Suburban Lifestyle and the American Dream in 'Dinner with Friends' by Norman Jewison

Seminar Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. The American Dream and the problem of the postwar suburbs of the 1950s

3. Gabe and Karen respresenting the traditional values of perfectness

4. Suburban family ideals in modern times

5. Tom and Beth representing a model of modern family life

6. Conclusion

7. List of works cited

1. Introduction

As the North American author Richard Bach once said: “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do mem-bers of one family grow up under the same roof.” ( With such a state-ment he surely wants to express that the only secret for a happy and enriching cohabitation is not whether a group of people belongs together because of their genealogy but because of their strong emotional ties to each other. Furthermore, he tries to indicate that it is not un-usual, if children do not spend their whole childhood within a so-called “nuclear family” (Black), but rather within other familial constellations, like “blended families” (Black). Here, the traditional pattern of having a biological mother or father, who lives with them in the same house does not necessarily exist. Apart from that, it is also nowadays more un-common to find households, which combine more generations or relatives under one roof.

People often think being independent, taking no responsibilities and choosing a new partner whenever they wish, is the best way to fulfill their dreams. As long as each part of a breaking family has the chance to find its individual luck once again and as long as no one's life is completely ruined, that point of view might be a good alternative instead of forever bearing emotional suffering because of cheating on one's partner or disappearing feelings. In Dinner with Friends, exactly this situation, of going through divorce and finding a new personal orientation in life, is depicted by the couple Tom and Beth. In contrast to that, the other couple Gabe and Karen depict the opposite way of living together, which is the con-vinced will of maintaining the traditional suburban values of loyalty, love, intensive care and honoring each other. Inspite of changing moral concepts among the society of the 21st century, in many heads the latter attributes still represent the prototypical ideal of a perfect family. Nevertheless, this does not mean that any of those two ways is better than the other one, the only secret is just that they are both differently realized. In the contemporary dra-ma Dinner with Friends, written in 2000 by the author Donald Margulies, and in the fol-lowing filmic adaptation one year later by Norman Jewison, the two modern families show that reviving the ideal of the traditional postwar suburban nuclear family of the 1950s as well as falling apart can still mean the fulfillment of the American Dream as a peak target in life.

2. The American Dream and the problem of the postwar suburbs of the 1950s

Almost since the beginning of the United States of America, the 'Declaration of In-dependence' (Lansford, American Dream) has contained the central ideas of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson 105), which are also known for as the expression of the 'American Dream'. Originally, John Locke brought up the term, with 'property', as a third component, but Jefferson later replaced it by the word 'happiness' in order to prove that happiness is far more important and at the same time it can be as well indirectly seen the basis for property which is supposed to be gained only by hard work and virtuousness.

Especially in the postwar era of the 1950s, the plan of fulfilling the idea of the 'American Dream' was this unique heraldic motto of the suburban citizenship. The end of the Second World War triggered a deep craving for peace and order among the society. Now, nearly each couple dreamt of buying an own little house with a large backyard and a two-car ga-rage and to crown it all with starting an own family (Lansford, The Home). To highlight the importance of those mid-century years as a countermovement to wartime and the Depres-sion, Brian Black also points out in his essay on Family that “if any decade has come to symbolize the traditional family it is the 1950s.” He as well outlines the elementary com-ponents of creating such a construct, which was first of all a marriage – otherwise bearing children would have been morally condemnable. The fact is indeed that marriages and birth rates were soaring. The majority of couples who decided for a legally fixed binding was of-ten in their early twenties and furthermore as a straight matter of course the husband over-took the role as a bread-earner, while his wife was meant to be the caring mother and home-maker, whose job was to clean the house and to organize the entire family life. Such a mo-del, which looks in modern times like a stereotypical myth (Black) was though regarded as the typical and delightful picture-book family, where nothing could have been better.

Only some years later, in the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist Betty Friedan decried in her writing, 'The Feminine Mystique' (300), the situation of women being reduced to the domestic sphere. She called it as “the problem, that has no name”, which was simply the long thought perfectness they all presented to the outer society, but deep in their soul there was in fact a wish for more than just cooking, washing and happily kissing the loving hus-band goodbye in the morning before he left for work. Many voices of women - “I feel like I don't exist”, “I'm desperate”, “I feel empty somehow...incomplete”, “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home” (301)- showed Friedan that the con-cept of the happy 50s family is not for real, it is just an artificial construct that only worked out for a while, but it is no concept that brings them the true fulfillment of their dreams they were always longing for. That is why 'The Feminine Mystique' was an appeal for gaining self-confidence and to encouraged women not to be “ashamed to admit dissatisfaction” (300), but to do a first step into self-realization, e.g. earning their own money and rethink the old traditions of separated spheres. By following that path and being an individual with own beliefs, they will find their happiness and as Jefferson constituted, that is in turn also the core of life and liberty and with that the fulfillment of the 'American Dream'.

