Just a Dream by Chris Van Allsburg (1990) is a picture book with an environmental message typical of its era. As part of the corpus of children’s literature with environmental messages, the 1990s offered many excellent children’s book examples of the now-outdated ‘personal responsibility’ message.
Around this time children received the ‘good people recycle’ message. This replaced the ‘good people don’t strew rubbish all over the ground’ message of the 1980s. This was all very comforting. I had a utopian childhood in this regard — I never worried about a dystopian future. So long as I put my own rubbish in the bin and helped sort the recycling, all was well with the world.
For today’s kids, plagued with legitimate fears for the future of the planet, this story must feel like ‘just a dream’.
As you read any picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, admire his versatility with points of view. The first image opens with a low angle (grass roots) shot. Next, we are level with Rose, looking over her shoulder. This encourages us to side with the morality of Rose. Walter is partially hidden behind a hedge fence. Flip the page and Van Allsburg gives us a high angle shot of Walter in the living room. We are now clearly looking down on him, morally as well as actually.
For more on composition in picture books see this post. (The language of film comes in handy.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF JUST A DREAM
The story launches straight into the continuous with just two words indicating the iterative:
As usual, Walter stopped at the bakery on his way home from school.
Walter is immediately established as a character with several of the deadly sins:
This was peak low-fat era, so indulgence in something like a jam donut was considered indicative of an immoderate temperament.
Walter throws the donut rubbish at a fire hydrant rather than putting it in the bin, suggesting extreme negligence in an era when children had the ‘don’t litter’ message hammered into us.
Walter is interested in futuristic dramas on the television. Nothing can disturb him from enjoying his show. Children’s literature of the late 20th collectively establishes that characters who spend a lot of time in front of a screen are bad children. Another example is Mike Teevee of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Thusly, Walter is established as a very specific type of children’s book villain, one I’d hope we see less of now. In books of this era, child villains tend to be:
Ignorant of the world around them
Including that of their own immediate environs
These are Walter’s moral shortcomings. We don’t see many highly flawed character for a picture book, which these days are mostly published for preschool readers and star adorable main characters. This is a picture book for older readers.
More modern picture books for older readers will likely flip this morality and point the finger at kids’ Gen X parents. For an example of that see Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, in which the parents notice nothing of the fantasy steampunk world around them. They are too busy staring at the TV.
Is there some extra morality in there regarding the typical audience of science fiction shows? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is an ironic choice for Walter, who enjoys thinking about fictional futures but who can’t translate that skill into considering his own very real future, and the future of the actual planet. Does an interest in science fiction make someone better able to imagine a real future? Perhaps. Imagination is a muscle that requires workouts. But fantasy can be dangerous if we use it purely as an escape. This is a perhaps a cautionary tale about enjoying science fiction responsibly.
There is also a plot reason for the sci-fi interest — since reality influences dreams, we surmise Walter’s watching a sci-fi show before bed is what prompts the cheese dreams.
‘The little girl next door’ is a phrase which dates this book. Unseen narrators in modern children’s books don’t talk down to children in this way. By saying ‘little’, the narrator is clearly much older. Compare and contrast with The Lost Thing, which has a first person narrator clearly older (because he tells us he’s older) but the voice is that of a young person.
There’s also probably a bit of benevolent sexism in the phrase ‘little girl’. Illustrations tell us she’s the same age as Walter (not described as little).
Rose is an opponent to Walter because she cares for the environment. Her name is clearly symbolic, as she is a nature lover.
I feel it’s become a bit naff to love trees. This is unfortunate, because trees remain the very best technology we have for keeping the ecosystem from collapse. We’re in danger of losing sight of his, hoping for some kind of Tech Jesus to come along and fix the climate crisis in one fell swoop. But no one is likely to design a better device than a tree for absorbing carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gases.
In this story though, Rose is presented earnestly. She is genuinely happy to have received a tree for her birthday.
When a story stars a character who likes to sit around in front of the TV eating donuts, that character generally doesn’t ‘Plan’, as such, which makes these stories work a bit differently. (After all, every story needs some sort of plan, or proxy plan.)
