Alec Leaper


The dream sequence is a common trope employed within literature throughout the world, enabling the depiction of abstract events that provide protagonist characterization and thematic commentary while not necessarily impacting the events of the narrative. This research aims to analyze the dream sequences in post-Civil War American literary works through psychoanalytic criticism in order identify and explore key components of the American identity. To begin, this research explores the evolution of the science of dream interpretation from Freudian psychoanalysis to modern theories based on neurological evidence. Then, a psychoanalytic analysis of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” underscores how the doctrine of American Exceptionalism emboldens the belief in the American Dream and the belief in individual greatness as part of the American identity. Psychoanalytic criticism of dreams depicted in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reveals how the novel identifies a uniquely American use of religion as a justification and motivation for individuality and upward social mobility. Finally, understanding how Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns connects its American audience to the unique struggles of twentieth century Afghan history through its dream sequence illustrates the American anxiety toward authoritarianism and suppression of civil liberties. Psychoanalytic criticism of these three works of American literature identifies core traits that compose the American identity.

What Dreams May Come: How Psychoanalytic Criticism of Dream Sequences in Literature Define the American Identity

Dreams, Identity, and the American Gothic

One of the most frequently employed tropes within American media is the dream sequence— a lurid, dissociative, abstract scene in a story that places a character in a situation independent from the narrative. Given that the dream sequence occurs within the mind of a character, rather than being a physical occurrence, it provides authors, screenwriters, and storytellers with the flexibility to subject a character to experiences that reveal important information about their core beliefs, values, and attitudes in a scenario independent from the constraints of the story. The dream sequence often conveys character-based information, but can also illustrate details about the society in which the work was written.

In American literature, the dream sequence has a strong connection to the genre of American gothic, as the genre is predicated on the notion that human beings have the capacity to be monstrous, providing the source of horror for a story in contrast to the supernatural notions of British gothic. The dream sequence is able to create ideal scenarios for exploring such an idea. By placing a human being, fictional or otherwise, in an intensely introspective state, such as a dream, where the confines of reality are only dictated by one’s own mind, the trope can create feelings of anxiety and fear due to the potentially unfavorable sides of a person that dreams force to the surface. This is true even in works unrelated to American gothic, illustrating a thread of the genre that runs through much of the American literary canon.

Furthermore, a psychoanalytic criticism of such sequences are able to reveal commentary superseding that of the character, illuminating a greater understanding of the cultural context in which the work was written— in this case, the American identity. This research seeks to understand the core traits of such an identity as this can enrich the understanding of American history, American culture, and the American political climate at a time of the most polarization and division since the Civil War. This research’s importance stems from the fact that understanding these fundamental elements of the American identity can help create a set of ideals that all Americans can identify with, bridging the political gap that has developed throughout the early twenty-first century.

Through the lens of psychoanalytic criticism, the dream sequences in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and A Thousand Splendid Suns reveal that core traits of the American identity include a belief in the capacity for greatness, spiritual justification for social mobility, and an anxiety toward oppression and authoritarianism.

A Modern Psychoanalysis

The psychoanalytic critical lens within literature provides a perspective on works which reveals the core desires of characters to better understand motivation, and by extension, context and theme. In doing so, a psychoanalytic perspective can further reveal the attitudes, beliefs, and unconscious desires of the author. This research employs this perspective to draw from both the text itself and authorial experience to understand how such themes and attitudes indicate the values of a wider culture.

The lens is based on the works of Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and widely considered the father of psychology as an understood science. Freud developed a litany of methods for understanding the human mind, such as the pleasure principle and Oedipal complexes, but the most famous of these methods, as well as the one most applicable to literary criticism, is psychoanalysis. This method of understanding human psychology relied on the “collecting and ordering of free associations,” which allowed Freud to develop working hypotheses about the state of a patient based on data gathered with this method (Jones 285). This method was applicable to both the conscious mind, serving as the basis for the Rorschach inkblot test in the 1960s, and also the unconscious, or latent, mind. This was primarily conducted through dream interpretation, drawing on the events in the dream to better understand unconscious desire, as psychoanalysis sought to create a sense of order and structure out of seemingly random ideas and imagery.

