Goya, Asmodea (Fantastic Vision), 1820-23

Dream, Nightmare, Fairy Tale and Gothic




Patrick Bridgwater

From Patrick Bridgwater, Kafka, Gothic and Fairytale (Amsterdam-New York: Editions Rodopi, 2003) pp. 56-70.
I have abbreviated the text very slightly to promote readability.



Goya, Duel with Cudgels (Fight to the Death with Clubs), 1820-23


If Janouch is to be believed, Kafka remarked to him that ‘Dreams reveal the reality that the conscious mind is unable to conceive’.1 Borne out by his work as it is, there is no reason to doubt this particular comment. Kafka distinguished between ‘the human world’ and the dream-world, calling himself ‘a citizen of this other [dream]world’, an appropriate term, given that the dream discloses consciousness of the ‘other’ or shadow. In his work the boundary between ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ is continually eroded: for him dreams are the ‘tangible reality’2 they were for Schopenhauer, hence his remark to Janouch, echoing Dostoevsky’s What other people call fantastic, I hold to be the inmost essence of truth,3 that true reality is always unrealistic. He rejected materiality, which he equated with evil, defining it, with Schopenhauer, as the evil in a world essentially spiritual. His work has such a strongly oneiric character because much of it was based on actual or virtual dreams and was produced under dreamlike conditions.


1 – Gustav Janouch, Gespräche mit Kafka (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Bücherei, 1962) 30
2 – Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, 1, § 5
3 – Quoted from Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London & New York: Routledge, 1981, repr. 1995) 135

Goya, The Drowning Dog, 1820-23

Like Maturin, Kafka wrote mostly by night, when a darker self seized control of the pen1 as he wrote in the state of exhaustion in which the mind, on the edge of sleep, is in the eidetic mode described by Mary Shelley in the Author’s Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein,2 and dream logic and expression prevail. Mary Shelley described Frankenstein as a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream. While oneiric states of mind are common in the Gothic novel3 with its ‘artificial hallucinations’,4 few, if any, novels before Kafka’s had been so precisely dreamlike, so wholly the product of a process analogous to the ‘dream-work’ described by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. What makes this applicable to the present context is a paper published in 19095 by the Freudian Herbert Silberer which showed that in a state of fatigue and drowsiness—the state in which Kafka habitually wrote—the mind tends to slip into dream-mode, with a given thought being replaced by an ‘auto-symbolic’ image. Day-dreams, it has since been shown, work in a similar way. Kafka rightly called such virtual dreams ‘Halbschlaffantasien’ (dreamlike fantasies experienced on the threshold of sleep). They correspond to what Freud called ‘hypnagogic hallucinations’, the content of which is identical with dream-images and, often, with the iconography of fairytales.


1 – Julian Cowley, in his Introduction to Charles Maturin, Fatal Revenge (Far Thrupp: Alan Sutton, 1994) v
2 – I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination possessed and guided me, sifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bound of reverie.
3 – See Ronald R. Thomas, Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1990) 71-81 (‘Recovering Nightmares: Nineteenth-Century Gothic’).
4 – Marshall Brown, ‘A Philosophical View of the Gothic Novel’, Studies in Romanticism, 26 (1987), 275
5 – ‘Report on a method of evoking and viewing certain symbolic hallucination phenomena’, Yearbook of Psychoanalytic-Psychopathological Research, 1 (1909), 344f, 503ff.

Goya, A Manola Leocadia Zorilla, 1820-23

The settings of Kafka’s novels, like those of the typical Gothic romance, are remote from the realism and reality that are the stock-in-trade of the mainstream novel. Like dream-Gothic, they possess the verisimilitude, the mocking, deceptive appearance of ‘reality’ of the dream; they consist, that is, of phantasms, figments of the imagination mixed with just enough of material actuality to sustain the misleading notion that this is their subject matter. The dream does the same: there too the ghosts of actuality flit across the surface of an overall fiction that obeys its own laws and logic because its aim is to put a gloss or spin on something that has happened in the external world. The plots of Gothic novels have been said to correspond suggestively to certain aspects of the dream process, uncanny dream experience in particular being often central to Gothic.1 For all the residue of realism in their settings, the events that take place in Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared] are as strangely unrealistic as they are realistically strange, and the same is even truer of The Trial and The Castle, the obsessive, seemingly inconsequential plots of which are a form of phantasmagoria in the proper meaning of that term as a shifting series of phantasms or imaginary figures as seen in a dream or fevered (or drug-induced) condition or as called up by a febrile imagination. In effect they are a form of waking dream, experienced and recorded on the edge of sleep.


