The title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to a dream one of this novel's characters has, and which, come morning, he relates in great detail to his companions. The dreamer is Sarnac, a citizen of a future Utopian Earth, AD 4000 or thereabouts, who has, with his friends, excavated the two-thousand-year-old ruins of a town, its railway station and tunnel destroyed by nerve-gas in some forgotten war, all mummified corpses and ruined infrastructure. That night Sarnac dreams the life, entire, of Harry Mortimer Smith, born at the end of the nineteenth-century into the English lower middle classes. The titular dream, in other words, is Harry's life-story.
It's a life characterised by the obstacles of poverty, ignorance and the era's pervasive sexual obfuscation, jealousy and possessiveness. Everyman Harry struggles, makes some headway and then dies. As Harry's story is being told Sarnac and his friends repeatedly comment upon the (to them) baffling mores, customs and paraphernalia of this vanished time, and the contrast is explicitly made between the pinching and immiserating early 20th-Century and the bright collective happiness and open possibilities of the Utopian future. That's the second meaning of the title, of course: the dream is our dream, or at least Wells's dream, the one he wishes us to share: the dream of achievable Utopia.
The novel is unmistakeably a companion volume to the previous year's Men Like Gods. It's not specified in the novel, but it is strongly implied that The Dream's Utopia is the same place as Men Like Gods' Utopia (the shiny happy vibe is the same, and people go by the same style of name: ‘Radiant’, ‘Starlight’, ‘Willow’, ‘Firefly’; in Men Like Gods it's ‘Crystal’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Lychnis’)—though the 1923 novel is set a thousand years later than this one, in AD 5000 rather than AD 4000. What that means is that, like the much earlier pairing of The Time Machine and The Wonderful Visit (both 1895), these two 1920s novels go together, in the one inverting the premise of the other. In Men Like Gods people from our lapsarian era travel to a far-future Utopia; in The Dream a person from that same far-future Utopia travels to our era. We get to see both sides of the issue from, as it were, both sides.
Of course, Sarnac in The Dream, ‘travels’ via dream-vision where Barnstaple and the others in Men Like Gods ‘actually’ travel, via what is identified as some kind of Einsteinian portal in spacetime. That is an interesting distinction to which I'll come back.
For now it's enough to note another parallel between the two novels: they both play intertextual games with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Barnstaple in Men Like Gods passes not through Bunyan's Slough of Despond but the actual Slough in Berkshire, then though a magic ‘Wicket Gate’ into the ‘Land which is to come’ where he travels, pilgrim-like, through a Valley of Rest, to Quarantine Crag, and so forth—and The Dream dramatises Bunyan's governing conceit. The ancient tunnel, Sarnac's uneasy sleep, his dream of a pauperised Edwardian past are all, as it were: ‘I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn; And I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man cloathed with Raggs.’
Sarnac's man clothed with rags is Harry Mortimer Smith, and Sarnac tells Harry's story using the narratorial ‘I’, as if he lived it himself. Wells makes a very readable narrative out of this fellow's life: Harry is born and raised in ‘Cherry Gardens’ on the South Downs, not far from the English Channel. Harry's father is a greengrocer and Harry's uncle John Julip is head gardener at Lord Bramble's estate at nearby Chessing Hanger. Every Sunday Old Mr Smith takes his son over to see John Julip. Harry only belatedly realises that the two brothers are nicking Lord Bramble's fruit and veg to sell in the greengrocer's shop: ‘my father's tone was always so exalted that with a real shock I presently came to realise that every Sunday evening we were in plain English stealing and receiving stolen produce from Lord Bramble's gardens. Indeed ... our little home at Cherry Gardens was largely supported by my father's share in the profits of these transactions. When the produce was too good and costly for Cherry Gardens' needs, he would take it down to Cliffstone and sell it to a friend there who had a fashionable trade.’ [1.2.4]
Young ’Arry inadvertently gives the game away to Lord Bramble's agent, and Uncle John is dismissed. With nowhere else to go the old rogue comes to live with the Smiths in Cherry Gardens, where he leads Mr Smith into bad ways: drinking and gambling and the like. Wells gives us all the seedy details of this day-to-day as Harry grows older. Then Harry's sister Fanny runs away. Fanny is ‘a conspicuously lovely girl’ (‘her eyes could be as blue as heaven, or darken with anger or excitement so that they seemed black’), and from the point of view of Sarnac's future she does a brave and wonderful thing when (abetted by Harry) she runs away from home to go live in London with the man she loves. The alternative, the novel makes plain, was not pleasant:
Fanny could not but know that she was beautiful. But such morality as our world had then was a morality of abject suppression. Love was a disgrace, a leering fraud, a smutty joke. She was not to speak about it, not to look towards it until some good man—the pork butcher was a widower and seemed likely to be the good man in her case—came and spoke not of love indeed but marriage. He would marry her and hurry home with his prize and tear the wrappings from her loveliness, clumsily, stupidly, in a mood of morbidly inflamed desire....But in Edwardian Britain Fanny's absconsion is a great scandal, and it drags the family down. Things grow worse when Smith père suddenly dies: he is walking with his brother along, talking and gesticuating, when ‘he found the pavement too restricted for his subject and gestures, and he stepped off suddenly into the roadway and was struck by the car from behind and knocked headlong and instantly killed’.
