Dreaming Vol. 10, No. 3, 2000
The Dream as Text, The Dream as Narrative1
are intriguing phenomena of the mind. There seem to be certain shared processes,
for example, that are important to both dreaming and language. Some of these
have been well-explored in the century since Freud published The
Interpretation of Dreams. In my own work work (Kilroe 1997, 1998, 1999a) I
have explored the role of metaphor, metonymy, and punning in the formation of
Now I would like to turn my attention to consideration of the question, Is the dream a text? And following that, a narrower question, Can the dream be properly thought of as a narrative? Although it has been assumed in past decades that text and narrative are terms appropriately applied to dreams, I would like look closely at these assumptions. I am going to propose that all dreams are texts, although this proposal rests on a particular use of the term dream, which is to be clarified below. I also propose that some but not necessarily all dream texts are narratives. I am interested here in the form of dreams, in their narrativity, by way of inquiring into the cognitive aspects of narrative structure and its relation to language. I am also interested in the role of language in the generation of dreams. I am not here attempting to formulate an interpretative system for dreams, although I believe an encounter with potential meaning is unavoidable, accepting as I do that the dream is a metaphor in motion (Ullman 1969), and that in narrative the functional units are already units of content: “It is what a statement ‘means’ which constitutes it as a functional unit” (Barthes 1994:105).
begin with, the term text has been understood broadly in recent decades,
and it is this broad understanding which permits the notion of text to be
extended to dreams. We may say that texts “can be any physical structure at
all made to embody ideas in the semiotic sense,” (Deely 1990:64-5) and that
text is “the primary element (basic unit) of culture,” generated by the
systems of cultural codes (Uspenskij et al. 1973:6). Hence the application of
text semiotics to a broad range of cultural phenomena. Danesi (1999:30) for
example, includes “routine conversations,” along with “musical
compositions, stage plays, dance styles, and ceremonies,” as examples of
“products of our text-making capacity.”
the claim has been made that the concept of text “in its broadest sense refers
to messages of any code” (Nöth 1990:331), it will be critical to my argument
to recognize that “the terms message and text are not
synonymous. A message refers to what one wishes to communicate; a text
refers to how the message is constructed” (Danesi 1999:30). Whether or
not a text must convey a message is a question of relevance to the study of
dreams. For purposes of the present discussion I will define a text by formal
rather than semantic criteria. A text must have definable parameters; it must be
separable from other phenomena of experience by spatiotemporal boundaries. Thus
a text is a formal unit. It also has coherence, the determination of which is
made by the experiencer of the text; it is content expressed through a formal
code which makes use of cohesive links to create an impression of unity.
text, then, is a form that must have content, but that content does not
necessarily have a message. We could say, for example, that Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky
is a text because as a poem it is a formally cohesive unit, but that its content
is semantically empty and hence conveys no message. (If there is a message, it
is arrived at only when an interpreter views the poem as a signifier in a
broader cultural context.) Conversely, a specific message such as “children
are lovable” could be formalized through a variety of codes, e.g., a photo
exhibit in a museum, a book without illustrations, or a televised public service
announcement. Each different product of encoding this message would have to be
considered a separate text despite the identity of the message of their content.
In general, however, a text without a message seems a rather pointless exercise.
Communicators that they are, people seem to pay more attention to meaning than
to form. Because a form whose content is semantically empty is unlikely to hold
our interest, the great majority of texts will contain a message of some sort.
So I will take form as the primary marker in identifying a text, but
meaning—the message—as the overwhelmingly likely motive for the creation of
etymology of the word text, ‘something woven’ (from the past
participle of the Latin verb texere, ‘to weave’), refers to a
characteristic of textuality that might be defined as a “coherent whole” (Nöth
1990:332). For Danesi (1999:6), “A text is, literally, a ‘weaving
together’ of the elements taken from a specific code in order to communicate
something.” For example, “When someone says something to someone or writes a
letter, he or she is engaged in making a verbal text; when someone
selects clothing items to dress for an occasion, he or she is making a bodily
text...” The notion of a woven, that is, coherent, product is pivotal in
the consideration of dreams as texts.
the dream a text? My response is a qualified “yes” which is dependent upon a
particular use of the term dream. Texts have boundaries; as products
separated from the stream of continuous experience, they allow us to focus on
them extracted from other phenomena. By my use of the term dream I mean
‘the dream once we have experienced it’. To say “I had a dream” is to
acknowledge an isolatable experience with temporal boundaries that begins where
we can recall it beginning, and it ends where we can recall it ending. Through
criteria of form we recognize a dream as a subjective text, and if the formal
properties of texts are their defining factor, then the question of whether or
not the dream conveys a message can be treated separately. As a discrete unit of
form, the experienced dream coheres and so can be considered a text.
the dream may or may not seem to cohere, although a lack of semantic coherence
may be a result of not knowing how
to read the dream text, to paraphrase Jung (1974:97).
