A Literary Analysis of Neil Gaiman's THE SANDMAN
This is a Critical Literary Paper analyzing how certain characters in "The Sandman" embody the theme of dreams shaping and altering a person's life.
There are spoilers for the series in this article
This paper is an in depth look at certain characters from the Sandman series. I will warn that there are spoilers regarding the conclusion of the series. I hope you enjoy the paper.
Dream a Little Dream of You
Neil Gaiman’s epic comic series, The Sandman, is a revolutionary series that helped establish comic books as a serious literary format. The Sandman is quite different from traditional comic books. Traditional comic books feature superheroes in more action driven stories, whereas The Sandman’s stories are character driven. Gaiman is able to construct a complex plot over the course of the series seventy-five issue run. The overarching plot of the series is separated into several smaller self-contained story arcs that focus on the titular Sandman as well as specific characters. Each of these smaller arcs elaborates on the major themes that Gaiman develops over the course of the series. One of the main themes dealt with in the series is the concept of dreams shaping or altering reality. The series does this by showing how the development of dreams alters reality or the perception of reality. The concept of dreams affecting reality is made most evident in the stories of how several key characters throughout the series have their own identities and lives altered because of dreams.
Gaiman’s series is filled with exciting and climatic events that grasp the reader’s attention, but these events are not the true focus of the series. Gaiman creates a large and diverse cast over the course of the series. For Gaiman, Sandman is rarely about climatic events, his “favorite scenes in the series are the little moments” (Bender 256). He always felt that the characters were the focus of the series (Bender 256). At the forefront of these characters is Morpheus, also known as the Sandman and Dream of the Endless. Morpheus is the physical embodiment of dreams and is charged with ensuring that the people of the world are able to dream. Notable dreamers from the series whose stories show the impact that dreams can have on lives are: Norton I Emperor of America, Barbie, Wanda, and William Shakespeare. Gaiman puts the characters he creates in situations where they are confronted by their dreams and the dreams of others. It is their reactions to these dreams that show the power that dreams have to affect the lives of people.
To illustrate the point of dreams influencing the lives of people, Gaiman writes a story featuring a historical figure, Norton I the Emperor of America. Norton is a man who proclaims himself Emperor of America and lives his life believing himself to be so. In The Sandman, Norton does this due to an idea planted by Morpheus. In The Sandman, Norton’s decision to become the first Emperor of America is in fact a “waking dream that persuades Norton to crown himself the first emperor of the United States” (Bender 133). Morpheus takes a man who was on the verge of committing suicide due to the loss of his entire life’s work and makes him genuinely happy (Fables and Reflections 23, 25). Before Morpheus saves Norton, Norton lost his business through a series of misfortunes. He is on the verge of suicide because he feels that for him “there’s nowhere to go anymore. Nothing to dream” (Fables and Reflections 25). In order for Norton to live happily Morpheus gives him a dream. Morpheus does not give Norton a dream to live simply out of altruism; he does this to prove to his younger siblings that without dreams there cannot be despair, desire, or delirium. This is done to show that all emotions stem from dreams. Morpheus gives Norton a dream, something for Norton to live for. The dream Norton is given redefines his life and strengthens his will to live.
Norton’s dream of being emperor illustrates how an idea can shape a person’s life. Norton is aware that people considered him insane. Nevertheless, he continues to live his life in contentment (Fables and Reflections 30, 32). That is the impact that believing in dreams can have on an individual. Gaiman presents far more literal interpretations of dreams influencing reality throughout the series. Notable examples of dreams influencing reality include Lucifer being inspired to vacate and abandon Hell, dreams breaking the barrier of the Dreaming and entering the real world, and a convention of serial killers all of whom were inspired by another killer who was actually a nightmare in disguise. Rather than solely focus on the more climatic events such as those, Gaiman gives more subtle examples that effectively shows how believing in a dream can alter your perception of reality. In Norton’s case, he restructured his life around his dream of being Emperor of America. In an earlier arc, Gaiman uses a metaphor similar to Norton’s when addressing the fate of the protagonist of the fourth major arc of the series, Barbie. The main difference between the two is that Norton is an example of how a person can have a positive reaction to dreams; whereas Barbie is an example of a negative reaction to dreams.
