#Comparativeliterature: Reality and Dreams

in comparativeliterature •  2 months ago

kafka and ibsen lead picture.jpg

The picture on the left is an artist's impression of Gregor Samsa, the lead character in Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis". The picture on the right represents the devil (The Thin Man), in Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt". The Kafka picture is attributed to Metraproceso on Wikimedia Commons. It is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The picture on the right was drawn by Arthur Rakham and is in the public domain.

Peer Gynt: From Folklore to the Modern Stage

Peer Gynt rakham cropped 1936 public.jpg

This drawing of the character Peer Gynt was cropped from a larger illustration by Arthur Rakham (1867-1939). The image is in the public domain.

Henrik Ibsen wrote one of the greatest masterpieces of modern Norwegian literature, Peer Gynt. Described as a verse play, the story is rooted in Norwegian folklore. The theme is timeless: its protagonist struggles to avoid existential annihilation. Peer Gynt's enduring appeal is not surprising, because folklore and mythology seek to explain some of life's deepest mysteries. What is surprising, though, is the way science--quantum mechanics and theories of multiple universes, for example--seems to validate some of the existential insecurity explored in the play.

One technique Ibsen uses to create an uncertain reality is to integrate dreams, illusions, and even madness into his play. These devices have been employed by countless writers, with similar effect. A writer who comes to mind particularly is Franz Kafka, who creates a grotesque version of reality in his short story, The Metamorphosis.

I'm sure readers have their own favorite writers who use dreams and illusions to create a tentative sense of reality. It would be wonderful to hear about these, in the comment section below.

A word about the prompt for this post: @sndbox issued a #hashtag challenge this week. We're supposed to come up with a #hashtag for Steemit that has never been used before. I came up with #comparativeliterature. In my #comparativeliterature post today, I'm considering two works: Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Other books may be referenced for purpose of illumination. I'm focusing on a specific aspect of these works: the use of dream states.

Here goes. My first exercise in a #comparativeliterature post on Steemit.

Synopsis of Peer Gynt

Peer boasting at the wedding feast 1936 rakham.jpg

In this picture, Peer is boasting at a wedding feast. Everyone knows he's lying and there is general derision directed toward him. The picture was drawn by Arthur Rackham, as were all the Peer Gynt illustrations that accompany this essay. The picture is in the public domain.

Peer Gynt, the play, has as its protagonist a young man who is a ne'er-do-well. In the very first scene of the play Peer's mother, Aase, declares, "Peer, you're lying." And so he continues to do, right up to the very end. As the play progresses, Peer's loose attachment to morality is matched by his tenuous relationship with the physical world. For him, there is no distinction between wishing something to be and believing it is true.

In Act III the play comes to a culmination of realization. Peer acknowledges his unsteady relationship with reality. He declares, as he attempts to chop down a gnarled tree:

One's dreams get mixed up with one's working.
All that must stop this daytime dreaming...

Don Quixote de La Mancha, Another Sort of Fantasist

Don_Quixote gustave dore 1863.jpg

In this illustration by Gustav Dore (1832-1883), Don Quixote rides on his imaginary steed. His grand visions of noble adventure swirl behind him. The picture is in the public domain.

Perhaps the most famous dreamer in literature is Don Quixote, who was brought to life by Miguel de Cervantes in the seventeenth century. There is a pronounced distinction between the mad knight of this Spanish classic and the self-dealing egoist of Ibsen's play. Don Quixote lives in a world of illusion but he is always completely true to his nature--as a matter of fact, that is the root of his madness. He is so true to his essential nature that he's lost touch with the physical world. Peer Gynt, on the other hand, denies his essential nature and therefore risks extinction.

Peer Loses Himself

peer gynt trolls rakham public 1936.jpg

Here Peer is cavorting with trolls. Illustration by Arthur Rakham (1867-1939), 1936. The work is in the public domain.