It seems reasonable to suppose that if dreams are indeed texts as I am
asserting, then they generally have a message-based content; this follows from
the observation that meaningless texts would rarely attract our interest, and
clearly many people are intensely interested in the presumed meaning of their
own dream-texts. But of course this view rests on my argument that experienced
dreams are texts. Moreover, I do not limit the term message to the sense
of ‘lesson’, but rather accept the use of message for any event
sequence that can broadly be said to constitute the plot of the dream.
dream while it is being dreamed is experience, not text. Our memory of that
experience, whether we report is or not, is the text of the dream. So there is
something between the initial experience of the dream and the dream report, just
as there is something between waking experience and our report of that
experience. The report in both cases is a text; the experience itself is not.
The experience becomes a text once it is a completed product; we recognize it as
a cohesive phenomenon bounded in space and time, having form as well as content.
So the dream becomes a text the moment the initial experience of it has ended,
just as a waking experience can become a text as soon as we are able to reflect
on it as “something that happened” to us.
more difficult question concerns the relation of the experienced dream to the
dream report, and which of them is the appropriate object of inquiry into dream
textuality and narrativity. That the dream report is a text seems
uncontroversial. The report takes form through a medium, whether visual
(pictorial), or verbal (spoken or written). It has a beginning, middle, and end
—formally speaking, it has spatiotemporal boundaries. It also has cohesive
links: in a verbal report we find, for example, the use of anaphoric pronouns
(we, her...), adverbials (there, suddenly...), and other common devices of
textuality. There are often near-formulaic statements, e.g., for beginnings,
“It starts out with...”, endings, “...And that’s all I can remember”
and even midstream transitions, “Then, suddenly, the scene shifted”.
when we work with dreams, we can only work with the report of a dream, which is
an objective product. But we are doing the same when we report a waking
experience. In order to share any experience, the experiencer must encode it in
a representational system such as language, which is both enabling and limiting
in its capacity for full and accurate representation. But we don’t discount
the value of a report because it isn’t identical to the experience; rather, we
accept reports of waking experience as simply the best means available for
representing and relating them. We can think of dream reports in the same way.
If a report of waking experience can be considered a workable representation of
that experience, then the dream report can analogously be considered a workable
representation of the dreamer’s subjective experience of the dream. The
report—and from here on I will be considering only verbal (spoken or
written) dream reports—is the best means we have for representing our dream
experience in a way that allows it to be anchored in time and communicated to
others. We can hardly produce a dream report, moreover, if the experienced dream
is not already a unit of text.
