Friday, November 16, 2012

Schnitzler's Dream Story - Even the reality of a whole lifetime isn't the whole truth

The best for last, or at least the most distinct for last.  I have been emphasizing the repetition in Schnitzler’s short stories, repetitions of theme and pattern and structure.  In his novella Dream Story (1926) Schnitzler at least varies the structure quite a lot, and though the Sex and Death theme is stronger than ever, the use of dreams and dream imagery is a new, rich addition.

A Viennese doctor experiences a long, strange, dream-like, sexually charged night, a kind of surreal sexual picaresque, featuring a kindly prostitute, weird figures in costumes, a decadent secret orgy which may or may not involve rape and murder, that sort of thing.  His wife is at the same time having a complex, sexually charged, violent dream; at the end the husband is crucified.  All of this is told to the husband in suspicious detail.  He then, the structure of the plot now resembling that of a thriller, tries to reconstruct or undue or put right the events of his own wild night, all the while haunted by his wife’s dream – perhaps that is the problem he is actually trying to solve.

This structure is odd, isn’t it?  Husband’s adventures, wife’s seemingly unrelated dream, reversal of husband’s adventures.

In the end, the husband relates his adventures, pre- and post-dream, to his wife.  Once they have both expelled their anxieties or neuroses or unconscious desires they are reconciled and can live in peace.

“Are you sure we have [come away unharmed]?” he asked.

“Just as sure as I suspect that the reality of one night, even the reality of a whole lifetime, isn’t the whole truth.”

“And no dream,” he said with a soft sigh, “is entirely a dream.”  (272)

The novella ends with the laughter of their child, which is close to the scene that begins the story, where the parents are reading a dream-like story to their daughter.

Schnitzler is competing with the Surrealists and E. T. A. Hoffmann and other dream-peddlers.  Since literary dreams allow anything, they had better be particularly good.  Schnitzler dreams like a champion.  The doctor’s episodes, for example, move pleasingly from weird to weirder:

… and all at once a blinding light poured down to the end of the hallway where a small table set with plates, glasses, and bottles was suddenly visible.  Two men dressed as inquisitors in red robes arose from the chairs to the left and to the right of the table, while at the same moment a graceful little creature disappeared…  a graceful, very young girl, still almost a child, wearing a Pierrette costume with white silk stockings…  (227, this time all ellipses are mine)

And this is from the episode before the really strange one.

I wonder to what extent some of the details in the wife’s dream or the husbands narrative can be pinned directly to those in The Interpretation of Dreams or some other work of Freud or, by this point, one of his students.  If I ever to Freud, I will read him with Dream Story in the back of my mind.

I rarely do this, but what the heck – of the limited Schnitzler I have read, if you are going to read one, read Dream Story and La Ronde, so read two.  I assume as I read more Schnitzler two will grow to three or four.  Well-read commenters can suggest likely candidates.

Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the German Literature Month business!   I’ll have a little more next week.


  1. I highly recommend The Road to the Open when you feel like geting to his longer works. Very enjoyable and I found Schorske's short review of it (in Fin-de-siècle Vienna) very well done.

  2. Extraordinary novella, Dream Story. I loved the duality between night and day, everything strange happens during the night, and the next morning he tries to make sense of things but everything has resumed a strange normalcy.

  3. Schorske convinced me more that The Road to the Open is Important rather than that it is Good. Perhaps that is an artifact of the kind of book Schorske wrote.

    I can imagine - maybe should have - written the post that Miguel suggests. The Surrealist dreamy weird stuff is easy - every decent writer can do that - it is the collapse into normality that is the difficult part.

  4. See... I told you. Sort of. It's one of the most excellent novellas. Very interesting remark about the the collapse into normality.

  5. Dream Story stood out against the background of the other Schnitzler stories I read, but I think it would have stood out against any background.