When I started working on what is now my debut novel, The Dream Peddler, I never gave much thought to how a book riddled with dream sequences might be received. I had no idea how many readers are turned off by dreams in fiction, although I can’t blame them if they don’t respond well to a long passage or chapter ending abruptly with the trick of “and then I woke up.” Dishonesty aside, though, I’ve always found that when used carefully, dream sequences can be a fascinating way to enrich a story, and I certainly loved incorporating them into my own book.
The Victorians, for instance, were fascinated by dreams, and Victorian authors instinctively understood that while dreams are often a jumble of things we experience during the day, they may also reveal our deepest fears or hidden desires. As such, they can provide a useful tool for an author to reveal more about their characters to the reader, and often a way to reveal things to us that the characters themselves don’t yet consciously realize.
I’ve done a little research on the long tradition of using dreams in literature, and I’m delighted to present this list of books whose authors have used the dreamworld ingeniously to mirror and explore the waking lives of their characters.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
This is one of my all-time favorite Victorian novels, and one from which I even drew an epigraph for my own book. Brontë uses dreams sparingly in her classic tale of lost love, but the ones she does employ pack a punch. Frightening or foreboding dreams are the perfect device for Gothic literature, with its haunted mansions and lowering skies.
Very near the start of Wuthering Heights, our narrator, Mr. Lockwood, experiences a harrowing dream when he is forced to spend the night in the room that once belonged to the now long-dead Catherine. Towards the dream’s end, the child Catherine tries to get in at his window, and he is violent in his attempts to keep her out. Lockwood later describes the encounter to Heathcliff as a dream, yet Heathcliff’s fearful reaction makes us wonder if, in fact, Catherine’s ghost might be more than just a figment of Lockwood’s imagination.
The novel’s second dream comes from Catherine herself, as she describes it to Nelly in the kitchen shortly after accepting Linton’s proposal of marriage. In her dream, she chooses to be cast out of heaven and lands on the moor where she and Heathcliff spent so much of their childhood together. Her joy at being tossed back to earth by the angels speaks to her of her heart’s preference for Heathcliff over Linton. What is most interesting about this dream, however, is its timing, as her description of it sets off the biggest turning point in the book: Heathcliff, hiding in the shadows, only overhears Catherine saying that it would degrade her to marry him, and runs away before she goes on to describe the depth of her love for him.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Emily Brontë’s equally famous sister, Charlotte, uses dreams freely in Jane Eyre. One of the overarching themes of this book is Jane’s ability, despite a difficult childhood during which she she was prone to tempestuousness and outbursts of feeling, to become the ideal Victorian woman—outwardly calm, strong feelings always suppressed or hidden. Because of this, dreams offer the reader a valuable glimpse beyond Jane’s guarded demeanor and into the fears and longings she keeps hidden.
In keeping with common superstitions of the day, dreams in Jane Eyre are also instruments of foreboding. Whenever one of the characters dreams about children, for instance, they receive news of a death in the family soon afterward. When Jane dreams of children, which she does repeatedly over the course of a week, it also points the reader to her secret wish to marry Rochester and become a mother.
Jane’s dreams almost always center on this relationship and its doom, as she dreams of Rochester walking so far ahead of her that she can’t catch up, or, on another occasion, that she is climbing among the ruins of Thornfield (another apt premonition) while Rochester remains only a tiny speck in the distance. She also dreams that Blanche Ingram, the woman she believes for a time has Rochester’s heart, has shut the gates of Thornfield against her.
Even after her wedding is ruined and she runs away, Jane is still plagued by dreams of being in Rochester’s arms. Despite her outward resolve to cast him off forever, she can’t stop loving him and can’t forget him.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Since Du Maurier’s masterpiece is in many ways a retelling of Jane Eyre, it seems fitting that it, too, should open with an ominous dream and that famous line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The dream, to which nearly the entire first chapter is devoted, does a fabulous job of setting the novel’s dark mood, of forecasting the narrator’s troubled journey as the drive to the house in the dream is choked with forest encroaching upon it.
Dreams are used sparingly in this book, but to great effect. The first time Maxim leaves his wife alone overnight, for instance, her dreams are troubled. Just as Jane Eyre dreamt of Rochester, Mrs. de Winter dreams that she is walking with Maxim in the woods but can’t keep up, his face always turned away from her.
Her dreams are also an effective device in revealing to us how impossible it is for the narrator to escape Rebecca’s haunting. As she puts it, “Even in my thoughts, my dreams, I met Rebecca.”
And the book ends with a series of dreams, as it began. Pages before the climax, Mrs. De Winter spends a long drive toward Manderley swimming in and out of consciousness, and in these dreams her connection to Rebecca is further tightened to a stranglehold. In one, she looks down to see that her own tiny handwriting has been replaced with Rebecca’s long, slanted letters. She looks in the mirror and sees that she looks like Rebecca, too.
This final series of dreams serves to recall the long dream of the opening, and reminds us that Mrs. De Winter will never truly be able to leave this ghost behind—she is still dreaming of Manderley after the events of the book are long past.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
In Rhys’s brilliant postcolonial retelling of Jane Eyre from Bertha’s (Antoinette’s) point of view, each of the book’s three parts contains one important dream. Antionette’s first dream is short, consisting simply of walking in a forest, followed by the heavy footsteps of someone who hates her. It serves not merely to reflect her childish understanding that the recently emancipated black people of Jamaica harbor ill-will for Antoinette and her white Creole family, but also to hint at her future unfortunate relationship with Rochester.