is of interest to note here Jung’s apparent lack of concern about the gap
between the experienced dream text and the dream report. In his argument against
Freud’s manifest dream being a facade for the latent dream, Jung seems to
presuppose the adequacy of the dream report as a valid object of textual
“manifest” dream-picture is the dream itself and contains the whole meaning
of the dream... What Freud calls the “dream-facade” is the dream’s
obscurity, and this is really only a projection of our own lack of
understanding. We say that the dream has a false front only because we fail to
see into it. We would do better to say that we are dealing with something like a
text that is unintelligible not because it has a facade—a text has no
facade—but simply because we cannot read it. We do not have to get behind such
a text, but must first learn to read it. (Jung 1974:97)
for the adequacy of reports also comes from laboratory evidence. Kramer
(1993:157-8), for example, provides a summary of work that justifies reliance on
dream reports as sufficiently faithful representations of the dream:
laboratory research has provided support, it not confirmation, to the idea that
there is significant similarity between the dream experience and the dream
report (Taub, Kramer, Arand, and Jacobs, 1978). Eye movements and dream action
during REM sleep are relatable (Roffwarg, Dement, Muzio, and Fisher, 1962). The
intensity of the psychological experience during REM sleep and the dream report
of that experience covary (Kramer et al., 1975). Experiments in which stimuli
presented during sleep are incorporated into dreams suggest a relationship
between the dream experience and the dream report (Kramer, Kinney, and Scharf,
no dream report can ever be as satisfying as direct access to the dream itself,
the latter is impossible, and the former is what there is to work with, and that
in abundance. Freud’s notion of secondary revision notwithstanding (discussed
in the following section), it may be impossible to know precisely what
modifications the reporting process imposes on the experienced dream. So it is
necessary to begin, at least, by examining dream reports for evidence of
textuality and narrativity in the experienced dream, as indirect an approach as
this may be. In addition to positing that experienced dreams are texts, I
consider the verbal dream report to be a particular form of text which
transforms the experienced-dream text into an objective product, analogously to
the way a given story can be told through different media. For the remainder of
this paper, then, I will employ the term dream text in reference to both
the experienced dream and the verbal report of that dream. At the very least,
from studying verbal dream reports we can learn something about textuality and
narrativity as mental processes that provide frameworks for the representation
of experience. At best, however, we may come to better understand the creation
and structuring of unconscious dream texts.
3. Narrative and
now consider whether dream texts can properly be called narratives. Perhaps no
discussion of narrative can proceed without being prefaced by Roland Barthes’
are the world’s narratives. First of all in a prodigious variety of genres,
themselves distributed among different substances, as if any material were
appropriate for man to entrust his stories to it: narrative can be supported by
articulated speech, oral or written, by image, fixed or moving, by gesture, and
by the organized mixture of all these substances; it is present in myth, legend,
fable, tale, tragedy, comedy, epic, history, pantomime, painting...,
stained-glass window, cinema, comic book, news item, conversation. (Barthes
And let dream-text be
added to this list.
scholars of narratology have contributed what amounts to a definition of
narrative. I cite only several, selected on the basis of their potential
relevance to the structure of dreams. Toolan (1988:7), for example offers what
he terms a “first attempt at a minimalist definition of narrative” as
“a perceived sequence of non-randomly connected events”.
Sarbin (1986:9) defines
narrative as “a way of organizing
episodes, actions, and accounts of actions; it is an achievement that brings
together mundane facts and fantastic creations; time and place are
incorporated.” For Prince (1982:1), narrative “may be defined as the
representation of real or fictive events and situations in a time sequence.”
And among the best-known minimalist statements on narrative is surely that of
Todorov, who defined narrative as “the shift from one equilibrium to another .
. ., separated by a period of
imbalance” (1986:328). This
statement merits attention, having been a source of disagreement with respect to
dreams in States (1988:152):
do not proceed on such a structure, partly because they do not (at least
narratively) begin and end. A dream seems to be a steady disequilibrium, with no
functional or thematic interest in solving or rounding out a problem. The
narrative of the dream is concerned with ramifications of a tension, ...
not with getting me into trouble (or pleasure) and out of it, but with extending
the trouble (or pleasure) to the boundaries of the feeling that produced the
While this statement may be
characterize certain dreams, it relies on a narrow concept of narrative
appropriate to the study of literary texts.3
It also conflicts with Jung’s formulation of the structure of the average
dream (for which, see below). But as with the term text, once again it is
a broad conception of narrative which permits us to include dreams reports as a
type of narrative, for as I will illustrate, dream reports do represent events
and situations in a sequence, bringing together both mundane facts and fantastic
creations into a perceived sequence of non-randomly connected events, which are
characterizable as the shift from one equilibrium to another.
It is also worth noting that Barthes (1994:147) saw the dream in contrast
to the classical narrative because it is “removed from the logico-temporal
order,” while the classical narrative is readable because it contains a
sequence of events narrated in an irreversible (logico-temporal) order; yet
through the ages the narrative “subverts itself (modernizes itself) by
intensifying in its general structure the work of reversibility.”