Barbie, the protagonist of the fourth major arc of the series A Game of You, is an example of how an adverse interaction with dreams can negatively influence a person’s life. Barbie first makes her appearance in the second arc of the series, A Doll’s House. There she is merely a background character with little development apart from the fact that she is married to a man named Ken. Figure 1 shows that the characters are aware of the pun, and her reaction to the pun sums up her one-dimensional personality in the early part of the series (The Doll’s House 66).
By the time Barbie reappears in the fourth major arc of the series, A Game of You, her personality is completely different. Her character is now divorced, and is much more cynical and world weary (A Game of You 32). This drastic change in characterization is brought about by her reaction to dreams.
At the climax to the second major arc of the series, The Doll’s House, Barbie has her ability to dream stripped away from her. Rose Walker, the protagonist of The Doll’s House, is a living embodiment of what Morpheus calls a dream vortex. The vortex is an anomaly that even Morpheus does not fully understand, what he does know is that occasionally a person will be born with the potential to have a vortex within them. If this vortex is activated it will break down the walls of the Dreaming, causing all of the dreams being dreamt throughout the world to collide and destroy all of the dreamers in the process (The Doll’s House 196-197). During these events, Barbie and her husband Ken’s dreams collide. Barbie dreams of magical creatures and a reality and version of herself “more valid and true than anything she feels while waking” (The Doll’s House 193). Ken on the other hand dreams of perverse sex and power with multiple women (The Doll’s House 190). Figure 2 is an example of the differences between Barbie and Ken’s dreams.
Due their dreams colliding, Barbie and Ken eventually grew apart and Barbie claims to no longer dream (A Game of You 31). Because of the events of that night and what she experiences in Ken’s dream, Barbie would no longer talk to or sleep with Ken and their marriage fell apart (A Game of You 32). What she sees in his dream affects how she views him and she is no longer able to make a connection with him. The lack of dreaming affects her personality. She is constantly searching for a new identity (Jódar 157). She makes herself up as new person every day, this is made evident by the chessboard she draws on her face in Figure 3 (A Game of You 25; Bender 111).
Since she is unable to control the forces that prevent her from creating her identity through her dreams, she is “continually changing her perceptions of identity through physical transformations” (Jódar 157). The events of the story show that when Barbie loses her ability to dream she also loses a part of her identity (Jódar 157). In the two-year gap between the events of The Doll’s House and A Game of You, Barbie attempts to build a new life in the absence of her dreams.
What life she has built is destroyed when a part of her dream finds its way into the real world. The death of a friend from her dreams, Martin Tenbones, is the event that draws her back into dreams (The Doll’s House 36). Her new world and identity that she constructs dissolves upon the death of Martin Tenbones, this is made evident in how her makeup is smudged from her tears (Jódar 158). The makeup represents her attempts to remake her life, but those attempts are destroyed when an aspect of her old identity intrudes into her life. Figure 4 shows that her smeared makeup even becomes a design that resembles the snow-covered landscape of her dream world (Bender 112).
The image shows her realization that this creature is from her dreams. When she is drawn back into dreams, she is reunited with a portion of herself that was lost due to the events of The Doll’s House. She admits that despite the horrors she is experiencing, she has never been as happy in her life. Once she is back in her dream, she “can’t remember ever being so happy before” (A Game of You 106). She is happy because she is able to abandon the false selves that she constructs daily and is now rejoined with her old self. Barbie now has her dreams back. Her dreams are a fantasy world that she can never experience in the real world. When her dreams are lost, the closest she comes to fantasy is when Wanda takes her window-shopping at Tiffany’s even though neither of them can afford to buy anything (A Game of You 25). Real world fantasies such as window-shopping at an expensive store are the only methods she has to express her desires before she regained her dreams. Her dream self is stronger, empowered and aided by her friends, and is the woman Barbie wants to be. She lacks this power in her real life. It is not until the funeral of Wanda that Barbie realizes the potential that she has inside of herself. Because of the events of A Game of You, Barbie recognizes the potential of dreams and sums it up as people having secret worlds inside of them, everyone in the world “no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds” (A Game of You 181). The worlds she imagines that people contain are the dreams that each person has. She recognizes that people are defined by their dreams.
