Dreams Are Among Literature’s Themes

Alice

My goal: to discuss dreams in fiction before I go to sleep tonight.

This topic is not my idea. I was reading Elisabeth van der Meer’s great “A Russian Affair” literature blog a week or so ago when she brought up a memorable dream sequence in Alexander Pushkin’s “novel in verse” Eugene Onegin (a work, serialized between 1825 and 1832, that I haven’t read). I commented under Elisabeth’s post, and she said dreams in fiction might perhaps be a good subject for me.

So, I decided it would be sort of a nightmare to ignore a fascinating topic like that. After all, dreams can reveal a lot about a character, can help drive a plot, can be very interesting in of themselves, and can give writers a chance to show off some impressive prose pyrotechnics.

Of course, dreams in novels may or may not be literal dreams (as in the character being asleep). They might be hallucinations, visions, fantasy sequences, etc.

Staying with Russian literature, there’s the famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan Karamazov meets the devil. Perhaps more an hallucination than a dream, what Fyodor Dostoyevsky conjured up is harrowing and hilarious.

Fictional works with ghostly visitations can certainly fit this topic, with the assumption that the visitations are dreamed or imagined — maybe. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge encounters various ghosts, is one of literature’s most famous examples of this.

Dream or ghost? We wonder about that near the start of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when Mr. Lockwood stays in the room of the late Catherine and sees the child version of Catherine try to get in the window. Lockwood experiences this as a terrifying dream, while Heathcliff wonders if Mr. L has seen the actual ghost of his deceased love.

Also in the 19th century, we have Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice might be dreaming or imagining various quirky characters and situations. Or perhaps it’s more a fantasy approach on the part of Lewis Carroll. (One of John Tenniel’s famous Alice illustrations is on top of this blog post.)

Moving to the 20th century, Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf ends with an eye-popping scene in “The Magic Theatre” — a place that seems both real and dream-like at the same time.

There are a number of visions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, most notably when Harry’s mind involuntarily focuses on Lord Voldemort and that uber-villain’s thoughts.

One of modern literature’s most shocking uses of dreams — or imagined scenarios — is revealed at the controversial conclusion of (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother. To avoid any spoiler risks, I’ll leave it at that.

Some characters in time-travel novels do the time-traveling in a way that’s almost a dream. For instance, the protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand uses a powerful drug to transport himself from a 20th-century town to the same town in the 14th century. Is he sort of dreaming those experiences in the 1300s? And the protagonist in Jack Finney’s Time and Again goes from 20th- to 19th-century New York City via self-hypnosis, a dream state of sorts.

Novels you remember with elements of dreams, hallucinations, and such?

And now for a famous “Dreams” song:

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s upcoming election and (alliteration alert!) somewhat-secretive schools superintendent search — is here.

82 thoughts on “Dreams Are Among Literature’s Themes

  1. A Dream Draws A Drowsy Dreamer Doomward:

    A “Twilight Zone” episode, written by host Rod Serling, has to do with a beguiling dream that ends badly, though that end is unknown to the dreamer. An ad man, harried at home and work, falls asleep on the train home and dreams of a stop on his suburban commuter line which is somehow stuck in the late-19th century, a little town with a band shell and straw-hatted boys returning from fishin’ holes, etc. Before the ad man can exit, the train moves on.

    It seems so real he asks the conductor about the stop, and is told it does not exist. Another a day, another dream of the 19th century stop. Another day, same thing, only this time the ad man forces himself to get off there. The results are not what he anticipated they would be, except insofar as he is free from work and wife.

    I’d recount the end, only there may yet be someone among the readers here who haven’t seen the episode and would like to, without knowing how things turn out. Hint: Weirdly. The title? “A Stop At Willoughby”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember that episode, jhNY, and also the short-story version of it in a Rod Serling paperback collection that I still own. Fabulous, evocative story — and the ending, like a lot of “Twilight Zone” endings, packs a real wallop. Terrific summary of the episode by you!