Just A Dream is a close cousin of the carnivalesque narrative, in which a child -like character is drawn into this playful fantasy world with no other reason other than to have fun. In The Cat In The Hat, a mischievous animal visits two children at home. Here, the carnivalesque adventure happens in a dream. The atmosphere is less playful, more surreal.
I urge caution with that word ‘surreal‘. In everyday English it’s generally not used how I’m using it here. ‘Surreal’ means ‘hyper real’ — more real than reality. The next level of reality. When Walter is drawn into this fantasy dream, he is being drawn into reality (into an understanding of his real future) rather than away from his day-to-day reality (watching science fiction uncritically).
The child’s bedroom with cutaway wall is a familiar illustrative technique:
Walter’s dream plays out like a dystopian movie. The disparate parts are connected by a flash back to Walter lying in his bed. Images of the bed are very small on the page, with plenty of white space. This gives out to full bleed double spreads. Why?
The reading experience reason: In contrast, the full bleeds look more amazing
The metaphorical reason: In his real life Walter’s world view is very narrow and constricted (like the bounding box). But in his dream he is able to see the bigger picture (literally).
Notice that as the story progresses, the image of the bed becomes more fully integrated into the dream world, with aspects of the dream world suffusing the real bed. This indicates that Walter’s world view is being changed by the dystopian dream.
He wakes up and feels terrible. He has realised that the science fiction gizmos of his awake-dreams are not important compared to the need to care for our planet.
This revelation (and guilt) leads to an action: He rushes downstairs and fixes the mess he made of the recycling bin yesterday.
And when he gets a tree for his birthday, he considers this tree the best gift, even beside his laser gun set, electric yo-yo and inflatable dinosaurs.
There is a final plot revelation and it leads to a cosy ending. Walter again dreams of the future, but this time the future is fully grounded in the reality of home. His tree, alongside Rose’s tree, have grown into magnificent shady trees and provide a lot of comfort, not just for himself but for Rose’s great-grandchild.
All is well with the world.
This dream was clearly not ‘just a dream’.
Have you ever experienced a dream so powerful that you were morally affected?
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.
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.
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
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.
Header illustration by Mercer Meyer, for a book by Barbara Wersba called Amanda Dreaming, 1973
House symbolism is an interesting way of looking at a story. Have you noticed that houses as depicted in Western picture books tend to look the same? Two storied, bedrooms upstairs, slightly untidy but still Pinterest-worthy? There’s a reason for this. Each part of a house is symbolically unique. Gaston Bachelard talks about this in his famous book on architecture and philosophy, The Poetics of Space.
Some commentators (e.g. Scherner) interpret houses in dreams as stand-ins for the human body. The windows, doors and entrances are the entrances into the body cavities. The facades are smooth or provided with balconies and projections to which to hold. In anatomy the body openings are sometimes called the body-portals.
There is a problematic trope in which the large house correlates to a large, overbearing woman. The trope intersects with fatphobia and misogyny. For an example of this trope see the children’s animated feature film Monster House. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is another example of the same trope.
I thought our minds are very much like a house. That’s the metaphor I used for this book.
Home As Metonym For Family
In the middle ages houses were simply places to seek refuge and sleep. There was no conception of children, and no concept of family in connection to this place of crude shelter. Today we think of home quite differently. We strive to make it comfortable (another newish concept) and we strive to fill it with the people closest to us.
Dwellings in fantasy don’t always look like the rectangular structure we know and love.
For example, Bilbo’s circular house feels particularly cosy, in stark contrast to the jagged mountains in the distance.
The dark, terrifying house contrasts the warm, welcoming house important to children’s stories with a home-away-home structure. Without a home base, modern stories cannot have happy endings.
Interestingly, a Medieval audience wouldn’t have thought in this way. In Medieval Europe, the house did not equal the home, and shelters were just that — places to sleep. If there was furniture, it wasn’t made for comfort. The very concept of comfort is a modern one. Even until Jane Austen’s time, ‘comfort’ as a word was used quite differently and meant strengthening, support and consolation rather than the modern experience of sitting in a nice, padded chair. The concept of ‘child’ is also modern. In the Medieval era, offspring were sent out into the world as apprentices from about the age of seven. Most people lived in shacks but not houses; houses were not used as metonyms for family as they very much are today.