A Game of You serves to highlight how gender roles in society affect the dreams and fantasies of people. Neil Gaiman wrote The Sandman’s story arcs in terms of male and female stories. The Sandman is designed to “move from male stories to female stories” (Bender 117). Gaiman attempts to appeal to both audiences in his writing, this accounts for the fact that roughly half of the series readers is female (Bender 117). A Game of You is almost entirely about women and their struggles. There are only two human male characters, one of whom is a pre-op transsexual. The story focuses on a Barbie and her dreams. Barbie is not the only focus of the story, despite being the primary protagonist. Wanda’s dreams are focused on in detail as well. Wanda’s dreams act as a counterpoint to the points made by the primary villain of the story. Wanda is born as a man but identifies as a woman and dreams about being a woman. Using Wanda and her dreams, Gaiman is able to comment on how gender roles and expectations in society affect the dreams and fantasies that boys and girls traditionally have. The villain of A Game of You, the Cuckoo, explains to Barbie the difference between what boys are expected to dream and what girls are expected to dream. According to the Cuckoo, boys dream of being “faster, or smarter, or able to fly. Where they hide their faces in secret identities, and listen to the people who despise them admiring their remarkable deeds” (A Game of You 125). This explanation is also a summation of the traditional superhero comic book that is marketed towards a male demographic. Girls on the other hand have fantasies that are:
Much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives
are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant
lands. And one day the king and queen, their real parents, will take
them back to their land, and they’ll be happy for ever and ever. Little
cuckoos. (A Game of You 126)
The Cuckoo’s description may be biased towards its agenda of manipulating Barbie, but it does reflect traditionally held views of what boys and girls are supposed to aspire to in their escapist dreams. Barbie showed earlier in the series that she is a victim of having her dreams and fantasies regulated based on her gender. She tells Wanda that as a child she “wasn’t allowed to read comics when I was a girl. Pop said they were unladylike” (A Game of You 34). Wanda herself is an interesting version of this stereotype. She is both a straight example and a subversion of gender roles affecting dreams and fantasies.
Even though she was born as Alvin Mann, Wanda identifies herself as a woman instead of a man. In the section of A Doll’s House where Wanda’s dreams gradually turn into nightmares, Wanda at first visualizes herself as a content woman (A Game of You 54). When her dreams turn to nightmares, she becomes a man in women’s clothing who is forced to undergo the surgery that she is terrified of (A Game of You 54-55). The panels in Figure 5 show the progression of her dream from a good dream that conforms with her self image to a nightmare that opposes her chosen gender identity and represents her fears.
Her dream and her nightmare both highlight her self perceived strengths and faults. Wanda sees herself as a woman, of that much she is certain. She chooses to be a woman, rather than the man she was born as. When Barbie is surprised to learn that Wanda’s birth name is Alvin, Wanda reaffirms her gender identity by replying, “Wanda’s my real name Barbie-baby. Alvin’s just the name I was born with” (A Game of You 32). She uses her dreams of being a woman to shape her identity as a person (Jódar 159). She is horrified by the dream of herself as a man in women’s clothing because that is in direct contrast with her perceived gender identity. Wanda tells Barbie that as a child she experienced traditional masculine fantasies that correspond to the Cuckoo’s definition of a young boy’s fantasy (A Game of You 31). Wanda subverts this traditional concept in the fact that she imagined herself as “Weirdzo Alvin” (A Game of You 32). Wanda explains that the “Weirdzos” are comic book characters from another planet that are and do everything backwards. This is of course a reference to the character Bizarro from the Superman comics of the 1960’s. Wanda’s desire to have been a Weirdzo instead of a young boy is similar to how the Cuckoo characterizes girl’s fantasizing about being “little cuckoos” living in a false world (A Game of You 126). Wanda is raised with traditional male fantasies but her fantasies became reminiscent of the Cuckoo’s definition of a girl’s fantasy. Wanda’s dreams of being a Weirdzo represent her desire to have been born as something other than a boy. Through her dreams, she chooses to be a woman. Her choice is made clear at her funeral. Wanda’s parents have her hair cut and have her dressed as a man at the funeral. She is no longer Wanda; instead her body is that of Alvin Mann (A Game of You 173, 180). Figure 6 shows that when Barbie sees Wanda and Death in her dream, Wanda a beautiful woman.