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  2. Fruitful, if fitful, dreaming is an enduring trope of crime fiction, though occasionally induced by forced drug intake or a good bonk on the noggin. Sometimes, as is often the case with Inspector Montalbano (Camillieri’s character) and Commisario Brunetti (Leone’s), it’s more often a matter of a fellow taking his work to bed with him. In all cases, some version of events and clues and strange foretellings seem to show up in a timely manner and inspire the way forward in a case, if not the solution itself. Chandler and Ross MacDonald may be depended on to employ devices of the second type, by means of saps and gunbutts and quack doctors with capacious narcotic cabinets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Loved the vivid, colorful comment! Writing worthy of some of the best crime fiction. Yes, the subconscious mind does seem to have a role in solving the cases in a number of mysteries.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” was written by GK Chesterton (nowadays, of mostly “Father Brown” fame, though he was, in his day, a public intellectual and an able and artful defender of Catholicism) at the turn of the 20th century. Kingsley Amis (author of “Lucky Jim”), in the introduction to the paperback copy I own, called this novel “the most thrilling book I have ever read.” I cannot concur, as I’ve had bigger thrills other places, but I can say that it does manage to propel the reader through a fantastic paranoiac world of spies, secret societies, false identities, people in motorcars chasing manned balloons across the countryside, underground chambers, and suddenly it’s all but a dream.

    Chesterton’s great achievement: the rhythm and speed of events, the abrupt moving of one scene to another, the development of the twisting metamorphic plot, are most dreamlike. Once the reader has recovered his surprise at feeling he has been led through surrealism as if real, the story and the telling satisfy in retrospect, if not quite in the reading– it is after all a nightmare, as titled, and as such, accurately rendered.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dave, out of topic, with the killing of this unarmed young black man by two smiling white men brings tears to my eyes, blood boil.
    This is a famous Poem by Rabindranath Tagore translated by William Radice.

    Question.

    ” God, again and again through the ages you have sent messengers
    To this pitiless world;
    They have said, Forgive everyone’, they
    have said,Love one another-
    Rid your hearts of evil.’
    They are revered and remembered, yet still in these dark days
    We turn them away with hollow greetings
    from outside the doors of our houses.

    And meanwhile I see secretive hatred, murdering the helpless
    Under cover of night;
    And justice weeping silently and furtively at power misused,
    No hope of redress.
    I see young men working themselves into a frenzy,
    In agony dashing their heads against stone to no avail.

    My voice is choked today; I have no music in my flute:
    Black moonless night
    Has imprisoned my world, plunged
    it into nightmare. And this is why,
    With tears in my eyes I ask:
    Those who have poisoned your air, those who have
    extinguished your light,
    Can it be that you have forgiven them?
    Can it be
    that you love them? ”

    ~~ Translation by William Radice

    Liked by 1 person

    • The slave patrols continue by other means and other names in our own times. The elder of those two is a former police detective. Protect whom and serve what?

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        • There are far too many here who have never questioned the quaint notion that American was a gift from God to white Christians, all others contingently welcome to build the Shining City, then scram.

          Right now through Trump and his party’s intention or indifference, people of color are dying via COVID-19 in greater numbers than whites, and there’s no end in sight, and insufficient national will to rationally contain the disease or care about those most vulnerable to its ravages.

          Welcome to the Untied States of America!

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          • Thank you for the continuing of that sad conversation, bebe and jhNY. Yes, vicious white supremacy has continued through the centuries, changing form in certain ways — and some law-enforcement people, whether retired or active, are a big part of that. I guess white ethnic groups were/are eventually fully welcomed into “the melting pot,” but others unfortunately remain seen as…”others.” And, yes, people of color (and the less-affluent in general) are disproportionately suffering during this pandemic.

            Liked by 1 person

            • As the WASP population became smaller relative to the population of others, they began, I’d imagine subconsciously, to include among their own kind whites formerly thought by them to be of a lower sort into an expanded definition of ‘white’, so as to outnumber the lower darker orders. Until JFK’s election, it’s been said here in the Northeast that the Irish were somehow less than properly white. Until diMaggio and Sinatra, Italians were not quite, and neither were Jews, till the horrible shame of the Holocaust made such exclusion untenable as a matter of public opinion.

