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American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Motifs



Grandma symbolizes the old American way of life that emphasized hard work and individual character. She tries to share the wisdom that comes with experience and age, but Mommy and Daddy insist on treating her as if she were a doddering old fool. They refuse to see the truth behind her words. Albee uses Grandma's blunt honesty about aging and the treatment of the elderly as a mouthpiece to share his own views about society's failings, particularly in regard to individual and collective values: "You got to have a sense of dignity ... if you don't have that, civilization's doomed," she tells Mommy and Daddy. Because she values people and memories over things, Grandma has the dignity Mommy and Daddy lack. She represents Albee's thoughts about how the world could or should be and how modern society is driving itself to ruin.

The American Dream

The American dream has historically been based on the idea that the United States is the land of opportunity for all and that success and prosperity can be achieved through hard work. Albee indicates this situation is no longer the case. People are instead focused on their exterior appearances—wealth, material goods, social status—rather than their interior selves. This view is embodied in the character of the Young Man. With a movie star's good looks and a muscular body, he looks perfect on the outside but is devoid of emotions on the inside. Albee uses him as a warning about how empty and desperate a life spent trying to achieve the modern interpretation of the American dream can be.


Grandma's boxes hold a few material possessions—her dog, a television—but they are mostly full of memories, experiences, and even regrets. These are the most important things in her life, and they are the things she wants to take with her when she moves out of the apartment. Though the contents of the boxes are dear to her, they are of little interest to Mommy and Daddy, who care only about the boxes' exteriors: "Look how pretty Grandma wrapped these boxes," Mommy enthuses. Mommy and Daddy don't care about the work involved in wrapping the boxes, nor that it was painful and frightening for Grandma to revisit all those old memories. They care only about the way things look. The boxes are wrapped beautifully so they are praised; Grandma looks old, so she is vilified. The boxes represent Mommy and Daddy's focus on the material and Grandma's appreciation for what is inside.

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