Stephen Vincent Benét is one of America’s most popular short story authors. His The Devil and Daniel Webster is considered a classic, and his “An End to Dreams” appeared in Pictorial Review and won the O. Henry Award in 1932. Benét refused to follow the literary trends of his era, presenting instead in his work a more positive view of the American character in its historical moment. In his study of Benét in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Joel Roache claims that Benét’s vision of the human ability “to transcend its limitations” has assured that his short stories will enjoy a “secure reputation.”
“An End to Dreams” focuses on the life of James Rimington as he dreams about it, while anesthetized in a hospital. As he lies in a hospital bed after a serious operation, James dreams about his personal and professional past. In his dream, he imagines that ambition prompted him to reject his small-town values, along with his childhood sweetheart, in order to gain power and wealth through the single-minded pursuit of corporate success. This success then alienated him from those he cared about and cost him any sense of peace. Just at the moment he dreams about dying alone in the hospital, he awakens, and the reader learns his life has taken a very different path. Benét’s complex portrait of James, as he is portrayed in his dream and upon waking, presents a compelling exploration of the consequences of the pursuit of the American dream.
The last thing James Rimington remembers in “An End to Dreams” is being given general anesthesia before an operation. As the story begins, he is looking up at himself in a mirror that appears to be held by a nurse. When he contemplates how strange that is, he is filled with terror. He then calms himself by deciding that he is alive “and over the worst.” James recognizes that he needs a lot of sleep in order to recuperate before returning to work.
The next several passages contain scenes that slip through James’s mind as he dreams. He wonders about how to fix a business deal and later about how he came to be so successful. Thinking back to when he was nine, Rimington remembers how ashamed he was of the patch on the jacket that he wore to school every day and how his classmates made fun of him by calling him “Patches.” Their taunts roused him to anger, but some of the school boys overpowered him as their friends continued to mock him.
James dreams about being rescued by eight-year-old Elsa Mercer, which further humiliated him. Next, he dreams about his poverty and about Toby Beach, who although “fat and placid,” had friends because his father was rich and had bought him a pony. James realizes, “If you had a pony and your father owned the bank, they wouldn’t laugh at you.” After that incident, young James determines, “I’m going to be rich” and then the children would want to play with him.
James dreams about coming home without the patched jacket that he had thrown away and about his mother talking to him about the reality of their situation. In defiance, he insisted to himself, “you could stop being poor if you wanted to enough.” James understands how hard his mother worked but then insists that he became successful through hard work, which proves to him that all one needs is ambition. He wonders over how many people turned up for his mother’s funeral in Bladesburg, his hometown, but decides that was due to the fact that she lived all of her life there. After the funeral, the townspeople had shown him the improvements they had made to the town but he secretly scorns their “small-town” mentality.
James’s dream thoughts turn to how he looked as a teenager, and he smiles at the memory. Many evenings he would spend time with Elsa on her porch. He remembers working at the local bank and wonders how it has survived the recent “hard weather.” In James’s dream, Mr. Beach had turned down an idea James had for the bank, insisting “we’re here to...
(The entire section is 1,436 words.)