              It is no small irony that Stephen Miller and Ken Cuchinelli have such racist and exclusionary goals here in modern US, since generations before, they might be expected to have suffered exclusion from what was considered white society at the time. But it’s all part, historically, of proving one’s bona fides here– pull up the ladder after your people get in and prove your solidarity with fellow whites by attacking those with whom you once would have been lumped.

              Liked by 2 people

          • And now…hard working people of color, who worked in farms have no jobs no insurance, nowhere to go.
            The results ?
            Yesterday I go to Kroger…and had no Brussels sprout, I say what ?
            They say to me , we ordered but still waiting…

            Welcome to Amrica where hard working people have no jobs, no insurance, no money to feed their family.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Just by reading this post, I realized I can learn a good-style fiction language from you, as well as English language by itself:) Will continue reading, from now with bigger involvement:) Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Dave! First of all, I love your puns! 🙂 What about Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”? It was an hallucination — or was it? — after getting bonked on the head, but dreams are technically hallucinations, wouldn’t you agree? Have a wonderful week, Dave!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pat! 🙂

      Yes, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” very much fits this topic!

      Twain was definitely among the earlier authors to depict time travel — along with people such as Poe, Edward Bellamy, and H.G. Wells. Wells put his protagonist in a machine, but Poe (“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” story) and Bellamy (“Looking Backward” novel) also used a dream or an hallucination or hypnosis or some such thing.

      Have a wonderful week, too!

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  7. Back in my younger days, my escapist fiction was mainly focused on romantic mysteries written by authors such as Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney. I was particularly enamored of Barbara Mertz, who wrote under the pseudonyms of Elizabeth Peters (more traditional cozy historical fiction, especially starring her Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody) and Barbara Michaels (more gothic suspense with a supernatural bent). I loved most of Mertz’s novels: she featured heroines of a feminist and quite liberal persuasion; she was an ardent animal lover, mainly cats; and her novels were generally set in older homes, with antiques, vintage clothes, flowers, etc. She herself had obtained a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and wrote a couple of books about Egypt that are still in print today (I think).

    Her novel having the most to do with this column is “Patriot’s Dream,” which was written in 1976. I’m not necessarily recommending it, as I haven’t reread it for years, but it certainly is very interesting. The heroine is a young teacher from NYC who goes to spend the Bicentennial summer with her great aunt and uncle in Williamsburg, for a rest. They own a historical home there, which has already been sold to the Williamsburg Foundation. but they can stay there for life. Our heroine, Jan, definitely gets more rest than she bargained for, by dreaming about characters who lived in that same house during 1776, in particular two very close male friends (one of whom she falls in love with) and a young slave from Senegal, Leah. The novel itself alternates chapters between Jan’s life in 1976 and her extremely vivid dreams of 1776. Is it time-traveling by dream? All in all, Dave, as I was paging through my old paperback copy, it made me think of the “Outlander” series you’re now reading.

    Sorry to go on so long, but this was such a fascinating topic that I’ve been pondering for the last few days! Thanks to you and Elisabeth. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! “Patriot’s Dream” sounds fascinating (and definitely published in an appropriate year 🙂 ). I just put it on my post-library-reopening list. Time-travel books can be so fascinating, and the transition from one time to another almost always seems dream-like, even if it’s not literally a dream. Barbara Mertz sounds like an impressive author and person, with an incredibly wide variety of interests.

      Speaking of the 18th-century South, I’m now reading “Drums of Autumn” — the fourth of Diana Gabaldon’s eight “Outlander” novels. Another excellent installment of the series, and set in the Carolinas during the pre-Revolutionary War 1760s. (The protagonists left Scotland for “The New World.”)

