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American Dream

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

Disfiguration and Deformity

Images of disfigurement occur throughout the play; indeed, Grandma declares the age as one of deformity. Mommy had a banana-shaped head at birth. Grandma imagines old people as twisted into the shape of a complaint. Most notably, the "bumble of joy"—Mommy and Daddy's first adopted son—progressively loses body parts under Mommy's inhuman discipline and is discovered to lack a head, spine, guts, and feet of flesh. The accumulation of these monstrous births assumes almost prophetic dimensions, becoming omens in what Albee describes as the "slipping land" of America.

Often these corporeal disfigurements involve a disfigurement of language as well. Thus Mommy blinds the bumble, for example, upon discovering that it "only had eyes for Daddy". Mommy does not only violate the bumble's body; she disfigures language as well, violently literalizing a figure of speech and collapsing it onto the body. Importantly, the violence on the body follows this first disfigurement. Note that this violence Mommy performs on the figure of speech itself involves a violent linguistic mechanism—that of literalization. Such disfigurements are further examples of how the play explores the relationship between language and violence.

Old People and Grandma's epigrams

Throughout the play, Grandma offers a number of sardonic epigrams on the condition of the elderly. For example: old people cannot talk to anyone because people only snap at them; the speech of others causes their deaths. Deafness is their defense. Old people are reduced to whimpers, cries, belches, and the rumblings of their stomach. Old people are obscene, and onward. For Grandma, old people are decidedly marginalized within the American Scene, the victims of its violent social intercourse. In the social theater, they are truly "obscene" (L. ob-scaenus, off-scene). As an old person, Grandma will defend herself against social intercourse through the very "obscenity" of her deafness, crudity, senility, and, of course, biting epigrams. Her decidedly anti-social obscenity, often involving ironic commentary on the events before, prefigures her ultimate exit from the action and transformation into the action's director.

Defense

Psychically, the logic of much of The American Dream's touted "absurdity" is that of defense. Defense is clearest with regard to the characters' attitude toward purpose of Mrs. Barker's visit. Daddy, for example, hesitates before answering her ring at the door. For most of the play, Mommy and Daddy appear to have forgotten their relation to Mrs. Barker while simultaneously seeming to torture her with their knowledge of their shared history. They demand satisfaction from Mrs. Barker even when apparently ignorant of why she has come. When Grandma gives Mrs. Barker a "hint" and recounts that history, the flighty, titillated Mrs. Barker takes it under advisement but fails to apprehend its relevance to her immediate visit. These supposedly absurd dodges are due to the traumatic nature of the party's shared past, the memory of the "bumble of joy". Though no one has forgotten this past that provides the occasion, the characters keep it from immediate consciousness nevertheless.

The boxes

Cluttering the stage, Grandma's boxes number among its more enigmatic objects. For much of the play, Albee toys with the spectator's desire to discover the box's contents and function. Mommy and Daddy continually compliment the boxes' wrapping but do not consider its interior. When Grandma almost reveals the boxes' purpose, however, Mommy silences her. Ultimately the audience learns that the boxes contain the haphazard list of objects—the enema bottles, the blind Pekinese, and so on—that Grandma has accumulated over the course of her life. In a play where an outwardly perfect Young Man becomes the son who provides satisfaction, it is perhaps easiest to consider Mommy and Daddy's patronizing emphasis on the boxes' wrapping as indicative of their satisfaction with surfaces.

The boxes of course also serve as a diversion when the household attempts to ascertain the purpose of Mrs. Barker's visit. They perhaps then also allegorize the composition of the play, which largely consists of apparent and perpetually surprising diversions that keep the audience from the heart of the matter.