Scary houses are not always dark. White gothic exists, such as depicted in the cold house below — opulence without comfort. Modern films and TV shows achieve a similar effect by making use of large houses made largely of windows.
When you think of a cottage today, you’re probably thinking of a smaller than average house which charming, rustic decoration, perhaps honeysuckle grows outside. There’s probably enough land outside for a well-tended garden. But the word cottage hasn’t always referred to the size and mood of the house. First cottages were small, then they were quite large, now they are small again.
late 14c., “a cot, a humble habitation,” as of a farm-laborer, from Old French cote “hut, cottage” + Anglo-French suffix -age (according to OED the whole probably denotes “the entire property attached to a cote”).
The main thing about those really old cottages: cotters lived there. Cotters were farm labourers or tenants who occupied a small house on a larger property in return for labour.
The term ‘cottage industry’ later meant an industry run from home. In order to run a business from home, the house has to be pretty large, actually.
Later, in America, ‘cottage’ referred to how many servants were employed at the house. From there, the word ‘cottage’ once again became associated with ‘small’:
In 1870, fully 60 percent of all the gainfully employed women in the United States worked as servants. Andrew Jackson Downing differentiated between houses and cottages according to the number of servants that they contained–anything with less than three servants was a cottage. Nevertheless, as early as 1841, Catherine Beecher was arguing that more compact houses were necessary since “as the prosperity of this Nation increases, good domestics will decrease.” Indeed, this is what happened, and by 1900, there were less than half as many servants in the United States as in England; more than 90 percent of American families employed no domestics.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Cottages traditionally have thick walls, well suited to cold climates but not to hot, humid ones as they’re inclined to trap the air inside. Unlike a cabin, which is made of wood (probably logs), cottages are made of a variety of different materials, depending on the region and economic situation.
People from far away, from Boston and Philadelphia, discovered the beautiful bay. They bought up land near the water and built large houses that they called cottages.
Barbara Cooney, Island Boy
Cooney demonstrates in the passage above that the cottage — the true cottage, not the grand house disguised as cottage — is the picture book ideal. Happiness is found in a cottage. Whereas the large house is often cold and lonely and scary, the cottage is never so.
In a cottage you can achieve the Christian ideal of making do with little. A cottage is unable to house superfluous possessions.
THE DREAM BUNGALOW
A bungalow is a low house having only one storey or, in some cases, upper rooms set in the roof, typically with dormer windows. However, the word came from South East Asia (Bengal, to be specific), where it actually means a detached house with more than one storey. Unlike a cottage, they don’t have those thick walls. You might say a bungalow is a subcategory of cottage but for tropical climates.
Within Britain, you’re more likely to find cottages inland but bungalows beside the sea.
Here in Australia, the California bungalow was popular after the first world war, when Australians started to watch Hollywood movies and obviously liked the look of this kind of house. Both California and much of Australia are well-suited to this design, with its verandah stretching most of the way around the building.It is raised above ground by a metre or more so that the dwelling does not easily flood. Steps lead up to the front door, and in most cases a large veranda surrounds the exterior of the home so you can sit on the porch to catch a tropical breeze. The interior only uses one level adorned with wide hallways and large windows to help distribute air throughout the home.
Some of them have attics, but they’re just as likely to have a dormer window, or just a vent designed to look like one. (That’s why they’re called one and a half storey houses.)
New Zealand has a lot of California bungalows, too, built around the same time.
But a luxurious house like the one below is also called a bungalow.
Cabins can be rustic and simple or they can be luxurious. The most luxurious are luxurious in a very specific kind of way: luxury reminiscent of turn of the (20th) century wealth, especially the decades between 1890 and 1930.
The log cabin setting…has the affected, cedar-stump rusticity that used to characterize rich men’s hunting lodges at the end of the [19th] century.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Rybczynski noted that that the 1980s version of a luxurious cabin left out the mounted animal heads on the walls. More lately, the stuffed mounted head on the wall is a feature of horror and comedy settings — and best of all, horror comedies.
You may not remember dreaming after you sleep, but you’ll encounter many dream sequences in books.