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      • Yes, Mertz was quite a an impressive woman. She was honored with a grandmaster award from the Mystery Writers of America, a lifetime achievement award from Malice Domestic, and other awards from important organizations. I probably knew this before, but I’ve learned that her feminism arose mostly because she was unable to get a job in academia after earning her PhD from the prestigious Oriental Institute at the U of Chicago — which is why she took up writing mystery novels, luckily for me and all her fans! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Dave,

    I was also going to mention Manderley until thepatterer beat me to it 🙂

    I feel like I’m due a bit of a Dark Tower rave. Stephen King uses a lot of dreams and visions in his epic series. There are often multiple characters in multiple worlds, and sometimes even the same character in different worlds, and King superbly uses dreams to allow the characters to communicate with each other and show each other things of importance.

    I didn’t quite get a chance to comment last week. My reading habits haven’t drastically changed. I do have more time now that I’m working from home, but I seem to need more sleep than normal, and I’m also watching a lot more TV. I’ve finally, about thirty years after everybody else, started watching Twin Peaks. A quirky show with one (so far) incredibly weird dream sequence. Sorry, I know that’s not literature, but it is kind of on topic, right?

    Me personally? I still keep dreaming that I’m out in public and people are breathing on me

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! The great Stephen King, in various works, is indeed very adept at depicting dreams, hallucinations, visions, etc. Certainly the case in two novels of his I read most recently: “Gerald’s Game” and “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” both from the 1990s.

      The urge to get more sleep and watch more TV are definitely understandable when we all have to mostly stay home. I’ve never watched “Twin Peaks,” but, from what I’ve read, it seems to be more literary than many TV series.

      Your last line sounds like the nightmare category of a dream! 🙂 😦

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      • Oh, Dave. It’s awful that I can’t escape it even in my dreams. They are getting better though and I seem to be avoiding the shops when I’m asleep now, so that helps 🙂

        Gerald’s Game has GREAT dreams and visions and maybe hallucinations. Can’t believe I didn’t think of it. This feels like one of those topics where I’ll make a comment six weeks from now and say I’ve thought of the perfect example!

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          • Dave, I don’t know if this is silly, but your comment actually makes me feel a little better. I have been known to get into a panic over nothing before. But I guess freaking out, either consciously or subconsciously, during a pandemic is probably a sensible reaction.

            It’s funny, I was watching the news the other day and they said something about pandemic, and I thought no, it’s been upgraded from a pandemic for a while now, and then I realised, no, pandemic is about as bad as it gets. It’s just that I’ve heard or said the word so many times in the last couple of months that it just doesn’t sound the same anymore

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, Susan! Hmm…interesting thought. The now-oft-used word “pandemic” does seem to have become too minimal-sounding these days. “Uber-pandemic”? “Pandemic on steroids”? “Pandemical disaster”? “Pandemicaust”?

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              • Ooh, I like “Pandemicaust” 🙂 How long before that starts to sound kind of banal though?

                Not at all on topic, but at least literature related, I am making my way through Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That. I guess I’m enjoying it (if that’s the right word for such traumatic stories) but it’s nowhere near as good as We Need To Talk About Kevin. I’m not sure if that’s because I read Kevin first and so had higher expectations this time around, or if it’s just because I can’t relate to any of the characters, but I am finding myself a little disappointed.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Sorry you’re not liking “So Much for That” as much as I did. It IS a rather depressing novel. But, if you stick with it, I think you’ll find the ending memorable. I need to read “We Need To Talk About Kevin”!

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  9. Another fun theme for novels, Dave. I’d definitely include Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy but can’t remember exactly whether the woman dreamed, time-traveled or was having visions. Perhaps it was all three 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Excellent mention of “Woman on the Edge of Time”! I’m also not remembering the exact way one would describe Connie Ramos’ sci-fi-ish experiences, but dreams and/or time travel and/or visions work for me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a very interesting theme this week Dave! 🙂 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have always been favorites (in both book form and Disney animated, wasn’t so crazy about the live action ones), so I loved the photo and mention. I also have House on the Strand cued up on my Kindle, I hope to get to it very soon. I’ve recently read some books that have dreams revealing a significant truth to the main character about a mystery – such “the Guest House” by Sarah Blake. Then I also read a lot of works where dreams about past traumas haunt the characters – both fact and fictional reads. As we all try to sleep better at night in these troubling times, I enjoyed this topic very much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Glad you enjoyed the topic.

