The moon casts a dim white that moves angelic on your bedroom walls and floor. Your eyes are bright in the darkness. Your thoughts are even brighter. You squint at the lock-screen on your phone. It’s 2am and your deepest thoughts have come to wake you. What is it that you fear at 2am when you are alone and left to ponder? I’m not talking about suspicious creaks and the formless shadows that are turning into a horror-movie monster or the intruder from the front page of the newspaper. I’m talking about the creeping shadows of failures and distant desires that drift haunting in the black maze of suppressed fears.
Fear and failure are two deeply intertwined words with each having an influence on the other. They have the potential to trap each other in a continuous loop. Failure leads you to become fearful and being fearful may consequently lead to failure.
The concept of failure is largely explored in the book The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. It delves into the real-life horror of the everyday tragedy. These are tragedies which are simple and seemingly benign in scale and overt recognition. In its simplicity, the unfortunate becomes removed from the notion of being ‘other’ and the ambiguous ‘happy ever after’ ending gets a darker remake.
The Grimes sisters will not have happy lives. In one swift opening sentence, a tragic foreshadowing takes an insidious grip on upcoming expectations. However, in this very precise, matter-of-fact tone it is not an indication of a preconceived melodrama but an outlying of two very different women with very different lives. The sisters’ lives are nonetheless connected by similar themes although their pathways diverge into seemingly opposite directions. It may seem that the journey is spoiled by this prematurely bleak outcome but in fact I would argue that it is heightened by it. The very outright reveal is one that enables the book to explore concepts such as hopefulness and disappointment in an intimate way. We start the journey at childhood with idealism and end with a very real and unnerving cynicism.
The book posits two contradicting outlooks. One is that of the traditional domestic woman which encompasses the ideal nuclear family. The other is that of a university-educated, working woman. They serve as prototypes for the conflicting and expanding roles of women that are at play in the current post-feminist era. Each of these roles also involve an interplay of both condescension and envy. The perfect housewife is an act of success in itself and a platform for the upstanding virtues of morality, safety and security with familiarity. The apple pie lies piping hot and fresh, its hot vapours forming a path to the lush green of the manicured lawn while she awaits the husband to find rest from his 9 to 5 job. The woman nurtures and provides an environment for her children and husband to thrive. The children are in need of care and attention and all the thankless work that comes with school activities and responsibilities that will ultimately shape their future. She is the foundation and so in theory this idealised TV commercial version of life is a fulfilling one.
On the other hand is the more ‘modern’ depiction of the woman in society. She is one who lives on her own terms. Marriage is not an aspiration but a choice should the time come. Relationships are varied and each new man an adventure, with companionship being a greater emphasis than marriage material. Higher education and job satisfaction are more of a necessity and independence is the ultimate reward.
Sarah is the older sister who takes the more traditional route while her younger sister Emily is a kind of pioneer in the cosmopolitan lifestyle considering the setting that begins in the 1930s and ends around the 1970s. Sarah is a beautiful blonde with a curvaceous figure and a Laurence Olivier look-alike to whisk her away into marital bliss at the tender age of 20. Child-bearing follows swiftly with her having three children within three years. Emily on the other hand, has numerous relationships and never really settles down for too long. For majority of the book, Emily is the focus while Sarah slowly weaves her way back into the story with increasingly more profound snippets to reveal a jarring alternative to the perfect family narrative that is assumed.
The up-down swing of jealousy and pity is featured mostly in subtext. Emily feels a sort of betrayal at the realisation that she is now smarter than her older sister who confusedly describes a house as “pedantic” and is ignorant to the definition of “capitulates”. Sarah looks on with a kind of commiseration for her unwed sister and encourages marriage with each new suitor Emily brings.
“Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?” asks Emily.
Sarah looked hurt. “It’s the answer to a lot of things.”
The book is ultimately about unfulfilled dreams. This includes their mother whose life is entrenched densely with delusions of grandeur but who instead remains crass and reaching for an elevated standing in a society that she will never belong to. They weep for their father who never found the ability to be a great reporter and could never quite grasp why he led a life of restricting job dissatisfaction, remaining only as a copy-desk man.
Sarah loses her identity through her unhappy marriage. She becomes a hefty, disheveled weight of her former self. She is a display of extraneous burden, aged far beyond her years. In the park she sits unnatural against a background of youths who inhabit it athletic and active. She waits on the bench, unknowingly linked to the very same park in which Emily lost her virginity. Time brings a cruel irony to the older-younger sister dynamic. Sarah looks up to her younger sister for guidance. However, Sarah’s distress is a hindrance to Emily’s lifestyle. Emily guiltily sees her sister as an obstacle to her current and even future relationships. Emily substitutes her emptiness with men. Though unconfined to marital bonds, Emily is a function of her newest lover. Her independence is not as self-sufficient as it seems.
One is stuck in a failed marriage, the other travels from man to man and both are connected to each other by their unhappiness. The failure I so often refer to is the state of complete and desolate loneliness. There are few things so hopeless than that of the utter irreconcilable despair of complete mental solitude.
Where did all this unhappiness start? The trouble begins with the divorce of their parents while Emily and Sarah were very young. While the take-home message doesn’t exactly intend to say that all kids of divorce are doomed to failed relationships, divorce can be a more difficult starting point to navigate. This is further exacerbated by all the upheaval that follows with regards to their living arrangements. You could also read the message more pessimistically as showing you that there are multiple ways to screw up your life but I don’t think that’s the point either. Failure isn’t the defining characteristic of their lives but it is still a large factor. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what the ultimate point of the story is but I see it as a tale of the relatable misfortune. It is one that isn’t overgrown with melodrama and detached pity for the kind of adversity that can’t really be perceived by most people, such as extreme poverty and other forms of oppression seen in more dystopian-centred stories.
So could it all have been avoided? Does the book want you to isolate the incidents that led to their unhappiness? Yes and no. Yes, if you see it necessary to give them a more coming-of-age type of narrative where they learn from their mistakes. No, if you feel that it’s the outcome that imparts the lesson and changing it defeats the purpose of the whole book. It also depends if you believe in determinism or destiny. Maybe changing something is just a rerouting to the same destination or it’s the upbringing and their nature which makes them incapable of making any decisions other than the ones that they made. Either way, it’s a nicely ambiguous story that lets you put your own meaning to it.
“And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.” -Emily
Lastly, what is the significance of the Easter parade that led it to become the title? The Easter Parade is a point of wholesome family dynamics, an unsullied hopefulness and a proud moment for each character. Tony is a suave accompaniment to Sarah in her expensive but borrowed silk dress. A starry-eyed moment in time is captured by the public relations photographer, Emily has an adolescent crush on her older sister’s relationship and their mother experiences pride at this picture perfect representation. I’m not going to insist that it is the exact point of downhill deescalation from there but it is a time of young happiness. It’s the kind of happiness where the future is bright and whatever you wish it to be. The kind that those infested with that dreaded mid life crisis are nostalgic for.
So why does this tie in with my biggest nightmare? Well, as much as I’d love to hold on to destiny with its promises of ‘everything happens for a reason’, sometimes The Easter Parade is just what it is. *It’s a bright happy moment filled with sonnets and bonnets. He’s the grandest fellow while she’s the grandest lady and you’re the proudest couple on the avenue (Fifth avenue). But in this case, the credits don’t roll and the picture doesn’t fade into hollywood sunsets and blissful ambiguity. There’s no real guarantees, so you live past that moment and move on to the next one and grab on tightly to that Judy-Garland-Fred-Estaire merriment and hope it all works out.
*For anyone who’s a bit lost here, The Easter Parade is also an adorable musical with a closing number of the same name.