Isn’t it cheesy to rely on dreams? Don’t rational readers know that dreams cannot predict the future — that dreams are the scrabbled outworkings of a brain tidying itself up?
Dreams, daydreams, visions, prophecies, processes of memory… all of these count as ‘dream sequences’.
Why do authors make use of dreams in fiction?
THE DREAM ARGUMENT
The dream argument is the postulation that the act of dreaming provides preliminary evidence that the senses we trust to distinguish reality from illusion should not be fully trusted, and therefore any state that is dependent on our senses should at the very least be carefully examined and rigorously tested to determine whether it is in fact reality.
Our brain profoundly alters its behaviour and purpose, dimming our consciousness. For a while, we become almost entirely paralyzed. We can’t even shiver. Our eyes, however, periodically dart about behind closed lids as if seeing, and the tiny muscles in our middle ear, even in silence, move as though hearing. We are sexually stimulated, men and women both, repeatedly. We sometimes believe we can fly. We approach the frontiers of death. We sleep.
Whatever your thoughts on Freud, and Freud’s emphasis on dreams as insights into a person’s psychology, dreams can play a useful role in character development. Whether dreams carry significance in real life I’m not so sure, but as literary convention… It’s pretty much accepted. This acceptance started with the modernist movement, of which Katherine Mansfield was a part.
DREAMS AND WRITING TECHNIQUE
1. SNEAKY DREAMING
At the conclusion of Chapter 4, ‘Magic Phenomena’ of The Men’s Room by Ann Oakley is a dream scene. After a space break, the sequence begins:
There was a nail in the bed. It had cut into her face and made it bleed.
And the reader thinks, ‘Oh god, what has the man done to her?’ and then it gets more and more ridiculous, but it’s kind of sexual so I won’t quote it here because I don’t want that kind of spam comment.
Anyway, by the end of the scene the reader is left in no doubt that the protagonist is mid-dream. This technique works because it only happens once in the entire novel (after which it may get tiresome). The dream/nightmare gives the reader insight into the protagonist’s greatest fears. (I’m not sure that dreams really do indicate a person’s greatest fears — I’m not much of a Freudian — but nevertheless, I accept that this is the case in fiction.)
If you’ve seen Six Feet Under you’ll be familiar with the sneaky dream technique. Once you’ve seen a few episodes of Six Feet Under you’ll learn to expect dreaming, especially when something weird is playing out. That series also makes much use of tripping to achieve the same effect, as well as Nate’s illness. The technique has since been used in The Sopranos, and in many other things I haven’t seen, no doubt.
2. DREAMING AS A CENTRAL PART OF THE PLOT
John Irving’s short story Other People’s Dreams is a prime example of this. It’s about a man who has never dreamed in his life, but then he discovers that by sleeping where others have dreamed, he can dream what they have. He learns a few things along the way, including a few surprises about his own mother.
So these kind of stories aren’t using dreams as a device, they just happen to be stories whose plots somehow involve dreams. The reader therefore doesn’t feel tricked.
Maria Nikolajeva writes in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:
Some of the best children’s novels and picturebooks are dream narratives, in which dreams are not merely a parable used to illuminate the main plot, but constitute the plot itself. Sometimes the narrative is explicitly stated to be a dream, as in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland; more often it is implied, as in Tom’s Midnight Garden. While Alice, on waking up, is comfortably relieved of the necessity of taking responsibility for her actions in the dream, the character of Marianne Dreams finds that there is a significant connection between her dreams and her real life. Picturebooks allow vast possibilities in the interaction of word and image to create ambiguity of meaning in dream narratives… in many cases [the dream narrative] is also more inventive and imaginative than most of the mainstream dream narratives.
3. SNIPPETS OF DREAM INTERSPERSED THROUGHOUT NARRATIVE/DIALOGUE/ACTION SCENES
In this case, the dream snippet functions like backstory snippets, and in fact a snippet of a dream seen in the past is kind of a subcategory of backstory. This works on the presumption that dreams mean something, be it in a supernatural way, or simply because the protagonist’s mind has been playing something out, thereby highlighting its significance.
