Toby is a popular classmate of James, even though the boy is “fat and placid.” He teaches James that “if you had a pony and your father owned the bank, they wouldn’t laugh at you.” Toby’s father offers James a job at his bank that, in his dream, he rejects. In reality, though, James becomes a successful banker after accepting the position.
John Q. Dixon
In James’s dream, one afternoon John Q. Dixon gets stuck in Bladesburg while traveling to New York City. James finds the courage to talk to the man, who is considered to be a “pirate” by the New York press. Dixon is James’s hero, and he models himself after the man whom he believes has succeeded in realizing the American dream. Dixon is the epitome of the soulless robber baron of the early part of the twentieth century. His eyes can “look through a man” as he sizes him up to see what he can gain from him. James’s association with Dixon corrupts him, however, to the point where James has become as much of a pirate as his mentor.
In her childhood, Elsa is strong and kind. This “pig-tailed avenger” rescues James from the taunts of his classmates. James has a vision of her in his dream that seems to coincide with her true nature. In the dream, her patience becomes evident when she understands James’s need to go to New York to seek his fortune and insists that she will wait for him. But James never returns to her in his dream. He admits that she gives him the courage to speak to John Q. Dixon that afternoon in Bladesburg. Elsa exhibits this same level of support after James wakes from his dream. She is at his side, praising him for his ingenuity when as a child his classmates made fun of his patched coat. She claims that he is the best patient at the hospital and tells him that their children and his sister are “just crazy” to see him. It is obvious that she provides him with the peace he experiences at the end of the story.
Benét presents two versions of James, one in the dream and the other in reality. Perhaps Benét is suggesting that James is a combination of both versions. The dream James is ruled by his monomaniacal drive to escape the grinding poverty of his childhood. Humiliated by his family’s circumstances, which force him to wear a patched jacket, James recognizes that “when you were poor, people laughed at you.” He also learns that money will buy friends as evidenced by his classmates swarming around the son of the local banker.
Lacking compassion, he views poverty as a weakness, insisting “you could stop being poor if you wanted to enough” and so regards his mother, who has worn herself out with work, with disdain. Beach has provided a way out of his poverty in Bladesburg, but the job does not offer James the level of success he craves. Beach admits that the plan James brings to him is “a brilliant scheme” but insists that they “can’t touch it” because they are there “to serve our own folks, not the Easterners.” James’s response is to mock the older man’s decent business practices.
When he thinks about leaving for the city, James recognizes that he would not be able to send his mother any money for a long time since “Dixon paid his clever young men starvation wages at first.” He also acknowledges that he will never return for Elsa either, but his selfish pursuit of his dreams presses him to leave.
In his dream, James relocates to New York and becomes hardened by his drive for success and is nicknamed “the quiet earthquake.” He thinks back to the days when he played the mandolin for Elsa, considering himself a foolish boy then. He has disciplined himself to focus only on work and his drive for success. In New York, he has become a “pirate” like his mentor John Dixon, who told him “when a man’s tired making money he’s tired of life.” When James eventually defeats him, Dixon admits that he learned well his advice to “always squeeze the shorts” and looks at the younger man with “passionless comprehension.” Success has made the dream James rigid and demanding, and as a result friendless.
At the hospital, the dream James becomes angry when he thinks that the doctors are not taking good care of him and insists that he should be their first priority. This James, however, is not strong enough to buy himself life, and thus he dies.
The true James emerges at the end of the story. We only learn a few details about him through Elsa that reflect his character. Apparently, he was strong enough to deflect criticism regarding his poverty when he convinced his classmates that his patched jacket brings him luck. This James turns into “a solid man. A settled, small-town citizen” who is loved by his wife and family and who has found ultimate peace in his situation.
Benét complicates our vision of James, however, by his juxtaposition of the two versions. The author suggests that James has dual impulses: to get out of his small town and pursue a selfish dream of power and wealth, and to become a “decent” citizen of his small town, living a quiet, settled life with his family. This duality creates a more complex and so more realistic vision of James’s character.
James’s selfless mother always looks “bewildered.” James concludes that her inability to focus on and complete a task results from her being the sole caretaker to her five children. She is well-respected in their hometown, as evidenced by the kind words all say about her at her funeral.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Stephen Vincent Benet, Published by Gale Group, 2010