The true Wanda, as Wanda sees herself, is made evident upon her death (Jódar 159). The true Wanda is “perfect. Drop-dead gorgeous. There’s nothing camp about her, nothing artificial. And she looks happy” (A Game of You 185). That is version of herself that Wanda always dreamed of being.
William Shakespeare only appears in three issues of the series but he plays an important role in expounding on key themes of the series. Shakespeare is used in the series to show how a person actually achieving their dreams may have an adverse affect on their lives. Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language, in The Sandman he is first shown near the start of his career. He is first seen interpreting Kit Marlowe’s The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus to mean that “for one’s art and for one’s dreams one may consort and bargain with the darkest pow’rs” (The Doll’s House 123). Shakespeare’s analysis of Faustus foreshadows the bargain he is soon to make with Morpheus. This young Shakespeare is envious of the skill and ease at which his friend Christopher Marlowe is able to weave stories. Shakespeare confides in Marlowe that he “would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams, that would live on long after I am dead” (The Doll’s House 126). It is Shakespeare’s own dream for his tales to inspire the dreams of others and to be remembered long after his own death (Pendergast 11). Morpheus, seeing an opportunity, asks Shakespeare if he truly wants to “create new dreams to spur the minds of men” (The Doll’s House 127). Shakespeare agrees and enters into a Faustian bargain with Morpheus. Shakespeare will write two plays for Morpheus based off fantasies in exchange for the ability to create grand plays that will be remembered (Bender 56). These two plays are among Shakespeare’s most famous.
The plays Shakespeare writes for Morpheus are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Gaiman chose these two plays to be the ones Shakespeare wrote to fulfill the bargain for various reasons. One reason is that the plays worked out thematically for the series. A Midsummer Nights Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays and was written relatively early in his career, while The Tempest was written late in Shakespeare’s life and career (Bender 56). It is fitting for The Tempest to be the basis of the final issue of the series since it was among Shakespeare’s final plays. The main reason Gaiman chose them is because Gaiman felt that they are “the only two that are original, as opposed to being based on historical events or other people’s stories” (Bender 56). These two stories are the only explicit price that Shakespeare is required to pay, however Morpheus fears that he has changed Shakespeare’s life for the worse by granting his greatest wish. Morpheus confides this fear to Titania of the Faerie during the first performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream by saying “he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their hearts desire, their dream” (Dream Country 81). Morpheus recognizes that Shakespeare has devoted himself fully to his dream of being a writer and has lost touch with his life outside of his work (Castaldo 16). The interaction with Shakespeare and his son Hamnet during the course of the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream show how disconnected William Shakespeare has become from his family.
The second and third issues that feature Shakespeare show how in the pursuit of his dreams he became disconnected form his family. Hamnet even says that in the five years since the deal with Morpheus, Shakespeare “changed” (Dream Country 75). Hamnet feels unwanted in the presence of his father. He even says that his father is “very distant…He doesn’t seem like he is really there any more…I’m less real to him than any of the characters in his plays” (Dream Country 75). In following his dreams, Shakespeare gives up all of his connections to his everyday life in order for his dreams to come true (Castaldo 8). For Shakespeare, his dreams have become his life. Shakespeare has devoted all aspects of his life to fulfilling his dream of becoming a famous writer. His life outside of his work has suffered due to this. The final issue of The Sandman is devoted to showing how William Shakespeare’s life has been affected by the deal he made with Morpheus years earlier. Part of the reason for this is that up until the end of his career, dreams took the place of his real life.
Dreams have the ability to overtake real life. In the issue based on A Midsummer Nights Dream, both William Shakespeare and Titania are distracted by the play and ignore Hamnet and Morpheus who attempting to talk to them about important matters (A Midsummer Nights Dream 79, 81). Figures 7 and 8 depict the culmination of these scenes.
