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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the relationship between satisfaction and happiness in The American Dream?

In The American Dream being satisfied means the characters have what they want when they want it (and they usually want it now). Daddy will not be satisfied until the toilet is fixed; Mommy isn't satisfied until she has the correct color hat. To them satisfaction is the feeling that everything is just right. But this doesn't mean satisfaction brings happiness. None of the characters except Grandma seem particularly happy with their lot in life: Daddy lives with a woman who makes him feel like less of a man; Mrs. Barker worries her husband is inadequate; the Young Man feels empty inside; and Mommy dislikes everyone. Those who chase satisfaction the most fervently are also the least happy. It's true Grandma isn't entirely gleeful about her life, but she seems happier the closer she gets to breaking free of the apartment. Unlike her daughter and son-in-law, she isn't obsessed with satisfaction, and she doesn't equate satisfaction with happiness. She knows one can exist without the other, and she chooses the latter as escape.

How does the Young Man represent the theme of emptiness in The American Dream?

The Young Man is the identical twin of Mommy and Daddy's late adopted son (whom Grandma refers to as "the bumble"). The Young Man never knew his brother but acutely felt his pain. When Mommy gouged out the bumble's eyes, the Young Man's eyes began to burn. Since then he has "been unable to see anything, anything, with pity, with affection ... with anything but ... cool disinterest." When Mommy and Daddy cut off the bumble's penis, the Young Man could no longer "love anyone with [his] body." His emotions and spirit die and he becomes a shell of a man. Though he looks perfect on the outside, he is empty on the inside. This correlates with the idea that the achievement of the American dream is internally unfulfilling.

In what ways does Grandma pose a threat to Mommy in The American Dream?

Mommy seems to have an intense dislike for Grandma, which springs from two possible sources: Grandma is a reminder of Mommy's past. They were poor until Mommy married Daddy (and Mommy is quick to point out Grandma is still poor), and even when Mommy was little she had her heart set on marrying a rich man who could give her a better life. Decades later she has cultivated herself into an upper-middle-class woman who continues to climb the social ladder. Having Grandma around all the time is a risk. She could easily blow Mommy's cover in front of people like Mrs. Barker, which would damage Mommy's reputation. Grandma is also a reminder of Mommy's future. She was once middle-aged just like Mommy, and just like Mommy's generation, Grandma's generation dictated culture and controlled society. They lost power as the years passed, and now the elderly are considered obsolete. Looking at Grandma is a subconscious reminder that Mommy will one day be cast aside, just as she has cast aside her own mother. Thanks to Grandma, Mommy is constantly reminded that the universal future is bleak.

How are disfigurement and disability used in The American Dream?

Edward Albee uses physical disfigurement and disability to represent the things in people's lives that are ugly and undesirable. In a world focused on exterior appearances, perfection is paramount. This is why Mommy spends so much time and energy fretting about the exact color of her hat. It's also why she can't fathom being married to someone in a wheelchair, like Mrs. Barker's husband. His imperfection is perceived as his wife's flaw, and she tries to keep it a secret. Mommy and Daddy are ashamed of the bumble. It isn't the baby they thought it should be, so they began physically punishing it, which led to its disfiguration. By the end of its life, "it didn't have a head on its shoulders, it had no guts, it was spineless." They disfigured the bumble and had to keep him a secret so nobody would find out what an imperfect child they had. His disfigurement is the direct result of his parents' desire for perfection. They keep him a secret even after his death so as not to be associated with something so flawed.

How do societal forces antagonize the characters in The American Dream?

An antagonist is a person, institution, or concept that opposes the protagonist, or the main character, of a story. In The American Dream the focus of society—and of most of the characters themselves—on material wealth and exterior appearances stands in the way of the characters' happiness. Mommy and Daddy have bought into the culture of materialism, and they spend all of their time and effort worrying about appearances and whether or not they are satisfied with their purchases. They have been conditioned to think money and things are more important than people, and their inner lives are empty because of it. They get no pleasure from their relationships with others, and their stress over minute difficulties only deepens their irritability and unhappiness. Grandma does not subscribe to the materialistic culture Mommy and Daddy embrace, so she is unable to understand why her daughter behaves the way she does. This causes dissonance in their relationship and an unpleasant tenor in the household. Grandma also suffers because of the way society views people of a certain age. When she isn't being outright ignored, she's treated as if she were senile. Mrs. Barker and the Young Man also suffer the consequences of a materialistic society. Mrs. Barker is ashamed of her husband, who uses a wheelchair, because he doesn't live up to the able-bodied ideal put forth by a culture that champions exterior appearances. The Young Man, who has the gorgeous exterior everyone wants, is miserable because he understands looks mean nothing when you are empty on the inside. Everybody seems to want him, but he does not love himself.