Robert McKee, in his scriptwriting guidebook Story, likens dream sequences to montage sequences:
In the American use of this term, a montage is a series of rapidly cut images that radically condenses or expands time and often employs optical effects such as wipes, irises, split screens, dissolves, or other multiple images. The high energy of such sequences is used to mask their purpose: the rather mundane task of conveying information. Like the Dream Sequence, the montage is an effort to make undramatized exposition less boring by keeping the audience’s eye busy. With few exceptions, montages are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided.
I think McKee is a little harsh on montages and dream sequences — we each probably have our own tolerance level and he has no doubt been more attune to the bad ones than I have as an armchair movie critic. (The book was written before Six Feet Under was produced, which took dream sequences to a new level.)
In The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier describes Jerry’s dream a moment before he wakes up:
He’d been dreaming of a fire, flames eating unknown walls, and the siren sounded, and then it wasn’t a siren but the telephone.
Since we know from the first sentence that Jerry dies, this nightmarish start to the day is foreshadowing events to come. A dream can also indicate worry and trauma from the previous day. In Jerry’s case it’s the prank calls:
In bed once more, small in the dark, Jerry willed his body to loosen, to relax. After a while, sleep plucked at him with soft fingers, soothing away the ache. But the phone rang in his dreams all night long.
4. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN, OR DID IT NOT?
Contemporary children’s literature makes much use of this technique: all sorts of fantastic/marvelous/uncanny things happen, and then by the final page the world has been restored to realism, and the reader is led to wonder, “Did that really happen, or was it just a dream?” Often in picture books there’s a small clue in the final picture — a memento from the fantasy world appears in the ‘real world’ of the story, to make the reader wonder.
What do you think of this technique? I really like incomplete or ambiguous endings, but I’m not a huge fan of bringing something from the imaginary world into the real world of the story. That seems to have the opposite effect, of telling the reader, “Yes, it really did happen, so you’d better believe in magic”.
5. DREAMING ABOUT A LOVE INTEREST
Nothing says, ‘I’m falling in love with him’ like a dream. Pearl Cleage manages to avoid the saccharine by breaking other worn-out romance writers’ tricks: this protagonist ain’t white, ain’t virginal and ain’t clean-talking:
I dreamed about walking in Eddie’s garden. I’m wearing a long, white dress and I’ve got on this big-ass straw hat and I’m holding up my skirt so it won’t get dirty.
– from What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day
And those two sentences pretty much sum up the voice of this book.
Some audience members/readers feel that when dreams are used to foreshadow the future (or to explain plot), the dream can feel like a crutch. Using dreams to advance plot is most common in fantasy genres. Where dreams are used to advanced plot they tend to be called ‘Jungian’. Where they advance character they tend to be called ‘Freudian’.
7. DREAMING AS INSIGHT INTO A CHARACTER’S DEEPEST DESIRES
This is a much safer way in which to make use of dreams. (Dreams to advance character rather than plot.)
See examples of that in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, notably:
“Miss Brill” (Miss Brill would like to feel a part of something bigger)
“The Tiredness of Rosabel” (Rosabel would like to trade places with a rich girl.)
“Prelude” (the character of Beryl, who would like a lover of her own, rather than to be without money, living with her married sister.)
NOTES FROM POP CULTURE’S HAPPY HOUR
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast Episode 18 April 2014 is about Orphan Black and then it is about Dream Sequences. Here are some notes from that (starting at 19:30), in which several different ways of classifying fictional dreams are discussed. The discussion is also interesting in that it encourages the listener to consider what we do and don’t like about fictional dreams.
Glen collected numerous examples of dream sequences in modern stories and could probably have come up with a ‘taxonomy of dream sequences’ but found that a lot of the dream sequences were getting quite old and this is a narrative crutch that writers aren’t taking advantage of as much as they used to. The dream sequence has been around so long that it already has all the cliches associated with. The Simpsons is one show which makes fun of the cliches. Glen responds better to dream sequences when they do some emotional work as opposed to narrative work. When dreams are used to foreshadow or explain plot, they seem like more of a crutch than for example when a dream sequence is used to offer an insight into what a character is thinking/worried about.
