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“Revelation, Nonsense or Dyspepsia: Victorian Dream Theories”
Presented at Northeast Victorian Studies Association Conference (29 April, 2001) http://faculty.mercer.edu/glance_jc/files/academic_work/victorian_dream_theories.htm Upon reading a dream episode in a novel by Dickens, or the Brontes, or Wilkie Collins, we might pause and ask, What did the Victorians consider dreams to be? This simple question leads to others: are literary dreams the same as real dreams? should we interpret them as such? perhaps even, what do we believe dreams to be? If we distinguish real dreams from those in novels—that is, in conventionalized, artificial forms—then the interpretation of these literary dreams presents certain problems for the cautious critic. We assume a character's dreams contain some significance, of course. We can consult various psychoanalytic methodologies for interpretive guidelines, and these will often produce fascinating readings, yet we may experience a certain intellectual dissatisfaction with interpretations which must be so alien to what the author & original audience of a text might have imagined the dream to have meant. Warnings against the intentional fallacy notwithstanding, an author's apprehensions of what dreams are, how they may be used in literature, and how readers will respond to them clearly matter in the process of composing a dream episode. These considerations suggest a cultural & historical approach, rather than a psychanalytic one. Perhaps no better test case for this approach exists than in the works of Charles Dickens, so let us ask, What did Dickens believe dreams to be? Dickens composed a vast quantity of literary dreams throughout his career. They appear in his earliest writings—Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers—and in his last, unfinished novel: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In between, they proliferate in Dickens's novels (for example, in David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times and Great Expectations), and create the essential structure for shorter prose fiction, like A Christmas Carol and The Chimes. Dickens depicts dreams and dreaming not only in his manifestly fictional works, but also in his ostensibly nonfictional ones: examples include "An Italian Dream" in Pictures From Italy, & "Night Walks" in The Uncommercial Traveler. Furthermore, he published numerous articles on dreams in his magazines Household Words & All the Year Round, & speaks of them in his letters. This wealth of material has received surprisingly little critical attention. Catherine Bernard has one of the most focused discussions of Dickens & Victorian theories of dreaming, published in 1981 in the collection Victorian Science & Victorian Values. She posits Dickens as a proto-Freudian, however, claiming for example that "Dickens anticipated Freud's idea of day residues and the distinction between latent and manifest content" & further that he "intuitively perceived the autobiographical origins of dreams" (205). Ronald R. Thomas continues the interweaving of Freud & Dickens in his discussions of Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol in Dream s of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (1990). Such an approach is understandable. Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (published one hundred years ago) revolutionized the scientific study of dreams, and
is to ask. Roger Cooter notes. if literary dreams are not real dreams (that is. but also contemporary theories about dreams (from both scientific and popular sources). or at least studies which assumed the prestige and authority (if not the pure methods) of science. To attribute to Dickens a modern understanding of the unconscious or an intuitively Freudian notion of dreaming is to wrench him from his historical context. But these studies coexisted in the book stalls and the magazines with works of oneirocriticism (or dream interpretation guides) and spiritual accounts of revelatory dreams. as well as conventional literary representations of dreams & visions. We are all familiar with Freud's model of the unconscious and with his theories of the underlying causes of dreams. "all helped to focus the attention of the layman as well as the scientist on the nervous system and. The foundation for most scientific studies of mental activity was associationism. Hartley deduces three causes for dreams: the residue of daily impressions.provided a framework for the interpretation of these phenomena. which David Hartley popularized in his Observations on Man (1749). and this attention encouraged widespread speculation on the mysterious nature and meaning of dreams. on the brain" (Clarke and Jacyna 5). and reflect not just their author's insights into the human mind. the associations of thoughts and . artifacts of the unconscious). and so our tendency may be to apply these notions to the dreams we find in novels written before 1900 as well as to those written after. in particular. most importantly. intellectual. however. and neuroscience's new theories and advances in the study of the brain. psychological. and the well-publicized and revolutionary work in organology and phrenology of Franz Joseph Gall and Caspar Spurzheim. "What would Dickens have been reading about dreams?" Scientific studies. These assumptions require careful scrutiny. This paper argues that literary dreams arise from a historical and cultural context. We also assume that literary dreams operate in the same manner as actual dreams (Freud himself proposes this approach in "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva"). and. for Dickens's own writings on dreams reveal complex assumptions about the causes and meanings of dreams. The operation of the sleeping mind became an important focal point for supporters and opponents of Gall. In order to understand how Dickens used dreams. To do so is also to ignore the complications of the textual evidence. political and religious concerns that had been aggravated and heightened by the conditions of rapid and pervasive social and economic change" (6). This complexity stems from the conflicting theories of dreaming in the Victorian period. By doing so we assume that authors such as Dickens somehow had a modern understanding of the unconscious and an intuitively Freudian notion of dreaming. Perhaps the next step to answering our initial question. That speculation manifested itself in two broad paradigms: the scientific and the spiritual. "Gall's doctrine beckoned into its orbit every one of the social. the physical state of the dreamer's stomach and brain. we must return to the question: What would he consider dreams to be? Dickens grew up under the dual influence of the Romantic movement's fascination with states of marginal consciousness. The change in long accepted paradigms of the structure of the nervous system. but consciously created imitations of them. proliferated in the early nineteenth century. then. then.