How is Edward Albee's The American Dream related to another one of his one-act plays, The Sandbox?

Albee was in the process of writing The American Dream when he began writing The Sandbox, which is a tribute to his grandmother. With the exception of the Musician, most of the characters in The Sandbox are pulled from The American Dream: Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, and the Young Man. Mommy and Daddy take Grandma to the beach (represented by a sandbox) so she can die. Only Grandma can see the Young Man, who turns out to be the Angel of Death. In addition to the characters, the plays also have a few other elements in common. Mommy is still cruel to Daddy and Grandma in The Sandbox, and she is still concerned about presenting an attractive exterior to the rest of the world. Daddy is portrayed as being a weak, emasculated version of manhood, and the Young Man is still presented as the physical ideal. The Sandbox also echoes The American Dream in how it shows the decline of personal relationships and the resulting emptiness, as well as the cultural divide between generations.

How does The American Dream depict the treatment of "professional women"?

The notion of "professional woman" first appears in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) of the play. Mommy asks Mrs. Barker if she would like a drink or a smoke, and Mrs. Barker cautions, "you forget yourself, Mommy; I'm a professional woman," meaning she cannot engage in such social pleasantries while doing business. In the era in which The American Dream was written, it wasn't unusual at all for men to have drinks over lunch and smoke through meetings, and Mrs. Barker's refusal to do so shows how she (and perhaps society in general) holds herself to a higher standard than what was expected of men. As she begins to unravel—asking for a cigarette in Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) and a glass of water in Section 3 (Family Secrets Revealed)—Mommy admonishes her for acting so unprofessionally. Albee is highlighting the strict standards to which women were held compared to their male counterparts while also satirizing the pretensions of labels that attempt to cover the real person beneath them.

In The American Dream why is it significant that Grandma dismisses the importance of gender identity?

As the only decent character in the play, Grandma is the one readers should look to for a sense of what might be right with the world. As she describes her ruse to win the baking contest, Grandma is clear that "I look just as much like an old man as I do like an old woman," and that this does not bother her one bit. Because Grandma espouses apparent approval for the blurring of lines between gender identities, readers can see that Albee appreciates those who are able to accept, respect, and support all types of gender identity, including his own homosexuality.

What do Grandma's boxes represent in The American Dream?

The boxes Grandma carries from room to room and then out the door in The American Dream symbolize what is really important in life, at least according to Edward Albee. She fills the boxes not with things but with memories and regrets. Revisiting the past is sometimes scary—she tells Mommy and Daddy she didn't like wrapping the boxes because "it hurt [her] fingers, and it frightened [her]." Yet she keeps wrapping to protect every scrap of memory, even those that are painful. These are the things she wants to keep close to her after she moves out of her daughter and son-in-law's apartment. The contents of the boxes don't just make her feel satisfied—they make her happy or at least define her.

What does the character of Grandma represent in The American Dream?

Grandma isn't just a character in The American Dream—she's also a motif. A motif is a recurring element with symbolic significance. Grandma is a symbol of the old and perhaps outdated version of the American dream upon which the United States was founded. She believes in making sacrifices and showing dignity, and she is the only character in the play who takes action to better her future. But Grandma is also old. She is constantly complaining about how old people are treated in American society, and she knows she will soon be carted off to the nursing home to spend the rest of her years fading away from memory. This mirrors Albee's theory about the American dream itself. It, too, is getting older and will soon be forgotten by a younger generation interested only in their own new dream of material wealth and personal satisfaction. The character of Grandma represents the slow death of one dream, a dream that once seemed the ultimate—which should lead readers to question if anyone's dreams ever have true meaning.

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