That world of the past was horrible. Most of the women, your ancestors, suffered such things. And that was only the beginning of the horror. Then came the birth and desecration of the children. Think what a delicate, precious and holy thing a child is! They were begotten abundantly and abnormally, born reluctantly, and dropped into the squalor and infection of an overcrowded disordered world. Bearing a child was not the jolly wholesome process we know to-day; in that diseased society it was an illness, it counted as an illness, for nearly every woman. Which the man her husband resented—grossly. Five or six children in five or six years and a pretty girl was a cross, worried wreck of a woman, bereft of any shred of spirit or beauty. My [that is, Harry's] poor scolding, worried mother was not fifty when she died. And one saw one's exquisite infants grow up into ill-dressed, under-nourished, ill-educated children. Think of the agony of shamed love that lay beneath my poor mother's slaps and scoldings! The world has forgotten now the hate and bitterness of disappointed parentage. That was the prospect of the moral life that opened before my sister Fanny; that was the antistrophe to the siren song of her imagination. [The Dream, 1.3.3]
The story enters its second phase: Harry goes with his widowed mother to live in a hostel in Pimlico, and by chance meets again with Fanny, who is doing quite nicely thank you very much as the mistress of a famous publisher. With his sister's help Harry gets a job at the publishing firm of Crane & Newberry, where he prospers (some of this section of the novel is based loosely on the career of Wells's friend, Frank Swinnerton). Wells, who knows whereof he speaks, gives us a convincing the low-down this operation, run out of Thunderstone House, ‘a great rambling warren of a place opening out of Tottenham Court Road’. The house deals mostly in ‘novelette magazines and popular novels’, which Sarnac describes as ‘reverie material—mental drugs’, written for Crane & Newberry ‘by girls and women and by a type of slack imaginative men’ [2.5.8].