Psychoanalysis interprets the unconscious desires of a person and the actions they take as a result through the trichotomy of the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the part of the unconscious mind that seeks out pleasure, gravitating toward anything that may benefit a person without concern for any potential repercussions or consequences. The id is the most primitive part of the subconscious, acting primarily based off of instinct, while also dealing with sexual and aggressive inclinations. Freud speculated that this is the part of the mind most closely associated with less sophisticated animals and remains in the human mind as a remnant of the common ancestors shared with other primates. As such, it is only interested in the actions that can provide fulfillment through dopamine release, and therefore, pleasure.

The superego is the polar opposite of the id, compelling the mind toward action that foregoes pleasure in place of safety and security. It guides human beings toward behavior that is responsible, secure, and free of negative consequence to the point where it can eliminate the desire for pleasure as a factor entirely. The superego has often been described as the latent mind’s moral conscience; however, such a description omits the potential dangers of a superego with too much control over the mind. With the elimination of pleasure can come the elimination of purpose, damaging the overall health of the psyche and placing a person into a situation that may be physically free of danger but psychologically harmful, which can in turn spur feelings of misery. While an overpowering id can lead to impulsiveness and recklessness, an overpowering superego can lead to isolation and depression.

The final element of Freud’s trichotomy is the ego, which acts as a mitigating factor between the id and the superego. The ego helps the mind make informed, rational decisions that are able to maximize pleasure while also minimizing consequence, motivating the conscious part of the brain to make the most healthy and reasonable choices. It prohibits the id from directing the mind to act too boldly in the pursuit of pleasure while also preventing the superego from isolating the mind from the potential sources of happiness. The ego best fits the role of the subconscious moral compass, as according to Freud, a person is most fulfilled, successful, and mentally healthy when the ego is the primary actor in the latent mind. The ego uses this balance to also understand social cues and norms, which is helpful to understanding the American identity, as these observations reveal universally held principles within a certain culture.

While the id-ego-superego model as suggested by Freud in psychoanalysis was a revolutionary concept that legitimized psychology as a science to be studied using hypotheses, models, and experimentation, it would be an understatement to suggest that the idea is somewhat outdated when considering the advancements made in the field throughout the century since its inception. As such, it is only appropriate that the psychoanalytic lens within literature is updated as well in order to best accommodate recent advancements in understanding the human mind. While a Freudian perspective is still useful to understand the concepts of desire and the mediation between reckless and reserved action in the pursuit of happiness, it is also wise to incorporate new models of approaching the inner workings of the mind.

For the purposes of dream sequences, the best way to employ the current scientific consensus around the topic is through new research into how dreams are formed. While the id-ego-superego model can help explain unconscious desire expressed through dreams, empirical evidence that suggests how dreams are formed can help with creating a more modern model. Neurological evidence suggests that dreams reflect three temporal states, being the “experience of the present, processing of the past, and preparation for the future” (MacDuffie 2). In understanding an interpretation of dreams that looks to a character’s past, present, and future, it can be made clear how different cultural constants within the American identity influence the actions of characters throughout their lives.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was published in the San Franscico Examiner in 1890 and the subsequent year in Bierce’s own short story anthology work. Following Confederate slaveowner and politician Peyton Farquhar, the story is primarily told within a dream, as he imagines a heroic escape from execution while a noose is prepped around his neck by Union soldiers due to his attempt to burn down a bridge in order to prevent the northern advance into Alabama. Farquhar’s fictional account of escape ends in his successful return home to his wife at the break of dawn the next day, and just as he is about to embrace her, he feels the crack of the rope around his neck as he is dropped from the bridge and executed.

This dream sequence illustrates Farquhar’s delusions of grandeur in regard to his own abilities, suggesting that he can free his hands from the ropes with ease in a feat of “magnificent human strength” (Bierce 1890). Farquhar routinely suggests that he is capable of actions above the skillset of the average person within the dream, as he imagines avoiding bullets in the water, navigating his way through tremendous currents, and evading capture in the woods for an entire night. However, the reality of his character could not be further from the truth. While Farquhar believes himself capable of heroic achievements, his willingness to see combat wanes when faced with the actual danger of it, noting that “circumstances of an imperious nature” prevented him from serving in the Confederate army. He even goes as far as to claim that the reason why is “unnecessary to relate,” which indicates that he has given a facetious reason in order to obscure his own cowardice.

