OR WAS IT A DREAM?

If you’re a fan of both Breaking Bad and Malcolm In The Middle you’re sure to appreciate the spoof ‘leaked’ alternative ending of Breaking Bad, which involves Bryan Cranston in bed with his Malcolm In The Middle wife, Jane Kaczmarek. Hal wakes from a dream, in which he recounts the basic plot of Breaking Bad. Lois comforts him and blows it off as pure fantasy.

File:Malcolm in the middle cast.jpg

At the end of this scene, the audience is left in no doubt that Hal has simply had a dream — a ridiculously funny dream given the day-to-day routine of Hal. But then the camera pans to the right, and we now see the hat Walter White wore when in character as Heisenberg. This parodies that trick, often used in magic realist picturebooks, in which a character goes away on some amazing journey which couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Then something happens to bring the character back down to earth — variations on ‘waking from a dream’ — and on the final page, often wordless, the observant (and sometimes not so observant) reader sees some artifact which has been brought back from the fantasy realm.

Of course, young children haven’t necessarily seen this done before, and are likely to be mighty impressed by this narrative trick.

The creators of TV Tropes are far more widely acculturated and have created a long list of ‘Dream Tropes’. They’re wonderful. The kind I just described is the ‘Or Was It A Dream?’ trope.

 

Maria Nikolajeva  points out that although frowned upon in creative writing class, this dream ending is alive and kicking in children’s literature.

Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.

— Children’s Literature Comes Of Age, Maria Nikolajeva

Most recently I saw this used to good effect in The Polar Express, in which the boy is left with a sleigh bell that only children can hear.

DREAMS, QUESTS AND GENDER

Strange as it may seem, few dream narratives involve girls, that is, the nature of the dream quest is seldom unquestionably female and not possible with a male character […]

Fanny and the Birds/Fanny och fåglarna (1995), by Margareta Stromstedt and Tord Nygren, depicts the character’s transformation, but unlike into the jaguar of Not Now, Barnard, this transformation is not into a huge and fierce beast, but into a little frail bird (does this reflect the authors’ idea of male aggressiveness contra female gentleness?).

– from How Picturebooks Work by Nikolajeva and Scott

now-now-barnard fanny-och-fa%cc%8aglarna-book

Conversely, girls are consistently fictionalised as being more imaginative and reflective than boys. Girl orphans who fantasise about their absent parents (from The Great Gilly Hopkins to Tracy Beaker). In diary novels,  girls write down their deepest desires, fears and fantasies while boys write about what happened. Here’s an example from Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot. With ‘princess’ in the title and a pink and yellow cover, this book is clearly aimed at a girl audience:

OK, Dad’s never specifically said he’s an archeologist, and Aunt Catherine doesn’t like it when I ask questions about him, but I’m pretty sure that’s how he and my mom met. She had to have been the pilot on one of his expeditions. That’s probably why my dad can only communicate with me by letter.

Meanwhile, Greg Heffley of Wimpy Kid fame is an equally unreliable narrator but in quite a different way. His unreliability comes from misunderstanding or sardonically judging reality to be worse than it actually is. It doesn’t involve detailed fantasies.

If few dream narratives involve girls, perhaps this is because we permit girls the capacity to dream and fantasise. Boys, on the other hand, have to always be going on some quest, and if that quest is metaphorical, well let’s just turn it into a dream.