Exploring Dream Country: Literary Critique of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman"
Between 1988–1996, Neil Gaiman gave us The Sandman, a series of 75 comics published by DC and Vertigo. In 1990, he would write the four issues (#17–20) that would become the third collection, Dream Country. Each story in this collection will be examined through a different literary theory. "Calliope" will be reviewed through the lens of New Criticism. "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" will be glimpsed via Psychoanalysis. Structuralism will be the filter through which “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is viewed. Finally, “Facade” will be analyzed using Marxist theory.
In Neil Gaiman’s “Calliope,” the overlying theme of the piece is being imprisoned. One can see from early in the piece that the title character is trapped; first by Erasmus Fry, then Richard Madoc. The irony of the piece is that Richard Madoc does not realize that he is just as imprisoned as she is, though not in the same manner.
Calliope is captured by Erasmus on Mount Helicon in 1927. He does this by burning her scroll. Richard, on the other hand, is trapped by another type of paper, his writing contract. Not being able to write for a year and facing breach of contract has driven him to decide to obtain the muse. It is a cheat, but it works so well that he continues to use Calliope to further his career and become acclaimed and famous. He is in a good place, so he cannot see that he is as tied to her as she is to him.
Richard is also tasked with hiding his secret. This is shown in the frame where he makes arrangements for his move to his new home. He is too busy to do it, but he arranges to move Calliope in the middle of the night.
It is when he is visited by Oneirous the reality of his imprisonment shows itself. When the Dream King appears to him and mentions the muse, he tries at first to deny he has her. When it becomes obvious that’s not going to work, he fears that law enforcement will be brought into it. When he demands Calliope’s release, he pleads with Oneirous to allow him to keep her just a bit longer. He cannot bear the thought of losing all he has. He is a slave to his ill-gotten fortune and fame.
Keeping with the overall theme, Oneirous himself was recently released from being imprisoned.
Oneirous then imprisons Richard with the one thing he chased: ideas. So may ideas, they drive him mad. To escape, he finally sets Calliope free. She, in another turn of irony, sets him free; from the Dream King and from the life he was living, both secret and public.
Calliope decides she no longer wishes to remain in this world. She is at peace with this turn of events. Richard is on the verge of also becoming a memory as well. In the final bit of irony, it is because he finds himself in the same place he began; he has no ideas.
"A Dream of a Thousand Cats"
In Neil Gaiman’s “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” he tells his tale, his dream if you will, using well-known symbolism and archetypes. This can be seen in the use of the different cats, the white domestic shorthaired kitten and the blue point Siamese adult cat, and the cat’s Dream.
The Siamese is representative of the messiah/prophet figure. Siamese cats themselves are related in our culture to be closely associated with the Egyptians. This area of the world is the location of the prophets of Judaism and Islam, as well as the messiah of Christianity. Once the cat has her dream, she travels the world to preach the good world, and try to get the other felines to take up the cause, or convert them. To drive this point further, there is her position of choice when we are introduced to her: the statute of an angel.
The Siamese’s literal dream is twofold; the inspiration of our prophet and the aspirations of the oppressed. In the myths of the ages, many of those that strove to affect change in the world were inspired to by a vision. These visions were spiritual journeys done so in low to unconsciousness. Our Siamese undertakes this journey in a dream as she sleeps. She faces trials to reach the Dream Lord, a feline spirit that shows her the truth, and sets her on her way. Once the Siamese starts relating it to all the cats in her travels, it becomes that thing of hope that others aspire to achieve. It becomes the shared goal they hope one day to make a reality.
The domestic shorthaired kitten’s meaning is found in its coloring and its age. Something that is white calls to mind purity, innocence, and hope, and it is these qualities in the kitten that show the Siamese that her message was accepted without the cynical filter of the other cats. Then, there is the aspect that this is a kitten, a few months old from what the pictures depict. Throughout history, progress and change has been typically carried out by the youth. It will be through the kittens of the world to carry out this dream, as the young will want to affect change to make their futures better. All the older cats are amused by the Siamese’s message of change and a better life for the cats. They are set in their ways and happy with the way things are.
