Study Guide

An American Dream Analysis

  • Tone

    Angry, Fearful

    Stephen Rojack is as angry as the Hulk and as crazy as the Joker—and that's one killer combo.

    Every word is soaked in Rojack's overbearing anger. After killing Deborah, for example, he wonders if he "had been too gentle" and "had not plumbed the hatred where the real injustice was stored" (2.86). Like, he could've killed her a little harder or something sick like that. We see this anger bubble up again and again, whether Rojack's in a fistfight with Shago or a tense standoff with Barney Kelly. He is bitter about the way his life has turned out and expresses this disappointment through an endless stream of pretty heinous actions—his anger permeates the book.

    Whenever he's not caught up in a righteous rage, however, Rojack is nothing more than a frightened and sad dude. He complains about how his "dread was real" and that "omens were as tangible as bread" (7.208). Later, at Kelly's apartment, he becomes overwhelmed by a "distillate of gloom" (8.8). If Mailer's goal was to place us inside the mind of a madman, then the alternately angry and frightened tone serves him well—we recognize Rojack as deeply wounded, while also fearing his rage.

  • Genre

    Philosophical Literature; Psychological Thriller; Suspense

    An American Dream is one part existentialist literature and one part crime thriller. Basically, it's what would happen if Albert Camus guest-wrote the latest episode of Law and Order: SVU. Eek, we know.

    In many ways, the novel is simply a vessel for Norman Mailer's existential philosophy. Mailer was a hipster before hipsters were cool, seeing the very idea of "hip" as a form of existentialism. Existentialist ideas pop up throughout the novel, such as Rojack's rejection of the idea "that death was zero" (1.10) because he has witnessed its existential horror firsthand.

    Despite this heady subject matter, however, An American Dream is a classic crime thriller at heart. After all, the plot follows the murderer of a wealthy heiress as he desperately tries to convince the world of his innocence. It features femme fatales, jealous ex-boyfriends, and vengeful Mafiosos; there are fistfights and duels to the death. If it not for the deep philosophical ideas that lie beneath its rather lurid plot, An American Dream could very well have become one of those dime-a-dozen thriller novels you see in the checkout line at the grocery store.

    Instead, through combining elements from psychological thrillers and suspense novels with philosophy, An American Dream is much darker than anything you'll ever flip through while waiting to pay for your milk.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    An American Dream is a play on the well-worn idea of the American Dream.

    As perfectly illustrated by the theme song to The Jeffersons, the American Dream is all about moving on up. Americans are driven by the idea that hard work pays off, and that everyone has a chance of rising up the social ladder. You might be poor now, but if you work hard enough, your children might end up living in some deluxe apartment in the sky—or at least the suburbs.

    Simply put, An American Dream is about waking up to a harsh reality. On the surface, Stephen Rojack has done it all: risen from humble beginnings, served his country with honor, and eventually become wealthy and famous. As we watch Rojack unleash his repressed feelings, however, we come to realize that his dream came with a price. If anything, Rojack's journey shows just how it's possible for the pursuit of the American Dream to turn into an American Nightmare.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Things don't turn out quite as Rojack planned. As the book ends, he's just bested Barney Kelly, one of the most powerful men in the world—as you might imagine, this little victory amps Rojack up—plus, he has Cherry waiting for him at home, and the pair is planning to run away to Las Vegas to start a new life.

    Unfortunately, though, Cherry has been murdered and Rojack's dreams are squashed. He decides to leave for Las Vegas anyway, where he realizes that he Cherry "had left a gift" (E.8) of her psychic powers inside his head. After going even crazier and having an imaginary phone conversation with her ghost, though, Rojack decides to leaves Vegas for Guatemala, of all places.

    So what does this all mean? Although Rojack is convinced that he deserves a happy ending, you know as well as we do that he doesn't. Rojack has done some seriously messed-up stuff over the past several days, often motivated by the belief that doing so will earn him freedom. While you could certainly argue that this new lifestyle of his is evidence of that freedom, all we see is a man desperately lost and alone. Looks like the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be for Rojack.

  • Setting

    New York City

    Although Rojack traipses all over Manhattan during An American Dream, there are two spots in particular that stand out: Cherry's downtown apartment and Kelly's midtown penthouse. These two wildly different locales embody Rojack's internal struggle.

    Everything's Waiting For You Downtown

    Our first stop is Cherry's modest place on the Lower East Side. The apartment is in an old, rundown tenement building, complete with "bruised rotting wood" and "garbage […] out on the landings" (5.1). In other words, it's a far cry from the lavish lifestyle Rojack's used to. This building represents the rough side of New York, the seedy underbelly to a world of glitz and glamor.