At any rate, Smith makes a go of this new opportunity: ‘I had not been with Crane & Newberry six weeks before ... I was writing short contributions to some of our minor weeklies and monthlies and suggesting articles and “features” as we called them to Mr. Cheeseman. The eighteen shillings a week at which I started went up in a series of jerks to three pounds, which was quite a big salary in those days for a youngster not yet eighteen. Fanny took the keenest interest in my work and displayed an extraordinary understanding of its conditions.’ [2.5.10]. Now that he's building a career, Harry's thoughts turn to love, but his courtship of a girl called Hetty is tangled up with the coming of war: ‘in 1914 Anno Domini, a magic wand, the wand of political catastrophe, waved to and fro over Europe, and the aspect of that world changed, accumulation gave place to destruction and all the generation of young men I have described ... presently went into khaki and fell into ranks and tramped off to the lines of ditches and desolation that had extended themselves across Europe.’ [2.6.1]
The reader assumes, given the archaeological prompt to Sarnac's dreaming with which the novel opened, that Harry will die in this war; but the narrator disabuses us of that notion straightaway:
It may seem a curious thing to you that I lived through all the Great World War against Germany, that I was a soldier in it and fought and was wounded and went back and took part in the final offensive, that my brother Ernest became a sergeant and won a medal for gallantry and was killed within a few weeks of the concluding Armistice, that all the circumstances of my life were revolutionised by the war and that nevertheless it does not come into the story of my life as a thing of importance in itself to that story. [The Dream, 2.6.1]Instead the focus is on Harry's ill-starred marriage to Hetty, illustrative of the age's tangle of sexual misunderstanding, jealousy and malign possessiveness. Whilst Harry is away at the front Hetty has an affair, and when he comes home and discovers her pregnant with another man's child he kicks her out: ‘the pride and self-respect of a man,’ Sarnac notes with Utopian astonishment, ‘was still bound up with the animal possession of women’ [2.6.7]. Harry divorces, remarrying a woman called Milly, largely in a reaction of denial of the wounded truth that he still loves Hetty (‘I think you will understand how essential it was to my obsession for defeating and obliterating Hetty that Milly should bear me a child’ [2.6.8]). Indeed, Wells is good on the paradoxical and self-destructive mentality of this whole situation:
I was doing all I could to divorce Hetty in such a way as to force her into marriage with [father of Hetty's child] Sumner—for that was the man's name—because I had learnt that he was a hopelessly bad character and because I believed he would make her miserable and mar her life altogether. I wanted to do that to punish her, to fill her with bitter regrets for her treatment of me. But at the same time it drove me to the verge of madness to think that he should ever possess her again. [2.6.7]After the war Harry, with new wife and child, returns to his burgeoning career. But he cannot get past the fact that he still loves Hetty. He meets up with her again and discovers that her child has died, that her husband is a brute and a wastrel, and that she is desperately miserable. His anger melts away. The two fall in with one another again, and although they don't become lovers it is this that leads to Harry's death—Hetty begs Harry to help her escape the beastly Sumner, and Harry, in an access of selfless love, does so. With his money she is able to emigrate to Canada, and he swears to keep her location secret. But Sumner gets wise to the fact that Harry has helped her, and confronts him:
He waylaid me in the passage-way to the yard of Thunderstone House ... He had been drinking, and as soon as I saw his flushed face, half-angry and half-scared, I had an intimation of what might befall. I remember that I thought then that if anything happened he must get away because otherwise he might be left to tell his tale after I was dead. But I didn't really believe he was man enough to shoot and even now I do not believe that. He fired through sheer lack of nervous and muscular co-ordination.Harry dies, and Sarnac wakes from his dream to see Hetty leaning over him on the Utopian hillside, except that ‘Hetty had become my dear Sunray who is mistress of my life. And the sunshine was on us and on her face’ [2.7.9]. The novel ends with an epilogue in which the Utopians discuss the details and meaning of Sarnac's dream.
He did not produce his pistol until I was close up to him. ‘Now then,’ said he, ‘you're for it. Where's my wife?’ and out came the pistol a yard from me.
I forget my answer. I probably said, ‘Put that away’ or something of that sort. And then I may have seemed about to snatch it. The report of the pistol, which sounded very loud to me, came at once, and a feeling as though I'd been kicked in the small of the back. The pistol was one of those that go on firing automatically as long as the trigger is gripped. It fired two other shots, and one got my knee and smashed it. ‘Damn the thing!’ he screamed and threw it down as though it had stung him. [The Dream, 2.7.9]
Sarnac, as he goes on, is occasionally struck by how improbably precise the specific details of his dream-recollection are. ‘“If my dream was a dream,” said Sarnac, “it was a most circumstantial dream. I could tell you a hundred details of our journey to London and how we disposed of the poor belongings that had furnished our home in Cherry Gardens. Every detail would expose some odd and illuminating difference between the ideas of those ancient days and our own ideas.”’ [1.4.3]. At every point in this (as I say) compellingly-narrated life story, Sarnac and his future-Utopian audience interrupt, digress, provide marginal glosses and generally ram home the point that life ‘back then’ was much more horrid than life ‘now’. You can believe this textual strategy gets pretty annoying pretty quickly, actually. But that's the novel.
