The week before last, my Shakespeare class finished up our study of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I adore Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s brilliant. We finished up our study discussing the use of dream imagery in the end of play, when everyone (except for Oberon and Puck, of course) is sort of confused, and Puck has his concluding monologue.
It made me think about something: I really hate cop-out endings. You know, “It was all a dream.” This is very decidedly not what happens in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it made me think of it. For example, I read this book that I really liked called The Secret to Lying. Really liked, that is, until the ending. Basically, the main character was leading two different lives: one while he was awake in the world, another in another world while he was asleep here. It’s apparently a fairly common concept. But the resolution was that his other life, despite connections to and interferences with the real world, had been only a dream. That’s all. No mental illness, no mysticism. Just some dreams.
Here’s the thing. I’m a fantasy nut, so I love that kind of stuff. But I think some people are honestly afraid to write or read things that present another world, an impossible-seeming one, as reality, even if it’s only reality in this fictional created world. For some reason, that suspension of disbelief, that seeming encroachment on logic, bothers people so much that they have to water it down somehow, have to make it less strange and fantastical, so it becomes a dream, or hallucination, or mental illness. I read the other day about a Harry Potter fan who theorized that the whole series was just Harry’s hallucinations as his brain tried to protect him from the abuse by his aunt and uncle.
If you’re going to write about mental illness or psychological dysfunction, fine. Write about mental illness, but don’t write a fantasy story and pretend it’s about mental illness to make yourself less uncomfortable.
The thing is, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Here’s what I think this is really about. I think this is about people who want to have control, or at least to understand. They want to understand the way the world works and control all the details of their own lives, and if they start creating worlds with alternate sets of rules, maybe it will mean they don’t know the rules of their own world, and that would be unacceptable. That would mean a loss of control, an admission that they don’t have all the answers. A strange dream is a much easier explanation.
But here’s the thing, folks. Our world isn’t simple. It isn’t obvious reality and neat and simple rules and logical progressions we can always trace. Things happen that we can’t explain. The fantastical and incomprehensible do happen. Our world meets with forces greater than we can understand. The rules break, or perhaps more accurately, we just don’t know what the rules are. Know anything about relativity, or quantum mechanics, or string theory? This world isn’t nearly as orderly, simple, and understandable place as it pretends to be.
And why should we hide from that? Why should we hide from the fantastic and confusing and overwhelming and baffling? Why pretend we know reality?
No, it wasn’t a dream. Those people are real, and that did just happen. Maybe everything you thought was true until now was just a tiny corner of what really is.
That’s what happens in real life. Maybe we should let it happen in fiction, too.