    It doesn't get much prettier on the inside, either. The apartment's "plaster walls were […] very cracked" (5.7), and there's "a couch with one broken leg" (5.7). It's also filled with Cherry's sister's paintings, which help remind her of her sister's tragic story. In many ways, this apartment represents Cherry herself: She's a bit rundown, but if you look inside, you'll find a big heart that's survived a lot of tragedy. This is a moving experience for Rojack, and importantly, he heads to Kelly's apartment knowing that he belongs with Cherry—with the girl who's good inside.

    Putting on the Ritz

    Things are so different at Kelly's place that Rojack might as well be in another country. For context, Kelly is staying in the Waldorf Astoria, one of the most legendary hotels in the world. In other words, this place is fancy—so fancy, in fact, that Rojack watches "the police […] escort the First Lady to her limousine" (8.3) as he stands outside. If it's good enough for the first lady, then this place shows that he's definitely in high society now.

    There's something sinister under the glittering surface, however. As usual, Rojack figures this out by using his nose and smelling the "congregated odor of the wealthy […] a whiff of the tomb" (8.112). In other words, he's associating wealth with death. Don't forget: This is coming from a guy who's been working to become a wealthy man his whole life. But Rojack is head over heels for Cherry now, and he eventually manages to reject Kelly and all of the power he represents.

    Escape From New York

    Though Rojack returns to Cherry's apartment, he never gets his happy ending: Cherry has been murdered. Looks like death's followed Rojack home… With this, Rojack abandons New York for Las Vegas, and after that, he's off to Guatemala. It's clear that Rojack is trying to escape his problems, but he's not quite fast enough to outrun them. Although he might describe this sudden exodus as evidence of his freedom, we think he just looks lost.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    An American Dream isn't for everyone. The novel features a unique, metaphor-heavy writing style that might confuse some readers, and it's also worth mentioning that the subject matter can get a little intense at times. For both of these reasons, it isn't exactly a walk in the park. But while you may have to read some sections a few times to fully grasp their meaning, and you're likely to cringe at points, we promise that the reward is well worth the effort.

  • Writing Style

    Metaphorical, Meandering, and Emotionally Charged

    If you're looking for something straightforward, easy-to-understand, and plot-driven, then An American Dream will drive you insane.

    Mailer's most notable stylistic choice is his constant use of metaphors and similes—there are more of them in the novel than derrieres in a Nicki Minaj music video. This has an interesting effect, since we often spend more time reading metaphors than simple descriptions of a scene. For instance, Rojack says that a "moment of fright flew like a comet across the harbor of [his] calm" and "[his] eyes had the blue of a mirror held between the ocean and the sky" (2.17). As a result, An American Dream is driven far more by Rojack's emotional state than by anything resembling a plot.

    Instead of a tidy series of cause-and-effect, the book uses a series of repeating symbols and irrational thought-processes to drive the story forward. After all, Rojack is an irrational guy—it would be impossible for him to tell a rational story.

    The combination of these stylistic choices makes the book feel more like a dream than reality. And guess what? That's exactly how Rojack feels.

  • The Moon

    If you see a full moon pop up in An American Dream, chances are quite good that some crazy stuff is about to happen.

    This is established during Rojack's time in World War II. Before killing the four German soldiers, Rojack feels "the full moon giving a fine stain to the salient of [his] mood" (1.6). Immediately afterward, the moon seems to supercharge him with the energy and aggression he needs to take down the soldiers. This experience has a huge impact on Rojack, sparking his "secret frightened romance with the phases of the moon" (1.10) that continues to this day. The moon, then, represents how out of control Rojack is when it comes to violence.

    The moon shows up again when Rojack is contemplating suicide. In fact, Rojack speaks to the moon and it "spoke back to [him…] telling [him] to die" (1.14). Although this once again associates the moon with death, it also connects that celestial sphere to Rojack's lack of control. Just like during the war, it's almost as if the moon is controlling Rojack's actions. It's pretty werewolf-y, minus all the extra hair and super long nails and such.

    Rojack certainly believes this—that the moon runs the show—to be true. When he becomes elected as a congressman, he even decides at times "not to make a speech because it is the week of the full lunar face" (1.10). In many ways, the moon simply represents Rojack's personal brand of lunacy.

