After the Second World War, there was an explosion of the middle class population in the United States. This, in turn, led to a massive increase in suburbanisation. For many, the story of the suburbs played out as a realisation of the American Dream with more Americans than ever having access to detached homes, cars, and other material gains. But this tale did not ring true for everyone. Others found the homogenisation of society very troubling. The rising counterculture of the time expressed feelings and values that conflicted with the conformity of the suburbs, and the artistic works that stemmed from that counterculture echoed this feeling.
While conformity can certainly be considered a form of large-scale societal control, it is one whose origins and mechanisms are nebulous and hard to define. Though images of totalitarianism have long been a popular metaphor for a conformist society, obviously that has never truly been the reality. While the Thought Police or Big Brother are often seen in fiction, these are just symbols for a more formless malaise. In the real world, people do conform, but not necessarily due to actual laws and a physical authority. So, when discussing the postwar American suburbs, what was it that made people conform? Obviously, there was no single, overarching force that forcibly bent society to its ideals; rather, it was a combination of many different factors. The mechanism of conformism in the suburbs that is of most interest to me is the influence imposed through surveillance and visibility.
Through their very design, the postwar suburban developments in the United States had mechanisms that are eerily similar to Foucault’s rendering of the panopticon. Though these housing complexes bore little similarity to the physical, enlightenment-era prison envisioned by Jeremy Bentham, there are congruent forces at play. The most important element that allows the panopticon to function is visibility. Prisoners are placed in a setting where, whether real or not, there is a constant threat of surveillance. Through the architecture of the houses and the layout of developments, the new, postwar American suburbs created a space in which residents’ lives were constantly on display to the rest of the neighbourhood. According to Foucault’s work, this would have assisted to ensure that a large percentage of the population conformed to similar values. As Foucault argues, one of the great benefits of the panopticon is that ‘far from impeding progress … it actually facilitates … progress’ (Foucault 1979: 208). In the suburbs, its effect helped to create a hard-working society of reliable consumers.
Whereas, the ideal panopticon works its affects uniformly across all kinds of people, the effect of the suburban panopticon was not totalising. There were people who had strong concerns regarding the effect the suburbs were having on the individuals that lived there. As Mikita Brottman (2003: 11-12) points out in ‘Apocalypse in Suburbia’:
The 1950s was famously a period of social consensus and conformity in America… it was also, not coincidentally, a time which saw the emergence of many subversive cultural productions, including beat writing and rock and roll music. The appearance of so many radical cultural forms during an era notorious for its social conservatism indicates that there were perceptible public doubts over whether this kind of mass consensus was really healthy.
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (2008) is a clear example of a subversive cultural production that stemmed from doubts regarding conformity. Not only does the novel show the effect that conformity can have on the psychological health of suburban residents, it also very strongly expresses the visibility and surveillance in their homes as a force acting upon them. Yates uses his descriptions of windows and lighting to show how the Wheelers cannot escape the neighbourhood they live in while also showing the devastating toll that it takes on their lives.
Though a work of fiction, Revolutionary Road’s locale is nothing if not faithful to reality. In the postwar period, suburban housing developments were specifically designed to promote surveillance between neighbours. According to Anna Vemer Andrzejewski, there were small parks that encouraged neighbours to interact, street patterns that encouraged residents to monitor each other’s movements throughout the neighbourhood, and most importantly large picture windows in nearly all of the houses, which are an important image in Revolutionary Road. These elements together ‘fostered a sense of omnipresent surveillance that affected the daily lives of residents’ in suburban developments (Andrzejewski 2009: 2).
Interestingly, Andrzejewski specifically mentions Foucault’s Panopticon in her analysis. She is careful to make a specific distinction between Foucault’s ‘disciplinary’ surveillance and the reciprocal surveillance in the suburb. Andrzejewski argues that since the surveillance information is freely held by everyone in the suburb, rather than held by a single, privileged observer, it is a positive aspect of the suburbs, and in fact one that residents ‘came to rely upon’ (2009: 2). However, while this may have been the case for some, I do not think that there is a clear distinction between Foucault’s panoptic surveillance, and what Andrzejewski calls ‘panoramic surveillance’ (2009: 2), and the effect that either had upon suburban residents. This is evidenced by the fact that it is not uniformly accepted that surveillance fostered community. Brottman (2003: 17) states that:
Many architects and city planners believe there is a profound connection between the structure of environments and the feelings and behaviour of their inhabitants. New urbanist thinkers argue that America’s sprawling suburban neighbourhoods, with their detached, tract-style houses, regularly lead to social isolationism, loss of community, and a failure to communicate.
