"An End to Dreams" by Steven Vincent Benét (1932)

04Jan09

Steven Vincent Benét was probably best known as a poet during his lifetime, receiving a Nobel prize for John Brown’s Body, his lengthy narrative poem about the Civil War, and a posthumous Nobel for Western Star, an unfinished narrative poem about the settling of the United States. Benét is also well known for his short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” for which he won an O. Henry Award. (Benét also wrote a short story based on The Rape of the Sabine Women called “The Sobbin’ Women”, which provided the inspiration for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.) Americanness or the idea of what it means to be American dominants the bulk of Benét’s work, certainly the work for which he has gained the most notoreity, whether he writes about a specific period in American history (John Brown’s Body) or explores the rights and benefits of being an American (“The Devil and Daniel Webster”).

In “An End to Dreams”, which also earned him an O. Henry Award, Benét examines the American Dream of rising from childhood poverty to financial success later in life. The story begins with James Rimington waking from the ether-induced sleep of surgery and seeing his reflection in a mirror that he thinks a nurse is holding in front of his face. Confronted with this image of himself, that somehow seems foreign, James begins to consider the path he took to get where he is in life, feeling ashamed of being poor as a child, which led to his leaving his small hometown and sweetheart Elsa to pursue a cutthroat career on Wall Street. Just as he thinks his soul has departed from his body to hear his doctors pronounce him dead, he awakes from a dream to find his wife Elsa sitting by his side, assuring him that they have been married 30 years in the town where they had grown up.

For a writer who has displayed as much patriotism in his work as Benét, I’m surprised how measured a portrayal of the American Dream this story presents. Benét certainly suggests a trade-off between financial success and personal relationships. In his dream, James must leave Elsa to pursue a prosperous career, and in reality to be married to Elsa he has had to trade a career that would have made him wealthy for one that has made him only financially stable. In James’ dream one of the doctor’s attending him makes the comment, “…how do we know what he has to live for?…He may have nozzing [sic].” And when James dreams of his soul being able to hear other people’s thoughts, he quickly becomes frustrated that no one is thinking of him as he dies. He evens dreams of visiting Elsa, who is thinking of her son’s upcoming marriage. When James awakes and realizes that he did not decide to forsake Elsa for riches, Benét says that “he knew the measure of his victory and defeat, and was at peace.” Though “at peace,” James also feels a measure of “defeat” having chosen the life that he did. The fact that he dreams of having left Elsa to pursue a career on Wall Street suggests that somewhere in his unconscious he felt a certain amount of regret for marrying Elsa.

As Nina Baym notes in her essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” the women of this story act as a socializing force that prevent James from “exploring the wilderness,” i.e. leaving the small town for Wall Street, to discover his own destiny. In his dream, James looks scornfully at his mother whom he blames for making him poor, or at least making him confront the realities of their financial situation, like the patch on the elbow of his coat for which his schoolmates tease him. As he begins a career later in life, he considers his mother a financial burden, though seemingly only if he remains in his hometown. As he contemplates the possibility of taking the job at the bank that Mr. Beach offers him, James thinks, “If he and Elsa married he would never get out of Bladesburg. He couldn’t stop helping Mom. Elsa was too decent for that.” Not only would Elsa prevent James from escaping his small hometown as he desires to pursue a larger career, her decency would also compel him to support his mother, a further restriction on his possibilities.

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One Response to “"An End to Dreams" by Steven Vincent Benét (1932)”

  1. 1 Susan O'Leary

    Presently enjoying Vol II – “Prose” which includes a variety of short stories found in a dusty stack in the back of the bookcase. A surprising number of the stories deal with the subject of divorce, either directly or obliquely. Interesting for the time period 1930’s-40′, and equally applicable today. An amazing writer. Thanks for this post. Will have to look for this story ( ‘An End to Dreams’) you cover so well here. Also will have to find Vol I which is most likely his poetry.

    The short stories dealing with early American history strike me as very very familiar, the stuff of archetypes that feel like I know them already, know the characters. Do you suppose we would have read some of these in school when I was a youngster?

    Thanks again.
    Susan O


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