turning to the basic elements of narrative, mention may be made here of the
problem of reliance on dream reports in connection with Freud’s secondary
revision. Although Freud was concerned not with the gap between the remembered
dream and the report of that dream but rather with the “manifest” dream and
the supposed latent thoughts that lay concealed behind it, his notion of
secondary revision is nevertheless relevant to the question of the dream’s
relation to the dream report. Freud wrote that
should disregard the apparent coherence between a dream’s constituents as an
unessential illusion, and ... trace back the origin of each of its elements on
its own account.... a psychical force is at work in dreams which creates this
apparent connectedness, which ... submits the material produced by the
dream-work to a ‘secondary revision.’ (1900:486)
Freud further explained this
process as “the psychical activity which, though it does not appear to
accompany the construction of dreams invariably, yet, whenever it does so, is
concerned to fuse together elements in a dream which are of a disparate origin
into a whole which shall make sense and be without contradiction.” (Freud
1900:496). He identified secondary revision with waking thought, because
according to him it behaves in the same way, establishing order in perceptual
material, setting up relations in it, and making it “conform to our
expectations of an intelligible whole” (Freud 1900:537).
short, Freud seemed to recognize that the same text-making, narratizing capacity
that helps us make sense of waking experience is operative in the dream, and
that the dream only achieves an impression of coherence thanks to this capacity.
He also assumed that secondary revision operates simultaneously with the other
aspects of dream formation (condensation, representability, censorship), and not
subsequent to them (Freud 1900:537), which lends support to my claim that
text-making, narratizing processes are at work as the dream is created; they are
not simply imposed by the linguistic constraints of the dream report.
view would seem to contradict Hartmann’s (1996:12) statement that in a dream
“what is experienced generally is images...”, which leads in turn to the
caution that “though we are often forced to work with verbal dream reports we
need to keep in mind that these are only attempts to render the dream experience
in a preservable and reproducible form.” This warning notwithstanding, I am
proceeding under the assumption that there is a narratizing principle at work in
the dream formation process which helps to organize perceptual material into a
coherent text. I suggest that, while it may be true that “the potential to
narratize dreams is as surely wired into the human brain as is the potential to
speak language” (Foulkes 1982:276), narratizing is integral to the formation
of many dreams, and narrative form is further enhanced and intensified when the
dream text is rendered as a verbal report.
dream texts would seem to lend themselves to analysis along the lines developed
by narratologists for other sorts of texts. The basic elements of narrative have
been put forward by, for example, Chatman (1978), in reference to Todorov’s
formulation of the structuralist view of narrative in the 1960s (cf. Barthes
1994:102). Chatman divides narratives into two basic parts, story and discourse.
story (histoire) [is] the content or chain of events (actions,
happenings), plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of
setting); and a discourse (discours) ... [is] the expression, the means
by which the content is communicated. In simple terms, the story is the what
in a narrative that is depicted, discourse is the how. (Chatman 1978:19)
Narrative discourse, in
turn, consists of the narrative form (narrative voice, point of view, etc.) and
the manifestation of the narrative in a specific medium (Chatman 1978:22).
will keep to Chatman’s basic formulation of story and discourse, incorporating
into it Bal’s (1985) usage of the terms event, actors and to
act: “An event is the transition from one state to another state. Actors
are agents that perform actions. They are not necessarily human. To act
is defined ... as to cause or to experience an event.” (Bal 1985: 5)
a century ago, Jung provided a succinct formulation of the structure of the
average dream, borrowing from the classification of the elements of dramatic
plot found in Aristotle’s Poetics. My focus here will be on the story
component of narrative rather than the discourse, and what I will explore will
be a blend of ideas gleaned from Jung, Chatman and Bal. Jung identified an
opening Exposition phase, consisting of a statement of place, and a statement
about the protagonists, and less frequently a statement of time; this phase also
often indicates the dreamer’s initial situation. This first phase is followed
by the Development of the plot, in which tension develops and the situation in
the dream becomes complicated. In the third phase there is a Culmination (peripeteia),
in which something decisive occurs or changes completely. The final phase is the
Solution or Result (lysis), which shows the final situation; this phase
is sometimes lacking (Jung 1974:80-1).
adequacy of Jung’s formulation for dream reports and its relation to the
elements of narrative just mentioned will be taken up in the following section.
