Heroes

A few thoughts here about that discussion April has with Frank (round about page 111  as far as the end of Part one): I love the way this description of their intense discussion kicks off as Frank imagines how April will have worked herself up into a lather during the day. What’s clever though is the way we slide across from Frank’s thoughts to hers;  ‘she must have spent the afternoon in a frenzy of action…’ becomes, by the end of the paragraph, ‘Her whole day had been a heroic build-up for this moment of self-abasement; now it was here, and she was damned if she’d stand for any interference’ – and so she launches forth. Brilliant dramatic shift in pace and perspective.

April’s argument for going to Paris is predicated on her fierce belief in Frank; she believes that her high opinion of him and the kind of man he could be is universally shared: ‘But if you mean who ever said you were exceptional, if you mean who ever said you had a first-rate original mind – well my God, Frank, the answer is everybody.’The irony of this is impressed on the reader as Yates explores Frank’s idiomatic thoughts, thoughts which reveal his weakness and vanity (‘Had Bill Croft really said that?’). He cannot win the argument without demolishing April’s high opinion of who he is and of who she has married but this is not within his capabilities. Thus the ‘note of honest doubt’ that he thinks he might have heard in her voice is immediately countered by his acquiescence that, ‘“Okay, let’s say I was a promising kid.”’ Furthermore, as he develops his posturing, ‘his voice had taken on a resonance that made it every bit as theatrical as hers. It was the voice of a hero’. Far from condemning Frank for this inability to put his wife straight, Yates offers up his fallibility as a man to a reader who might very well recognise that with such small dishonesties all marriages are weakened. With these small indicators of human, and particularly male, posturing, Yates critiques notions of heroism in its contemporary form. Through several of his male protagonists, he suggests that the mid-twentieth century ‘hero’ is a pastiche of Hollywood lead actors; he has all the substantiality of a male in an advertising campaign and we are invited to watch him flounder as he checks his image in mirrors, adjusts his voice just as he adjusts his hair,  postures and preens. This is one remove from Fitzgerald’s flawed men who have heroic stature; the fallen idols of romance novels and classic film; Yates’s men never get close to heroic.

While his characters are never heroes, Yates observes how the ordinary man will borrow slithers of heroic fabric to coat his otherwise average behaviour. So here, Frank’s voice alters as he sees potential in himself and in the moment.  Yates uses moments such as this one with Frank to indicate the gap that exists between how his protagonist wants to be seen and how he is seen; usually it is the reader, rather than the other characters, who does the real ‘seeing’. The gap his females have to negotiate is typified here by April. It is, Yates suggests, a difference encouraged by a society that asks its females to take second place to their male partners and to place a greater value on their needs and their ideas of themselves. While loneliness, dissatisfaction and resentment characterize April’s life, domestically imprisoned as she feels herself to be in their neat little home, the reader is aware that the real danger for April comes from the construction of Frank she has made in her mind. At this stage in the novel, we have seen that Frank has to face ‘the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny’ but we have not yet seen April confront the reality of the man she is trying  to put on a pedestal (and society would appear to be encouraging her in this). As she learns to face up to the truth of who Frank is, and, therefore, to the truth about the shifting sands of their marriage, Yates suggests, with her tragic end, that that reality is too much to bear.


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