In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: Notes on the Use of Dreams in Fiction
For two long years, I struggled to find a way to manage the structure of an unwieldy novel, featuring multiple shifts in voice and time period. One winter night, I sat down at my desk, poring over the disparate pieces of the manuscript for the three-hundredth time. Outside my window, an owl hooted. Closing my eyes, I pictured the intricately overlapped pattern of an owl’s feathers. From that image, a novel structure began to form in my mind. Soon, the entire novel clicked into place. I cut, pasted, and typed as if driven by an outside force.
Then I woke up.
You are probably pretty annoyed with me right now, and understandably so. Dismissing a previous section of writing by revealing it to have been a dream is a cheap and ubiquitous trick that insults readers and undermines author credibility. It is important that a reader is able to trust a narrative, and misleading the reader about a scene and whether it actually took place breaks this trust. Furthermore, it subverts a writer’s authority by signaling he or she is not confident enough in his or her vision to fully commit.
Many readers—and editors—are skeptical of dream sequences altogether, even if they are framed as dreams from the onset. Dream sequences are often seen as distracting, indulgent detours where the author gets to play around with any words and images they choose, regardless of what is happening in the story. Fiction writing is largely about establishing believable settings, characters, plots, and situations. Dream sequences seem to ignore the requirement of believability. For this reason, many writers—including myself, for a long time—steer clear of writing about dreams altogether.
But by excluding dreams from our narratives, we deprive ourselves of an important tool. Dreams can offer glimpses into characters’ psyches. They reveal hopes, fears, memories, and traumas. They allow our characters to travel through time and space without actually distorting the setting or chronology of our narratives. Unlike mystical visions or hallucinations, which also accomplish these goals, dreams are not rare or unlikely occurrences. People spend up to a third of their lives in bed, and dreams are an important part of our lived experience.
I was forced to confront this while writing my novel, The Sea Beach Line. My novel is very rooted in the Jewish storytelling tradition, ranging from Midrashic stories about Biblical characters, to Talmudic parables, to Hasidic folklore, to modern Yiddish fiction. Dreams, and the act of dreaming, figure heavily in all of these forms. There was no way that I could interact with this tradition authentically without interacting with dreams.
In the Book of Genesis, Joseph first dreams that his eleven brothers’ sheaves of grain bow down to his. He then dreams that his brothers, in the form of stars, bow down before him. These assertions of supremacy are the inciting incidents which cause Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Ultimately, Joseph is able to rise to a position of power in Egypt because he is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, which carry dire prophecies for the kingdom.
Throughout the body of Hasidic folklore, we see Rabbis connecting to the “Other World” in their dreams. They encounter mysteries of the Torah, or speak with deceased rabbis who offer them guidance. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the son of a Hasidic rabbi, employs a similar device in his short story Gimple the Fool, translated from Yiddish by Saul Bellow in 1953. Gimple, a simple and cuckolded baker, has grown bitter against the townspeople who mistreat him, and plans his revenge. He averts from this path when his deceased wife appears to him in a dream, imploring him to remain righteous and avoid the fires of hell that she is now enduring. This dream profoundly changes the course of Gimple’s life.
A more modern—and American—use of dreams in Jewish fiction is found in Delmore Schwartz’s classic 1937 short story, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. The twenty-year-old narrator dreams he is in a movie theatre watching his parents’ courtship as young immigrants. The narrator rails against what he sees on the screen, but can do nothing to change it. Though the setting is fantastic, and the narrator wakes up at the end, the story remains rooted in realism: the narrator has interacted with his actual family history. His entire life is the result of the images portrayed in his dream.
In all of these stories, the dreams are integral parts of the plot. They feature actual characters from the story, not fantastic figures, and they carry real world consequences. When I began to incorporate dreams into my novel manuscript, I made sure to keep these restrictions in mind. I kept dream sequences that help the reader to understand characters, or move the plot forward, but cut dream sequences that were indulgent or unnecessary to the plot. I always made sure to clearly indicate when I was entering a dream sequence, so as to not lose any of the reader’s trust. No matter how abstract the imagery, all of the dream sequences in my book are firmly rooted in the waking experiences, anxieties, and traumas of the dreaming character.
Dream sequences are a powerful tool for fiction writers. When used honestly and effectively, they can provide deeper access to our characters’ minds and help readers to understand the motivations behind subsequent actions. But the use of dreams in fiction comes with responsibilities.