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