The story ends with the kitten at home in bed, dreaming. Though its owners are unaware, the reader knows it’s of the world where cats are rulers and humans their slaves. The message is that the world is changed by the shared dreams of many. In the story, this is to be brought forth through the actual dreams of at least a thousand cats.
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream"
There are a number of binaries in this story: human/mystical, performers/audience, and father/son. The one that seems to be central to the story is reality/dream, or fantasy; the other binaries all play into it.
There is the relationship between the playwright of the acting troupe, William Shakespeare and his son, Hamnet. William has brought his son along with the troupe, at the urging of the boy’s mother. When they are at home in the city, William rarely, if ever, visits his family. By contrast, with Hamnet as part of the company of actors, he has no problem spending time with him. He would rather interact with his son in the fantasy world of his plays than in the reality of home life. Hamnet even tells some of the actors that his sister Judith believes that if he were to die that his father would write a play about it. At the end of the story, the readers are told of Hamnet’s demise at age 11. With the author’s expectations of the reader being familiar with the real Shakespeare’s work, it would lead to the play Hamlet.
Then there is the dynamic of the human characters and the mystical creatures that come to watch their play. Fairies, hobgoblins, and such are believed people to be the stuff of fantasy. This is why the reader is not surprised by the troupe members’ shocked reactions to them. The troupe members, being human, see themselves as the reality. Even amongst themselves while watching the play, Dream and Auberon acknowledge that humans have become the reality in this current time.
Lastly, the binary between Lord Strange’s Men and their audience. Our troupe is there to perform a play, as the actors are pretending to be characters. Some of these characters’ true life counterparts are sitting in the audience. The audience, on the other hand, is watching this take place as if it is a dream. The lines are blurred by the fact the play is based on a number of the mystical creatures, and based loosely on past events. Though this is a fictionalized version that is taking liberties with actual events, Dream makes the point that this play could become reality to future audiences who only have this play to go by. The lines are further crossed when Robin Goodfellow incapacitates the actor playing him, and performs himself in the rest of the play.
When the play comes to an end, the mystical creatures return to their realm. The troupe awakes the next morning, and each wonders if it was a dream. Like the character Nick Bottom, one is left to wonder.
In “Facade,” we are introduced to Urania “Raine” Blackwell. She is a retired agent from “the company” who is alone and depressed. She has left due to being transformed into a metamorphae by Ra the Sun God, on the orders of her superiors. When she is invited to lunch by friend and former co-worker Della Potter-Kariakis, it doesn’t go well. First, she has to hear Della talk about how the handicapped outside the restaurant window creeps her out, and then she loses the mask she was using to appear normal in public. Truly distraught and wishing for death, Death pays her a visit. Death leads her to request from Ra’s façade, the Sun, what she wants. Her wish is granted.
We see two different class structures established in this story. The first is within the company. You have those shadowy top figures. They are the ones pulling the strings and giving the orders. We never see them in the story. They are never the ones putting their necks on the line. Who we do see in the story are the agents, like Raine and Della, or Mulligan’s voice on the phone. Raine truly doesn’t want to change, but goes into the pyramid anyway because of orders from the company. When she retires because she can’t handle what has happened to her, they just write her off as if she never existed. Della cannot reveal her pregnancy because the father is married to another woman and in the company as well, and they will both lose their jobs. Mulligan can’t even help Raine more than he can due to “company policy.”
Then there is the class structure of the god-like beings, Ra and Death, and the humans, particularly Raine. Raine pleads with the Sun God to not change her, but he does not listen. She is, to him, some type of plaything to be in his long over war. She is helpless to stop him. Then there is Death. She comes in to talk to Raine. She talks to Raine as if she is a child, even inferring that humans are inferior creatures, and not very intelligent. Raine finally obtains the demise that she wished for by asking Ra, in the form of the Sun. Here, even death is in the control of the immortals.
Raine is never in control at any point in the story. She is ordered into that pyramid. Ra decides she is to change. It is even Ra who must grant her passing. The one thing she does choose, to retire and leave the company, puts her in a position not of her choosing, as the company does not help her, and only sends her a small pension. Doing so greatly restricts what she can do on limited resources.
Bressler, Charles E., ed. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 5th ed. London: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Gaiman, Neil, and Kelley Jones. The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.
© 2017 Kristen Willms