Delmore Schwartz Short Fiction Analysis
Delmore Schwartz’s place in American literature is unique and problematic. His life, as well as his modest literary production, which includes thirty-five poems, a verse play, short stories, and other works, has continued to fascinate a select group of critics and writers. The rezpublication of Schwartz’s stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, by New Directions in 1978, and the appearance of Schwartz’s letters and journals, have helped solidify Schwartz’s position and shed light on his career. Critics have dwelt on the importance of Schwartz’s Jewish heritage and have tried as well to stress how American are his concerns.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”
The character of Schwartz’s work can be felt in “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Published when the writer was twenty-five, the story, like practically everything else he wrote, is distinctly autobiographical. The story is divided into six parts. It opens on a Sunday afternoon, June 12, 1909, in Brooklyn, as his father is courting his mother. They take the streetcar to Coney Island to inhale the sea air from the boardwalk and to watch the strollers promenade in their Sunday clothes. They ride the merry-go-round and snatch at the brass ring. Later they eat dinner, while his father boasts of all the money he will make, and then proposes. His mother begins to cry because this is what she has wanted him to say ever since she met him. They have their picture taken, but the photographer corrects their pose so many times that his father becomes impatient; his smile becomes a grimace, hers “bright and false.” Then they argue about having their fortune told, and in terrible anger, he strides out of the booth. The story of his parents’ courtship is narrated by their child, who watches it as if it were a movie, reacts to the scenes being portrayed on the screen, and is threatened with expulsion from the theater by the rest of the audience who object to his interruptions. Finally the usher reprimands him, seizing his arm and dragging him away. He awakens on the morning of his twenty-first birthday, a bleak, snowy, wintry day.
The undisguised autobiographical elements of this story are the use of Schwartz’s actual birthday, December 8, which took place four years after this mismatched couple was married; the use of his real mother’s name, Rose; the grouping of his real relatives around the dinner table; and the depiction of his father’s financial ambitions. To a certain extent, the cinematic presentation could also be considered autobiographical since Schwartz was a lifelong movie addict. Saul Bellow, in his fictionalized version of Schwartz’s life, shows him as an aficionado of old films and portrays him as acting out scenes from the movies he doted on, quoting from them, and even scripting one collaboratively and composing a scenario for another.
The psychological implications of this perspective are frightening. The author on his birthday night five times tries to interrupt the film which will end in his conception. Once he freezes a frame into a still shot. Three times he actually leaves his seat because he cannot endure what is coming, but he returns in horrified fascination to watch it being relentlessly played out to the end, except that he is forcibly expelled from the theater for having created such commotion with his outcries. He awakens in the cold present of his own manhood to the recognition that this has been an anxiety dream. To have wished his parents not to marry is to have wished his own extinction. To suffer such fears of dissolution, as Schwartz did nightly, is to suffer from insomnia, a condition for which Schwartz was famous. He dreaded sleep because it meant losing control. Much of his erudition resulted from the thousands of books he read at night to fend off his terrors, taking fistfuls of Benzedrine tablets to stay awake.
The Brechtian alienation effect of interrupting the narrative flow in each of the sections of the story is an authorial strategy which makes the experience of the reader conform to the experience of the author, who is also the narrator. It is a perfect narcissistic mirroring technique: The content reflects the form, which reflects the theme; the home movie being replayed on the dream screen reflects a past in which he could not have participated in any other guise because he had not yet been born. The youth must reconstruct the images of his parents’ youth, as well as images of their parents, from faded images in old-fashioned clothes on family photos.
The story opens in the subjunctive mood, “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater,” then shifts into the indicative. The author’s use of the present tense throughout to describe things in the distant past has a curious effect; if all the verbs were changed to their past-tense forms, this story would become a simple retrospective narrative. Their obtrusive presentness makes the artificiality more conspicuous. This is not a story intended to entertain, but a series of obsessive images which relentlessly thrust themselves upon the dream screen and which can no more be stopped than the paralyzed dreamer can obliterate the visions that insist upon playing themselves out in his consciousness.
The first interruption is posed as a break in the film. Just at the point when his mother’s father is indicating his doubts about the contemplated engagement, “something happens to the film.” The audience protests by...
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