By showing both Titania and William Shakespeare wrapped up in the play and ignoring Morpheus and Hamnet, Gaiman suggests that dreams:
Have disconcerting ability to take the place of real life. This observation is complicated, of course, because for Dream, dreams are ‘real life’ and for Shakespeare, dreams are what enable his continued existence. The twenty-first century reader knows Shakespeare as a person only because of the ability of his plays/dreams to live on. (Castaldo 12-13)
Shakespeare dreams of being a great writer and is willing to give up anything to see his dream come to fruition; Morpheus ensures that is exactly what happens (Castaldo 9). It is in the final issue of the series that Shakespeare begins to recognize what all he has lost throughout his life in the pursuit of his dreams. His entire life has been so devoted to dreams that, as a colleague said, Shakespeare never truly lives his life (The Wake 159). The dreams he devotes his life to consume him to an extent that he himself does not know the truth about his life compared to his dreams, just as the Faerie viewing A Midsummer Nights Dream are perplexed by how the play seems real even though they know parts of it never occurred (Pendergast 10; Dream Country 75). At the end of the series, Shakespeare comments on how his dreams have consumed his life “I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died, and I was hurt, but I watched my hurt, and even relished it a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss” (The Wake 180). His remorse shows that he is aware of the cost of his dream. In the pursuit of his dreams he gives up on ever living a normal life. The fact that dreams dominate his life is similar to the situation of Morpheus.
It is important to note that the titular Sandman does not have dreams of his own; instead he dedicates his entire existence into ensuring that others are able to dream. Despite the series revolving around the dreams of its characters, it is ironic that the character that embodies dreams does not actually have any dreams. Morpheus is aware of his lack of dreams and only admits it late in the series. He tells William Shakespeare that he cannot pursue dreams because “I am the Prince of Stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever” (The Wake 182). Dreams in the series represent change and it is evident in Morpheus that he is unable to change. When asked to sum up the series, Gaiman said that it is about “the Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision” (Endless Nights 8). The entire series serves to illustrate that Morpheus does not have dreams or goals to live for. Morpheus cannot abandon his position because he feels honor bound to continue his duties (The Kindly Ones 306). Morpheus commissions The Tempest to be a play about “graceful ends. I wanted a play about a king who drowns his books, and breaks his staff, and leaves his kingdom” (The Wake 181). The reason that he had Shakespeare write The Tempest is that unlike the characters in the play, Morpheus can never renounce his duties. His anguish is apparent in Figure 9 when he solemnly tells Shakespeare “I will never leave my island” (The Wake 182).
His existence is literally defined by the dreams of living beings (Season of Mist 23). Morpheus is incapable of truly changing his nature, so he opts for death. He concocts an elaborate plan in which he will die and his responsibilities will pass onto another embodiment of dream that he has prepared (Kindly Ones 306, 322). Figure 10 shows Death confirming this shortly before taking Morpheus’s life (The Kindly Ones 310-311).
Until his death, Morpheus is forced to ensure the continuing dreams of others when he himself has no dreams of his own.
The dreams of the characters in The Sandman help them to define their lives. Norton is saved from the verge of despair by his dream. Barbie loses and forges a new identity through her relationship with dreams. Wanda uses her dreams to strengthen her resolve and personality despite the social pressures against her. Shakespeare’s involvement with Morpheus shows how the pursuit of dreams can dominate a person’s life to the point that they miss actually living their life to its fullest. Morpheus, the Dream King himself, does not have dreams of his own to pursue and has only his responsibilities to occupy his time. Because of his lack of dreams, Morpheus does not feel as though he has anything to live for. One thing that each of the stories described have in common is that each character is given a sense of worth through their dreams. Norton’s dream of being a ruler keeps him from suicide. Barbie comes to discover her identity through dreams. Wanda reinforces her identify and models her life around her dream. Shakespeare spends his entire life making his dream a reality. Morpheus has no dreams and has nothing to define himself by. Morpheus’s situation is similar to how Barbie attempts to reinvent her identity when she loses her ability to dream. He has no goals save for his responsibilities. Dreams affect each of these characters in various ways; for some it is a positive effect, for others it is not. They are all defined by their dreams and shape their lives around their dreams.
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