After his avowal to stop "daytime dreaming", Peer shows no sign of reform. Indeed, references to dreams, nightmares, and sleep increase. These allusions pepper the play, and gradually we become aware that in his detachment from reality, Peer Gynt is surrendering his essential self. This abdication from self is described for the first time in the second act of the play. Here Peer strikes a bargain with a troll king. Humans, the troll king explains, follow the principle "Man, to thyself be true". Trolls live by the principle, "Trolls, to thyself be enough." Peer agrees to live by the second principle and in effect abandons his humanity.

Augusto Perez, Another Figure of Dreams and Imagination

The Fog (La Niebla in Spanish) is a novella, written by the Spanish philosopher and author Miguel de Unamuno. The book deals not only with dreams and existential uncertainty, but also with the issue of free will. The protagonist, Augusto Perez, realizes he is the character in a novel. He struggles throughout the book to discover who the true "author" of his life is. Augusto is neither a scoundrel nor a fantasist. It is his fate to be the product or someone else's imagination.

Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936

Unamuno Maurice Fromkes 1936 prado public.jpg

The Boyg Threatens to Absorb Peer

After his abdication of self in the troll scene, Peer is confronted by "the blank nothingness" of the Boyg. Peer is about to be absorbed into this emptiness, when a ringing of bells is heard. The Boyg retreats at the sound. We learn that Peer's mother and his lost love, Solveig, have rung the bells in tribute to him. It is this demonstration of love that redeems Peer, at least momentarily. But he continues in his rascally ways throughout his long, adventurous life.

When he is an old man and returns to his village, he faces a final existential challenge. This occurs at the end of Act V. The most prosaic of entities, a Button-Moulder, informs Peer that there will be an end to him. A complete and irrecoverable end. Peer is to be melted down and become indistinguishable in a mass of other worthless humans who have been melted. From this common blob, buttons will be made. Peer is horrified and seeks to prove that he has been bad enough or good enough to be recognized as an individual. But he cannot provide proof.

As he is about to be extinguished by the Button-Moulder, love once again materializes, in the form of Solveig, to save him. Solveig is old and nearly blind, but she comforts him. In the last lines of the play she sings,

I will rock you to sleep and guard you !
Sleep and dream, my dearest boy !

However, Solveig's words do not convince us completely that Peer is saved, for a few lines before we have been told that the Button-Moulder is lurking nearby.

The Metamorphosis: Gregor's Existential Crisis

KafkaVerwandlung_016 Gottfried Plehn public.jpg

The cover of Die Verwandlung ("The Metamorphosis"), 1916. The illustrator is not known. The picture, attributed to Gottfried Plehn, is in the public domain.

Many who read this essay are probably more familiar with Gregor Samsa, in Kafka's Metamorphosis, than they are with Peer Gynt. These readers may recall that at the beginning of Kafka's story, Gregor wakes "from troubled dreams" and discovers that he is a beetle. After describing briefly, and graphically, his physical state, the deformed Gregor asserts (in the second paragraph) "It wasn't a dream". With this statement, the possibility of a dream state is introduced. Is Gregor a reliable narrator? Do we know that we are not in a dream? Our certainty never returns to us as the story progresses.

Suspicion of a dream state is heightened at the conclusion of the story, in which there is reference once again to dreams: "And, as if in confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions..." Kafka writes in the last sentence . Use of the word dream at the start and conclusion is a curious coincidence. Kafka was a fastidious writer who used words sparingly. To bracket, as it were, his story with references to dreams, cannot be accidental. Only once more are dreams mentioned. This is in reference to Grete's frustrated ambition to study music:"...conversation with his sister would often turn to the conservatory but it was only ever mentioned as a lovely dream" . It is, significantly, Grete who is liberated by Gregor's transformation and ultimate demise. She is free to follow her dream.

If Peer Gynt is a play about existential annihilation, The Metamorphosis is about this, and more. It represents not only an obliteration of Gregor's humanity, but also a loss of love and respect. It is a complete alienation from self and all the people Gregor holds dear. This is a fate from which Peer is very clearly spared. He retains to the end the love of his mother and Solveig.

