Enthralling Expectations: The Dark Dreamscape of Satis House
Contributed by Anne Nagel, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral student researching the affective intensity of sleep and dreams in nineteenth-century British literature.
I challenge you to find a Dickens novel that fails to employ multiple dreams, an intense dreamlike state, or at the very least, a strikingly detailed description of sleep, sleep-watching, or a sleep disorder. Hard Times (1854) provides a two-for-one, with a scene of sleep-watching as well as dreaming, when Stephen falls asleep at the bedside of his sleeping wife and then has a troubling dream himself. Additionally, sleep-watchers abound in Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Dombey and Son (1848); and in the latter, even the dog dreams. Conversely, the dreamlike hypnagogic episode sets Oliver Twist (1838) apart. And Pickwick Papers (1837), possibly the least dreamy of Dickens’s longer works, still features a boy who is suffering from narcolepsy.
Many of Charles Dickens’s works could serve as points of departure for an analysis of the stuff of literary dreams and sleep, but in this post, I will focus on Great Expectations (1861). Its very title calls attention to Pip’s “poor dream,” the expectation of future fortune that the narrative hinges upon (377). Moreover, I have been especially intrigued by the sense of temporal indeterminacy that emerges through the intensity of the narrative’s dreamlike elements.
It is worth noting that it was Dickens who inspired Sigmund Freud, not the other way around, and that Dickens had his own opinions on dreams. Besides the ruminations that appear in the essays “Lying Awake” (1852) and “Night Walks” (1861), he comes the closest to outlining a dream theory of his own in a letter written to Dr. Thomas Stone in 1851. The letter is in response to an article titled “Dreams” that had been submitted to Household Words, and the topic seems to have struck a nerve; what Dickens initially offers as “a few remarks” turned into multiple pages outlining his positions on several of the major pre-Freudian dream theories of his time, and at several points, he goes so far as to recount his own dreams as evidence for his claims (276; 276-79).
In the letter, Dickens argues against the widespread belief that dreams are primarily composed of one’s most recent impressions from waking life. “The influence of the day’s occurrences and of recent events is by no means so great (generally speaking) as is usually supposed,” he writes. “My own dreams are usually of twenty years ago. I often blend my present position with them, but very confusedly” (276). For Dickens, dreams have more to do with the past than with the present. Or rather, they have more to do with the distant past than with the recent past. But dreams also have the power to commingle and conflate memories from different periods of time, resulting in a sense of temporal disruption. This seems to extend to the dreamer’s tendency to “confound the living with the dead” (279). To the dreaming mind, the fact that someone died in the past need not preclude them from making an appearance now.
He also describes dreams as enthralling. One of the dreaming experiences that he notes as “common to us all” is that of striving “to break some thralldom or other, from which we can’t escape.” Caught up in the “thralldom” of the dream, we lose the ability to use logic the way we would in waking reality (278). This extends to one’s ability to correctly interpret language, or put another way, the capacity of language to clearly signify meaning. Dreamers attempt “to read letters, placards, or books, that no study will render legible” (278), revealing a disruption in a Saussurian mode of representation.
Both the sensation of temporal distortion and the experience of interpretive failure come into play when Pip is suffering from fever dreams in Great Expectations. While in this dreaming state, “time [seems] interminable” to him, and he conflates his own identity with “a brick in a house-wall” and “a steel beam of a vast engine.” Despite his pleas to be released and to have the engine stopped (363), he experiences a nightmarish sensation of the sort of “thralldom” described in Dickens’s letter (278). Even when Pip is partially cognizant of his surroundings, his dreamy fevered state disrupts his ability to identify who is caring for him. His bedside sleep-watcher seems to undergo “all kinds of extraordinary transformations” in appearance and “size” (363).
What might be more surprising is that part of the waking narrative also seems to draw from the elements that Dickens identifies as dreamlike. For instance, Pip’s introduction to Satis House is dreamily, or nightmarishly, Kafkaesque. In response to a mysterious summons, he is inexplicably brought to this “fine” but “strange” home, with its hard-to-understand name. Once there, an enigmatic, aged woman, with “an impatient movement of the fingers,” commands him to “play, play, play!” (43; 46). The order would, confusedly, hinder any natural impulse to play, and Pip is unable to decode Miss Havisham’s behavior until much later, once he has awakened from the “poor dream” of his “great expectations” (377).
In Satis House, time seems simultaneously to have come to a stop, to continue moving forward, and to function cyclically: “Everything in [Miss Havisham’s] room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago” (46). Mentally, Miss Havisham has never moved on from the moment she realized that her fiancé had betrayed her and fled with her deceitful half-brother. Compounding this dark, dreamy atmosphere is the fact that the house lacks sunlight, as Miss Havisham “has never … looked upon the light of day” since then (142). In Satis House, the past—and indeed, the distant past—holds greater meaning than the present. The image of Miss Havisham sitting “corpse-like” in her yellowed wedding apparel even calls to mind the dreamlike confounding of the dead and the living (43-44).
Moreover, the narrative links the intensity of Pip’s encounter with Estella to problems of linguistic representation. When they attempt to play cards, he is made to feel inferior because unlike Estella, he has been “taught … to call Knaves at cards Jacks” (54). As in Dickens’s description of common dream scenarios, Pip struggles to understand language. Even the language to describe the experience escapes him, as he later recounts, “I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry sorry,—I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart—God knows what its name was,—that tears started to my eyes” (48). Yet the central issue is not that Knaves are not equivalent to Jacks; it is the recognition that their class-related connotations are not equivalent.
The feeling of inferiority that overcomes Pip in that moment is further nourished in the strange, dreamlike atmosphere of Satis House, where it is transformed into the “wild fancy,” the figurative “dream,” that Miss Havisham really will make his fortune (109). Ultimately, this dream is not realized in waking reality.
Satis House is a dark dreamscape that has enthralled Pip, and from this thralldom emerges the “dream” that becomes the driving force of the narrative.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Chapman and Hall, 1861.
—. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 6, edited by Madeline House and Graham Storey, Oxford UP, 1988, pp. 276-79.