In Dreams Begin Responsibilities | Study Guide

Delmore Schwartz

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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities | Summary

See Plot Diagram


A Familiar Film

The opening scene starts with the male narrator watching an old silent film at a theater. He comments on the old-fashioned nature of the film, including the jumpy picture, poor lighting, and out-of-style clothing. The narrator soon realizes that the film features his father as a young man walking in Brooklyn in June 1909.

The story begins to focus on the content of the film more than the narrator. A man in the film is on his way to pick up a young woman for a date and walks by many shops, streetcars, and houses. As he walks he thinks about his future, and this is so exciting to him that he barely notices the scenery as he passes through town. He looks forward to seeing the woman and thinks about whether he wants to marry her although he feels some panic at the thought of commitment. As the narrator watches the film, he realizes that the man and woman in the film are his parents in their younger days.

The Date

The story continues to focus on what is happening in the movie. The man in the film arrives at his date's house but is uncomfortable with having arrived early. The woman's family including her parents and siblings are still eating dinner. The man sits and waits awkwardly while his date gets ready to go out. He makes polite conversation with the woman's family which shows that he is respected but still awkward. When his date is ready to go, the man is unsure whether to abruptly end his conversation with her father or to wait to greet the woman. His transition is awkward, and the woman's father worries that the man may not be a suitable husband for his daughter.

The couple in the film leave the house and talk while they walk to Coney Island. They discuss a novel that the woman is reading. The woman feels confident that her date sees her as intelligent and interesting. She is not very interested in the amusements at Coney Island but looks forward to walking along the boardwalk and having dinner with her date. The man begins to discuss money, bragging about how much he has made.

The narrator comes back into view as he begins to cry while he watches the film. He misses part of the film while weeping, and the movie now shows the couple arriving at Coney Island. The couple spends time walking on the boardwalk, smelling the sea air, and looking at the beach. The man in the film leaves briefly to buy peanuts from a street vendor while the woman waits on the boardwalk, admiring the ocean. The couple continues to watch the water when the man returns with his peanuts.

The focus moves back to the narrator as he notices the "terrible sun" and "fatal, merciless, passionate ocean" in the film, and he starts to cry again. This time he leaves the theater room to go to the men's room. He later returns to his seat but has missed more scenes.

The couple in the film are now participating in some of the Coney Island amusements even though the woman previously claimed to not like them. They ride on a merry-go-round while playing a game of catching rings as they circle around. After the ride ends, they walk on the boardwalk looking for a restaurant. The man decides where they will have dinner, and the woman goes along with it.

The Proposal

The couple in the film goes to the best restaurant on the boardwalk, and the man pays the waiter to give them a good table near the window. The man orders dinner for the couple. He talks of making money, being successful in business, and settling down with a family in the future. He references his age of 29 and that most of his friends have families. Suddenly, the man asks the woman to marry him, though he does so awkwardly. The woman starts to cry and tearfully responds, "It's all I've wanted from the moment I saw you."

The narrator then shouts at the movie screen, warning the couple not to get married and saying that they will be unhappy. An usher warns him to be quiet or else he will be kicked out of the theater. He then closes his eyes for a while.

When the narrator begins watching the film again, the couple on screen are out on the boardwalk having their picture taken. The photographer is taking too long and the man becomes impatient. The photograph does not come out well, and the couple sit there quite unhappy while waiting for the picture to develop.

The Fortune-Teller

After leaving the photographer, the couple in the film continues to walk on the boardwalk. They pass a fortune-teller's booth, and the woman wants to visit but the man does not. They argue about it and finally decide to enter the booth. The man continues to claim that fortune-telling is nonsense and becomes angry, eventually leaving the booth. The woman tries to follow him, but the fortune-teller insists that she stay. The narrator causes a disruption once again by standing up and shouting at the screen again. This time the theater's usher escorts him out and scolds him.

The Ending

The narrator suddenly wakes up in his room as the usher drags him out of the theater and into the daylight of the street. It turns out the narrator has been dreaming the entire time on his 21st birthday.


The Narrator's Emotions

Most of "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" focuses on what seems to be the narrator's imagined depiction of his parents' courtship in the form of a film, but the narrator makes several meaningful appearances. When he first sits in the theater, he is not impressed by the quality of the film. Once he realizes the film features his parents, he settles in to watch and feels as though he is so drawn into the movie that he has forgotten himself.

The narrator next appears when the couple in the film, his father and mother, are about to leave for their date. He suddenly becomes aware of himself once again and feels uneasy. Then he focuses back on the movie as the couple in the film start to walk down the street. The narrator's next reaction is much more erratic as he suddenly starts to cry when the man in the film tells the woman about how much money he has made. The narrator notes that the man has exaggerated the amount, and this seems to bring very negative feelings to the narrator. This symbolizes that the narrator's family struggled with money during his childhood or that Schwartz himself faced difficult financial circumstances given that he wrote the story during The Great Depression.