Later on, when her stepfather informs her that a suitor is coming to visit her, she dreams of the forest again. This time, the dream is more complex, and her premonition of her marriage is no longer veiled: led through the forest by a strange, hateful man, Antionette is frightened yet feels she has no choice but to follow him.
By the time Antionette has her third and final dream in the attic at Thornfield, a dream of running through the house knocking lighted candles to the ground and setting curtains ablaze, we know her descent into madness—whether predestined or forced upon her by circumstance—is complete.
1984 by George Orwell
In the Victorian and Gothic traditions, dreams allow the subconscious of a narrator who is caged by her time and circumstances to run free, and they can be used to the same effect within the similar constraints of dystopian literature. In Winston Smith’s world of Oceania, history is constantly rewritten in order to meet the needs of the present, and any sort of dissent is known as thoughtcrime against The Party. In this environment, Winston’s dreams offer him an occasional chance for freedom.
For instance, they often serve as the place in which some form of his repressed memories manages to surface. In one, he dreams of watching his mother and sister on a sinking ship; from another, he wakes with the word “Shakespeare” on his lips but without any memory of what it means. Eventually, this dream freedom triggers a conscious memory, and he wakes from a dream of his mother to remember hiding with her and his sister in underground shelters during the war.
Many of Winston’s dreams are also prophetic. He dreams of his love interest, Julia, casting off her clothes in a sunlit field that he thinks of as The Golden Country, and when he finally meets with her, that dream comes true in every detail.
Seven years before the events of the novel, he dreams of a voice telling him they will meet in the place where there is no darkness, and over time he becomes convinced the voice belongs to O’Brien, the man he believes is part of an underground resistance. Unfortunately, this dream becomes reality in the Ministry of Love, where Winston is tortured. Even here, however, his dreams give evidence of the tenaciousness of hope within him: his continued dreams of being with his mother and Julia in The Golden Country offer him respite and help him heal.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s famous handmaid, Offred, dreams not of the future, but the past. Her life, of course, is even more repressive than Winston Smith’s, and because of this she actively tries to avoid remembering the family and friends she once had. Naturally, her former life still sometimes haunts her in her sleep. She dreams of being in the old apartment she once shared with her husband, but all the furniture is gone and none of the clothes in the closet fit her. She is also plagued by a recurring nightmare that recalls her attempt to flee with her daughter, dragging her through the bracken of a forest, pulling her down and trying to shield her, then watching her carried away, still holding her arms out toward her mother.
Offred is an openly unreliable narrator, trying to construct a life that is bearable out of one that is not. She sometimes recounts an event and then starts over, admitting the lies she has told us even as she continues to spin more of them.
And this tendency, too, is reflected in dream sequences. In one instance, she has a lucid dream of waking in the morning and hugging her daughter, but is overcome with sadness because she knows it’s not real. Then, she dreams of waking from that dream to her own mother carrying a tray of food into her room. Eventually, she wakes a final time into her real life, but even then, she wonders if everything she experiences might be a delusion.
The Manual of Detection by Jebediah Berry
In this exceedingly clever, Kafkaesque detective novel, Berry leads us into a world where spies have learned to sleuth through people’s dreams. In fact, this entire book operates with a dream-like logic (it’s always raining, buildings are full of secret passages and tunnels), and it’s not always certain when one is asleep or awake.
When clerk Charles Unwin is mysteriously promoted to detective at The Agency where he works, he’s certain a mistake has been made, but in order to correct it he’ll have to hunt down his own missing boss, detective Travis T. Sivart. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Sivart may have become trapped in a dream he entered to catch a thief, and Unwin is forced to go in after him.
I don’t think there has ever been a book that uses dreaming as cleverly as this one. Lucid dreams, dreams from which one believes one has woken even as they continue, and shared dreams all play a role. In this world, dreams can even be recorded and played back to the mind of another. A most unusual take on the gumshoe detective genre!
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
In Thompson Walker’s latest gorgeous book, a small university town is hit with a mysterious sleeping sickness that appears to cause unusually vivid dreams in the infected. It begins with one student, then quickly spreads through the school and eventually, the town, with no experts able to determine how it originated, how to cure it, or how long it might last.
Thompson Walker uses many, many dreams to explore the lives of these characters alongside their waking hours, but in an interesting twist, most of the dreams we read about belong to those who are still healthy. Mei, the college student who happened to be roommates with the very first girl to fall ill, dreams of being in church with her family because she feels guilty about her behavior away from home.
Ben, the young professor and new father, has nightmare after nightmare about his wife leaving him, his daughter dying. And a much older professor, Nathaniel, dreams of his partner, Henry, who no longer lives with him due to dementia.
Eventually, we do become privy to some of the dreams of the sick, and this is when things really get interesting. Thompson Walker plays with the idea of precognitive dreams and even the notion that a whole life might be lived in a dream, more real to the dreamer upon waking than the one left behind.