Benét was a great advocate of America’s entry into World War II as evidenced by a speech he wrote for President Roosevelt. He also worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and wrote a series of radio scripts, including Listen to the People (1941) They Burned the Books (1942). Benét was plagued with bad vision throughout his life, and he also suffered from arthritis and mental illness. He died of a heart attack in New York City, on March 13, 1943. In 1944, Benét was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize posthumously for his epic poem Western Star 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 serve our own folks, not the Easterners.” James thinks about how his plan had been “the first stepping stone” of his success.
He and Elsa had professed their love to each other and complained about not having enough money to get married. James does not regret his relationship with Elsa since it had prompted him to go to New York where he earned his fortune. Mr. Beach had warned him about getting involved with John Q. Dixon in New York because the man had the reputation of being “a pirate.” Beach offered him a position as assistant cashier, suggesting that he would eventually move higher up in the bank, which would have given James the opportunity to marry Elsa.
He had considered the offer, imagining what life would be like as he slowly moved up from assistant cashier to “perhaps” owner at fifty. The townspeople would then have respect for him, no longer calling him “Patches.” But he rejected this path, even while admitting that going to New York would mean that he could not continue to send his mother money. He also knew that even though he had promised, he would never come back to Elsa.
His dream memory jumps to his success in New York, where he was called “the quiet earthquake.” James appears to have used Dixon’s own tricks against him as the latter asked, “how much do you expect me to settle for, Jim?” Dixon suggested here that James had become as corrupt as he was. James catalogues the things he acquired as a result: expensive homes and a yacht where he could impress guests who came to find out how to gain similar success. There were also many “hollow” women who, he concludes, “had no importance” because the only thing that mattered to him was the work and the power it afforded.
In the dream, Elsa had in the meantime married Toby Beach with whom she had children. As James lies in bed, he weighs his choices. Even though he insists, “he had bought life on his own terms,” he appears to regret his decisions, especially since he lost Elsa in the process. He tries to convince himself that what was important was work and power and averts his gaze from the mirror.
When he hears doctors talking in hushed tones, he looks through the mirror in an effort to discover what they are talking about. He gets annoyed when he decides they are not focusing on him. When he tries to get their attention, he finds that he is unable to speak. He tries to think who he could contact to help him but realizes that he has no friends. Eventually, he thinks about Elsa and conjures an image of her. As she tends her garden, he tries to make her think of him. She stops for a moment, with a concerned look flashing across her face, but returns to her work, for “the feebly burning lamp that had to do with James Rimington winked out.” Her family is her main concern now.
His dream consciousness returns to the hospital where he seems to hear his doctor refer to a “sudden collapse” and call for oxygen as he concludes that men such as James do not have much to live for. James interprets this to mean that he is dying. After hearing one of the voices suggest that a mirror be used to see if he is still breathing, James looks at it and discovers that it is blank. Then all goes dark.
The scene jumps to a middle-aged woman sitting in a chair, who the reader discovers is Elsa Rimington. James wakes up in the hospital confused, asking her if they are married. She confirms that they have been for thirty years. When he asks if she remembers his patched coat, she tells him how he kept wearing it, convincing the other children that it brought him luck. She tells him that the doctor is sure that he will be fine and that his children “are just crazy” to see him. James looks up at the ceiling and sees a spot of sun shining like a mirror and begins to tell her what he “saw,” but he appears to realize that it has all been a dream. The story closes as James, filled with a sense of peace, takes Elsa’s hand.
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