Here it may be said that Jung’s Exposition phase corresponds roughly to a
presentation of the existents of narrative structure (setting, actors) and
Jung’s remaining phases, Development, Culmination, and Result, are all aspects
of the content of narrative (events acted by actors). In addition to the term actor
for agents that perform actions in dreams, I will use the term character
to encompass, additionally, animate beings who appear as presences in dreams
4. Sample dream texts
now turn to analysis of dream texts. I have chosen data from my dream journal in
order to investigate Jung’s proposed narrative structure of dreams.4
First I will look at a set of texts in order to see how well the
Exposition phase, i.e. the identification of existents, characterizes the texts
in the set. Next I will look at the narrative structure of a complete dream
Orientations: The Exposition
with the Exposition phase, which may consist of the spatial and possibly
temporal setting, the characters involved, and the initial situation, my journal
contains numerous reports which begin by situating the dreamer in a certain
location, although some are quite simple, others more elaborate. For example:
I walk into a large old hall of a college building. It seems to be Steven
Pinker’s office, or a classroom where he teaches.
I am standing on a bluff.
In a house with others (someone else’s). On a couch in a den with J. to my
left and a man to his left.
I am in a meadow at twilight with J. It is huge, open, green, with gently
rolling hills at the edges. There is a pedestrian tunnel or passageway.
I come out of a building at dark, early evening in winter, onto a slippery
backyard slope with someone else.
I am lying on a table, like a hospital operating table, in a room with cognitive
science and linguistics faculty.
At a show of some kind, like the Spectrum or other indoor amphitheatre. I sit
next to J. in a sideways-facing mezzanine level.
I happen on a park with a pool, amid rolling hills and open space.
I am in a large house/building with others. A room with a huge scorpion running
I am in a tower, with members of a committee.
I am with some man--J., V., a composite, or someone–. We arrive at a museum
Flying in an airplane with a man, maybe two.
diverse as the surface features of these settings described by these statements
may be, each one describes the dreamer’s initial location. Sometimes the
opening statement incorporates other characters in the dream. In (4), for
example, the first sentence consists of a statement of physical setting,
temporal setting, and actors. The first sentence in (3), by contrast, situates
the dreamer in a location that includes other people who are not individualized,
although it is made clear that this is not the dreamer’s domicile. The second
sentence specifies the dreamer’s position in the setting, and includes
information about the dreamer’s position with respect to other actors, now
depicted as individuals. In (5) the initial sentence shows the dreamer and an
unnamed character actually entering upon the scene, which is described in terms
of both time and place.
the introduction of actors precedes that of location, as in
e.g., (11). Finally, sometimes the opening sentence describes location,
characters, and a situation, all three, as in (12).
second (and third) sentence of the Exposition phase of these dream texts may
provide further description of that place, e.g. (4), “It is huge, open, green,
with gently rolling hills at the edges. There is a pedestrian tunnel or
passageway”, or it may, additionally, incorporate a situation in progress, as
in (9), “A room with a huge scorpion running around”.
as easily found in my journal, however, are dream reports in which characters
and setting seem to be of secondary or no importance, for the dream text begins
directly with a statement of the situation, occasionally incorporating the
dreamer as actor. For example:
Someone has advertised something in the newspaper –something for sale.
someone else driving, we go to meet this person at a designated spot on the
highway. It appears to be San Francisco-like, and we have to drive onto a bridge
that is partly –mostly– underwater. Several cars have either been wrecked or
stranded off to the left.
There is a fire somewhere nearby.
kids and I go out to see where, and after some confused searching, turning in
this direction and that, I see the fire blazing on top of a (suburban) hill,
burning down a house, I think. Later we seem to be closer to it and I see some
kind of glass office building in ruins, post-fire smouldering.
I am looking for our (family’s) plane tickets to China.
flight is for 5 p.m. tomorrow, and I want to confirm it. I keep looking in the
stack of papers inside my top drawer, but I can’t see close up anymore, so I
don’t find it --perhaps because I just keep missing seeing it.
I am a substitute drummer for the Grateful Dead.
some reason Mickey Hart (the only drummer for the Dead in the dream), is sick or
otherwise unavailable, and I have been selected to play in his stead.
My cookware (pots and pans) is chipped.
stainless steel, I think, but especially my cast iron skillet, which more
closely resembles V.’s iron pan. There is a wavy, “bite-sized” chip in it
about an inch or so long.
(13) and (14), subsequent sentences do provide information on setting and
characters, although in (14) they are incorporated into an elaboration of the
situation. In (15), the opening statement of situation is followed by one of
explanation for the activity, which is followed in turn by a sentence providing
minimal information on the dreamer’s location (before the top drawer). In
(16), the dream report opens with a statement of the dreamer’s situation,
which is followed by an explanation for this state of affairs, recognized as
unusual even in the dream. Setting and finally characters are introduced in this
dream only after several more sentences which expand upon the initial situation.
