American Dream | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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American Dream | Themes



The characters in The American Dream use cruelty to establish power over others. Mommy in particular gains power through her cruel treatment of others. She torments Daddy with comments about his indecisiveness, his inattention, and his overall lack of masculinity, and openly mocks him and the physical representation of his manhood (his penis) in front of Mrs. Barker. She makes him feel like less of a man, which makes her all the more powerful. Daddy's emasculation prevents him from standing up to his wife and taking control of his life. He is so beaten down that now all he wants is to "get everything over with." Mommy's cruelty makes him a bystander in his own life.

Mommy and Daddy also used cruelty to control their first adopted son, the "bumble." They gouged out his eyes, cut out his tongue, and chopped off his penis and hands to teach him how a perfect child should act. Their actions result in death, not perfection. Mommy and Daddy wanted to control the bumble as if he were an object, not a person. Such cruelty in families is especially disconcerting.


Albee suggests the modern focus on social status mutated the original American dream into nothing more than an empty life centered on materialistic comfort. Mommy is more interested in things than people, and she and Daddy treat their adopted son like an object that can be bought and returned. They come from a generation that demands instant gratification, and unlike Grandma, who comes from "pioneer stock," they are unwilling to take action to achieve their goals.

Mommy's obsession with social status and the objects associated with it is a good example. She absurdly returns the beige hat when a woman with superior social standing indicates it's not beige and then buys it again when the salespeople insist it is. She craves the approval and admiration of others. Her desire for perfect outward appearance hinders her ability to make genuine human connections. Instead of empathizing with or even consoling the bumble when he is upset, Mommy inflicts bodily harm upon him because he is not acting the way a perfect child should. Her values are in line with the corrupted version of the American dream, which Albee portrays as deeply injurious.


Mommy and Daddy are both obsessed with satisfaction in The American Dream. It is the reason they wait so long for Mrs. Barker; it is the reason they complain; and it is the reason they are so delighted with the appearance of the Young Man. To them "satisfaction" is not comfort or happiness but vindication of their lifestyle and their feelings of social control. They don't just want a perfect child—they believe they deserve a perfect child. To them achieving satisfaction is the equivalent of living the American dream—they get what they want when they want without actually doing any work. This is illustrated by Mommy's attitude about Daddy's wealth. "I have a right to live off of you because I married you," Mommy tells Daddy. Mommy does nothing to earn this benefit but thinks it's her right. Daddy's wealth brings Mommy satisfaction.


In The American Dream the steep price of satisfaction is an inner emptiness. Mommy and Daddy's quest for the perfect exterior leaves no time or inclination to cultivate anything on the interior. This is in stark contrast to Grandma, whose age makes her less than perfect on the outside but allows her to hide a ripe and fulfilling interior self. She has worked hard for everything she has and gained a lifetime of memories, experiences, and regrets in doing so. Those are the things, along with a few prized possessions, that fill the boxes she lugs into the living room. She knows happiness comes not from having things or being "better" than everyone else but from actually living life.

The Young Man is the literal representation of the emptiness Albee associates with the achievement of the American dream. Beautiful on the outside, he is "incomplete" on the inside, lacking the ability to feel emotion and empathize with others. This makes him feel so miserable and unworthy he allows others to use his body for pleasure. The Young Man's exterior is the ideal of the American dream, but it hides a depressed and lonely soul that cares not for the life it lives.

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