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Home : Literature : Novels : 1984
NOVELS : 1984

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An American Dream

In almost every genre of literature there is the classic antagonist, and the classic protagonist. When examining these characters, there are certain guidelines which authors follow. However, there are times in literature when the classic guidelines are broken, and a new prototype emerges. Contemporary writer Norman Mailer broke the mold of the classic character(s) when writing the novel, An American Dream. In An American Dream, there is no set protagonist or antagonist. In fact, Mailer has taken these two separate identities and merged them into one character. The product is the main character of the novel, Steven Rojack. Throughout the novel the reader isn't sure if they want him to succeed, or fail. This is due to Rojack's ever-changing personality. He first seems like the perfect man, a decorated war hero who knows all the right people. However, shortly after this impression is made another is formed. He murders his wife in cold blood and lies to the police, claiming she committed suicide. As the novel continues however, Rojack realizes the horror of his crime and even confesses what he has done to a woman he loves. Due to the realization of his crime, he is redeemed in the eye of the reader. From this point on, the reader wants Rojack to succeed. However, before final judgement can be passed, it is imperative that Rojack's entire character be explored.

Steven Rojack is first introduced as a prominent man in society who becomes recognized due to his decoration in military service. Through this service he became close with many famous politicians, Jack Kennedy being one. It is through Jack that Rojack meets his first wife, Deborah, a woman who he describes "would be bored with a diamond as big as the Ritz" (1) After serving a term in Congress, he and Deborah marry. Unfortunately, the relationship they have is one in which Deborah has full control. As he continues to describe the relationship with his wife it is often filled with bitter memories. He remembers going to parties where she would compare his worth to that of another man's. It is from this that a bitter hatred stems towards Deborah. Finally, after seven years of marriage, they separate. However, after the separation, Deborah's needs are still covered by Steven, who is now a college professor and the host of a popular TV show. In addition to this Deborah maintains a close contact with him, seeing him whenever she desires. She relishes the thought of having control over him, and he realizes this. It is because of this that Rojack feels the way he does about her.

So I hated her, yes indeed I did, but my hatred was a cage which wired my love, and I did not know if I had the force to find my way free. Marriage to her was the armature of my ego; remove the armature and I might topple like clay. (23)

At this point in the novel Rojack comes across as an egocentric man with the potential to have an extreme temper. Many times throughout the beginning of the novel, the reader may questions his sanity due to the fact that he often thinks about many morbid issues. As a result of this it can be said that Rojack is in conflict with himself. Furthermore, because of this, problems arise with others. Therefore it can be said that he is his own antagonist. After leaving a party that was held at his close friend's house, Rojack once again feels alone and bitter. While standing outside on the balcony he contemplates what would happen if he were to jump. Shortly after this he decides to leave. As he walks home in the pouring rain he stops at a pay phone feeling the need to call Deborah. During their conversation, Deborah insists that Steven come over. Although his better judgement tells him not to go, he goes anyway. As he enters Deborah's room, he can see her lying on her bed with a bottle of rum close by. The moment she sees him enter she begins to insult him. As the conversation continues, Steven becomes more and more bold in responding to Deborah's insults. The tension begins to escalate, thus flaring both of their tempers. Suddenly, Rojack slaps Deborah across the face. In turn, Deborah rises from the bed and charges Steven, plunging her head into his abdomen. As the fight continues, Steven finally gets the upper hand and Deborah surrenders. However, as he removes his hand from her head, her body falls on the ground; she is dead. "I knelt to turn her over. Her body made some rustling sound of protest, a muted whisper. She was bad in death. A beast stared back at me. Her teeth showed, the point of light in her eye was violent, and her mouth was open." (44)