Macnish speaks at greater length than the others on the effect of diet on the content of dreams. which pioneered the role of stimulation and suggestion in shaping dreams. they rely on second-hand anecdotal evidence. Most later scientific studies accept Hartley's associationist paradigm. Abercrombie compares how in both dreaming and madness the mind acts without volition. a partial list of those published during Dicken's life includes William Newnham's Essays on Superstition (1830). in sound and quiet sleep—the body being healthy." which resembles insanity in the absence of the mental faculty of judgement (45). and William Hammond's Sleep and Its Derangements (1869). Walter C. but which are more vivid and less controlled during sleep. Robert Macnish's The Philosophy of Sleep (1834). because of the irrational nature of dreams. James Gregory. More frequently. Hammond continues its use in this fairly effaced form: "Instances are given of persons sleeping with bottles of hot water applied to their feet dreaming of walking on burning lava. Macnish repeats the anecdote of Dr. employ little scientific rigor to support their claims. He contends that "a disordered state of the stomach and liver will often produce dreams. Although these works differ in terminology and emphasis. The rationale seems to be that dreaming has to occur in an aberrant state of mind. Dendy's On the Phenomena of Dreams and Other Transient Illusions (1832). John Abercrombie's Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth (1831). "There are no dreams in natural sleep—that is. Macnish calls a dream a "transient delirium. Abercrombie describes how his friend. Gregory's dream." we no longer live in "days of special inspiration". approaching sickness.images which always go on in the mind. which relates that the doctor had gone to bed with a hot water bottle at his feet." and that as a general rule dyspepsia produces bad dreams (53). such as strong emotions. prolonged study. and the mind at ease. Aetna (260). classical sources (usually Pliny. dreaming results (43). One often repeated point is that dreams only occur in imperfect sleep. or some other hot substance" (133). when the brain is disordered by certain irritants. and follows whatever "chain of thought" or associated images are present at the moment (256). Plutarch and Suetonius) or literature (often Sir Walter Scott's The Antiquary). dyspepsia or other states which impair sleeping (163). Newnham states. Dendy states that although the notion of revelatory dreams is "entertained generally. gave him a manuscript by his father. and had dreamed he was walking on Mt. We can follow the trail of one anecdote as a typical example: to illustrate how sensory impressions shape our dreams. all physicians or surgeons. Macnish employs a phrenological model. Abercrombie makes no apparent effort to check this story's veracity or to duplicate it. . A final and crucial point of agreement in these various scientific studies is their denial of prophetic powers in dreams. Gregory." Dreams occur only in a "morbid" state. The authors. their similarities are striking. A scientific methodology to study whether the same stimulus will produce similar dreams did not appear until Alfred Maury's Le Sommeil et le Reves (1865). Dr. Certain general assumptions about dreams recur in these scientific studies. Alexander Grant's The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams (1865). but if one or more of the organs remain awake while the others sleep. Another general feature of these studies is the analogy between dreaming and insanity. stating that in "perfect sleep" all the brain's organs are at rest. All the studies assert that dreams originate in both previous mental associations and existing sensory impressions. and thirty-seven years later.
