Motif of the madman (and Revolutionary Road)

April 13, 2011 at 12:10 am 1 comment


He appears over and over again in the works of the early to mid-twentieth century. He explodes on the scene somewhere around one-third of the way through the book, shaking the other characters out of the ordinary worlds and safe lifestyles they’ve so carefully created.
He is the madman, the savage, the nut job whom we’re not supposed to be listening to — but somehow, we find ourselves as readers believing him more than anyone else.


I got to thinking about the madman when reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. This novel was published in 1961 but takes place in the 1950s, centering on the ordinary lives of April and Frank Wheeler. The Wheelers live an elaborately crafted suburban fantasy, with exactly 2.5 children and a house in a cul-de-sac with a lawn that needs mowed every weekend. They dream of going to Paris while at the same time Frank will never leave his very stable, very secure (though very dull) job at what I am pretty sure is an advertising agency.

The Wheelers know that their lives are unfulfilling, but it takes the insane son of a friend to point out the flaws in any specific way. John is on leave from an insane asylum when he charges into the Wheeler’s suburban split-level (I don’t know that it’s a split-level, but it should be) and questions everything about their lives in a way that only someone removed from societal constraints can.

With a few key questions and socially inappropriate observations, he completely dismantles the Wheelers’ collective self-image and pushes them toward the novel’s final confrontation.

Aldous Huxley does the same thing in Brave New World, introducing John the Savage with all of the passion and emotion that has been suppressed in Huxley’s distopian future. J.D. Salinger takes the motif a step further, making Holden Caulfield both a psych patient and the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye.

Like children, these two characters say what they are thinking at any given point; they are removed enough from the constraints of their respective societies that they can comment out the flaws of those societies as candid outside observers.

I’m not sure modern literature can use madmen in the same way. Madmen seem to have gone the way of wearing pearls and making sure the seams in one’s stockings are straight. Today, perfectly sane people can say exactly what is on their minds without being branded as social deviants…I think.

What do you think? Do you have an affection for the crazy characters in novels with restrictive societies? Can modern literature use this motif the same way?

(Editor’s note — Yes, I’m back! Corey deserves an enormous round of applause and probably some cake for being such an awesome blogger while I’ve been on hiatus for the past…gosh, nine months? I hope to post much more now that my life has settled down a bit and as I have pockets of time. It’s great to be back here at LT!)

Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

National Bookshelf Sharing Day! Discussion Post: A Room of One’s Own

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. SilverSeason  |  April 13, 2011 at 4:54 am

    I like your comparison of the madman in Revolutionary Road with the Savage in Brave New World. An importance difference is that the citizens of Brave New World are happy (happy enough) and reject the Savage’s judgments. In Revolutionary Road the author stacks the case against the Wheelers. Also they are unhappy and they know it, so the madman’s comments mostly just shatter the social facade behind which they are all hiding. Maybe that is enough.


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