Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This subtle satire by comic short-story writer Max Apple caricatures the so-called American Dream. It parodies a number of motifs, such as rugged individualism, the power of money to attain comfort in life as well as in death, and the inability of Americans to deal with death in a realistic fashion. Howard Johnson, Millie Bryce, and Otis Brighton are modern versions of Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi in search of the freedom that the United States should offer all its citizens. It is also a gentle parody of the Western movement, in which pioneers sought new lives and possibilities. This capitalist trio, though, is searching for new materialistic ventures as they “orange” the United States with their restaurants and motels, and as they direct their imaginations toward the creation of an infinite variety of ice-cream flavors. As new pioneers, their goal is to transform the drudgery of travel into a new quest for comfort, which is both Millie’s and Howard Johnson’s favorite word. Mythically, they are involved in regenerating the drab old motels of a previous era into Edenic oases—homes away from home. At the end of Millie’s western journey, she has established her own Edenic home on the eighteenth floor of an apartment building owned by none other than Lawrence Welk himself.

Because Millie is not religious and has no discernable spiritual life, it becomes vitally important to her to preserve her body because that is what life is exclusively about. Motifs such as ice cream, cryonics, and Vaseline Petroleum Jelly cohere into a major symbol of Americans’ desperate attempts to preserve themselves from the onslaughts of time and mortality and to practice their peculiar form of denial. Denial is the principal theme of this highly entertaining story, but a kind of denial that shows itself in its ability to “orange” America—that is, to transform it according to the sentimental dreams of the rich and powerful.