Born December 8, 1913
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died July 11, 1966
New York City, New York, U.S
Imagine that you are sitting in a movie theater, relaxed, waiting for the film to begin. The lights dim. The film begins. The main characters are your parents. It is the day that your father proposes to your mother. You are uniquely aware that this is a monumental mistake. You want to warn them, to shout, you want the plot to take a different direction. You want the projectionist to stop running the film. Alas, you are unable to influence the results in any way.
This is the plot of the short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” by Delmore Schwartz, first-generation American son of Jewish immigrants, published and well-received in the first issue of Partisan Review in 1937. In a vivid, first-person, extended simile, the nameless, main character, draws you into his world. As you read, you quickly transform into a passive audience member, sitting in the dark theater, watching him helplessly, knowing from his reactions that this will lead to his own, miserable story. He has no control over the events playing out on the screen. You have no control over the events playing out in the narrative.
The story ends with the character waking up from this dream, just as the usher forces him from the hall. He wakes up on the bleak morning of his 21st birthday. We, readers, are provided with no resolution. What will happen to the nameless, main character?
Delmore Schwartz wrote this story at the age of 21. His book of short stories was published when he was 24. Considered a promising, Jewish-American writer and poet, he paved the way for other Jewish American writers, such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Below. Suffering from alcoholism and mental illness, his contemporary, Alfred Kazin, referred to him as an “expert in anguish.”
What makes this story so compelling? Perhaps it is the immediacy with which he sucks us into his fictional world. By the third sentence, most readers are fully drawn in, unaware of the simply-executed, extended simile, unless they re-read the story. The focus on issues of free will and destiny come in a close second. The premise of the son’s destiny being determined by his parents’ actions, without the ability to prevent them, holds a universal fascination. It is difficult for us not to measure ourselves based upon this. Are our destinies’ determined by the shadows cast by our parents’ mistakes? Are the actions of the fathers bestowed upon the children?
The title of the story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” leaves room for interpretation. Do we take responsibility for ourselves and our dreams? Or do we blame our circumstances? We like to hold onto the illusion that we have some control over our lives. As we observe the main character bear witness to his parents’ deeds, this premise is questioned. I would suggest that, just like the potential interpretations of this story demonstrates, we are much more than the sum of our parents’ mistakes. We are always so much more than the sum of all of our parts. Our dreams take on shape and form based on whether we believe that or not.
i In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Delmore Schwartz, published 1938.
The story can be read over the net:
ii From Richard M. Cook’s 2007, Alfred Kazin: A Biography.
iii The title is an epigraph written by William Butler Yeats, from his 1914 collection of poems, Responsibilities.