3. 3. Gabe and Karen respresenting the traditional values of perfectness

Although, the couple, Gabe and Karen, in Dinner with Friends (Jewison, 2001) openly 'celebrates' and lives out the traditions and values of the suburban society of the 1950s, they are nevertheless relatively open-minded and in this way they depict the stereo-typical myth of the postwar picture-book family adjusted to todays times. The main diffe-rence to those couples back then is certainly the fact that they both present themselve in terms of, e.g. cooking, professional life and child rearing, on an equal basis. As in the retro-spective scene on 'Martha's Vineyard', Karen's friend Beth indicates that they both know each other from their job at “Doubleday” (54:32), which is a huge publishing house belong-ing to the Random House Group. At the very beginning of the movie appears a close-up of the cover of the “Gourmet” magazine that shows Gabe and Karen, together with an older lady, happily united and smiling (1:07). The whole office scenery there with magazines and photographers looks like as if this is some kind of publishing house. Therefore that might be an indication that both, Gabe as well as Karen, are employed in the larger field of creati-vity, where they also can integrate their love for fancy food. Right after that shot follows a cross-fading to their kitchen at home with several close-ups of different dinner ingredients, like freshly boiled rice, roasting steaks, cake and wine (1:26-2:42). The viewer obviously witnesses them cooking with so much love and passion for each other. They truly show their sense for delicious food and transform the process of preparing an extravagant dinner into a scene of intimate togetherness with little affectionate kisses and tendering words as “honey”. “darling” and calling each other “amazing” (3:44-4:53). 50 years earlier, articles in “Ladies' Magazine” and “Harper's New Monthly Magazine” would have invited house-wives to “prepare elaborate meals” and they would have promised them a lot of self-content by doing so (Motz). According to Motz, also authors like T.S. Arthur or H. Trusta stated women need the full devotion to their beloved family because that is a way how a woman finds her luck. The problem is only that for others, the surrender of their personality meant pure despair and self-neglect. In Dinner with Friends this kind of devotion is equally shared, at least with Gabe and Karen, between male and female.

Moreover, the movie shows that this dedication is in large parts, apart from their children, also spent on the relation to their close friends Tom and Beth. Referring once more back to the scene on “Martha's Vineyard” (44:29-58:56), Gabe's and Karen's vacation home, which is the only part of the whole story where the four protagonists are seen togeth-er (Hebel, Not really a comedy 186). Here, the focus is again on the action of preparing food for a lose and relaxed barbecue evening, an atmosphere created by Gabe and Karen to pair their friends, Tom and Beth, off with each other. Companionability and the mainte-nance of social bonds were still back in the flourishing 50s of suburbia a highly important phenomenon - either at coffee parties among women in the afternoon or at parties in the evening with two or more chummy couples (Thorns 147). However, one of Gabe's and Karen's main intentions is not only to spent a cosy evening, but also to pass their marital spirit on to the other two protagonists and to demonstrate them being married does not just mean being voluntarily dependent on someone else. It is actually the opposite they try to expose, that life now “feels calmer than before” and “the social pressure that comes with being single is gone”, nonetheless marriage is meant to be that there is “no way out” (56:00 -56:39) and that is a detail, their friends should not forget about. They both enthusiastically committed themselve to one partner that is willing to spent the entire life with the other one and above all to have children to be responsible for (Hebel, Not really a comedy 194). All those values were already components of the postwar suburban ideologies, but for all that despite of their modern sense of equal treatment, they still consider this attitude as some-thing profound that is not only a moral concept outlasting half a decade in between since the end of war, but as a way of thinking that they regard as a basic property for an affectio-ate familial life.

Besides those variety of emotional and caring values, which formed the one half of the suburban characteristics, the second half was formed by the possession of concrete af-fordable middle-class items or “status symbols” (Thorns 150). A neat “single-family house”, space for at least two cars, a nice backyard (Lansford, The Home) and a well-groomed front garden, that is what a proper suburban estate should have looked like. Still nowadays, suburban areas are designed in such a formation, as the movie gives the viewer at least an insight into Gabe's and Karen's main areas of habitation, which are the kitchen, the central dining zone, and the living room, the place for communicating in a lax atmos-phere. Whether it is the well-equipped, whitely furnitured cooking area including a large eating table and several important appliances (5:36) or the living room with the open fire burning (13:47) on one side and the lighted candles on the table (14:27), the decent perfec-tion in decorating one's home is in any case noticeable. Particularly the open fire place illustrates two times a latent symbol of interpersonal warmth. Firstly, after Beth's disap-pointing revealing in the kitchen about their divorce, the three protagonists go next door to the living room for the dessert – before starting to eat Beth stands near the fire to warm her-self (14:09) and subsequently she gratefully confides that Gabe and Karen are her “best friends in the world” (14:17-15:23). A similar situation happens when Tom arrives later the same night in order to justify his point of view; he as well uses the fire (34:19) as a source for catching some warmth and sympathy from his best friend, Gabe. The heat of the fire might be here a sign for the flaming temper of the divorcing couple, as well as a sign for the huge cordiality of their friends, who naturally open their door and give them a feeling of being able to disburden their heart. All the generosity and the traditional moral ideals lets them appear in a pure light of perfection, which is at a second glance not always the case as they also have to work on their marriage and go through fears of not going astray (1:29:43), but finally they know because of their vow, “there is no way out” (56:17) and the final scene proves they manage to reactivate their love and their happiness.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Suburban Lifestyle and the American Dream in 'Dinner with Friends' by Norman Jewison
University of Regensburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
American Literature II: The 20th and 21st Centuries
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Suburban Lifestyle, American Dream, Dinner with Friends, movie, Filmanalyse, movie analysis, Amerikanischer Traum, American Literature, Amerikanische Literatur, Literaturgeschichte, Amerikanistik, American Studies, Uni Regensburg
Quote paper
Julia Schart (Author), 2013, Suburban Lifestyle and the American Dream in 'Dinner with Friends' by Norman Jewison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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