    Interestingly, the very word lunacy is derived from the word Luna—another name for the moon. Throughout human history, many cultures have believed that the moon influences our actions, inspiring us do things we'd never do otherwise. In An American Dream, this mythological belief is amped up to eleven inside Rojack's head.

  • Smells

    Rojack has a better sense of smell than Tucan Sam. As die-hard Fruit Loops fanatics (we attend Loop-Con every year), we don't say that lightly.

    Take a look at Rojack's interactions with Deborah, for example. He is disgusted when Deborah asks for a kiss—all he can focus on is the "stench of sweet rot" that she emits whenever she's "been drinking" (1.97). In this instance, Deborah's scent reminds of him of his own mortality, which he's eager to forget (for more on Rojack's inner death drama, swing by the "Characters" section and check out his page).

    Another example comes later, when Rojack visits Kelly. As he walks through the hallways in this fancy-schmancy hotel, Rojack becomes overwhelmed by the "congregated odor of the wealthy […] a whiff of the tomb" (8.112). Once again, a scent is used to illustrate a deep-seated feeling that Rojack has. Here, it represents his simultaneous infatuation with and hatred of wealth. He both wants it, and senses the ways in which is signals death (think of Kelly's isolation, for instance).

    Ultimately, then, Rojack's sense of smell comes to represent his subconscious feelings. He's been going through a lot lately and he doesn't entirely understand all of the emotions he's experiencing. Like an animal running on instinct, however, Rojack still feels those emotions even if he can't comprehend them. And his nose knows what's up.

  • The Umbrella

    Rojack feels so powerful when he has Shago's umbrella that he might as well be holding Excalibur.

    After all, Shago looks awfully intimidating when he barges into Cherry's apartment, carrying the "furled umbrella, taut as a sword in its case" (7.9). Of course, Rojack doesn't yet realize that Shago is actually a big softie, trying to validate his own masculinity by intimidating Rojack—if anything, Shago brings the umbrella with him because it makes him feel tough, not because he is tough. It's a prop for something he feels he lacks.

    Rojack doesn't experience the power of the umbrella himself until he visits Kelly. After getting fed up with Kelly's manipulation, Rojack grabs the umbrella and feels "stronger now, like a derelict provided with a cigarette, a drink, and a knife" (8.333). He goes on to smack Kelly in the face with the umbrella a few moments later, emphasizing the newfound confidence it instills. Again, then, we see the umbrella acting as a crutch against insecurity.

    It might not be as cool as a lightsaber, but Shago's umbrella gets the job done. Well, for Rojack, anyway.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central)

    An American Dream is pretty much a personal tour of Rojack's twisted brain. While plenty happens during the course of the novel, a good deal of time is spent solely inside this crazy guy's head. Often, Rojack will just start spewing a string of similes and metaphors until the actual reality of the scene is lost altogether and we're swimming in his interpretation of his experience.

    Although Rojack doesn't give any explicit signs that he's an unreliable narrator, we can't help but wonder if he's telling us the whole truth. The guy's a certified liar, after all. Regardless, by giving us such an up-close-and-personal view of Rojack's subconscious, Mailer forces us to question the razor-thin difference between reality and fiction.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      Stephen Rojack is separated from his wife Deborah, a wealthy heiress. This seriously bums him out—so much so, in fact, that he's currently standing on a roof, contemplating suicide. Rojack manages to resist this temptation, though, instead rushing over to Deborah's apartment.

      Dream Stage

      Although things start out friendly enough, the married couple quickly starts fighting. This pushes Rojack over the edge and he strangles Deborah to death. After hooking up with Deborah's maid, Rojack throws Deb's body out of the window to make it look like a suicide. Although the police are suspicious, Rojack manages to escape without any charges. He also happens to meet a super-fine blonde nightclub singer named Cherry, whom he (also) hooks up with.

      Frustration Stage

      Rojack and Cherry's romantic bliss is interrupted by the sudden entrance of Shago Martin, a famous musician who happens to be Cherry's ex-bae. Oops. Rojack and Shago fight, but Rojack wins handily. Unfortunately, Rojack doesn't have any time to bask in the glory of his victory, though, because he has an appointment with Barney Kelly, Deborah's mega-rich and mega-powerful daddy.

      Nightmare Stage

      Things get crazy at Kelly's apartment. After a warm greeting, Kelly reveals a shocking truth: He and Deborah had a brief affair. This infuriates Rojack so much that he admits to killing Deborah. Somehow, Kelly convinces Rojack to walk along his porch's guardrail, thinking that a drunk like Rojack will surely plummet to his death. Rojack manages to escape unscathed, though, giving Kelly a nice smack in the face for good measure on the way out.