It is at this moment that Rojack becomes a despicable, cold-blooded murderer. Immediately after the murder he begins to question whether or not he is truly evil. Unable to come up with an answer at the time, he slips downstairs where he makes love to his wife's German butler, a woman named Ruta. Shortly after this escapade, Steven explains to Ruta that Deborah committed suicide by jumping out the window. When the police arrive to take a look at the scene, he tells them the same. He explains to the police that Deborah had a fascination with death, and that she often spoke of it. Furthermore, he also said that Deborah had convinced herself that she had a rare form of cancer. When the police wrap up their interrogation of Rojack, they go outside to examine the body. As Rojack approaches, he notices a tall, blonde woman out of the corner of his eye. He feels drawn to her classic, small town girl appearance. As he strikes up a conversation with her, Police Chief Roberts informs him to get in the squad car because he needs to identify the body at the morgue. On the way he talks with the police officers. During this conversation it is apparent that the cops are fully aware that this wasn't a suicide. However, they will not press charges until they feel the need because they like him. A few minutes later they arrive at the morgue. Walking in to the morgue, Rojack feels a sense of disgust over what he did. Seeing Deborah's body he realizes that no matter how badly things were between them, she never deserved to die. Whatever Deborah would deserve, that morgue was not the place for her. "I had a reverie of my own death then, and my soul was trying to lift and loose itself of the body which has died. I felt guilty for the first time. It was a crime to have pushed Deborah to the morgue." (77)  At this point Rojack begins to make the transition between evil and good. He finally realized the heinous nature of his crime, and because of this realization he can be redeemed in the eye of the reader.

Shortly after the police interrogation ends, Rojack again comes in contact with the tall blonde. He learns that her name is Cherry and that she is a singer in a small cabaret downtown. After being released by the police, he decides to go downtown to see her perform. He is drawn to her for unknown reasons, and this confuses him. He hasn't felt this strongly for a woman since the time he first met Deborah. Walking into the cabaret he hears Cherry's voice. When the set is finished, Cherry comes over and begins to talk with him. A few moments later they begin to kiss. Cherry then invites Rojack to her apartment. Once they arrive at the apartment they begin to talk about their past lives. Although a relationship is forming, a strong friendship is also in the making. Rojack stays the night, and leaves early the next morning after receiving a message that Deborah's father is in town and that he wants to meet with Rojack. When Rojack returns to his house, he begins to make phone calls to old friends inquiring why Oswald Kelly, Deborah's father, wants to meet with him. It is during one of these conversations that Rojack learns that Deborah was involved in high profile cases of espionage. Not knowing whether to rejoice or to cringe in fear, he decides to keep this secret to himself.

Later on that day, Rojack returns back to Cherry's apartment, and once again they begin to talk about their past. He realizes that when he is with Cherry, he feels safe. Because of this feeling he tells the truth when confronted about the crime. "Steve?" asked Cherry. "Did you kill your wife?" He calmly responded, "yes." (168) After talking, Cherry tells Rojack that she loves him, and that everything will be ok. With this, Rojack leaves to meet Oswald Kelly. In the cab many fears come into Rojack's head. He is fully aware of the powerful connections that Oswald Kelly has with the Mafia. Finally, he reaches the hotel and Kelly's room. Walking in, he has the opportunity to speak with his stepdaughter whom he has not seen in months. However, this conversation only lasts a few minutes, because he knows that he must face Kelly. When Kelly first sees Rojack; he greets him with a warm hug. He starts to speak of Deborah and of her involvement with foreign spies. He also tells Rojack that he ordered to police to stop the investigation. After a while however, the conversation begins to get to its point. As the two walk out to the balcony Rojack is hit with the question of his involvement in Deborah's death. Unable to lie, he admits the truth. As a result of this, Kelly informs him that he will not turn him in. However, Kelly states that in order to survive he must walk around the edges of the hotel from the last floor. If he survives this, he will be able to walk away. It is at this moment that Rojack makes the transition into the protagonist.

As Rojack carefully steps on the edge of the balcony, he realizes the importance of every step. While walking he begins to think about everything he is done. Finally, he arrives at his destination, but he doesn't stop. Instead, he attempts to walk around the perimeter of the building once again to redeem himself. However, Kelly attempts to push him down, but fails. After a brief struggle, Rojack walks out of the hotel unharmed, and redeemed. In conclusion, Steven Rojack is a very complex character who underwent a transition from being his own antagonist to being a protagonist. He was able to commit the perfect crime, and still earn forgiveness. It is easy to say that Steven Rojack is the true poster-boy for "an American dream."



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