Through the greater context of the dream as the final thoughts of a dying man, a Freudian analysis of Peyton Farquhar is clear. His id is the notion that he is capable of great feats of heroism and can successfully burn down the bridge and evade capture, and even when he is captured, he believes that escape is feasible, even given how seemingly helpless he is. His superego is the part of him that would tell him not to engage and to accept the Union takeover of the state, but given that he acts impulsively throughout the story and cannot accept even in his dying moments that he is not superhuman, it is apparent that his superego is far less in control than his id. Due to this immense imbalance between the two components of his latent mind, Farquhar is incapable of producing a healthy and moderate ego, with pleasure and success being far more important to him than his own physical safety. As such, the ego can be best understood as creating this dream for himself, providing Farquhar with a few moments of pleasure and imagined safety before his death.

Analyzing the dream through a past-present-future lens also illustrates a similar understanding. The dream possesses a processing of the past, as the fantasy draws on his known experiences, such as the details of his home and his wife, along with a physical understanding of the environment around Owl Creek. It also contains an experience of the present, as Farquhar’s dream occurs as a continuation of his current situation, producing a fictional scenario grounded in the reality of awaiting execution. Finally, the dream helps him prepare for the future in that it helps ease him into his death, providing a comforting and heroic fantasy as his last moments as opposed to the fear and despair of life’s end. Furthermore, this is reinforced by the “circularity and repetition that signal transition to death,” as the rhetoric of certain scenes evokes the shutting down of many of Farquhar’s mental faculties (Briefel 101). Descriptions such as how “he felt himself whirled round and round” while “he had been caught in a vortex that made him giddy and sick” demonstrate that during his dream, many components of his psyche are preparing to shut down as he subconsciously accepts the certainty that he is going to die (Bierce 1890).

While a psychoanalytic criticism of the dream is helpful in establishing Farquhar’s latent beliefs and desires, understanding how the story reflects on the American identity is predicated on understanding Ambrose Bierce’s background and his relationship with American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is often described as a doctrine that suggests that the United States is committed to the preservation of civil liberties and human rights to a degree never before seen in human history, and its distinction as a unique and exceptional nation is due to this fact. The idea has been heavily criticized throughout American history, most notably and vocally by linguist and neuroscientist Noam Chomsky, who suggested that its primary issue is that “there is nothing particularly American about it,” as it is something that every nation believes about itself (Chomsky’s Philosophy 2:33).

However it may be criticized within academic circles, the notion is one that has remained intensely popular throughout American history, and Bierce was one such subscriber. Fueled by a belief in American exceptionalism, Bierce thought himself capable of greatness in a similar manner to Farquhar, declaring at the end of his life his desire to fight in the Mexican Revolution and die a hero. Despite this, many scholars believe that Bierce actually took his own life due to a combination of his repeated suggestion that suicide was a noble act and his depressive thoughts reflected in letters of correspondence (Abrams 1991) (Grenander 12-18).

The parallels between Bierce and Farquhar at the end of their lives indicate that Bierce did not see Farquhar’s character flaw, that being his id and his belief in his own greatness, as something unique to the character, but as something that is inherent within the American identity more broadly. Given that Bierce identified with Farquhar in believing in one’s own exceptionalism, a psychoanalytic reading of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” illustrates that Bierce is asserting that due to the prominence and impact of American exceptionalism on the national psyche, a core aspect of the American identity is the belief in one’s capacity for greatness.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

First published in 1968, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? depicts an early twenty-first century America ensnared within a dystopia of its own creation, nearly unrecognizable from the world at the time of publication due to both an astronomical acceleration in technological development and the ramifications of nuclear fallout brought on by a third World War. In response to this apocalyptic habitat, the governments of Earth have encouraged the emigration to off-world colonies stationed on Mars, and the only humans that remain in the United States are about a million people who are either so badly damaged by radiation that they are deemed below the threshold of mental capacity for emigration, or too impoverished to afford living on Mars. The novel, which would later serve as the basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner and the cyberpunk subgenre as a whole, is a hallmark of the American science fiction genre, and found instant success in its portrayal of government failings during the countercultural movements of late 1960s America.

Those who remain on Earth are captivated by a religion known as Mercerism, which is conveyed to the general public through a device known as an ‘empathy box,’ which possesses metal handles that carry electric currents into the body and begin the dream. The dreamer finds themselves at the bottom of a mountain with the prophet Wilbur Mercer, who begins to climb the mountain with the dreamer. As they climb, those at the base of the mountain cast stones toward the two, and the damage of the stones carries over into real life. The dreamer lets go of the empathy box, thus ending the dream, when the pain of the stoning becomes too much. The goal within the religion is to reach the top of the mountain, withstanding the pain and achieving enlightenment. The dream is experienced collectively, as the dreamer’s “feet now scraped across the familiar loose stones… as it did for everyone who at that moment clutched the handles” (Dick 21-22).