What The Dream is, then (apart from being another om-mani-padme-hūm spin on Wells's Utopian prayer-wheel) is a Frame Tale. Utopia frames the very un-Utopian present, the to-come frames the now, and Wells is asking us to reconsider the quotidiana of our surroundings in that imaginary context. Wouldn't the social and sexual restrictions of today not look not just cruelly onerous but bizarrely arbitrary from such a perspective? It also creates a nice tension. After all it is Sarnac and his whole AD 4000 world that is unreal, dreamt-up by Wells; and it is our present-day that is solid and undeniable, the reality into which we awake after a good night's sleep, or indeed after a night spent tossing and turning. The novel, though, proposes to to flip that about. And frame tales are something Wells, as novelist, hardly ever did. There's The Time Machine, and the bare preface and postscript in In The Days of the Comet (although that one's not really a frame as such.); I'm not sure I can think of any other examples of the device in the Wellsian oeuvre, though I stand ready to be corrected on this.
As textual strategy, the ‘frame story’ necessarily, if tacitly, invites us to compare the two juxtaposed stories, and indeed to prioritise one over the other. What I mean is, there is generally a disparity of plausibility between the two, predicated on the fact that one is simply presented to us, and the other is presented to us as mediated by the first, usually by being narrated by one of the characters. The inset story in The Odyssey, for instance, is the part with all the most fantastical monsters and unbelievable gubbins—Cyclopes, men turned into pigs, randy-for-mortals goddesses, all that—and whilst we're entitled to believe it if we want to (entitled as readers, that is, to put this whole long episode on the same level of narrative veracity as the rest of the poem), nonetheless the fact of its framing, of its embeddedness, creates the suspicion that Odysseus is embroidering his tale, or flat-out lying. He is, after all, famously wily; why should we take his word for any of this?
I'd suggest the gradient of plausibility (as it were) generally runs this way where frame-stories are concerned. In the Thousand and One Nights we do, I think, believe more readily in a world where male violence against women is so ingrained that a bride can't expect even to survive her wedding night than we do in the inset stories of djinn and magic charms. Both layers partake of fantasy, of course: but the outer layer is truthful about the logic of the world in the way the wish-fulfilment happiness of the inner layers are not. Or again: we believe more readily that actual medieval pilgrims actually went to Canterbury than we do in the talking beasts of ‘The Nun's Priest Tale’, the miraculously singing murdered child of ‘The Prioress's Tale’ or even the non-fantastical but immensely improbable wifely patience of Griselda in ‘The Clerk's Tale’. The multiple embedding of a novel like Frankenstein, work with the grain of this bias I think, from the plausible outer frame of nineteenth-century polar exploration, to the second layer of the improbably gifted scientist, to the innermost layer, narrated by the impossible monster himself.
And to return to the novel I suggest above was a direct prompt for Wells's The Dream: the frame of The Pilgrim's Progress is that a man of our ordinary world lies down in a den and dreams of a fantastical and extraordinary world. The (excuse whilst I ferret out the square quotes and use them like tongs) ‘realism’ of that frame is reinforced when we learn the biographical context out of which the novel was written: Bunyan was arrested for unlicensed preaching and locked in Bedford gaol, where he began work on the book. The edition I first read included this datum in its margin, along with a great thicket of scriptural references.
Ah, but that's the problem, isn't it? Bunyan ‘really’ did get thrown in Bedford gaol, and ‘really’ did write this story; and the story certainly is full of fairy-tale things like magic spells and giants in castles and battling demons that belong under the rubric of fantasy. But for Bunyan the entire point of the book is to invert our sense of what is ‘real’ and what mere fantasy, to jolt us out of our mundane complacency, to direct our eyes to a different mode of prize. Pilgrim's Progress insists that the truth—the reality—is in the fantasy and moreover that the so-called ‘real world’ is too often an impediment to comprehending that spiritual lesson. It is a burden on your back, a slough that bogs us down, it is a prison that can only be escaped spiritually. Only when we leave the ‘real’ behind, Bunyan is saying, can we grasp the Christian light that is true illumination. I hesitate to go all etymological on you (and I don't believe Bunyan had the book-learning to know this), but the root of the word fantasy is the Ancient Greek φαντασία (phantasía, ‘apparition’), which in turn means ‘bringing to light’, ‘illuminating’, via φαίνω (phaínō, ‘I shine’) from φῶς (phôs, ‘light’). Fantasy at root is a literature of light.
