What Are Dreams?

An attempt to define this elusive phenomenon.

This is an excerpt from I. Ortiz Monasterio, “Jean Toomer’s ‘Kabnis’ and the Language of Dreams,” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 38, no. 2, 2006, pp. 19–39.

Above all, a dream is an illusion, something that occurs in the mind of the sleeping person. Dreams are not real; they are a product of the fantasy, but they are “always regarded by the sleeper as perceptually real” (Antrobus 98). Dreams are visual in the sense that they are formed by clear, bright imagery (Antrobus 98), but other kinds of perceptions can also be represented by dreams. Sounds can be “heard” and things can be “felt.” On some occasions, the meaning of the perception rather than the perception itself appears. Thus, the person knows what someone is telling him, without hearing the words.

The dreamer can also have thoughts and emotions, even strongly felt emotions. The dreamer, for instance, may see a strange person in the kitchen and feel an intense fear. The emotions associated with dreams are mostly negative. They can be an extension of recent emotions felt by the dreamer in daytime, but, as Freud believed, they may also be emotions that have been repressed for a long time.

Cottonbro, untitled, 2021. Found here.

Although it cannot be said that dreams have a story, they are storylike constructions, “series of images the development of which represents a more or less continuous drama” (Grison 960). This drama and its elements—the personae, their emotions, thoughts, and actions; the places; the objects; the relations between them—are rarely normal and logical from the perspective of the consciousness. Bizarre people, objects, and events come and go; identities may be altered from one scene to another; different perspectives of a single person may be represented by different personae; thus, nothing can be taken for granted. To Freud, the bizarreness of dreams camouflaged frightening thoughts and feelings (Antrobus 100).

Dreamers are part of the logic of dreams, of their “spontaneous and uncontrolled nightly dramaturge.”

No matter how uncommon, distorted, or unreal images may be, they by no means amaze the dreamer. Even their strange conduct and appearance seem normal. Moreover, discernment and willpower are not part of the faculties guiding the dreamers’ actions and, in general, events. Dreamers are part of the logic of dreams, of their “spontaneous and uncontrolled nightly dramaturge” (Grison 960).

Although revolutionized by Freud, the interpretation of dreams has actually been practiced since antiquity. While for many ancient cultures dreams allowed a vision of “the other”—of souls, places, and times other than the dreamer’s own—Freud contends that they allow an inner vision, a vision of oneself. Dreams have hidden meanings; the language of dreams, in short, is symbolic.



  • Antrobus, John. “Characteristics of Dreams.” Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. Ed. Mary A. Carskadon. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
  • Barasch, Frances K. “Theories of the Grotesque.” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Ed. Irena Makarmyk. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 85–89.
  • Grison, Pierre. “Fuego.” Diccionario de los símbolos. Ed. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant. Barcelona: Herder, 1999. 511–514.
  • Manfred, Weidhorn. “Dream.” Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. Ed. Jean-Charles Seigneuret. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Francesco Ungaro, Encendido lámpara de araña, 2017. Found here.
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