Gregor's fate is more tragic and cruel than Peer's, partly because Gregor appears to be blameless. However, I've always suspected that his passivity was the crime for which Kafka indicted and sentenced him. Or, to wax more psychoanalytic, passivity was the crime for which Gregor indicted himself in his dream state.

Well there it is-- an illustration of what a #comparativeliterature post might look like.

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Postscript: References to Dream States in Peer Gynt

There was one in all that your mother told me,
And others that came to me in my dreams

It's nightmare ! illusion ! I soon shall wake up !
It's heading to sea ! And at top of its speed !
It's a dream, and I'm sleeping ! I'm drunk or I'm mad

...and live again,
As in a dream, the days of old ;

In boyish dreams I used to travel
Over the sea upon a cloud

I'd have you opened and laid bare.
It really is the seat of dreaming
That I am seeking

Fancies, dreams, and still-born wisdom
For a base, while lies shall serve
For a staircase for the building
Of a lofty pyramid.

It's a dream, and I'm sleeping ! I'm drunk or I'm mad !

It's a dream ! It must be it shall be a dream !

I must be dreaming I must be dreaming !

I might believe that it was myself
That was sleeping there and was listening
In dreams to praises that I deserved

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Your articles are gems and they're so valuable that they reach that level which makes them worthy to be read for personal enrichment. I loved the accuracy in the comparation, where the reader can benefit of your wide cultural background. I'd add L. Ariosto - l'Orlando Furioso (this came to my mind watching Doré's illustration and with reference to Cervantes) and also M.Ende, the Neverending Story (very underrated, in my opinion) and Infinite Jest, by D. Foster Wallace. There's so much I'd like to say but time is a tyrant.. I'll just add that I loved your hint to quantum theories and science confirming those intuitions coming from tradition and ancient wisdom! I wish we could find a way to give more exposure to your essays through the bananafish.. you deserve it. Tip!


You make me very happy. Feared I may have been the only one to actually read this piece:)

I appreciate your recommendations. Infinite Jest is new to me, but I checked and it's at the public library. Looking forward to reading it. I've seen the Neverending Story in film, but never read it. And just located l'Orlando Furioso online. I believe I may have read that years ago but time for a refresher in light of your suggestion.

And thanks for the Tip! Your idea about bananafish is actually very interesting--expanding the concept to include more kinds of creative material might be a way to grow. I'm not sure how. You have an established platform. That can be a basis for...I don't know. But it may be a productive idea to explore.
I'll be seeing you back there today. No story this week. I was busy with this piece and also trying to understand the electric grid for another blog.

Peer Gynt is often seen as a transitional character between the XIX century hero and the more restless and insecure XX century man.
I have to face the reading of the drama... although Ibsen is difficult.
So far I have not gone beyond the orchestrations by Grieg :P


It is one of my favorite plays. Isn't that interesting? I find Ibsen to be a little bit didactic in other pieces, but the blend of myth and existential angst works for me in Gynt.
Yes, I agree, transitional. He is, after all, saved by love (maybe) in the end. I think the XX century would not accept that redemption.
Thanks for reading and commenting.

What a treasure you delivered.

Yes, I would like to throw in Foucault's Pendulum from Umberto Eco and "The art of motorcycle maintenance" from Robert Pirsig. I don't know if those books count for using dreams and illusions but I would make a bet that conspiracy theories will be traded as illusions very much so:) In Pirsigs novel the protagonist is falling for insanity and only slowly manages to find his way out into reality.

Also, I like the movie "Lars and the Real Girl" which is a 2007 comedy-drama film written by Nancy Oliver and directed by Craig Gillespie. I actually recommended the film in one of my steemstem articles, which is here: https://steemit.com/steemstem/@erh.germany/is-it-more-profitable-to-suffer-than-to-let-go-of-a-problem

Also, I recommend listening to the talks of Terence McKenna, you can find him on youtube.

