If the American economy is a food chain in which benefits “trickle down” from the upper classes to those on the bottom rungs, then Behold the Dreamers explores how the lower classes depend on the generosity of those in the upper-class who employ them. Those who hold and control the most capital thus have the power to improve people’s lives as easily as they can worsen them. When the economy crashes, the wealthy Edwards family remains unaffected, while those who work for them are afraid of ending up unemployed in the long-term and, eventually, impoverished. Mbue illustrates how the American class system nearly always places the working-class at a disadvantage, as they are always the first to suffer as a result of the whims and excesses of those on whom they depend.
Leah has worked as Clark Edwards’s secretary at Lehman Brothers for fifteen years, but senses that the company is going to collapse and will soon be laying off “the little people.” Her warning to Jende foreshadows his own dismissal from his job as the Edwards’s chauffeur. Though the reason for Jende’s firing is not economic, it is related to a persistent belief among some members of the upper-class that those on the lower rungs are dispensable.
While Jende believes that Leah’s good work and loyalty to Clark will help her keep her job, she insists that the executives at Lehman are untrustworthy and will keep the company’s troubles a secret from its lower-level employees until it’s too late. Jende’s trust in the value of hard work contrasts with Leah’s awareness that hard work doesn’t matter to those who are willing to risk others’ jobs in order to maximize their own financial gains. Leah provides Jende with a warning about how the American economic system offers little protection to the working-class.
When Lehman Brothers finally collapses, Leah, along with other laid-off employees at the investment bank, sends out résumés to no avail. While Jende worries about how she has “no job prospect” and “diminishing savings,” Clark insists that “she’ll be fine” due to slight upticks in the economy. Jende can identify with Leah’s economic uncertainty, while Clark remains protected by his wealth. His assuring words seem to be less for Leah than they are an attempt to assuage his own guilt for relegating a sixty-year-old woman to a hostile job market, as a result of his unwillingness to “come clean” about Lehman Brothers’ immoral practices.
The financial collapse also impacts domestic workers. As Cindy Edwards’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, her housekeeper, Anna, frets over losing her job. Like Leah, Anna is a long-term employee of the Edwards family—she has worked for them for twenty-two years. Her concern for Cindy’s alcoholism and drug abuse is probably genuine, but it is also connected to the prospect of her employer dying and no longer needing her services. Anna’s concern for Cindy is, therefore, largely the result of concern for herself and the fear of having to search for domestic work in an economy of austerity.
Unlike Leah, Anna needs the income from housekeeping to support a family that has become increasingly dependent on her. She has a daughter in college and a son whose construction business is suffering due to the decline in the housing market. He and his family are living with Anna in her Peekskill, New York home. Without her job with the Edwards family, which, indeed, comes to an end after Cindy dies, Anna is unable to support the children and grandchildren who have come to depend on the little bit of income that sustains them.
Leah and Anna’s vulnerability in the face of the financial collapse exposes how the working-class in the United States barely manages to get by, while those who occupy the upper-class often have not only enough money to sustain them through the worst events, but enough to sustain future generations. Mbue underscores a system of inequality in which people like Anna and Leah are at a perpetual disadvantage, not only due to the excesses of their employers but also due to a lack of systemic protections that could make all the difference between surviving an economic crash and ending up on the street.
Class and Interdependency ThemeTracker
Class and Interdependency Quotes in Behold the Dreamers
“Because right now we're pulling these tricks and the SEC's playing dumb, but you know as well as I do that if this shit falls apart and the chaos starts spreading they're going to throw us out for the public to crucify, by claiming they didn’t know a damn thing, and we all know it's a lie.”
By all accounts, no one in Limbe had ever given money to a money doubler and gotten the money doubled […] And yet people continued to give to them, falling into the trap of crafty young men who walked up to them on the street and visited them in their homes, promising quick and high returns on their money through incomprehensible means. One woman at Sapa Road had been so enraptured by the two charming men in suits who visited her at home that she’d given them all of her life's savings for double the money in three months’ time. Her hope, the story around Limbe went, was that she would use the doubled money to buy a ticket for her only son to move to America. But the doublers did not return on the appointed day. Or the day after. Or the month after. Destroyed, the woman had eaten rat poison and died, leaving the son to bury her.
Many would be convinced that the plague that had descended on the homes of former Lehman employees was only a few blocks from theirs. Restaurateurs, artists, private tutors, magazine publishers, foundation directors, limousine drivers, nannies, housekeepers, employment agencies, virtually everyone who stood along the path where money flowed to and from the Street fretted and panicked that day. For some, the fears were justified: Their bread and wine would indeed disappear, along with the billions of dollars that vanished the day Lehman died.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Cindy […] Sean has to constantly remind me, too. He says I have to stop checking our portfolios twenty times a day, but I can't help it. I woke up every morning in Florence panicking about losing everything [....]”
Cindy did not immediately respond; she seemed lost in a maze of a hundred thoughts. “I wish I had Sean's calmness,” she finally said. “Nothing ever seems to unravel him.”
“Yeah, but you won’t believe what he suggested to me yesterday,” Cheri said […]
“He thinks maybe we should get rid of Rosa for a few months, to save” […]
“Yeah, that's exactly what we need now, right?” Cindy said. “To be cooking and cleaning and doing laundry while we're losing money and sleep […]”
“But it’s scary how bad this could get,” Cheri said, her tone turning serious as their laughter ebbed. “When people start talking about flying coach and selling vacation homes…”
“What are you going to do now?” he asked her.
“Something really great," she said, sounding more upbeat than she had in the morning. “I've got over twenty years of experience, honey. I'm not worried. I'm going to take a month and relax before I start a job search.”
“You should do that.”
“I will, maybe go see my sister in Florida. That's the good thing about a life with no husband or children—no one to hold me back, make me feel as if I can't go where I want, whenever I want, do what I want. I'm going to enjoy myself in Sarasota, and when I come back, I'll dust off the old résumé.”
“You will get a new job very fast when you return,” Jende said. “Mr. Edwards will surely tell everyone that you were a good secretary.”
More jobs would be lost […] The Dow would drop in titanic percentages. It would rise and fall and rise and fall, over and over, like a demonic wave. 401(k)s would be cut in half, disappear as if stolen by maleficent aliens. Retirements would have to be postponed […] College education funds would be withdrawn; many hands would never know the feel of a desired diploma. Dream homes would not be bought. Dream wedding plans would be reconsidered. Dream vacations would not be taken […] In many different ways it would be […] a calamity like the one that had befallen the Egyptians in the Old Testament. The only difference between the Egyptians then and the Americans now, Jende reasoned, was that the Egyptians […] had chosen riches over righteousness, rapaciousness over justice. The Americans had done no such thing. And yet, all through the land, willows would weep for the end of many dreams.