Literature Study GuidesAmerican DreamSection 1 Meet The Family Summary

American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Section 1 (Meet the Family) | Summary

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Summary

Mommy and Daddy are sitting in the living room of their apartment. They complain about the tardiness of an expected visitor, and in the first of her many absurd stories Mommy tells Daddy about the difficulties surrounding the purchase of a new hat. "That's the way things are today; you just can't get satisfaction; you just try," Daddy says. They gripe some more, this time about the leak in the bathroom, which leads them to the topic of Grandma's "feeble-headedness." Grandma enters the room, her arms filled with boxes. She complains about the broken bathroom, and Daddy insults her. She's not happy with him, but she also says she "deserves" it because "when you get so old ... people talk to you that way." Mommy and Daddy admire the wrapping on the boxes after Grandma leaves the room, and Mommy tells another absurd story, this one about being poor as a child. She is much happier being rich, but she doesn't think it's proper for Grandma to "live off" them—"somebody" should put Grandma in a nursing home. Daddy says it won't be him.

Grandma reenters the room. Daddy compliments her on the boxes, but Grandma isn't having it. "You don't have any feelings, that's what's wrong with you," she snaps. He apologizes. She concedes, "it's Mommy over there makes all the trouble," and then recalls how she tried to talk Daddy out of marrying Mommy. Mommy is furious with Grandma, to which Grandma replies, "You should have gotten rid of me a long time ago if that's the way you feel." She then needles her daughter about her failing sex life, for which Daddy takes the blame.

The conversation turns once again to the expected visitor. Mommy and Daddy won't say whom they're expecting, and Grandma assumes it's "the van people" come to take her away to a nursing home. The doorbell rings. Daddy gets cold feet and doesn't want to meet whoever is on the other side, but Mommy forces him to go through with it. He opens the door.

Analysis

The first section of The American Dream introduces the audience to the play's three main characters: Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma.

Mommy

As the head of the family Mommy verbally dominates the conversation and the rest of her family with her belittling put-downs and menacing threats. She draws her strength from making others feel weak, particularly Daddy. She values social status and power over kindness and personal relationships, and she has a strong if misplaced sense of entitlement because of her position and wealth. She even feels entitled in her relationship with Daddy. "I have a right to live off of you because I married you," she tells Daddy, "and I have a right to all your money when you die." Mommy has absolutely no redeeming qualities, which positions her as the villain in the play.


Daddy

Thoroughly emasculated by Mommy, Daddy is more like a puppet waiting for his cue to speak than an equal partner in their relationship. He wants to be viewed as the man of the house, but he needs Mommy's constant reassurance about his masculinity, which makes him seem even weaker. His lack of power in the family dynamic is connected to his inability to "get fresh," or have sex, with his wife. Because The American Dream is a satire, Albee isn't making fun of Daddy for his sexual dysfunction but rather pointing out how society correlates the value of a man to his virility and outward displays of masculinity.


Grandma

In a society focused on material goods, wealth, and instant gratification, Grandma represents the voice of reason. The problem is no one listens to her because of her age. Mommy and Daddy ignore Grandma's "homilies" about what it is like to be old (though they are well on the way themselves) and treat her as if she were senile. The relationship between Grandma and Mommy is particularly tenuous. Mommy says she loves Grandma, but all evidence points to the contrary. She constantly threatens Grandma and says she should live in a nursing home, while Grandma refers to Mommy as "a tramp and a trollop and a trull [prostitute] to boot." Their intense dislike for each other is symbolic of the ever-present generational divide wherein the elderly often think their experiences have taught them the best way to do things while the young think the old ways are outdated. By making Grandma the only sympathetic and relatable character, Albee shows he is on the side of the elderly in general.
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