My own dreams and illusions come from what I perceived through childhood experiences and also mixed them with literature and moving pictures:) - I remember that my mom told me about a ritual where little children around the age of two are being placed on the ground and surrounded with items which are available to the household and its near environment. Depending which item the infant grabs first it is said that that will have a significant influence on its later life. I think my mom told me that I grabbed a pen. But I am not sure, it also could be my wish that that had happened. Laughter. Memory is a trickster.

In dreams I often was able to fly. But that is long ago. Unfortunately I am dreaming less than I did. Or so it seems.


Thank you! Writing this was a little self-indulgent. More of my personality comes through here than in anything else I've written on Steemit so far. Not really the sort of thing that interests most people :)

I loved Lars and the Real Girl. Such a sweet movie, and also intelligent. Well acted by Brian Gosling.

The story about your mother is wonderful--you might use that in one of your fiction pieces. So many possibilities for development--the mother, the child, destiny, fantasy, dreams. Yes, memory is a trickster, and this can be a blessing.

I've read Eco, but not Foucoult's Pendulum. Thank you for reminding me about this excellent author. Often before I go to sleep I like to relax with a fine book and sometimes simply can't think of one.

I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Getting ready for my next blog--not as much fun as this one, but important, I think.


You are welcome. No, winning a popularity price is not very likely to happen. Sometimes, when @curie comes along you'll be acknowledged. This work of yours would meet the criteria, I would say.

Peer's story has many different aspects. For me, according to your summary, it is an escape from conformity and a great desire for freedom. It takes up the question of whether man becomes a victim of circumstances and of other men or whether he can find freedom in his humanity. Peer's return seems to indicate that it is important to him not to be outcast - a very human and understandable attitude. The protective love of mother and Solveig as the last bond not to lose one' s mind is for me a romantic synonym for the contact to earth, to the motherly soil (of the matrix) so to speak. Also a kind of unfinished maturity that reflects the longing of many who still expect the love from their parents in old age that they have expected and sometimes even resent them to death.

So I am glad the author created kind of an open end - unfortunately a hopeless one - which then again is the opposite of romance and leaves no room for a dignified death.

Well, at least the buttons hold the clothes together and the people warm ;-) dark humor speaking.

Overall, it reminds me on the Buddhists approach towards reality which is to wake up from illusion. The dreamy state is not something positive in that context. On the other hand, dreams and symbols in the Jungs sense can be used for finding the inner messages the dreamer sends to himself and be taken for maturation.

Glad, that I reminded you on Eco.


I like your dark humor--good thought, though Peer didn't see it that way :). I think Ibsen's play lends itself to a Jungian interpretation. As usual, excellent points!

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Fascinating article! I love essays like this... feels almost like a literary unboxing as you examine the themes in each work and how they compare to each other. Your enthusiasm for the stories (and literature in general) is infectious. :) I've read Don Quixote and The Metamorphosis, but I'm not at all familiar with Peer Gynt or The Fog. Those are definitely on the list now.


Thank you so much. Yes, I do enjoy analyzing texts. Not everybody appreciates that :) I love Unamuno, author of The Fog. He's a gentle person and his compassion comes through his writing. Some people consider him to be a bit old fashioned, but he is greatly respected by modern writers, particularly those who write in Spanish.
Thanks so much for reading and for your generous assessment of my essay.
I'll have to check out your blog :)


The world needs as many compassionate voices as if can get. I’ll have to read him in translation, but I’m stoked to check him out! As for my blog, I’m afraid you won’t find anything as cerebral as this there. I do love stories and writing though, and feedback is always very much appreciated! :)

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An excellent article. This should be picked up by @curie.

I have not read Peer Gynt, but I am very familiar with Kafka and the story of the bug. It's one of my favorites in all of literature. While these stories are all great classics, the problem with using dreams in literature today is that it's been overdone. What seems to be more useful these days is using dream sequences to tell a story that allegedly really happened, as opposed to telling a wild tale from which the protagonist awakes only to discover it was a dream.

