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American Dream

  • Study Guide
Summary

Part four

Summary Part four

Analysis

"Yes, definitely; we're hostile" Daddy echoes when Mommy responds to Mrs. Barker's query about air raids, and here Mrs. Barker appears as the object of their joint hostility. In this sequence it seems most clear that Mommy is toying with Mrs. Barker. She forbids Grandma from revealing the visit's purpose; for whatever reason, she and Daddy sneer at Mrs. Barker's volunteer activities, activities that make her the caricature of the socially responsible American housewife. Note also the many double entendres: for example, when Mommy invites Mrs. Barker to fetch her own water, she notes that she should be able to put two and two together if clever enough.

In this light, Mommy's slip—in which she methodically lists husbands worst than her own—appears premeditated. Her panic upon realizing her "mistake"—peppered with her characteristic emphases, shrill exclamations, and violent imagery ("I could cut my tongue out!")—similarly seems aggressive in intent. At the same time, her willful forgetting of this faux pas also points out the other logic behind this bizarre visit—that of defense. Mommy will not think about it, forget she ever said it, and thus make everything all right. Thus she exiles a potentially traumatic idea from consciousness.

As we will see in the subsequent sequence, a traumatic memory shared by the party has similarly been defended against. Though remembered, it remains, for example, unspoken, temporarily forgotten, or, even worse, raised but without the characters' understanding its relevance to their situation. These defenses make up many of the play's dizzying, "absurdist" turns.

In this sense, Mommy and, to a lesser extent, Daddy's ignorance of Mrs. Barker's purpose here is less an intentionally devious game but an indication of their ambivalent struggle with a traumatic memory. This memory impels them to demand compensation, the "satisfaction" denied them: thus the invitation and violent treatment of Mrs. Barker. At the same time, this demand necessarily brings the memory against which they have defended themselves against to mind requiring further defenses, whether amnesiac, sophistical, or otherwise. Thus Mrs. Barker's visit can only occur on uncertain terms. Similarly do Mommy's attacks take place through, for example, the slip or the apparently unmotivated assault on Mrs. Barker's volunteer work, attacks that do not directly bring their trauma to consciousness.

As the audience increasingly senses the possibility that Mommy and Daddy have sprung a trap, Mrs. Barker comes to functions in a role perhaps analogous to Honey's in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf—that of the ingenuous outsider who cannot stay abreast of the household's games. Indeed, like Honey, she almost faints as a result. Note in this respect her telling confession to Grandma that she does not particularly like similes. This confession prefigures her ultimate failure to apprehend the purpose of her visit, a failure that will also number among the neurotic defenses the party erects against their shared traumatic memory.

Also of note in this sequence is Mommy's accusation that Grandma is a liar. The lie is a particularly important trope in Albee's theater. Lying is a matter of course here. Characters viciously stage fictions against each other in the course of their conversational battles—thus Grandma warns Mrs. Barker against trusting anyone in this household. Often they speak borrowed language—whether from television or book of the month club selections. The lie also refers to the theater: the actor and director figure as professional liars. As we will see, their fictions woven by these figures will ultimately intrude into the action with decidedly traumatic results.