Here, rather than fostering a sense of community, the suburbs were seen to foster division and alienation. Similarly, in the paper ‘Ordinary, the Same as Anywhere Else’, Chris Allen et al. (2007: 250) argues that while relationships in the suburbs were very polite, neighbours rarely formed truly close connections, and that the detached houses of the suburbs led to people’s relationships being distant rather than close.
I believe that both are true. The conformity observed during this era indicates that in some cases the constant surveillance of the suburbs brought a community together through shared ideals. But again, the existence of subversive works such as Revolutionary Road and others indicates this is not the only story. The state of ‘omnipresent surveillance’, as Andrzejewski (2009: 2) describes it, exerted control on the population of the suburbs for better or for worse. While the suburbs did not feature a single privileged observer as in a true panopticon, visibility still had a strong effect. And, it is important to note that Foucault wrote that more numerous observers, in fact, increase the ‘anxious awareness of being observed’ (Foucault 1979: 202). The pressure of the suburban neighbourhood might have simply compounded the stress of visibility.
These ideas of conformity, visibility and the suburbs, all drive the story of Revolutionary Road. In the panoptic Revolutionary Hill Estates, every character deals with conformity and visibility in their own way. Some thrive in and perpetuate conformism, some resign themselves reluctantly to it, and some are completely destroyed by it. And, through each of these stories, the ‘omnipresent surveillance’ (Andrzejewski 2009: 2) of the suburbs is inescapable.
Foucault describes the cells of the panopticon as ‘so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible’ (Foucault 1979: 200). It is fitting then that the novel begins with a play. April Wheeler, the housewife around whom the novel revolves, plays the lead in a small community theatrical production. This play, however, is doomed from the start. Small mistakes build and build until the production collapses into a complete disaster. April, who shows signs of promise at the outset, crumbles in spectacular fashion. All of this leads to an explosive fight at the side of the road between April and her husband, Frank, which serves as the catalyst for the events of the novel. April’s turn at acting results in nothing but trauma. From the very outset of Revolutionary Road, to quote Foucault again, to be an actor ‘perfectly individualized and constantly visible’ (Foucault 1979: 200) is a doomed fate.
The main setting of the novel is April and Frank Wheeler’s house. It is here where we see how deeply ingrained visibility is in the fabric of the suburbs. The couple is given a hint towards the house’s role even before they purchase it. While their realtor is extolling all the features that make it distinct from a typical suburban home, she does need to point out that, “Of course it does have the picture window; I guess there’s no escaping that!” (Yates 2008: 31). This might seem like a rather trivial example of conformity in the suburbs — all the houses have a picture window — but the window represents something deeper. There is no escaping the picture window. There is no escaping having a window into your life. There is no escaping surveillance.
When the Wheelers first approach their house, driving up to it in darkness following the disastrous play and their screaming match at the side of the road, Yates uses destructive language in reference to the various forms of lighting present throughout the building. Foucault states that ‘full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture[s] better than darkness’ (Foucault 1979: 200). At the Wheeler household, light is a constant presence, described in frightening terms. At their approach, they see a ‘cheerful blaze of kitchen and carport lights’ (Yates 2008: 32). Though it is described as cheerful, the lights are nonetheless a ‘blaze’ as though their house itself is in flames. Upon entering a dark kitchen, they flip the light switch and it ‘explode[s] into clarity’ (2008: 32). Rather than clarity appearing peacefully or benevolently, it comes with an explosion. The light is something destructive, exhausting, and frightening. Clearly, there is danger in lighting, and of course, along with it must come visibility.
Frank and April’s house is functionally transparent offering no refuge from the neighbourhood. Its residents are always fully lit and visible. When the realtor, Mrs Givings, comes by for a visit, Frank wants only to hide but cannot because she has already seen him through the screen door. He has been up all night drinking. Hungover and a mess, he fumbles about his house while his wife does the yard work that he had promised to do weeks earlier. He is ashamed and wants only to hide away for one single morning. But there is no privacy to be had in his home. Before he can hide away, Mrs Givings has already seen him through the screen door (2008: 41). Like the picture window itself, visibility is inescapable. A home is meant to be a refuge, but the Wheelers’ gives no respite from the surveillance, and as such provides no comfort.