Either way, dreams make great stories when done well.


Thank's so much--your opinion means a lot.

Yeah, Kafka's right up there. All of his pieces. He manages to cut right through verbiage and get to the essential. Brilliant.

When I read Peer Gynt the first time I was tempted to learn Norwegian because some of the phrases struck me. I wondered, if it reads like that in English, what must it sound like in the original?

Thanks again for the appreciation. It is uplifting.

I always wanted to read Ibsen but I haven't yet managed. But I did read many stories by Kafka, including Metamorphosis. The story can be interpreted in so many ways, and therefore always remains relevant. Is it self-discovery? Is it something external that caused him to change? I like to think there's an actual message in there, like Luigi Pirandello's One, no one, and one hundred thousand, a great essay on personal identity I would say. (And everything begins from something as trite as his wife observing that he has a crooked nose. After careful examination in the mirror, he discovers that's true, and wonders how many other things about him might be true that he didn't know, and how other people are seeing him in ways that don't match his self-image, and it all leads to a journey of self-discovery that starts from him thinking he is one, then that he is no one, and finally that he is as many people as he has met in his life, indicated by the fanciful 'one hundred thousand'. You could perhaps say he went from dogmatism to nihilism to pluralism/subjectivism/relativism.)

Film has made much use of the dream device. But the movie I always associate most strongly with it is Mulholland Drive. Lynch is always prone to employing dreams that are not distinguished from reality, but this particular movie stayed with me for some reason; I find it unsettling, more so than more popular fare like Inception.


That's a wonderful essay. Could have use it some years ago when I was writing my comp lit papers :) And I love Lynch--Mulholland Drive has a gossamer quality about it. Sense of reality is undermined throughout the movie.

Kafka, for me, is right up there among the best. My first story was The Hunger Artist, which was "recreational" reading. I recognized instantly he was going for a sort of truth. Only later did I learn he was a big deal, a world-class writer.

Ibsen I discovered while I was researching books on the grotesque (as a device in art and literature). Peer Gynt seemed inspired. It seemed to be one of those pieces that flow effortlessly from an author's creative well (of course, I'm sure there was nothing effortless about it).

I've read Pirandello by not One, no on, and one hundred thousand. It's on my list now.

Thank you for reading my blog and commenting on it. This isn't the sort of subject that grabs most people's interest :)


Oh I'm a fan of literature, not just science. It's only lack of time that prevents me from delving deeper into it.

Someone should compile a list of "effortless" novels. I'm sure they do exist and I suspect we would be surprised by their quality. The only one I can think of right now, though, is not a novel, but it has poetic qualities: Nietzsche's Zarathustra. It took him just 3 months to write it, if I recall, and it's one of the best books ever written.

To arrive at that effortless point, though, he had to go through a lot. It's like the 'overnight success' of the musicians: yes, a single song that they wrote in a week might have been the one that propelled them into the public limelight, but they wouldn't have been able to write it without years of previous toil.

And I agree, Kafka is among the best. But it irritates me sometimes that I can't understand why that is. I can't deconstruct him, so to speak. I don't know what he's doing that makes his writing so good!


For Kafka--I think his writing is deceptively simple. There's no verbal clutter. And I think we all recognize ourselves in the absurd situations. I can't deconstruct him either--that's as far as I get.
To be honest, Nietzsche is not one of my preferred authors. I once had a philosophy professor who advised me that Nietzsche's philosophy was "powerful". Just can't get there. Same thing with Herman Hesse--very popular, especially among Nietzsche enthusiasts, but not for me.
Reading is such a personal thing. We form relationships with the authors, and it's kind of like friends. Sometimes they click and sometimes they don't.
As for effortless--every now and then (less so than in the past) writing flows for me and I don't know why. I guess talented authors can tap that well more regularly. It's a kind of magic and wonderful when it happens