1 – Ronald R. Thomas, Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1990) 6, 69

Goya, Judith and Holofernes, 1820-23

The uncanny, nightmarish effect of Kafka’s work amounts to corroboration of Freud’s thesis that uncanniness in fiction comes from unreal events being presented as real: The narration of events and visions from a night-world in the ordinary, accustomed prose of waking life produces exactly that sense of dissolving reason which makes reality a dream and the dream a reality, in essence the quality of uncanniness.1 This is the threshold not only of the uncanny, but also of the fantastic, for, as Dostoevsky said, The fantastic must be so close to the real that you are practically obliged to believe in it.2 Reading ‘The Metamorphosis’, it is virtually impossible not to believe in what has happened, so persuasive is the detail.


1 – Selma Fraiberg, ‘Kafka and the Dream’, Partisan Review, 23 (1956) 54
2 – Quoted from Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London & New York: Routledge, 1981, repr. 1995) 27

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820-23

While Kafka’s novels, unlike many Gothic novels, contain few accounts of dreams in the literal sense, as opposed to often over-determined narrations based on nocturnal day-dreams and dreamlike states of consciousness, they are, by common consent, uncommonly dreamlike. The hieroglyphic, pictorial language of his works being the ‘primordial language’ (Freud) or ‘symbolic language’ (Fromm) in which dreams are visualized, its central feature the regressive translation of thoughts into images, his creative method is tantamount to the ‘dream-work’ by means of which dreams are visualized and expressed: Kafka’s people, the people of his stories, do not live; they imitate the living. They are human abstractions and abstractions of human qualities exactly as dream people are. We could never believe in Kafka’s people if we did not take them as dream people and accept Kafka’s world as a dream world.1


1 – Selma Fraiberg, ‘Kafka and the Dream’, Partisan Review, 23 (1956) 66

Goya, Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat), 1820-23

This is ironical, for in addition to being a dreamer, Kafka was a markedly visual person who detested abstractions; but however ‘abstract’ his work may ultimately be in the sense of having a model only in the hallucinatory virtual reality of the mind, the all-important expression is highly concrete, the narrative being visualized as a dream-like chain of images. Particularly important is the visualization and literal enactment of metaphors, which is also the basic mechanism of what Freud calls the ‘dream-work’, as well as being a feature both of Pragerdeutsch and of the language of the Hebrew Prophets as seen in the parables of the Old Testament which Kafka knew so well. In his dream work, which is the product of ‘dream-work’ in the technical, Freudian sense, words and metaphors are given back their original concrete meanings in a technique that is best called counter-metaphor. Other forms of verbal displacement (including displacement along a chain of associations, condensation, inversion, secondary revision, and so on) are relevant as some of the ways in which he disguises his meaning. The crux of the matter is that his work, long since recognized as ‘the closest approximation to dreams that has ever been achieved in fiction’,1 needs finally to be approached as such.


1 – Times Literary Supplement, 14 August 1959

Goya, The Inquisition, 1820-23

Of the three novels it is The Trial  that is most clearly a dreamlike process taking place within the protagonist’s mind: An outstanding example of a work of art written in symbolic language is Kafka’s The Trial. As in so many dreams, events are presented, each of which is in itself concrete and realistic; yet the whole is impossible and fantastic. The novel, in order to be understood, must be read as if we were listening to a dream—a long complicated dream in which external events happen in space and time, being representations of thoughts and feelings within the dreamer, in this case the novel’s hero, K.1 The Trial can therefore be compared to The Devil’s Elixirs, an early psychological novel or dream sequence in which Hoffmann attempts to portray the hero’s psychological state by assigning external forms to his inward experience.2 The same method had been more tentatively employed in Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared], and was to be used again, in its most developed form, in The Castle. In addition, certain key chapters and passages in all three novels are so over-determined, so densely and ambiguously symbolical, that they are more obviously dreamlike than others and in that sense can be regarded as dreams-within-a-dream. A case in point is the crucial last chapter of Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared], a dream in the classical Freudian sense of wish-fulfilment, in which all Karl Rossmann’s problems appear to be miraculously solved after Kafka has spent the preceding chapters showing them to be insoluble. Many individual words in the novels are also over-determined in the sense of being laden with ambiguity.