Causes. Some law. Universal Interpreter of Dreams and Visions. Thomas De Quincey speaks in Suspiria de Profundis (1845) of "the machinery for dreaming planted in the human brain" as "a dreaming organ" analogous to other sensory organs (88). may exist. One such work I have examined is the anonymous. and provide instructions on how to interpret any of them if they appear in the reader's dreams. and comments that the idea "is so singularly unphilosophical. sometimes only altering the title page in hopes of attracting new buyers. Yet Crowe asserts that "the faculty of presentiment [is] a natural one. more spiritual and less pragmatic. while others claim it is a natural human power. or will warn of coming trouble. Dream books. These books invariably claim that an understanding of dreams will help the reader prosper. and Will (1857). for it indicates that the scientific view of dreams had strong competition for popular acceptance. not fully known to us. Stemming in principle from the second-century dream book the Oneirocriticon (or The Interpretation of Dreams) of Artemidorus (first translated into English in 1643). becomes susceptible of impressions not ordinarily received . tenatively asserts. "Insignificant as dreams in general are. She asks. which is designed as the mirror of a superior spiritual order (to which it belongs). Catherine Crowe's The Night Side of Nature (1850). some rays from above. that the Divine Being has neither the will nor the ability to instruct his creatures asleep as well as awake?" (114). nineteenth-century dream books are often anonymous works plagiarized heavily from previous dream books. Some of these works insist on a divine or supernatural origin for this capacity. and enjoys a foretaste of its future condition" (47). in dreams. contain encyclopedic lists of objects or actions. that I would not have noticed it.. in Grant 160-62). catalogues narratives of revelatory dreams and other mysterious phenomena. "A dream may be prophetic. and Uses of various kinds of Dreams and Representations. This last remark is important. Some few studies tried to link the spiritual and scientific theories. In contrast to such religious theories are those who assert a natural origin. Sensibilities.therefore. there are doubtless two classes of agents that have access to our minds when sleep has impaired our own agency"— those classes are good angels (or "ministering spirits") and evil angels (who tempt the weak to wickedness) (qtd. Similarly. were it not advocated even by persons of good sense and education" (102). Joseph Haven. and explains that "The soul. and the author treats these dreams as divine revelations that God offers as moral directives.. & "the one great tube through which man communicates with the shadowy" (88). Blair's Dreams and Dreaming (1843) contains narratives of premonitory dreams drawn from the Bible and contemporary accounts." and lists various objects and actions in dreams. "Does it not savour of infidelity to say. provides many anecdotal examples of presentiments and prophetic dreams. still receives. inexpensive handbooks for the most general and least educated audiences. For example. yet not supernatural. We find that competition in dream books and spiritual accounts of revelatory dreams. This text presents "the Nature. in Mental Philosophy: including the Intellect. an anonymous article in the Baptist Magazine in 1828 asserts. undated Nocturnal Revels: or. Mrs. so . he cannot rationally accept "the visions of slumbers as revelations or prognostics" (70). though only imperfectly and capriciously developed" (47). by virtue of which the nervous system. Macnish advances the same argument. when in a highly excited state. Another widely read type of dream book. with their meanings.
Dickens was not only aware of but also keenly interested in this topic. dreams become a focus for discussions of the nature of the mind and the soul. and start up suddenly from a terrific dream of a large church-clock with the small hand running round. The two broad streams of scientific and spiritual dream theories. each with subcurrents of disputes over method or essence. For instance. you fall gradually into a refreshing sleep—your thoughts grow confused—the stagecoaches. until they go off altogether. emphasizing the chaotic whirl of thoughts freed from the control of waking reason. Dickens owned several of the major studies of dreams. . completely exhausted. overnight. essays and novels. also moderate success in trade. science and religion. Selecting representative examples from his letters. George Henry Lewes reports that dreams were "a subject which always interested him. Determining Dickens's actual view of dreams." which appears in Sketches by Boz (1836). is problematic. These debates mirror Victorian cultural tensions and uncertainties. the narrator of the essay reads that "To dream of cucumbers denotes recovery to the sick. Dickens tends on the whole to favor the scientific view over the supernatural. become less and less distinct. and perceived half-incredulously by the half-conscious mind: You left strict orders. and you will fall speedily in love. He parodies popular dreambooks in the essay "Dictionary Dreams. in Grant 165). matter and spirit." The narrator. which sarcastically refutes the accuracy of The Ladies' Own Dreambook and ridicules popular oneirocriticism (549552). In "Early Coaches. because his comments in letters and essays often appear at odds with his practice in the novels. however. immersed in this debate. he depicts the fitful sleep of a man awaiting a predawn call to wake him for a business trip. and on which he had stored many striking anecdotes" (72). run parallel and in continual debate throughout the nineteenth century. Most Victorians. This survey of the competing discussions of dreams suggests the real diversity of theories and explanations which coexisted. which have been 'going off' before your eyes all night. shaped by associated thoughts and external auditory sensations. sarcastically conjectures whether it would not be possible to cultivate such an auspicious dream by contemplating and then devouring an enormous cucumber before bedtime (551). At last. mere physiological artifacts and messages from the great beyond. to every figure on the dial-plate. a believer in modern associationist theories. . we can better see the diversity of his views. one moment you are driving with all the skill and . to be called at half-past four. Can anyone show that this is impossible? Is it more improbable than that the cases recorded are mere chance coincidences?" (qtd. Dickens also tends to explore the workings of the sleeping mind as Macnish and Abercrombie do. considered dreams to be meaningless and meaningful. In this passage he exhibits a classic scientific paradigm of dreams-caused by imperfect sleep." published in All the Year Round (31 August. Outside of his fiction.as to become strangely cognizant of the coming future. 1861). and you have done nothing all night but doze for five minutes at a time. with astonishing rapidity. aware of both channels of thought. including ones by Macnish and Abercrombie (Bernard 202). .
