The American Dream

by

Edward Albee

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Grandma’s Boxes Symbol Analysis

Grandma’s Boxes Symbol Icon

Throughout the play, Grandma is seen carrying multiple “neatly wrapped and tied” boxes from her room out to the living room. Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that Grandma’s boxes are symbols of the past and of legacy. Grandma, as the eldest member of the family, carries the weight of her family’s history, and all of the stories that are part of that history. Mommy and Daddy don’t care enough to find out what’s in the boxes, but Grandma cares for them carefully nonetheless. She wraps the boxes nicely, tending to their contents even though doing so gives her paper cuts and hurts her joints. Grandma eventually reveals that they contain the small ephemeral things that make up a life—false teeth, letters—and also things that should be too significant or even impossible to box up—a Pekingese dog, “eighty-six years of living.” The boxes don’t just contain knick-knacks, clothes, or papers—they contain all of Grandma’s memories, all the lessons she’s learned, and all the things she’s tried (and failed) to pass on to Mommy and Daddy. The boxes are symbols of people’s refusal or inability to learn from the past and make a better future, and they metaphorically relate to the desperate sociological and moral confusion, horror, and uncertainty that followed World War II—and created the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement of which The American Dream is a landmark piece. Because the play is also a critique of the hypocrisy and unsustainability of the idyllic American nuclear family, and because Albee shows how Mommy and Daddy have an obsession with securing the perfect, ideal child to carry on their family’s legacy rather than learning from their family’s difficult past, Grandma’s boxes—and all that may or may not be contained within them—take on a profound symbolic weight.

Grandma’s Boxes Quotes in The American Dream

The The American Dream quotes below all refer to the symbol of Grandma’s Boxes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Plume edition of The American Dream published in 1997.
The American Dream Quotes

GRANDMA: I didn’t really like wrapping them; it hurt my fingers, and it frightened me. But it had to be done.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker), Mommy, Daddy
Related Symbols: Grandma’s Boxes
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation long mobile

MRS. BARKER: Can we assume that the boxes are for us? I mean, can we assume that you had us come here for the boxes?

MOMMY: Are you in the habit of receiving boxes?

DADDY: A very good question.

MRS. BARKER: Well, that would depend on the reason we’re here. I’ve got my fingers in so many little pies, you know.

Related Characters: Mommy (speaker), Daddy (speaker), Mrs. Barker (speaker), Grandma
Related Symbols: Grandma’s Boxes
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

YOUNG MAN: All the boxes are outside.

GRANDMA (a little sadly): I don’t know why I bother to take them with me. They don’t have much in them… some old letters, a couple of regrets… Pekinese… blind at that… the television… my Sunday teeth… eighty-six years of living… some sounds… a few images, a little garbled by now… and, well… (she shrugs) …you know… the things one accumulates.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker), The Young Man (speaker)
Related Symbols: Grandma’s Boxes
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

MOMMY: Why… where’s Grandma? Grandma’s not here! Where’s Grandma? And look! The boxes are gone, too. […]

MRS. BARKER: Why, Mommy, the van man was here. […]

MOMMY (Near tears): No, no, that’s impossible. No. There’s no such thing as the van man. […] We… we made him up. Grandma? Grandma?

DADDY (Moving to MOMMY): There, there, now. […]

(While DADDY is comforting MOMMY, GRANDMA comes out, stage right, near the footlights)

GRANDMA (To the audience): Shhhhhh! I want to watch this.

Related Characters: Mommy (speaker), Daddy (speaker), Grandma (speaker), Mrs. Barker (speaker)
Related Symbols: Grandma’s Boxes
Page Number: 121-122
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Get the entire The American Dream LitChart as a printable PDF.
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Grandma’s Boxes Symbol Timeline in The American Dream

The timeline below shows where the symbol Grandma’s Boxes appears in The American Dream. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The American Dream
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
Grandma enters the living room from the hallway, carrying many “neatly wrapped and tied” boxes of various sizes. Mommy asks Grandma what she’s carrying, and Grandma replies that they’re exactly... (full context)
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
...to Grandma, and Daddy apologizes. Grandma says she’s going to get the rest of the boxes. Before leaving the room, she states that she probably “deserve[s]” to be talked to in... (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
Entertainment and Artifice Theme Icon
...order to retreat from the world. Grandma shuffles off to get the rest of the boxes. (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
Daddy points out how nicely Grandma has wrapped the boxes. Mommy says that Grandma has always wrapped boxes nicely—when Mommy was a little girl, the... (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
Grandma comes back into the living room carrying more boxes. Again, she dumps them all at Daddy’s feet, and then she says that’s all of... (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Entertainment and Artifice Theme Icon
...that it “doesn’t really matter.” She redirects the conversation, pointing out again “how pretty” the boxes Grandma wrapped are. Grandma says that she hated wrapping the boxes—doing so hurt her fingers... (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
...Mommy paces back and forth around the room she steps on several of Grandma’s neatly-wrapped boxes, agitating Grandma, who begins muttering about the boxes. Daddy asks Grandma if Mrs. Barker is... (full context)
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
...Barker asks if she can assume that the family “had us come here for the boxes.” Mommy asks if Mrs. Barker often receives boxes. Mrs. Barker says that sometimes she receives... (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
...anymore, she can say her piece. Mommy decides to let her. Grandma says that the boxes have nothing to do with why Mrs. Barker has come to call. Daddy seems to... (full context)
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
...away—it’s too crowded in the apartment, and Grandma is taking up space with her many boxes. Grandma calls Mommy dull, and Mommy accuses Grandma of being ungrateful for all the things... (full context)
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Entertainment and Artifice Theme Icon
Grandma points to all the boxes scattered on the floor and asks The Young Man to take her things out to... (full context)
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
Entertainment and Artifice Theme Icon
...way out” for Mrs. Barker. The Young Man reenters to get the rest of the boxes and take them out. Grandma pulls Mrs. Barker in close and whispers in her ear.... (full context)
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Entertainment and Artifice Theme Icon
...but soon The Young Man comes back in to tell her that all of the boxes are outside. Grandma says she doesn’t even know why she’s bothering to take them with... (full context)
The Fallacy of The American Dream Theme Icon
The Breakdown of the Family Theme Icon
Cruelty and Complacency Theme Icon
Entertainment and Artifice Theme Icon
...Mommy and Daddy express their relief. Mommy looks around and asks where Grandma and her boxes have gone. Mrs. Barker tells Mommy that “the van man” came for her. Mommy seems... (full context)