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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is the significance of Mommy and Daddy's admiration of Grandma's boxes in Section 1 (Meet the Family) of The American Dream?

Mommy and Daddy don't have a lot of nice things to say about Grandma, but they appreciate how nicely she has wrapped the mysterious boxes she lugs into the living room from her bedroom. Mommy and Daddy fawn over the boxes in private and in front of Grandma, but they show very little curiosity about what the boxes actually contain. Mommy asks once and then forgets about it after Grandma tells her it's "nobody's damn business." Mommy and Daddy's reaction to the boxes is representative of their interest in exterior facades. They don't care what's inside the boxes as long as they look nice, just as they don't care what a person's inner self is like as long as the outside is attractive. Mommy and Daddy are all about appearances, not the contents within.

Why doesn't Mommy recognize Mrs. Barker in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) of The American Dream?

Mrs. Barker has come to Mommy and Daddy's house as a representative of the Bye-Bye Adoption Service, but Mommy also knows her as the chair of the women's club. Mrs. Barker recognizes Mommy, but Mommy doesn't recognize her. This could be for a few reasons. First of all Mommy doesn't pay much attention to anyone but herself. It is completely in character for her not to recognize someone she saw the day before. People outside the apartment seem to blend together for Mommy and Daddy, who refer to all outsiders as "them." The second reason Mommy may not have recognized Mrs. Barker is because of the sudden shift in social standing between the two women. As chair of the women's club, Mrs. Barker has a higher rank than Mommy, who is merely a member. But when Mrs. Barker comes to Mommy's and Daddy's apartment she is suddenly in the position of a service provider. She is lower in rank than Mommy, so Mommy doesn't pay much attention to her. It is entirely plausible that Mommy didn't even look at Mrs. Barker's face when she walked in the door. Finally readers should notice that Mrs. Barker has no reality at all beyond the absurd level of ignorance she shows. She is incompetent in the face of everything around her, and, when viewed this way, she is clearly no more than another person for Mommy to bulldoze on her way through life. That she represents an agency named "Bye-Bye" is symbolic in more than one way.

What is significant about Mrs. Barker taking off her dress in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) of The American Dream?

Mommy and Mrs. Barker are engaged in an absurd battle of one-upmanship at the beginning of Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives). They disagree about what to call the color of Mrs. Barker's hat, a worn-out topic by this point, and Mrs. Barker reminds Mommy "you seem to forget who I am." Mommy remembers Mrs. Barker is actually her superior in the chain of command at the women's club, so she shuts up. Then she invites Mrs. Barker to take off her dress. In a ridiculous decision, Mrs. Barker does. Now she is sitting in the living room in only her slip, her hat, and her shoes. She looks more comfortable, but she doesn't feel more comfortable. Her discomfort and exposure make her vulnerable to Mommy, who is gathering power under the guise of being a good hostess while also bringing to mind the impotence of the male in the room.

What does Grandma mean in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) of The American Dream when she says Mommy comes from "extremely bad stock"?

Mommy and Grandma are related by blood, so when Grandma says Mommy comes from "extremely bad stock" she's looking at herself and making a dark joke. Even she, herself from "pioneer stock," has not been able to have a better child than Mommy. Grandma is worn down by the society that has developed in front of her to produce someone as awful as her own daughter. She sees that Mommy belongs to a generation focused on material goods and social status rather than personal relationships and knowledge. Mommy doesn't know the difference between an enema bag and an enema bottle because it isn't polite to talk about those things and they're not something she can show off. Mommy expects everyone else to do things for her.

How does Mommy establish control over Mrs. Barker at the end of Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) of The American Dream?

Mommy wrests control away from Mrs. Barker at the end of Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) by bringing up Mrs. Barker's husband, who happens to be confined to a wheelchair. Mommy doesn't appear to realize what she's doing when she says it would be awful to be married to a man like that and then assures Mrs. Barker she feels terrible for what she said. But she also doesn't apologize for it. She merely goes along with Mrs. Barker's suggestion to forget it. This isn't an accident—Mommy knows exactly what she's saying and doing. In a society where appearances are everything, it is important for well-heeled women to have virile, able-bodied husbands. Mrs. Barker's husband is her one social weakness, and Mommy knowingly exposes it. Just the mention of her husband's disability makes Mrs. Barker feel faint. Belittling Mrs. Barker's husband is the final move that tips the scales of power in Mommy's direction.