The dream text of (17), presented in its brief entirety above, consists
of a static image of a set of objects. Aside from the dreamer as witness to the
image, there are no characters and there is no setting or action, merely this
summarize, there are considerable possibilities for variation within the
Exposition phase which nevertheless preserve its structure. I found no examples
of dreams that did not have any of the elements identified by Jung as
pertaining to this phase within the first few statements of the text; even
dreams such as (17) which consisted of a single image had at least the element
of a situation in some, albeit unidentified, space. The initial statements of
dream reports seem to fit Chafe’s statement on narratives in general --they
“give evidence that the mind has a need for orientation in terms of space,
time, social context, and ongoing events” (Chafe 1990:97), this evidence being
that narratives typically begin with “a statement of the particular place,
time, characters, and background activity against which the events of the
narrative proper then unfold” (Chafe 1990:94). Or, to use Chatman’s term,
this orientation is achieved through a statement of existents.
Full dream text
now to the remaining phases of the dream as suggested by Jung (Development,
Culmination, and Solution or
Result), I present a dream report in its entirety in order to investigate the
presence of these phases and their narrative elements. The numbering of the
statements is my division into the phases.5
The Exposition phase of this dream text, consisting of a statement of place and
a statement about the protagonists, was introduced as (7); it is repeated here
At an Indoor Amphitheatre with J.
At a show of some kind, like the Spectrum or other indoor amphitheatre. I
sit next to J. in a sideways-facing mezzanine level.
During intermission, I go out and realize the music can be heard out
here. Standing around one of the entrances, I sing along with the music –it
sounds like the Grateful Dead, at least vaguely. I note with someone passing
from out to in how you can hear the show outside [it’s in some big city, but
which ?], but we agree we’d prefer to be inside.
It looks like it’s E., and he adds, as he passes me going in, how its
only five dollars anyway. I think for a moment, because I paid more, and realize
that was for reserved seats. Did I really need them?
I make my way back to my seat. J. already seated in his. A woman like G.
[from UT] comes along and we try to figure out which is her seat, since she’s
trying to sit in mine.
(18a) there is both a statement of setting (indoor amphitheatre), and a
statement of actors (dreamer and dreamer’s spouse), as well as further
information on the situation in progress (a show of some kind) and of the
actors’ specific position in the amphitheatre: not only are they at the
mezzanine level of this amphitheatre, but they are facing sideways. Thus the
Exposition positions the actors as spectators to the performance of some ongoing
action, yet they are not facing this action directly, but rather indirectly,
i.e. sideways (possibly a pun that they are not “facing the music” with
respect to a situation).
next, Development, phase of the dream I have identified as (18b). Something is
supposed to occur; tension develops and the situation becomes complicated in the
Development phase. The development in the present text appears to be rather
ordinary. The dreamer leaves her initial position and exits the structure, a
shift of position which causes her to become an “outsider” after having been
an “insider” adjacent to a spouse. The dreamer is still participating in the
action of the performance from this exterior position, not as a spectator facing
the stage sideways, but as an actor in the open air, with greater freedom of
movement, who from this fringe position actually participates in the action of
the show. Using terms from narratology, the dream text depicts actors acting in
events at this phase.
Culmination phase of this dream, which would see something decisive occurring or
changing suddenly, I have identified as (18c). The dreamer is speaking here with
another “outsider” who is on
his way “in”. This brief exchange of talk introduces a puzzle into the
narrative. The dreamer learns that some people, at least, paid less for their
seats than she did. Why did she pay more? The question seems to be resolved upon
the realization that the dreamer’s seats were reserved. But a further concern
is then introduced: it seems now as though it might not have been necessary to
pay extra for reserved seats, although no definitive resolution about this is
offered at this stage. But the matter of reserved seating seems to be pivotal,
for a doubt has been introduced. Was the dreamer duped through naivety? Perhaps
she has merely been overly cautious. Or it may be that the purchase of reserved
seating was wise. Perhaps the dreamer is more vulnerable than others to the loss
of her seat and needs the added protection of reserved seating, or perhaps she
simply had to pay a higher price than others to guarantee her place. Events at
this phase allow for these questions to be posed, although they remain
final part of the dream presents the Solution or Result, identified as (18d).
