domestic space becomes associated with imprisonment and death for April who fails to escape its definitions. For Frank, the domestic space is a place to impose his control and hide behind his own indecisiveness and masculinity. As for Briony, she extends her domination beyond writing and storytelling when she relates her own literary growth and controlling identity to the events around the house. After she asserts her control in accusing Robbie of raping Lola and being excommunicated from Cecilia, the Tallises household becomes a figurative prison for her childhood memories that bear the guilt of her actions and to which she is bound for life.
(Frame 1: Mendes, Part 1, 18:35)
(Frame 2: Mendes, Part 2, 15:38)
(Frame 3: Mendes, Part 2, 40:47)
(Frame 4: Mendes, Part 3, 4:43)
(Frame 5: Wright, Part 1, 1:14)
(Frame 6: Wright, Part 1, 1:29)
(Frame 7: Wright, Part 1, 2:00)
(Frame 8: Wright, Part 1, 2:36)
(Frame 9: Wright, Part 1, 7:23)
(Frame 10: Wright, Part 1, 8:12)
(Frame 11: Wright, Part 1, 28:21)
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Vintage, Penguin Random House, 2005.
Mendes, Sam, director. Revolutionary Road. Performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, and Kathy Bates, Paramount Pictures, 2006.
Moreno, Michael, P. “Consuming the Frontier Illusion: The Construction of Suburban Masculinity in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, 2003, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 84-95. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=ijcs
Quarrie, Cynthia. “Before the Destruction Began: Interrupting Post-Imperial Melancholia in Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement.’” Studies in the Novel, Summer 2015, vol, 47, no. 2, pp. 193-209. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26366647
Wright, Joe, director. Atonement. Performances by James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave, Universal Pictures, 2007.
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. Vintage, Penguin Random House, 2007.