Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Revolutionary Road and South Africa

At first brush, the two topics of this post seem very disconnected. But I'm going to try to connect them in this essay (it isn't really a good blog post).

Back in my senior year of college, I read the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. While I was visiting home last month, I managed to see Sam Mendes's film adaptation of the story (in my effort to catch up on Oscar nominated films, several of which have not yet made it to South Africa).To briefly summarize the story, it is about a bright, young couple who share a yearning to explore and appreciate the world, to remain free and unattached to any specific way of life. But, with time, they become increasingly trapped both by obligations and by their own fears of leaving the stable, suburban life that they have built. Their sedentariness and inertia lead to depression, which in turn destroys their relationship and eventually their lives. Both the film and the book are emotionally devastating in their depiction of the pain of this downward spiral.

I feel the emotional impact of Revolutionary Road strongly in part because at times I myself have felt fearful of falling into a life that is entrapped and, in turn, leads to depression. Simply because I am conscious of this risk, I remain hopeful that I will be able to avert it. While driving through rural South Africa upon returning from my brief visit to the States, I was struck by how this fear and this idea of a sedentary, suburban life are specific to the middle classes (and above), and therefore are also specific to more developed countries.

This can be understood, I would argue, by looking at people’s needs. U.S. psychologist Harold Maslow proposed a "hierarchy of needs" that was useful for understanding people's motivations,1 which I feel is crucial to understanding the depression depicted in Revolutionary Road. In his work, Maslow suggests human needs are grouped in a hierarchy (often represented as a pyramid, see the image at right). At the very bottom are the physiological needs, such as food, water, breathing, etc. Above that are the needs of safety, such as security, resources, family, health, etc. Maslow's concept was that a person would not concern himself with these needs of safety until all her/his physiological needs had been met. As people secure more and more of the needs of life, they move up the pyramid. At the top of the hierarchy are the needs of self-actualization - morality, creativity, spontaneity, tolerance, philosophical insight, etc.

I believe that it is these needs of self-actualization that were the undoing of the couple in Revolutionary Road, and that are the cause of much of the depression in middle-class people who should otherwise be content. Living in a middle-class, developed country, lower needs (such as food, employment, safety and security, etc) are more easily secured, allowing someone's motivation to be devoted to the higher needs of self-actualization. Seeking motivation, spontaneity, tolerance, creativity and such values can often be unrewarding endeavors. That is to say, self-actualization is hard to achieve and even harder to measure. So as people in middle-class America strive for these upper goals, it is not surprising that people become discouraged and depressed as the challenges prevent them from feeling a sense of accomplishment.

In less developed areas, such as the impoverished, rural communities of South Africa, the lower needs are less easily fulfilled. For many, physiological needs such as food and water are an ongoing struggle. I do not want to suggest that these needs are easier to secure. But for something like food, or even employment, there is a more tangible reward and, therefore, an easier measuring stick. A sense of fulfillment of these more basic needs is easier to come by. As a result, individuals of lower socio-economic status have a greater potential for fulfillment, making the devastation presented in Revolutionary Road specific to the middle class.

In terms of anecdotal evidence, the people I have met in my community have very achievable goals and focus on filling immediate needs, such as food and money. Conversations about morality and rational insight are almost non-existent here; instead, people focus on the substance and reality of survival. I would not claim that people are happier here, but I also rarely see evidence of depression, or a sense of giving up. When members of my host family return from experiencing more middle-class lives in the cities, I may then hear evidence of depression. One such person told me that he listens to music when alone so that he does not have to contemplate his life.

I believe that South Africa's changing economic status is increasing the risk for such "middle-class depression". The white population (which is generally a higher socio-economic status group than the black population) has a disproportionate percentage of suicides (26% percent of suicides involve white individuals, even though 10% of the population is white).2 Yet the black population, which is experiencing rapid growth in socio-economic status (especially in urban areas), is also experiencing growth in its suicide rate.3 This can be partially attributed to increasing suicide rates among HIV positive people,4 but the increase in suicide rates predated the HIV pandemic.5 As South Africa increasingly becomes first world, and a larger middle class emerges, a "middle-class depression" will increasingly emerge here as well.

Although this topic may sound dark, I really write about this in hope of capturing the stark differences that exist between socio-economic groups in terms of attitudes and approaches to life. Here in rural South Africa, people devote each day to filling tangible needs, such as food, water, employment and caring for family, while in the middle-classes (such as those portrayed in Revolutionary Road), people's motivations for self-actualization are vague and harder to measure. This simple difference in motivation and need results in a vastly different approach to life and, as a result, different levels of fulfillment.


  1. Maslow, Abraham (Harold). Motivation and Personality. 1954.
  2. Schlebusch, Lourens. Suicidal Behaviour in South Africa. 2006.
  3. Hoyert DL, Kochanek KD, and Murphy SL. Deaths. "National Vital Statistics Report," 47(19). DHHS publication No. 99-1120. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 1999.
  4. Schlebusch, A. "South Africans torch themselves in suicide epidemic." Digital Journal: Health. 09 February 2009.
  5. Hoyert DL, Kochanek KD, and Murphy SL. Deaths. "National Vital Statistics Report," 47(19). DHHS publication No. 99-1120. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 1999.


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