      Yes, those two “Alice” books are SO entertaining, as is John Tenniel’s incredible 19th-century artwork. I’ve never seen any of the screen versions of “Alice,” in animated or live form. (I wonder if an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s work ever appeared on “The Alice Network.” 😉 )

      Hope you end up liking “The House on the Strand”! I found it pretty riveting.

      I agree that dreams in literature can help reveal significant truths, whether or not a mystery is involved. And dreams about past traumas can indeed be haunting — or therapeutic, or both.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you so much, Dave, for using my suggestion. A Christmas Carol is a fantastic example of a famous literary dream. Dreams can be a powerful source of inspiration. Having just read Rebecca’s post about Vincent van Gogh, I’m thinking of his words: I dream of painting and then I paint my dreams.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very welcome, Elisabeth! And thank you again for suggesting the idea. 🙂

      Creators’ dreams are indeed a powerful source of inspiration for their novels, paintings, and other creations. Those words of Van Gogh were memorable, and that was a great post by Rebecca!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Very interesting piece Dave! I was just reading about how some of our fears manifest in our dreams, especially abstract fears like the current pandemic in NYtimes. to quote the author Caity Weaver, “Dangers and threats that are difficult to visualize — such as abstract fears, or real invisible hazards like a poison gas attack — often cause similar metaphors to appear across the sleeps of concerned dreamers, she said. Tidal waves are common, as are monsters.” I wonder how many works of literature have been directly influenced by writers experiencing similar things over the past century or so.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, dutifulnotemotional! Very well said! I’m sure many works of literature have directly or indirectly been influenced by what you note. Abstract fears and various other kinds of emotions are all potential ingredients in the stew of a writer’s imagination — influencing what she or he creates.

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  13. I am going a little off topic, but I cannot help myself. Did you know that “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” was written because Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a doctor with a split personality? Evidently, he woke up, jotted down the particulars and wrote non-stop in a creative, frantic, frenzy. His first draft was completed in less than 3 days and the entire manuscript was completed in 10 days. Dreams are powerful. I’m so glad that you responded to Elisabeth’s suggestion – another brilliant post and equally brilliant discussion.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! Glad you liked the post, and I’m glad Elisabeth suggested it. 🙂

      I didn’t know that a dream inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel! And that he then wrote the book in such a quick frenzy! Fascinating.

      Dreams are indeed powerful. I’ve read that “La Villa Strangiato” — one of Rush’s best and most intricate songs — was thought up in a dream by that Canadian band’s guitarist Alex Lifeson.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. That reminds me of “Evening,” by Susan Minot. The main character is dreaming/delirious on her deathbed. Through her thoughts and memories, readers learn all about her early life, including a major tragedy. It’s a lovely book and so well-done!

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  15. Going to my bookcase to try and refresh my memory, the book that caught my eye as fitting the bill was Tinkers by Paul Harding. The dreams are the hallucinations of a dying man as his family gathers for the death watch.

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  16. Staying with Dostoevsky, in ‘Crime and Punishment’ there are a few, the most memorable of which is the dream Raskolnikov has of being a child and witnessing a lame mare being beaten to death. He has a few throughout the novel. Also, I believe Svidrigailov has a dream in which he seduces a little girl. After that dream he wisely kills himself.

    Then there’s Nikos Kazantzakis’ ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. The entire “last temptation” of the title is a dream that Jesus has of avoiding execution on the cross to live a normal life, get married, have children, until the dream disciples track him down to scold him for avoiding the purpose for which he was put on Earth. The dream encompasses a lifetime of 50 more years in which he lives to be an old man. In the temporal time, it only takes a couple of seconds as he returns to Earth to accept his fate. I’ve always wondered if Kazantzakis was influenced by ‘A Christmas Carol’ or the film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or both.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, bobess48! You’re right about there being some significant dreams in “Crime and Punishment,” one of my favorite novels.

      As for “The Last Temptation of Christ” (which I haven’t read), the plot of that book is also reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s amazing 1890 short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Great description of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel!

      Liked by 3 people

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