A Freudian analysis provides less of an understanding of an individual in particular, but more so an understanding of the collective consciousness of America as the general public goes on this spiritual journey. The id is the desire to reach an enlightened state and escape the nihilistic misery of meaningless life in a post-apocalyptic world. The superego is represented by the stoning of the dreamer, as the pain is a consequence of the seeking of pleasure that the mind hopes to avoid. The ego, mediating between the two, manifests as the dreamer releasing the handles at their breaking point, climbing as much of the mountain as they can but stopping before the stones cause an unbearable amount of pain and damage. Furthermore, the past-present-future interpretation of dreams also fits the scenario; the past is recalled as the dreamer fears their return to a meaningless life, the present is experienced as the dreamer contemplates their ability to find a way out of their nihilistic existence, and the future is prepared for as they climb the mountain and withstand the stoning to strengthen themselves with the expectation of spiritual enlightenment.

A psychoanalytic criticism of the novel’s dream illustrates that part of the American identity is spiritual justification for social mobility, and this is established by the novel equating three concepts— religious enlightenment, connection to technology, and social mobility. Religious enlightenment is tied to technology through the use of the empathy box as a means of experiencing religion through a primary source, establishing that the boxes are to Mercerism as holy texts are to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The novel also equates the access to this technology to social mobility, as futuristic tech is used as a sign of social status and class within the novel, with high-end flying cars representing the upper class and robotic pets as a symbol of the lower class, unable to afford a near-extinct genuine dog, cat, or sheep.

This connection between religious enlightenment and social mobility mirrors many aspects of American history, as at the heart of social mobility is the individualism that is “deeply embedded in Puritan culture” (Johnson 231). The ability to rise in social class and build oneself up from nothing is at the heart of the American Dream, fueled by a notion of individualism that is connected to America’s religious roots. The novel illustrates that part of the American identity is the spiritual justification for undergoing this journey of socioeconomic self-bettering, and this remains true even for nonreligious Americans. The faith that one holds while trying to achieve the American Dream can be a simple faith in one’s own ability, like is suggested in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” While the novel uses an actual religion as its symbol of justification, this can be the case with any sort of faith in an ideal that goes beyond the physical world.

The novel also illustrates that part of the American identity is the potential pitfalls of this intense focus on individualism. Toward the end of the novel, it is revealed that Mercerism is a scam that seeks to exploit the population through their willingness to believe in their ability to better their situation. Mercerism asserts that true enlightenment is fusion with Mercer, becoming a part of a collective with greater meaning than any individual life could ever have. The exploitative aspect of the religion hinges on capitalizing on the dreamer’s id, as it entices Americans to escape the very individualism that motivates them toward Mercerism in the first place, illustrating the “dehumanizing effects of individualism” (Sims 67). Whether it leads to a net positive or negative impact on the individual’s life, a core element of the American identity is this spiritual justification for social mobility.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Published in 2007, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns details both the beauty and tragedy of the modern history of Afghanistan, using two female protagonists from different generations to cover the Soviet occupation of the country, the various civil conflicts, and the eventual takeover by the Taliban before US invasion. While the novel is considered part of the American literary canon as Hosseini is an Afghan-American and the novel is written in English and published in the United States, the story is set entirely within Afghanistan with no narrative connection to the US other than an allusion to the September 11th attacks in the final chapters of the novel. This presents it with the unique challenge of commenting on the American identity without using the country within the story. Through a psychoanalytic criticism of the novel’s dream sequence, it is revealed how the work connects with an American audience through understanding that part of the American identity is an anxiety toward authoritarianism and oppression.

The dream sequence occurs in the middle portion of the novel, when the protagonist, Laila, has a nightmare about burying her young daughter alive the night following an argument with her abusive, Taliban-connected husband, Rasheed, who wants to send their daughter to an orphanage in order to save money. As Laila buries her daughter, she tells her that it will be “only for a while,” and that she will dig her out “when the raids are over,” making an excuse in place of the systemic oppression toward women in their society of which Laila wants to prevent her daughter from being the victim (Hosseini 290).

