Some interesting points from a lecture given at the 2010 Times Cheltenham Literary Festival.

  • How we make sense of dreams in literature: We are taught during childhood through children’s literature. A classic example is The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, full of talking animals. This sort of thing is only ever encountered in dreams (and in hallucinations, for example the fox’s dream in William Stieg’s Doctor De Soto).
  • In some senses dreams are like the real world and in some senses they are not. Dreams are driven by wish fulfilment and emotion. In dreams we recognise the emotional truth rather than the literal truth. (See: The Science Behind Our Strange, Spooky Dreams from Scientific American.)
  • In very old texts (notably The Bible), dreams were a kind of prophecy. Freud put an end to all that. With Freud, dreams were now inextricably linked to the subconscious.
  • Throughout the history of dreaming in literature, dreams were very often a sort of religious awakening. Dreams were used as a way of getting into a character’s head even before Freud, who influenced not only literature but film, by the way. (e.g. Hitchcock)
  • In modern literature, it’s possible that dreams have been superseded by the supernatural, as an alternative way to get into a character’s head. (I find this a fascinating idea. It explains a lot about modern YA literature in particular.)
  • The subconscious had always existed, even before Freud put a name to it. Likewise, the subconscious has always been written about: Lady Macbeth’s guilt, the displacement of emotion in Jekyll and Hyde, ambivalence in The Wizard of Oz (which only became a dream once adapted for the screen). In Shakespeare we have Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Dreams in literature are metaphors. They are not like our dreams. They’ve been willed by an author. They are more akin to a daydream or fantasy.
  • Dreaming was very important in gothic literature such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
  • Over the 20th century dreams became more conscious. In Dallas, everything had been a dream. Later, in Six Feet Under, the story included dreams of all kinds (including hallucinations, drug-induced and otherwise). In The Sopranos we saw actual dreams, and in Mad Men there were dreams to explain the backstory of Don Draper’s childhood and early life, standing in for the fact that he is a reticent character, unlikely to let the audience into his life through dialogue alone.
  • The most conscious version of dreaming is The American Dream, found in The Great Gatsby and in Alice In Wonderland.

What Is Dreaming? from The Conversation