The dreamer has left her seat, exited the building, learned something about
seating in the amphitheater, and now returns to her seat with this new
information. To find someone else occupying one’s seat presents a response to
the question of whether or not it was necessary to pay for reserved seating. For
here is someone from the dreamer’s past in her seat, and only her reserved
ticket proves that the dreamer, and not this acquaintance from her graduate
school days, is entitled to occupy this particular seat. So it was a good idea
to have a reserved seat after all.
dream, while not the stuff of high drama, nevertheless conforms to the general
characterization of narrative as “the representation of ... events and
situations in a time sequence” (Prince) with actors acting and experiencing
events. It also conforms to Jung’s phases and can be said to have an
identifiable beginning, middle, and end, wherein, following orientation to the
existents, there is a development of the situation, a problem identified, a
question or puzzle to which the problem gives rise, and a response to that
puzzle, resulting ultimately in a “shift from one equilibrium to another” (Todorov).
Although many additional dream reports I have reviewed also seem to
conform to this suggested narrative pattern, not all do. Short dream fragments,
for example, seem to resemble snapshots more than stories. If some dream reports
have narrative structure, but others do not, then it is not the case that we
inevitably impose narrative form on dreams in order to relate them, since we are
capable of reporting dreams that do not conform to this structure. Recall that
for Freud, secondary revision “does not appear to accompany the construction
of dreams invariably” (Freud 1900:496). This in turn lends support to the view
that our dream reports may be fair representations of our dreams after all.
By way of conclusion, I would like to highlight three points.
First, I hope to have demonstrated convincingly that the
dream-once-dreamed is a text, one that often but not always has narrative
structure. The dream text is made up of strands of disparate thoughts weaving
their way through our minds as we sleep. The loom which allows these threads to
be woven together is a narratizing process that is part of human cognition. The
dream report is also a text which, as a representation, will reflect the
narrative structure of the experienced dream or its absence. But as a linguistic
representation, the verbal dream report will also enhance the narrative
organization of the dream text. An analogy may be made with the structuring that
occurs when we express our waking thoughts in spoken or written language: the
content of ideas is in essence the same whether it is expressed or only thought,
but expressing thoughts through linguistic representation structures them in
Further, dream texts will vary in their degree of narrativity, ranging
from fragmentary snapshot to epic tale.6
Some remembered dreams seem less
coherent than others, but it is still the case that we remember “a dream”,
no matter how bizarre or tenuous the connection between images seems to the
waking mind. So, we do not necessarily impose narrative structure on the dream,
since we are as capable of reporting a dream with narrative form as without.
For a dream to have narrative form is necessarily for it to have
structured content, but not necessarily to have a message in the sense of a
However minimally, simple action sequences which begin and end and are
ordered with respect to each other, involving characters, settings, and usually
the tension of a dilemma, do count as narratives. What we usually call a story
is a product of having imposed conventional narrative structures on selected
content. But I don’t see that dreams are “trying to become stories”
(Hunt 1989:177) so much as they are rudimentary, unrefined stories, a
shifting “from one equilibrium to another” (Todorov).
My second point has to do with the relation of narrative structure to
language. Two possibilities present themselves concerning the nature of this
relationship. One is that narratizing is a cognitive process, but not a
linguistic one. This seems to be the position of Turner (1996), for example, who
claims that “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of
thought”, that “it is our chief means of looking into the future, of
predicting, of planning, and of explaining” and that it is a capacity
“indispensable to human cognition generally” (pp. 4-5). Turner speculates
that “the linguistic mind is a consequence and subcategory of the literary
mind.” (p.141) That is, “the ability to recognize and execute small spatial
stories” (p.25) precedes linguistic expression.
The other possibility is that narratizing is a linguistic process, which
means that all narratives are the product of verbal thought, and even phenomena
such as mime acts and wordless comic strips, while legitimately qualifying as
narratives, can nevertheless only be generated and in turn interpreted by
language users. I am not here committing to one or the other possibility
concerning the role of language in the narrative process, but I mention the
issue because it is relevant to my final point.
