Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The young man, through his dreams, is able to expose his ambivalence toward himself and his parents, and toward the imminence of manhood and responsibility. As he re-creates his parents’ lives before his birth, he judges and evaluates their personalities, their shortcomings, and their incompatibility. In that dreamworld, the youth can also become aware of his own consciously repressed sense of terror and anguish. Although he feels detached and anonymous as the film begins, the succeeding images force him to confront his own fate—his birth and his impending responsibilities as he enters manhood on his twenty-first birthday. The ambivalence of youth toward parents is clearly revealed as he deplores his father’s materialism and smugness, his mother’s stubbornness. The sensitivity of the narrator is paralleled by the seeming stolidity of his parents, who sense nothing of the menace in the power of the ocean or in their awesome responsibilities as prospective parents.

Throughout the dream, the narrator’s place in society is also explored, when, for example, the old lady in the theater admonishes him or when the usher establishes the conventions of proper behavior. Fluctuating between his need to stay in the theater (society) and his ambivalence toward the incompatibility that he senses in his parents, he is yet caught with the desire to be born—to live. What could have been a banal story of the generation gap, of youthful sensitivity versus parental callousness, of coming of age and the acceptance of responsibilities, is transformed by means of Delmore Schwartz’s technique.