The narrator cries again during a scene where the couple in the film, his parents, admire the ocean. The narrator views the scenery as hostile and dangerous instead of the beautiful sunset over the ocean that the couple likely sees. He has to be comforted by the old lady seated next to him. He continues to see the ocean and sun as terrifying, and he has to leave the room to gain control of his emotions. His reaction is startling and seems unnatural, signaling that he has some underlying negative feelings or memories toward the sun and water.

The narrator's next reappearance is even more extreme as he stands up and shouts at the movie screen after the couple in the film gets engaged. He warns them not to get married and that they will face "remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous." His unusual reactions become clearer after this outburst since it seems he had a difficult childhood because of his parents' unhappy marriage.

The story told in the film ends with the narrator's final bout of shouting at the movie screen. He questions what the couple in the film are doing as the man has stormed out of the fortune-teller's booth and the woman has not followed him. This time, he is removed from the theater by the usher, who uses the narrator's own question of "what are you doing" to scold him.

The emotional responses throughout indicate Schwartz's own emotional difficulties as he experienced mental illness throughout his adult life. The narrator's dream ends with the unanswered question of "what are you doing"— something that symbolizes the author's personal insecurities.

Impulsiveness and Focus on Money

There is a strong presence of impulsive behavior and obsessive discussion of money throughout. The man in the film is shown repeatedly becoming so focused on the topic of money and wealth that his thoughts, and sometimes behavior, become out of control. These inclusions reflect on the author's lifestyle and struggles as he found success early in his career and then drifted through a variety of roles and circumstances.

Schwartz reveals early on that the man in the film is the narrator's father. The film shows the man walking through the streets of Brooklyn, distracted by his own thoughts of the future. By the time he reaches his destination he is quite excited by the plans he has made in his head. He also thinks about the woman he is about to visit who is the narrator's mother. He looks forward to seeing her but has not decided whether he wants to marry her. He is even nervous about the level of commitment he has already made in their courtship. After reading this one would not imagine the man in the film would end up proposing to the woman on this date. This scene is the first instance of the man in the film's excitable nature when it comes to money.

Upon arriving at the woman's home, the man acts awkwardly in his greetings and interactions. He is nervous and unsure of how to transition from talking with the woman's father to greeting the woman, and he makes an impulsive decision to get up abruptly and clumsily to gruffly greet the woman. This does not leave a good impression with the woman's father as the couple departs. This may seem like a minor detail to the overall story, but it continues to build upon the man's impulsive nature.

The man in the film focuses on money several times, first by exaggerating how much he makes while talking with the woman. He discusses money again when talking about his plans for the future, and it is at that moment that he impulsively proposes marriage. He seems to get caught up in the excitement of his future and the prospect of getting rich in his business and comparing himself to friends who have already found success in settling down with a family. This is a big change from his earlier attitude when he was very uncertain about marrying the woman, seemingly just hours before. Even the man seems surprised at himself for how he has suddenly asked for the woman's hand in marriage. The woman accepts the proposal, but it does not go the way the man had pictured it, and he seems disappointed with the whole scenario. His attitude throughout the rest of the film is quite negative as he acts in an impatient and rude manner, symbolizing that he regrets his impulsive behavior.

The obsession with wealth and financial stability throughout the film connects to both the era in which the story was written and the era in which the film is set. Schwartz wrote the story in the late 1930s when the Great Depression had been ongoing for several years. Schwartz witnessed and experienced the financial challenges of the era, and money was on his mind. The film is set in 1909, before World War I and during a time when industry and businesses were continuing to grow in the United States. The man in the film, the narrator's father, had big ideas for how to build his business and cash in on the opportunities of the time. This is a reflection on the very different circumstances of the previous generation. The fact that he often ties money and impulsivity together may likewise connect the author's mental and financial states.

The Dream

It is not clear that the story told in the film is actually the narrator's dream until the last sentence. This fact gives the whole story a different feel as Schwartz describes the narrator waking up on a "bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday." The narrator seems to have some unresolved issues with his parents and his upbringing that are coming to light as he faces adulthood.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The narrator watches an old silent film in a theater.

Rising Action

2 The man in the film walks to visit the woman in the film.

3 The man in the film arrives at the house.

4 The man in the film and the woman in the film depart for Coney Island.

5 The man in the film and the woman in the film walk along the boardwalk.

6 The man in the film and the woman in the film partake in amusements and get engaged at dinner.


7 The man in the film and the woman in the film argue over visiting a fortune-teller's booth.

Falling Action

8 The narrator is escorted from the theater after shouting at the screen.


9 The narrator wakes up from his dream.

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