      Destruction or Death Wish Stage

      Rojack returns to Cherry's apartment, confident in his belief that life is about to get way better. Unfortunately, Cherry has been murdered—probably by one of Shago's friends. Devastated, Rojack drives to Las Vegas, where he spends a bit of time before heading down to South America.

    • Plot Analysis


      Living on the Edge

      After eight years of marriage, Stephen Rojack and his wife Deborah are separated. As you might imagine, the dude is pretty bummed out. At the moment, he's hanging out on his friend's roof after a party, contemplating suicide. Fun stuff. Luckily, he decides against it, instead rushing over to Deborah's apartment. With that, the stage is set… and our wildcard main character is on the move.

      Rising Action

      Murder Mystery Hour

      Ruta, Deborah's maid, lets Rojack into the apartment. The former couple argues with each other… until suddenly Rojack strangles Deborah, killing her. Naturally, he immediately gets up and sleeps with Ruta. Then Rojack gets a bright idea: He returns to the bedroom and tosses Deborah's body out the window, making it seem like a suicide. After another quick session with Ruta, Rojack rushes downstairs and calls the police. Things are officially tense—and weird.


      Born to Run

      The police are actually waiting because Deborah's fall caused a multi-car accident. After meeting Detective Roberts, Rojack sees Cherry, a saucy blonde who's chilling with two Mafiosos. The police are suspicious of Rojack's involvement in Deborah's death, but he manages to dodge the charges.

      Of course, the first thing Rojack does after this is visit Cherry at work—she sings at a night club—and to make a long story short, they hook up and fall in "love." To their shock, however, their little honeymoon is interrupted by Shago Martin, Cherry's ex-boyfriend. After thoroughly beating the snot out of Shago, Rojack leaves the apartment to meet Barney Kelly, Deborah's father and one of the wealthiest men in the country.

      Falling Action

      Meet the Parent

      Rojack arrives at Barney Kelly's hotel room. He sees a few familiar faces: Deirdre (Deborah's daughter from another marriage), Ruta, and Eddie Ganucci, one of the mobsters who was with Cherry.

      Eventually, Kelly reveals that he was attracted to his daughter (a.k.a. Deborah) and they had even kissed once. This infuriates Rojack, who admits to the murder but stands up to Kelly. Somehow, however, Kelly convinces Rojack to go outside on the terrace and take a perilous walk along the guardrail. Rojack actually gets all the way around without falling, and he celebrates his little victory by hitting Kelly in the face and running away. It's probably safe to say he's done interacting with Deborah's family at this point.


      Westward Bound

      Rojack returns to a shocking sight: Cherry has been murdered, presumably by one of Shago's associates. Rojack meets with Roberts one more time, finally settling his "innocence" before leaving town. He drives to Las Vegas, clearly still insane (he even imagines talking to Cherry on the phone), before heading south to Guatemala for who knows what.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Stephen Rojack is an ex-congressman and television host. Although he's been married to Deborah Kelly—a wealthy heiress—for eight years, their relationship has started to deteriorate. This leaves Rojack seriously depressed, even contemplating suicide. Instead of killing himself, though, Rojack rushes over to Deborah's apartment to see her, but ends up strangling her to death in a fit of rage. Uh oh.

      Act II

      Rojack kicks into action, throwing Deborah's body out the window to make it seem like a suicide. He also sleeps with her maid. Deborah's fall causes a car accident, so the police are already waiting; a detective named Roberts introduces himself.

      Rojack meets Cherry, a smoking hot nightclub singer. Although Rojack is brought to the police station, he manages to beat the suspicions of the police. Then, of course, he hooks up with Cherry. Their brief moment of bliss is interrupted, though, by the entrance of Shago Martin, Cherry's ex. Rojack manages to beat the boogers out of Shago, but he can't hang around to celebrate his victory—after all, he has an appointment to meet Barney Kelly, Deborah's father.

      Act III

      Our not-so-humble antihero arrives at Kelly's apartment. The vibe is weird immediately, but it gets so much weirder when Kelly reveals that he and Deborah had a brief affair. Gross.

      Kelly convinces Rojack to walk along the guardrail on the porch, thinking that Rojack will fall to his death. Somehow, however, he manages to make it all the way around, celebrating his victory by smacking Kelly in the face and running away. There's nothing good waiting for him, though: Cherry has been murdered. At this point, Rojack goes even crazier, leaving NYC for Las Vegas, and then Guatemala. We're sure he'll be up to no good upon his arrival.