1888 | Saranac Lake, NY

Dream Sequence

Robert Louis Stevenson introduces a dreamer.

There are some among us who claim to have lived longer and more richly than their neighbors; when they lay asleep, they claim they were still active; and among the treasures of memory that all men review for their amusement, these count in no second place the harvests of their dreams.

There is one of this kind whom I have in my eye, and whose case is perhaps unusual enough to be described. He was from a child an ardent and uncomfortable dreamer. When he had a touch of fever at night, and the room swelled and shrank, and his clothes, hanging on a nail, now loomed up instant to the bigness of a church, and now drew away into a horror of infinite distance and infinite littleness, the poor soul was very well aware of what must follow, and struggled hard against the approaches of that slumber which was the beginning of sorrows. But his struggles were in vain; sooner or later the night hag would have him by the throat and pluck him, strangling and screaming, from his sleep. His dreams were at times commonplace enough, at times very strange, at times they were almost formless. He would be haunted, for instance, by nothing more definite than a certain hue of brown, which he did not mind in the least while he was awake but feared and loathed while he was dreaming; at times, again, they took on every detail of circumstance, as when once he supposed he must swallow the populous world and awoke screaming with the horror of the thought. The two chief troubles of his very narrow existence—the practical and everyday trouble of school tasks and the ultimate and airy one of hell and judgment—were often confounded together into one appalling nightmare. He seemed to himself to stand before the great white throne; he was called on, poor little devil, to recite some form of words, on which his destiny depended; his tongue stuck, his memory was blank, hell gaped for him; and he would awake, clinging to the curtain rod with his knees to his chin.

These were extremely poor experiences, on the whole; and at that time of life, my dreamer would have very willingly parted with his power of dreams. But presently, in the course of his growth, the cries and physical contortions passed away, seemingly forever; his visions were still for the most part miserable, but they were more constantly supported; and he would awake with no more extreme symptom than a flying heart, a freezing scalp, cold sweats, and the speechless midnight fear. His dreams, too, as befitted a mind better stocked with particulars, became more circumstantial, and had more the air and continuity of life. The look of the world beginning to take hold on his attention, scenery came to play a part in his sleeping as well as in his waking thoughts, so that he would take long, uneventful journeys and see strange towns and beautiful places as he lay in bed. And what is more significant, an odd taste that he had for the Georgian costume and for stories laid in that period of English history, began to rule the features of his dreams, so that he masqueraded there in a three-cornered hat and was much engaged with Jacobite conspiracy between the hour for bed and that for breakfast.

When night in her rusty dungeon has imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keeps his audit in our sin-guilty consciences.

—Thomas Nashe, 1594

And then, while he was yet a student, there came to him a dream adventure which he has no anxiety to repeat; he began, that is to say, to dream in sequence and thus to lead a double life—one of the day, one of the night—one that he had every reason to believe was the true one, another that he had no means of proving to be false. I should have said he studied, or was by way of studying, at Edinburgh College, which (it may be supposed) was how I came to know him. Well, in his dream life, he passed a long day in the surgical theater, his heart in his mouth, his teeth on edge, seeing monstrous malformations and the abhorred dexterity of surgeons. In a heavy, rainy, foggy evening, he came forth into the South Bridge, turned up the High Street, and entered the door of a tall land, at the top of which he supposed himself to lodge. All night long, in his wet clothes, he climbed the stairs, stair after stair in endless series, and at every second flight a flaring lamp with a reflector. All night long he brushed by single persons passing downward—beggarly women of the street, great, weary, muddy laborers, poor scarecrows of men, pale parodies of women—but all drowsy and weary like himself, and all single, and all brushing against him as they passed. In the end, out of a northern window, he would see day beginning to whiten over the Firth, give up the ascent, turn to descend, and in a breath be back again upon the streets, in his wet clothes, in the wet, haggard dawn, trudging to another day of monstrosities and operations. Time went quicker in the life of dreams, some seven hours (as near as he can guess) to one; and it went, besides, more intensely, so that the gloom of these fancied experiences clouded the day, and he had not shaken off their shadow ere it was time to lie down and to renew them. I cannot tell how long it was that he endured this discipline; but it was long enough to leave a great black blot upon his memory, long enough to send him, trembling for his reason, to the doors of a certain doctor; whereupon with a simple draft he was restored to the common lot of man.

From “A Chapter on Dreams.” Written a year after the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson’s essay describes the author’s reliance on dreams for story ideas. His wife later recalled the night that Jekyll and Hyde came to him. “In the small hours of one morning,” she told a biographer, “I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily, ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’ ”