A writer who knows how to connect things emotionally via dreams is David Lynch. Everything Lynch makes has some surreal dream sequence. But ‘surreal’ doesn’t equate to throwing a ton of crazy crap in. There’s an internal emotional logic.
Stephen says that dreams can probably be divided into taxonomies in all sorts of different ways but another way of classifying dreams in fiction is according to their function. There’s the ‘red herring’ or the ‘what, it was all a dream!’ and ‘dream sequence as fantasy’, but a common way dreams are used these days is to mete out little bits of backstory, especially in very convoluted stories like Captain America in which the mystery is ‘what the hell’s going on.’ (This is also true of Orphan Black, in which visualisations are used, even if they’re not technically dreams.)
In fantasy, dreams are almost always plot advance tools. They’re Jungian rather than Freudian; they’re messages to the reader, not about him. They’re there to give you some cryptic information about what’s going to happen.
Diana Wynne Jones wrote a fantasy satire called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which is a parody tour-guide: “While you are on tour, your psyche is in the care of the management who will, when necessary, provide you with dreams. You should always attend to these, particularly when they are repeated the next night in the same form. They occupy the same slot as legends. They will be telling you something you need to know for the next phase of your tour, but they will not be doing so very clearly. You will need to think a bit.”
It’s surprising that dream sequences aren’t done better. Dream sequences feel more true when different scenes are blended, populated by characters who shouldn’t be there. Everybody knows that experience of having dreams where you can only describe it by saying, ‘Well, it was my bedroom, but it was also school’, and in the dream you knew that. It’s so rare for cinematic dream sequences to achieve the constantly shifting sense of place.
There’s an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that conveys this disconnectedness of dreams particularly well where they’re rambling from room to room through various tunnels. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindis another example of this done well. [I would add Big Love Season 5 in which Bill Henrickson dreams of meeting Emma Smith. His mother is also in the room. Cabin in the Woods could perhaps be considered a good example of this too.]
The thing that makes a dream sequence creepy is that there’s a difference between a stimulus and a response.
All that said, sometimes dream sequences are there just because they’re cool. Buster Keaton is a master of the dream sequence. (The Playhouse, Sherlock Junior.) In 1924 his techniques were quite revolutionary. [By coincidence(?) today marks an anniversary of this film and it is discussed by Film School Rejects. “Although Woody Allen claims Keaton’s film wasn’t an influence, his 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo employs the same conceit of people moving through a movie screen like it’s a gateway between worlds. This time, though, it’s a character from the film-within-the-film that exits out to the theater auditorium and real world. The address of escapism is still there even if the movie universe is doing the escaping. It’s a blurring of the border between cinema and reality.”
Dream sequences used to be used as a way to do things which were experimental without needing to say that you had broken the rules of narrative storytelling. For example, that’s how you can have Dorothy go to Oz and say, ‘No no no, it’s not really a fantasy movie. It’s still in reality. It’s just a dream, because anything can happen in a dream.’
Some of the musicals of the 40s and 50s had dream sequences. An example is Oklahoma, which has a dream ballet. It’s a way to incorporate a huge ballet in the middle of a Broadway musical.
One of the most famous dream sequences in history occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Designed by Salvador Dali, a lot of crazy crap happens. The film has a disturbingly literal understanding of Freudian psychology. There’s no ‘mesh’. The audience is more likely to remember the dream sequence of this movie rather than plot.
There have been a number of romantic comedy shows with a ‘will they or won’t they plot’ in which characters kiss, but it happens in a dream. That way the audience gets to have it both ways: You get to see the people kissing but the high sexual tension of the erotics of abstinence is allowed to continue. Once the Dallas thing happened, in which a dream sequence wiped out an entire season of the show, the audience started to think, ‘Boy if this turns out to be a dream I’m going to lose it.’ That was always on the table in Lost. (The technique of side shadowing is closely related.)
Below are some takeaway 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 Sopranoswe 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 inAlice’s Adventures In Wonderland. (THE American Dream is no such thing. Every American has a different American dream, though there are several related categories. For more on this topic I recommend this BBC Documentary.)
Header illustration: James Thomas Linnell – Firs and Furze