An Exploration of the American Dream as it is presented in Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, Updike’s “A &P” and Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”
The American Dream is often thought of as a defining national characteristic of the USA. The Dream is most frequently thought and spoken of as the opportunity for financial success and material prosperity, achieved through determination and hard work.
The three succeeding short stories show the authors’ critical standpoint towards the American dream. To begin with, Seymour Glass in “A Perfect day for Bananafish”, Sonny in “Sonny’s Blues” and Sammy in “A & P” all rebel against the values of the American dream, and their dreams are presented as being bigger and more valuable than the focus on material wealth. In short, all three stories are expressions of powerful rebellion against the American dream.
Each story contains a character(s), argued to live according to the American dream. In “Sonny’s Blues” the narrator, Sonny’s older brother, is a teacher of algebra in a high school and is married with a wife and two children. When Sonny at an early stage of the story tells his brother that he wants to become a piano player and laughs when the narrator asks him what type of pianist, the narrator replies: “Well, you may think it’s funny now, baby, but it’s not going to be so funny when you have to make your living at it, let me tell you that” (Baldwin, 1704). Indeed. Sonny’s refusal to earn a respectable living is a source of fear between the two brothers.
In “A Perfect day for Bananafish” Muriel, Seymour’s wife, is presented by Salinger as being materialistic: she is described only in terms of her possessions and, given the period the story is set in (the 1940s, shortly after the Second World War) and the luxuriousness of the hotel and the resort that Seymour and Muriel are staying at, it is clear that she and Seymour come from rich backgrounds (Salinger, 13).
Updike’s “A & P” is slightly more complex on this issue: Sammy is clearly attracted to the girls who wander into the A & P and are repuked by his boss, Lengel, for wearing too few clothes. Seymour’s suicide at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, Sonny’s desire to be a jazz pianist and Sammy’s quitting his job at the end of “A & P” with no prospect of another one – all these acts can be seen, in the context of the stories, as a rejection of the American dream.
In “Sonny’s Blues” the context of two African Americans growing up in Harlem in a racist society, dominated by whites is vital: it is important to understand why Sonny’s brother becomes reconciled to Sonny becoming a jazz pianist and it is vital to understand what Sonny hopes to achieve through his music. The narrator is aware of the dangers of Harlem: he uses images of darkness throughout the story to symbolize all the dangers of the streets that lie in wait for young black men: crime, drug addiction, unemployment, homelessness and racist attacks. It is to escape these that the narrator has become a high school teacher of algebra. His reunion with his brother is prompted by the death of his own daughter, and his memory of promising to his dying mother that he would always “look out” for Sonny. It is of much significance that at the end of the story, as he watches Sonny playing in a bar, the narrator sees Sonny’s jazz piano improvisation as an expression of the suffering and joy of African Americans.
The question of whether Seymour is mentally unstable in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” divides readers. Muriel’s mother certainly thinks that he is and is worried about Muriel’s welfare, but there is no reason to believe her opinion, since she is only interested in gossip and appearances. What is important and certainly true is that Seymour has taken part in the Second World War and the continuing influence of his experiences.
Sammy’s quitting of his job at the end of Updike’s “A & P” is presented as an act of rebellion. Sammy is upset and angered about Lengel’s treatment of the young women, and considers it rude. He quits partly as a gesture to impress them, but he is aware that they have already left the store. It is also an act of rebellion against his own future: he knows very well that working in the A & P for the rest of his life will not bring him the material wealth that the American dream promises (Updike, 24).
The endings of these three stories are very different. “Sonny’s Blues” is joyous and celebratory because the narrator is reconciled with his brother and with his African American roots. (Baldwin, 1716). Sammy stands outside the store thinking “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (Updike, 28). As readers with historical perspective, we know that the 1960s will usher in new attitudes which may change Sammy’s life. Indeed, Sammy’s quitting of his job also can be seen as an act of leaving which puts him firmly in the mainstream tradition of American literature.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues”. Pages 1694 – 1716 in Gates, Henry Louis Jr., & McKay, Nellie Y. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1997. New York: W W Norton and Company. Print.
Salinger, J. D. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” pages 7 – 23 in For Esmé with Love and Squalor. 1953. London: Penguin Books. Print.
Updike, John. “A & P”. Pages 22 - 28 in Updike, John. Collected Stories. 2007. London: Penguin. Print.