Wells, I think, might agree with what I'm getting at here. Namely, to suggest that a mimetic literature tends, perhaps counter-intuitively, to be less effective at communicating the really important truths of life than a literature that is open to the fantastical. The Dream's Utopian frame is where Wells locates the truth he is trying to put across, and all the intricate specific details of his embedded story, all the quasi-Realistic touches of Harry's life-tale, actually mark it with the reified stiffness and deadness of our carceral existence. The theme in pretty much all his writing of the 19-teens and 1920s is: it doesn't have to be like this. He deploys his fantasy here to shine a little φῶς on things.
But this leads me to my last point, from light to its opposite. Because although Wells almost never wrote frame-stories, one of his close friends, Joseph Conrad, wrote almost nothing else. For whatever reason, Conrad was only ever really comfortable framing his novels as a sailors' yarns, related by a named character in the text, often at immense length (I once calculated how long Marlow's narration in Lord Jim would actually have taken and came up with a figure in the region of thirteen-and-a-half hours. That's a long time for and audience to sit quietly listening). The ‘meat’ of a Conrad novel is almost always set at one-step remove.
So, to take one particularly pertinent example: Conrad's sock-puppet, Marlow, sits on board the Nellie, anchored in the River Thames off Gravesend, and tells his companions the story of how he once travelled up the Congo river on an old tug to retrieve an ivory trading company's official who had gone rogue. Heart of Darkness is a doubled frame story, really: there is Marlow relating his Congo adventure, and within that there is the short but extraordinarily eloquent and penetrating mini-narrative of Kurtz himself. If, speaking generally, a frame-tale is a kind of narrative mantilla, veiling its central story, then this novella insists on pulling that cover to pieces:
It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—‘The horror! The horror!’It's a desperately famous moment, of course; according to Harold Bloom the single most analysed passage in the entirety of modern literature. Like Harry's much longer narrative, Kurtz's four-word story covers his whole life (‘every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender’) boiling it down with a ruthless and unconsoling clarity. It's the kernel of the novel, the reason for telling this story: ‘This,’ says Marlow, in case we miss the point, ‘is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.’ So another way of thinking about narrative frames: it s that which is needful to contextualize what would otherwise be too compressed or laconic a statement to be fully comprehensible.
Conrad's juxtaposition of these two stories, Marlow's African adventure and Marlow's later London-based narration of that adventure, exists to superpose the two ethical morals: you might think that going upriver into unmapped Africa is travelling into a heart of darkness, especially when what you discover there is unimaginable barbarism, murder and atrocity. But the author of that atrocity is the colonial White, the violence the currency of any empire, and the heart of darkness is the centre of imperial governance: ‘We have lost the first of the ebb,’ notes one of Marlow's audience, and the novella ends with the narrator looking to London: ‘I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.’
Wells's novel moves in the other direction, from the literal and moral darkness of the murdered town and its corpse-filled tunnel, through the φῶς of Fantasy to a future literally and metaphorically bright. It is, we might say, The Heart of Light, both in its imagined future, but also in what reveals itself, by the end, to be the story of Harry's selflessness, his literal self-sacrifice to protect the woman he truly loves. And that's problem. There is a kind of opacity, a mode of darkness, in Wells's extrapolative thinking: he juxtaposes the fractured, multi-national and miserable contemporary world with the glorious pacific unity of his imaginary World State. The question, of course, is how we get from here to there; and the answer, more or less fudged in Wells's non-fiction, perfectly occluded in this novel, is: through a sort of enlightened imperialism. Not the for-profit scramble that brought ruination on the Congo, of course (of course not!) But imperialism nonetheless, as a White-led transition period. To which the reader of Conrad's novella might say: yeah. Right.