The state of visibility is not limited to this one house. It permeates the entire development as Frank discovers on the night that April dies:
The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a Toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. Proud floodlights were trained on some of the lawns, on some of the neat front doors and on the hips of some of the berthed, ice-cream coloured automobiles (Yates 2008: 339-340).
April has finally rejected the pressures of visibility and conformity. She has made the decision to not bring a new child into the world and has died in an attempt to abort her baby alone in her bathtub. The final words we hear from her perspective are a lesson that she learned when she was a child: ‘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’ (2008: 327). Her last act is one of defiance against the suburbs, against ‘omnipresent surveillance’ and community bonds. But it costs April her life.
As Frank learns, you can never truly be alone in the suburbs. It is not in their design. Even in your own home, you are constantly illuminated and visible. And, as he is running through the streets in his grief seeking some form of solitude, the Revolutionary Hill Estates will not offer it to him. Every single house is illuminated, every single resident has bought into this system of surveillance. He flees to the woods, but ‘even then there was no escape: the house lights beamed and stumbled happily along with him’ (2008: 340). He can never be truly alone, and as such can never do anything, as April says, truly honest. And this grim reality loses him his wife, his family, his entire self.
Visibility killed the Wheelers, be it literally in the case of April, or figuratively in the case of Frank, who is described in the aftermath as ‘a walking, talking, smiling, lifeless man’ (2008: 347). Their lives are destroyed but what is almost more upsetting is that the Revolutionary Hill Estates carries on as if nothing has happened. Mrs Givings, after a brief period of turmoil, throws herself back into her work and manages to re-sell the Wheeler’s house after not too long. In the closing pages of the book she expresses her delight to her husband that the old house is filled again:
I simply can’t tell you how pleased I am about the little Revolutionary Road place, Howard. Remember how dreary it looked all winter? All cold and dark and — well, spooky. Creepy-crawly. And now whenever I drive past it gives me such a lift to see it all perked up and spanking clean again, with lights in the windows (2008: 353-354).
When the house is laid empty, it is a reminder that the panoptic machine of the suburbs is broken. Regardless of the harm it had caused, it had simply not performed its job properly. Now repaired and functioning as it should, with a suitable family living in it, it is as if nothing had ever happened. Mrs Givings comes up with excuses as to why the Wheelers did not fit in. She calls them whimsical, neurotic, irresponsible, guarded and unwholesome; they didn’t take proper care of the house (2008: 354). She must reassure herself: the suburb did not fail them, they failed the suburb.
In this ending, multiple ways in which surveillance can affect people are shown. It destroys the Wheelers but it comforts Mrs Givings. For some, it fosters community and comfort; for others, it breeds alienation and anguish. But regardless of the effects that Yates portrays, surveillance was a reality of the postwar suburbs. It was built into them through very conscious design decisions in their neighbourhoods and houses, suburbanites simultaneously watching and being watched by their neighbours. This may have, as Foucault argued it would, helped the United States follow a strong cultural trend of homogenisation in this era. But there were absolutely outliers and resisters to that trend. The suburban panopticon may have helped create and perpetuate a more conformist society, but it also created anxiety and doubt. And it was this doubt that led to an extremely strong and prolific counter-culture which created many profound and enduring works of subversive art, such as Revolutionary Road itself.
Chris Allen, Ryan Powell, Rionach Casey & Sarah Coward (2007). ‘”Ordinary, the Same as Anywhere Else”: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity in ‘Marginal’ Middle-Class Neighbourhoods,’ Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 239-258 http://www.jstor.org/stable/42856984 [accessed 16/10/2017]
Andrzejewski, Anna Vemer (2009). ‘Building Privacy and Community – Surveillance in a Postwar American Suburban Development in Madison, Wisconsin’, Landscape Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, 40-55, doi: 10.3368/lj.28.1.40
Brottman, Mikita (2003). ‘Apocalypse in Suburbia’, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 8-19, at http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=ijcs [accessed 16/10/2017]
Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan Sheridan trans. (New York: Vintage)
Yates, Richard (2008). Revolutionary Road, (Toronto: Random House)