Why does Grandma insist Mrs. Barker "implore" her in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) of The American Dream?

Grandma is delighted when Mrs. Barker asks her to explain why she has been asked to come to the apartment. "It's been so long since anybody implored me. Do it again," Grandma says eagerly. Mrs. Barker becomes irritated by the suggestion. She assumes Grandma is trying to assert her authority by belittling her, just like Mommy does. This is not the case, however. Grandma wants to be implored because it has been so long since anybody asked for, or even listened to, her opinion. In Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) Mommy points out "if old people did have something to say, nobody would listen to them." Having someone, particularly someone from her daughter's generation, actually ask for her help is something Grandma is only too eager to hear again. For the first time in a long time she feels valued.

Why is Mommy and Daddy's first adopted son referred to only as "the bumble" in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) of The American Dream?

"The bumble" is a malapropism, or the misuse of one word in place of another, usually with humorous results. "Bumble" is actually a fitting word to describe the adoption, because it means "to blunder or bungle," and the outcome of Mommy and Daddy's foray into parenthood was a mess at best. Referring to the little boy as "the bumble" also fits in with the play's focus on materialism because it makes him seem like more of a thing than an actual person. Grandma and Mrs. Barker don't even use human pronouns to talk about him and instead use the word it, like he was a sleeping bag or purse that could easily be returned. The boy had no human value to his parents, so Grandma doesn't refer to him as one would normally speak about a human. He was just another thing to add to their collection.

Why does Albee have Mommy and Daddy kill their "bumble" in The American Dream?

The violent death of the bumble at the hands of Mommy and Daddy is shocking, which is exactly the point. Mommy and Daddy corporally punish the bumble for doing things all children do—preferring one parent to the other, saying naughty things, and exploring their bodies. Mommy and Daddy don't like this behavior because it doesn't fit into the facade of familial perfection they want to project. They become desperate in their quest to achieve satisfaction with their son, and in the process they torture the child to death. It's shocking to make the audience understand the evil undercurrent of a modern culture built on materialism and its potentially devastating effects. In this instance the bumble represents fragility and innocence, and Mommy and Daddy are the consumer-driven culture that corrupts the human spirit.

What argument could be made that part of the lost dream hinted at in The American Dream was based on an agrarian life?

The lost American dream that Albee's play calls to mind can be seen only in the character of Grandma. She is the one admirable person in the play, yet she is the one viewed most contemptuously by other characters, as old and supposedly unworthy to live off the wealth of others or to be treated respectfully. So readers can look to the descriptions of Grandma to see hints as to what that old dream, now dying and being replaced by a new one, was like. Grandma is described by Mommy as rural, a term she uses dismissively but which Grandma claims as positive. An agrarian lifestyle is rural, and Grandma herself is proud to come from that. Also, when talking about a statistic that is important to her—the percentage of the population that is elderly—Grandma says the information comes from the "Department of Agriculture." This shows that she holds this department in high regard; of course it also represents an agrarian emphasis. So Grandma self-identifies with the land, the countryside, and the cultivation of crops, not the modern emphasis on cities and manufactured goods.

Why does Grandma compare the Young Man to the American dream in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed) of The American Dream?

The first thing Grandma notices about the Young Man is his appearance. He's a muscular, "midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking in a typically American way." Men want to look like him, and women want to be with him. Even Grandma is attracted to the Young Man. He's worthy of lust and envy, which in the United States makes him a walking example of the physical side of the American dream. At this point Grandma doesn't know the Young Man's backstory, nor does she know how empty he feels inside. All she sees is a flawless exterior that everyone strives for but very few achieve. His looks alone are what make her dub him "the American Dream."

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