asking for the comfort of her mother.you are closely muffled up. Dickens instead explains it away. the perception of time is warped during the dream. Dickens interpreted his own dreams from this scientific standpoint as well.196).which helped to make it up. this is the sort of dream. 'for you. by a singular illusion. This letter suggests Dickens was not only familiar with the standard scientific explanations of dreams. but tended to accept them and apply them to his own dreams. He pleads for a sign that the visit is real. rap. As it paused without replying. whose funeral. Dickens suggests. of Roman Catholic services" (4. again—he's talking now—what's that he said? Five o'clock! You make a violent exertion. You are apprenticed to a trunk-maker. rap— what an industrious fellow he must be! you have heard him at work for half an hour past. rap. full of such heavenly tenderness for me. He speculates on "the fragments of reality. you don't take the trouble to inquire. or why.' I said. as I do. observing that it still hesitated. from which you are aroused. Confound that other apprentice in the back shop. and was moved with the greatest compassion for me.. the presence in the room of an altar with a missing religious picture (which had caused Dickens to wonder what the face in the picture had looked like). pasting the lining in the lid of a portmanteau. suggesting that the topic interested a general audience. but there you are. inside.smartness of an experienced whip—the next. with the tears running down my face.'For you.. Yet rather than musing on any serious significance in the dream (or converting to Catholicism). or when. if we try to do good?—or.. and also for the answer to the question. and have just recognised in the person of the guard an old schoolfellow. Rap. lest it should go away!— 'You think. veiled in blue like the Madonna but nevertheless recognizable. In a letter to John Forster in September of 1844. that I felt as if my heart would break. it is the best!' Then I awoke. rap. in such an agony of haste.196) This experience would seem to epitomize a revelatory vision: the spirit of a woman he idolized comes to him from the other world and answers one of the profound questions of his life. At last you fall into a state of complete oblivion. how he is hammering!—rap.. and the nearby convent bells which had supplied the "thought. 'perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best?'." including a painful recurrence of rheumatism which upset his sleep. I said—Good God. as if into a new state of existence. how. no doubt. "What is the True religion?" Dickens relates. Dreams were a recurring topic in his magazines. (4. the near drowning of his son Fred the week before which directed his thoughts toward death. that anyone would have under these conditions-even the reader.. you remember to have attended eighteen years ago.. Dickens' published the essays "Dreams" in Household Words (8 . and start up in bed. even in your dream. and he has been hammering incessantly the whole time. that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter. This passage seems well informed by scientific studies: the dreams occur only before and after the period of sound sleep (or "oblivion").. not during it. The second-person narration of this dream emphasizes its familiarity.' said the Spirit. and the mind creates a dream to explain the sounds perceived during sleep. or wherefore. so that a brief moment of dreaming seems to contain an immense span of time. he describes a vivid dream he had while in Italy with his family: the spirit of Mary Hogarth appears to him.
