Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The unrealistic nature of An American Dream is signaled in the novel’s first sentence, in which Stephen Richard Rojack, who is both the narrator and the protagonist, says that he met John F. Kennedy in 1946 and that they double-dated one night during which Rojack seduced Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly, who later became his wife. By way of comparing his heroism with Kennedy’s, Rojack then tells of a war experience during which he single-handedly wiped out a German machine-gun nest and became a hero. Although this event, narrated in the tough-guy idiom of Mailer’s literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, catapults Rojack into social success—resulting in his election to Congress, his marriage to the rich socialite Deborah, and his becoming an academic and television celebrity—Rojack believes that he failed in that encounter because he did not charge the final German soldier’s bayonet, for “it was gone, the clean presence of it, the grace, it had deserted me.” Rojack’s efforts to regain this sense of grace—a Hemingway brand of cool and simple macho identity—is what dominates the rest of the novel.
At the beginning of the present action (a nightmarish three-day period following his wife’s death), Rojack contemplates suicide, although he also accepts that he has murder within him, for murder, he thinks, offers power and release; “it is never unsexual.” While at a party, he flirts with suicide by walking the balustrade of a high balcony, feeling that the moon is luring him to death. It is the murderous urge, however, that dominates when he confronts his estranged wife, Deborah, whom he sees as both the great American Bitch and as a mythic, demoniac, witchlike figure. When he strangles her as a result of her taunting him with stories of her sexual escapades, the murder is...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
In An American Dream, Stephen Rojack, World War II veteran, former congressman, psychiatrist, and television personality, murders his wife Deborah. He tries to make the murder look like a suicide by throwing her lifeless body out of her apartment window. Much of the novel then details Rojack’s effort to escape from police suspicion and begin a new life with a new woman, Cherry, a nightclub singer he meets shortly after the murder. Rojack is not a cold-blooded killer. He strangled Deborah in a fit of passion after she taunted him and belittled his manhood. Norman Mailer makes no particular apologies for his antihero. Rojack is battling to recover a heroic sense of himself that has slowly attenuated since his service in World War II.
The novel is structured as a series of confrontations with warring identities. After murdering Deborah, he attacks and sodomizes her German maid, Ruta, simultaneously reliving his World War II encounter with a German soldier and the sense of violation that the war provoked in him. To secure his love for Cherry, Rojack must do battle with her former boyfriend, an African American, whom Rojack ends up kicking down the steps of Cherry’s apartment building. Then there is his confrontation with Barney Oswald Kelly, Deborah’s father and a powerful, sinister, rich man, whom Rojack fears but resists. Ironically, the police interrogation of Rojack seems to relieve him of any sense of guilt, forcing him to concentrate on...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Several reviewers of An American Dream were outraged at the premise of the novel: A man murders his wife and not only gets away with the crime but also actually becomes a better man, finding a new inner strength and appetite for life. Feminist critics attacked Mailer for his misogyny, professing to see a pattern in much of his work that demeaned women while elevating the heroic nature of men. Other critics simply found the novel itself unpersuasive and Rojack a rather ridiculous specimen—like Mailer himself, out to establish some concept of heroism that said more about the deficiencies of the author than about the society or the characters Mailer was ostensibly treating.
Later critics of the novel were much more sympathetic, praising the novel for its stylistic virtuosity and courage in probing the tensions and violence of contemporary life. They were willing to grant Mailer his subject matter and believed that it was beside the point to fret about the morality of Rojack’s murder. Mailer had not presented it as simply good or evil but as an act that reflects Rojack’s desperation and extreme desire. He both loves and hates Deborah, and their physical struggle that results in his strangling her is caused by his sudden urge to relieve himself of the grip she has held on his life.
Deborah is vicious. She reminds her husband of everything he has not accomplished, and her words wound a man who came out of the war a hero and with the same...
(The entire section is 601 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Cafagna, Dianne. “Mailer’s Moon over An American Dream.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 22 (November, 1992): 3-4. An illuminating discussion of Mailer’s use of moon imagery in the novel.
Gordon, Andrew. An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. Gordon examines Mailer’s novels from the perspective of psychoanalytic criticism.
Leigh, Nigel. Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. An analysis of the political and social themes in Mailer’s novels.
Lennon, Michael, ed. Conversations with Norman Mailer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. A collection of interviews with Mailer in which the novelist reflects on the craft of writing and his approaches to fiction.
Mailer, Adele. The Last Party: My Life with Norman Mailer. New York: Barricade Books, 1997. A revealing autobiography by Mailer’s former wife. Offers insights into their troubled marriage and his turbulent personality.
Merrill, Robert. Norman Mailer Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Merrill provides a critical and interpretive study of Mailer with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.
Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.
Rollyson, Carl E. The Lives of Norman Mailer: A Biography. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Rollyson presents a detailed overview of Mailer’s life and career.