Literature Study GuidesAmerican DreamSection 2 Mrs Barker Arrives Summary

American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Section 2 (Mrs. Barker Arrives) | Summary

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Summary

Daddy answers the door. It's Mrs. Barker, the chairman of Mommy's women's club. She and Mommy exchange passive-aggressive pleasantries, and Mrs. Barker accepts Mommy's absurd invitation to take off her dress. This is too much for Daddy, who tells everyone he's "going to blush and giggle" and then goes "sticky wet."

Nobody seems to know why Mrs. Barker is there, not even Mrs. Barker herself. Daddy has "misgivings" about whatever is going on, the sensation of which originates where his stitches were. They talk about Daddy's operation and the decreasing grandeur of his life's goals, which leads to a story about Mrs. Barker's brother, resulting in Mrs. Barker's pronouncement that "there's too much woman hatred in this country." Grandma tries to disagree, but Mommy tells her to shut up. "If old people did have something to say, nobody would listen to them," she says. Mommy and Grandma get into a meaningless fight.

The conversation goes in circles. Mrs. Barker wants to know why she's there, as does Daddy, but Mommy thinks it isn't fair to tell. Grandma knows, but nobody will listen to her. Mommy is annoyed with all of Grandma's talking so she sends Daddy into Grandma's room to break her television. Mommy insults Mrs. Barker, whose husband is in a wheelchair, by saying how glad she is that she isn't married to someone "who sat in a wheelchair all day." Mrs. Barker is upset but tells Mommy to forget about it. Mommy does.

Mrs. Barker feels faint. Mommy orders Grandma to get Mrs. Barker some water, but Grandma refuses. Mommy threatens to have her "taken away in a van," but Grandma isn't frightened. Mommy gets the water herself.

Analysis

Mrs. Barker is a caricature of the high-society woman of the late 1950s and early 1960s. With an abundance of money and time on her hands, she volunteers for multiple committees. She is proud to be associated with doing good works, but she doesn't have a firm grasp of what those good works are. The appearance of being socially conscious is more important to her than actually helping others, just as Mommy is more interested in social status and material possessions than actual relationships.

Mrs. Barker's arrival signals a power shift in Mommy and Daddy's apartment. Mommy and Daddy welcome Mrs. Barker by repeatedly pointing out her shortcomings (her lateness), which places them in the position of superiority. Mrs. Barker regains the upper hand when she reminds Mommy she's the chairman of the women's club. Now Mommy must defer to her. Mommy raises her own status by squelching Daddy's—her suggestion that Mrs. Barker take off her dress is designed to show Daddy's ineptitude in the face of female sexuality. He ejaculates prematurely, losing all authority he had when Mrs. Barker entered the room. Mommy goes for the kill by insulting Mrs. Barker's husband. The mention of Mrs. Barker's only "failing" flips a switch in her personality, making the once confident woman bewildered and afraid. At the end of Section 2 Mommy has stomped her way back into the power position.

The only thing standing in Mommy's way is Grandma. Grandma is the anomaly in the group. While everyone else speaks in banal social platitudes, Grandma rails against the treatment of the elderly and the effects of old age. They sit in their comfortable chairs while Grandma heaves boxes into the room. She is constantly in motion while everyone else is sitting. Unlike the middle-aged "children" in front of her, Grandma isn't going to wait for her life to change—she's going to actively pursue it. All this is lost on Mommy and Daddy, who think Grandma to be too "rural" to know anything about modern life. The dramatic irony (the audience of a play or story knowing something the characters don't) in this is that Grandma is the only person in the play—including the audience—with any clue as to what's going on. She has the knowledge everyone wants, but her age prevents her from gaining the power needed to share what she knows.

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