My final point concerns the relation of language to dreaming, a complex
issue which can only be mentioned here (see Kilroe 1999b). If narratizing is a
cognitive process independent of language, then narrative-like dreams are not
necessarily generated by language. But if narratizing is a linguistic process,
then dreams with a narrative quality are either essentially unconscious verbal
thoughts illustrated by imagery, or they are a weave of unconscious
presentational imagery and representational verbal thought (cf. Hunt 1989).
So one type of dream may
consist of a sequence of images illustrating unconscious verbal thoughts, which
are the subliminal continuation of the mind chatter that we experience while
awake. Not all dreams are necessarily structured this way, but those that are
can often be matched to verbally established metaphors, puns, and other
linguistic phenomena (Kilroe 1999a). And although dream images may be drawn from
and recombined out of nonverbal perceptions stored in memory, it would still be
verbal thought that motivates these images to come together to form a text.
From this point of view, disparate strands of verbal thought make up the
dreamer’s mental discourse, from scattered impressions to focused
preoccupations. These strands are unconsciously woven into narrative form while
we sleep, resulting in a discourse of imagery that forms a dream text which we
report, usually verbally, as our dream. Opacity between the dream report and the
unconscious verbal thoughts prevents the straightforward retrieval of the latter
into consciousness.8 It is like trying to
tell a story from the illustrations alone and not having access to the verbal
text that gave rise to the illustrations in the first place —we may be correct
in saying what the author’s story is, or partially correct, or simply
In any case, whether dreams are generated by linguistic processes or by
nonlinguistic cognitive processes, the study of the form of dreams helps to show
that narrative structure is not an artful invention but rather a natural process
of the mind.
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go to the three anonymous reviewers of this article for their numerous
helpful comments, which among other things prompted me to rethink the
concepts of text and narrative central to this paper. Whatever
errors and obscurities remain are of course due to no one’s shortcomings
but my own.
Also cf. the discussion in States (1993:75) of how unlike stories
dreams are, e.g. that dream reports “do not read like stories; on the
contrary, most dream reports preserve the main structural features of dream
narrative, including the in medias res beginning, the unexplained gaps and
shifts in scene, and the inconclusive ending.” Here I take States’
remarks as a plea against the dream being comparable to a literary text, but
presupposing some kind of narrative form for dreams.
Despite my reluctance to expose personal material, the ready access these
data permit to a network of associations in my waking life is a compelling
reason to draw from them. I refer to myself as “the dreamer” in this
analysis because in looking at my dream texts, I do not feel identical to
the “I” of the dream so much as represented by a dream character
who seems to be “me”.
Although it has no direct bearing on the question of narrative structure,
readers interested in the story content of the dream may find it useful to
know that at the time of the dream, I had recently begun a full-time faculty
position at a university in a Southern state, after teaching part-time in
the Midwest since graduate school (UT). I was also about to be divorced from
someone (J.) whose academic career had taken precedence over mine and as a
result was the main reason I had remained for years in what I considered a
one-down position of university adjunct. E. is a person of brief, distant
acquaintance to me who had recently become a professor in a field where
training is in demand by students but which I consider academically
“soft”, so in my opinion E. found a faculty position with less struggle
than I did. G. is an acquaintance from my graduate school days who at the
time was apparently content to be an adjunct lecturer supporting her
husband, a graduate student preparing for an academic career.
Possibly the degree of narrativity in dreams is connected with whether
dreams are experienced in REM or non-REM sleep (see Hartmann 1996 on REM
sleep as the source of most or our memorable dreams). Or perhaps the
relative dominance of left or right brain hemispheric functions during
dreaming can account for varying degrees of dream narrativity (see
discussion in Hunt 1989).
Alternatively, a dream-text may have multiple messages, and what Corti has
said of the literary text may apply equally to the dream-text: “Every text
is many texts in that the very nature of its polysemic complexity prevents
identically repetitive readings even in the same cultural context”
(1978:42). And it is the interpreter of a text who at least partially
constructs its meaning and supplies its coherence.
But note that while this echoes Freud in agreeing that dreams are formed
from thoughts of which we are unaware, it is not identical to claiming that
the “true” dream consists of latent thoughts that both motivate and hide
behind a manifest dream. Following Jung, I take the dream-as-dreamed to be a
valid object of study. This does not prevent us from inquiring into the
source of dreams, however, including, in this case, the role of verbal
thinking in dream formation.
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