He also discusses the use of dreams as a plot device: "The obvious convenience and effect of making the dreams of heroes and heroines bear on the great themes of a story as illustrated by their late experiences.. the most astonishing and terrific secrets—we all go to public places in our night dresses. .. Dickens's views.276-277).278-279) Stone's article makes use of Dickens' suggestions-even to the extent of paraphrasing and quoting his examples. One suggests that dreams can contain a hidden but discernible meaning: "I should say the chances were a thousand to one against anybody's dreaming of the subject closely occupying the waking mind—except—and this I wish particularly to suggest to you—in a sort of allegorical manner" (276).. He argues that his experience is more common than not. He also asserts that there is "a remarkable sameness" in our dreams. it is because I have read something on the subject. or placards. from which we can't escape—or we all confound the living with the dead. he never dreamed of them. lest the company should discern it. "If I venture to say I think it may be made a little more original. which are not. and all frequently have a knowledge or suspicion that we are doing it—we all astonish ourselves by telling ourselves. that no study will render legible—or to break some Thraldom or other. types and meaning of dreams. the author. (6. it appears to me that the incidents are usually of the most insignificant character-such as made no impression.When dreams can be directly traced to any incidents of recent occurrence. stating. from the Queen to the Costermonger! We all fall off that Tower-we all skim above the ground at a great pace and can't keep on it —.we all take unheard-of trouble to go to the Theatre and never get in—or to go to a Feast. the letter also provides two interesting statements about his theory of dreams in literature. and a little less recapitulative of the usual stories in the books. while informed by scientific explanations and literary conventions of dreams. and he marvels that although he had been married fourteen years and had nine children. as Stone supposed. and are horribly disconcerted. accept neither fully. In contrast to most scientific views of the day. In a letter he instructed Dr. at the time" (6. Both tend to reflect the accepted scientific explanations of the causes. he states. He may have discounted the conventions. to revise the article. based on many conversations on the subject. and of recent events.. are more often scenes from his youth. in a dialogue with ourselves. and "A Physician's Dreams. but he also found them too convenient and effective not to use in his own novels. which can't be eaten or drunk-or to read letters. Thomas Stone. of which we were conscious. on this head-and to have established the conventional beliefs from which I differ" (277). The Household Words essayis more interesting because it provided Dickens with an opportunity to discuss his observations on the topic. "very various and different" (6." in two parts in All the Year Round (26 November and 3 December 1859)..March 1851). He adds. is by no means so great (generally speaking) as is usually supposed. Besides establishing Dickens' fascination with and expertise in the study of dreams.278). His own dreams. how many dreams are common to us all. seem to me to have led the Poets away from the truth. Dickens opposes the idea that a residue of the day's events chiefly makes up our nightly dreams: "I would suggest that the influence of the day's occurrences. or books. and have long observed it with the greatest attention and interest" (Letters 6:276).
& language. Other common explanations are incipient illness (Esther Summerson's smallpox) or indigestion (as Scrooge exclaims to Marley's ghost. Such an organizing principle helps to suggest the variety of Dickens' literary dreams. can we hope to understand the meaning of the literary dreams. which exist on the smudged boundaries of science. The tension between a suspicion of and a faith in the revelatory power of dreams is. and the overtly supernatural dream visions in A Christmas Carol and The Chimes on the other. by obliging us to foreground the differences between our circumstances. 1832. however." Marilyn Butler emphasizes that. Dickens takes pains to construct around his dream episodes a rational frame which explains it away as originating within the dreamer. a crumb of cheese. and the original contexts which produced Dickens's novels. follows the (conventionally literary) tradition that dreams are true revelations. Only by recognizing those differences. The dream itself. quite ancient. religion & folklore. of course. aims. "You may be an undigested bit of beef. Works Cited Abercrombie. In her essay "Against Tradition: The Case for a Particularized Historical Method. and those of the past" (44). "A genuinely historical perspective discourages dogmatism. and of a dangerous man named J. or imperfect slumber (Tigg sleeps in a strange bed. even the scientifically explicable fever dreams contain true revelations. during a thunderstorm). and even the supernatural visions are accompanied by rational dismissals within the text. We might plot a line. a fragment of an underdone potato. That tension between scientific and supernatural poles varies in different episodes from different novels. whatever you are!"(12)). In Martin Chuzzlewit.There is a tension between what Dickens in his letters asserts real dreams are. and what he creates in his fiction to represent a dream. or Stephen Blackpool's vision in Hard Times. Tigg's own ghost appears in the dream as "a man with a bloody smear upon his head" to reveal his fate: Jonas will kill him with a blow to the head five chapters later. or dim awareness of external sensations (Tigg wakes to find Jonas Chuzzlewit "standing at his bedside watching him. with the fever dreams which arise as recognizable medical symptoms in Bleak House and Great Expectations on one end. John. influenced Dickens's creation of literary dreams would form an important contribution to the study of his works. There's more of gravy than of grave about you. rather than project meaning upon them. Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth. for instance. Both paradigms coexist in the dream episode. but the ambivalence continues throughout the 19th century & directly shapes Dickens's discussion of & attitude toward dreams. in between we might place revelatory dreams which exist in a more or less psychologically believable milieu: Montague Tigg's nightmare in Martin Chuzzlewit. And that very door wide open" (651)). and "his fears or evil conscience reproduced this door in all his dreams" (651)). Montague Tigg has a nightmare of a door that he cannot keep closed. Edinburgh: Waugh and Innes. a blot of mustard. though. His dream may be a result of his waking thoughts and restless mind (Tigg worries about the door in his room he cannot lock. Further exploration of how popular theories of dreams. . 3rd ed. Despite the useful metaphor of a line between two opposite points.
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