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Beyond the Looking Glass: Dreams and Somnial States and Spaces in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

Anne N Nagel, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Poised between a waning magico-theological tradition of symbolic dream interpretation and the rising influence of scientific dream theories, which equated dreaming with disorder, the dream occupied a unique space in nineteenth-century Great Britain. Dreams were coming untethered from signification, as natural philosophers deemed their content indecipherable and chaotic. Yet vestiges of early modern beliefs could still lend supernatural power and polyphony to dreams.This was not simply a matter of making a binary choice between two ways of thinking about dreams but instead a site of collisions and coalescences. I contend that the ways in which dreams were conceptualized in nineteenth-century Great Britain made them uniquely capable of evoking affect. After mapping the historical and theoretical framework of this argument, I explore transportive dream visions in Romantic and Victorian poetry and the shifting use of revelatory dreams in Gothic novels, discussing what I term the “tandem dream sequence” in the latter. Lastly, I discuss dreamlike states and dreamy spaces in the context of a correlation that I have found between the emergence of the private bedroom in middle-class Victorian homes and Britons’ theories of dreams. If we do not take into consideration the affective potential of dreams as they were conceptualized in nineteenth-century Great Britain, we miss essential elements of the literary dreams and somnial states and spaces in nineteenth-century British literature.

Subject Area

Literature|Spirituality|Cultural anthropology|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Nagel, Anne N, "Beyond the Looking Glass: Dreams and Somnial States and Spaces in Nineteenth-Century British Literature" (2024). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI31295256.