1 – Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language (London: Victor Gollancz, 1952), 213
2 – Horst S. Daemmrich, ‘The Devil’s Elixirs: Precursor of the Modem Psychological Novel’, Papers on Language and Literature, 6 (1970), 374

Goya, The Pilgrimage to San Isidro, 1820-23

Similarly, while much of the symbolism of The Trial  is recurrent to the point of obsession, this being added confirmation of the oneiric character of the whole process in question, the fifth and last chapters are so intensely and concentratedly dreamlike that they too are best regarded as dreams-within-a-dream. In Chapter 5 Josef K. experiences a typical punishment-dream in the Freudian sense as in his mind’s eye he sees himself, in the dual guise of Franz and Willem, being punished for the way in which he has behaved since his supposed awakening at the beginning of the novel, and particularly for his libidinous behaviour vis-à-vis Fräulein B. and the washerwoman who also embodies a reference to the unlikely story of his innocence (das kannst du der Wäscherin erzählen means ‘tell that to the marines’). It is for this that he is imagining himself being punished. All three figures involved in the static and therefore doubly nightmarish sado-masochistic scene represent Josef K. himself. The man-with-the-lash’s leather garb is the sign of his function: ‘ledern’ is a synonym for ‘prügeln’ (to beat). The ultimate punishment dream is that in which the dreamer dreams that he is being put to death, which is precisely what happens in the last chapter of The Trial.

Goya, Atropos (The Fates), 1820-23

Some passages in The Castle, for instance the cottage bathtub scene and the distribution of files, are also over-determined, but more important than these is K.’s actual dream in Chapter 18, which is preceded by a description of the hypnagogic or near-sleep state to which he has been reduced by exhaustion. From this he slips into a remarkable dream that prefigures Bürgel’s following revelations. The reverse time-sequence in this dream, which illustrates Silberer’s thesis concerning the auto-symbolism of fatigued thoughts, is a good example of the inversion by which cause follows effect. First comes the vision of a victory celebration, then the dream of victory, then the dream of the fight which resulted in victory. With its characteristic reverse-sequence stages and strange logic it is in its way a perfect dream.

Goya, Men Reading, 1820-23

K.’s twilight train of thoughts begins with the idea that he has achieved something of which no one can deprive him. The ‘achievement’ is simply the disappearance of the consciousness that he has been finding so irksome, for he is dog-tired. He has, in that sense, won a victory, and therefore sees himself, with the natural logic of dreams, as celebrating a real victory. Since this celebration needs explaining, he then sees himself winning a victory, sees himself defeating a ‘secretary, naked, like the statue of a Greek god’, who begins to squeal like a girl being tickled. Suddenly the secretary-cum-Greek-god disappears and K. is left alone; ready for battle, he turns round looking for his opponent, but there is no one there. This is both the most significant incident in the dream and its outcome: K.’s only real opponent is himself, compare the animal in ‘The Burrow’ whose imaginary opponent is itself. The point is clear, and the dream ends as logically as it began. All that remains of the victory celebration (for no real victory has been won, just the real opponent indicated) is the champagne glass which K. stamps to pieces. He cuts himself in the process, and naturally wakes up.

Goya, Two Old Men, 1820-23

Kafka turned to the ‘auto-symbolism’ of dream-language as a means of expression because of his distrust of language and dislike of the black holes of allegory that encourage slippage: When it comes to the expression of extra-sensory reality, language can only ever employ symbolism, never anything even remotely like allegory.1 His doubts about language, like Hofmannsthal’s, centre on what would now be called the distance between signifier and signified. For him it is the sine qua non of poetic or creative language that it should quietly point beyond itself (his term, andeuten, means to suggest or hint at), eschewing facile and misleading comparisons. What Freud said of the symbolism of dreams, that things employed as symbols do not thereby cease to be themselves,2 is fundamentally true of Kafka’s symbols, hence his distrust of allegory.


1 – Betrachtungen, No. 57
2 – Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 2nd edition (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952) 93

Goya, Two Women and a Man, 1820-23

There are, he knew, no exact equivalences; everything is itself, not the equivalent of something else. It follows that anything that could be completely said would not be worth saying, and that the perfectly finished novel would be nothing but an artistic construct, hence the Romantic cult of the ‘fragment’. This is one of the reasons why his own novels remain incomplete, their meaning residing less in any narrative teleology than deep within their fragmented, fractal structures. Full of meanings, they have no meaning as such: they are their own meaning. Like some Gothic novelists (e.g. the author of Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura, or Dostoevsky in The Double, which is subtitled ‘A Poem of St Petersburg’ [by the same token The Trial  might be called ‘A Poem of Prague’]), Kafka subverts the novel by treating it as though it were a poem, and therefore subject to the ‘alternative’ logic of that genre. His novels amount to a subversion of the Gothic novel, which he transforms into an aesthetically refined form of symbolical autobiography in metaphoric disguise.

Goya, Two Old Men Eating, 1820-23


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