Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer Themes
In Martin Dressier, Steven Millhauser is indeed concerned with the social implications of the American Dream (and, in foregrounding the very fact that this pillar of American culture is a dream), but he is also equally interested in dreams and hallucinations as such. Not only is Martin "living the American dream," he is in an important sense "dreaming" his life. Millhauser presents Martin's experiences of the world as heightened, hallucinatory experiences that flirt with the boundary between reality and dreams. This is evident throughout the novel, such as in the moments at which Martin feels as though everything is "too much, too much—the whole world was trembling—at any moment it would crack apart." Martin feels dreamily disconnected from his environment: "Then the dream feeling would come over him, as if his real life were not here, where it seemed to be, but over there, a little off to one side, just over there."
Many of Martin's key experiences, especially those with women, seem to happen in this luminal dream-space of disjunction and dislocation. Martin's first sexual experience, for instance, is shrouded in mystery and at times verges on the hallucinatory. Mrs. Hamilton, a "powerful and far from unattractive woman" arrives at the hotel where young Martin is a bellboy and begins to draw him "close to her in some puzzling, secret way." It is not surprising to find an episode involving the young hero's seduction by an experienced older woman in a bildungsroman like Martin Dressier, but Millhauser's description of the act itself is striking for its emphasis on dream. "Everything seems like a dream," Mrs. Hamilton says to Martin:
That's what they say, you know: life is but a dream. As in that child's song—how does it go? Merrily merrily. Life is but a dream. My pulse is absolutely racing. . . . Is this a dream? My heart's racing, racing: can't you feel it? Can't you? Silly boy, what's wrong with you? Here, place your hand here, on my poor racing-away heart. Yes. Yes. Don't you know anything? Come here now. Here now. Yes. . . . And Martin entered her fever-dream, at first awkwardly, then easily: it was all very easy, easy and mysterious, for he barely knew what was happening, there in the dusk of the parlor, in a world at the edge of the world—Mrs. Hamilton's dream.
Indeed, this moment with Mrs. Hamilton is merely the first of Martin's many dreamlike experiences with women. On his wedding night for instance, his new bride Caroline refuses his sexual overtures, so Martin sleeps with Marie Haskova, a worker in one of his hotels; yet it is unclear whether Martin is making love to Marie, to Louise Hamilton, to Caroline, or to Alice Bell, since all appear to him during the act itself. Millhauser summarizes the peculiar logic of the situation: "if he had been unfaithful to Caroline by coming here on his wedding night, he had also been unfaithful to Marie, who had taken him in without a word, without a reproach, only to find herself secretly replaced, in her own bed, by Caroline."
The interchangeability of these women is striking, even disturbing, but Millhauser seems to be making an interesting point about desire's "slippery" nature. If Martin finds himself wanting more and more in the business world without ever really knowing precisely what he desires, he also finds himself more than a little confused about his romantic desires. His love for Caroline, for example, seems more a product of the structure of Martin's relationship with the Vernon women rather than of any actual quality possessed by Caroline herself. Caroline is simply the sister with whom Martin has the least contact. He spends innumerable evenings dining with Emmeline and Mrs. Vernon while Caroline lies sick in the hotel room upstairs, and it is Caroline's very inaccessibility that draws Martin to her. His desire seems to be produced by the seeming impossibility of its very fulfillment, and by his lack of knowledge about its object (when Martin actually comes to know...
(The entire section is 1,469 words.)