The American Dream
Benét explores the destructive aspects of the American dream and suggests an altered version. In his dream, James follows the traditional plot of the dream, which involves rising from poverty to the top of the corporate world, amassing wealth and power along the way. He envisions, however, the destructive consequences of this achievement since it necessitated moving away from his family and the woman he loved.
In his dream, James imagines himself as hardened by his immersion in the corporate world of New York City. He becomes as corrupt as his idol, John Q. Dixon, beating the tycoon at his own game. When he returns for his mother’s funeral, he scoffs at the small-town values of his hometown, with its decent, hard-working members like his mother, and had not “cracked a smile” when given a tour of the new buildings. James’s success has caused him to alienate and isolate himself from others except the “women of various ages and different looks . . . light and hollow as figures made of pasteboard” who “had no importance.” As he lies dying in his hospital bed, he can think of no one who would come to his side. James recognizes the wrong path he has taken when he admits that he was “meant to grow up and marry Elsa and do all sorts of things.” At that moment, his corporate “dream” dies. The doctor holds the mirror up to his face and finds there is no breath as darkness falls. Benét’s alternate vision of the American Dream involves a more gradual and less steep path to success. When James wakes from his dream, he finds that he is successful on a smaller scale as provider for his family and has been married to Elsa for thirty years. He has channeled his ambition in a different direction. Elsa reminds him that when his classmates teased him about his patched jacket, he convinced them that it helped him shoot marbles more accurately. As a result, “by the end of the year, every boy in school wanted a patch.” James learned to make the best of his situation in his hometown and so determined to find a more comfortable version of the American dream.
Compare and contrast the subject of success in “An End to Dreams” and “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” According to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), founder of modern psychoanalysis, there are different levels of consciousness, one on the surface and the other beneath and often hidden from the conscious mind. The subconscious harbors desires that people do not recognize consciously. Often, these suppressed desires emerge in the form of dreams. Benét’s story of James’s dream focuses on material wealth, professional importance, and corporate success. Perhaps these dream subjects represent suppressed desires in James. In Benét’s words, the dream emerges as James experiences a “shaken point of consciousness,” which occurs when James believes he is coming out of anesthesia. James’s detailed reconstruction of his past suggests that he is unfulfilled on some level. While he is attended lovingly by his wife at the end of the story, he admits to a sense of defeat when he realizes that his vision of his success is only a dream. Even the title, “An End to Dreams,” suggests that James’s vision of his corporate rise was a suppressed desire. Benét’s depiction of these dual levels of consciousness paints a more complex portrait of his main character.
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