In a Freudian interpretation of the nightmare, Laila’s id embodies her wish to be free of her oppressive society, regardless of the potential consequences. This is even addressed in other sections of the novel, such as when Laila recklessly attempts to escape to Pakistan through a poorly-thought out plan that only results in beatings from Rasheed. When Laila’s id is in control, she takes reckless actions that put herself and potentially her children in danger while pursuing freedom. Laila’s superego reflects the opposite attitude, where she puts her and her children’s safety before any notion of freedom. Much of Laila’s life is dominated by her superego, as she spends years trying to create a happy environment for her children while being subjugated to the full brutality of her society in the form of her husband. The act of burying her daughter in the nightmare represents the deepest fear that her ego will conclude that the only rational decision that can be made that allows her to survive is to fully suppress everything that brings joy to her life, which in this case is her daughter.

The past-present-future model also demonstrates this. The dream deals with her daughter, who while also being her greatest joy, is also a reminder of her husband and her marriage throughout many years of suffering, representing her past. The dream is also allegorical to her present situation, as she fears she must push away her daughter, either for her own protection or by the command of Rasheed. Finally, it represents a future in which she may lose her daughter entirely, as promising that she will dig her daughter up when the raids end subtextually refers to the end of Taliban rule, which she believes may never come, consigning her daughter to the grave permanently.

Understanding Laila’s id and superego helps to understand how Hosseini uses the oppressive society that in which Laila lives in order to appeal to the American audience’s aversion to authoritarianism and desire to protect civil liberties. While the novel’s narrative does not identify this aspect of the American identity innately, it does use its understanding of it to create an increased sense of empathy within its audience. In surveying political identity, a “positive correlation between national identity and political involvement was found” (Huddy 75), and it is also true that political and “community leaders are more concerned about civil liberties than the general public” (Selvin and Hagstrom 51). When comparing the data of these two surveys, it becomes clear that the group most concerned with civil liberties is the same group that feels the most in tune with national identity, illustrating that protecting human rights and opposing authoritarianism is an aspect of the American identity.

Hosseini understands this fact, and psychoanalytic criticism reveals how he uses it to engage with a primarily American audience. Laila’s id and superego are not just representations of her psychological state, but also her physical and political state. Just as she is trapped between the ideals of freedom and safety, she is trapped between a world that subjugates her to systemic oppression and a hypothetical world free of this oppression. Due to the disdain for oppression within the American identity, Hosseini makes Laila a more sympathetic character by placing her in a struggle between the responsibilities of keeping herself and her children safe, and the potential for a better, freer life.

Concluding Analysis

The dream sequence is a trope within American literature that allows the author to place a character in a realm independent of the world of the narrative in order to reveal characteristics of both the protagonist and the society which the protagonist inhabits. However, a psychoanalytic criticism of these sequences in American literature allows for the identification of commentary about American culture, and by extension, the American identity.

Within Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the imbalance of power in the direction of Peyton Farquhar’s id reveals how his dream represents his delusions of grandeur. Further analysis of Ambrose Bierce’s life illustrates the parallels between author and character, and when comparing the impact of American exceptionalism on Bierce to the unconscious mind of Farquhar, it is clear how the work asserts that part of the American identity is the belief in one’s capacity for greatness.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? depicts a dystopian future of America in which a corporate-backed religion sells the promise of meaning in a nihilistic world through a device that promises spiritual enlightenment. A psychoanalytic criticism of the dream of Mercerism and a comparison to the historical origins of the notion of individualism demonstrates that the work suggests another part of the American identity is the spiritual justification for social mobility.

While Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns may not directly address the subject of the American identity, it uses its understanding of it to appeal to its American audience. Americans who support the protection of civil liberties at the highest rates also have the highest sense of national identity, and the novel uses Laila’s situation in which she lacks liberty to make her a more sympathetic character, appealing to an American audience who holds a support for human rights and an aversion to authoritarian oppression as part of their national identity.

Be it the support for protecting civil liberties, spiritual justification for social mobility, or the belief in the capacity for greatness, aspects of the American identity are made clear from the psychoanalytic criticism of dream sequences in American literature.

Works Cited

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Dick, Philip Kindred. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday, 1968.

Grenander, M. E. “Seven Ambrose Bierce Letters.” The Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 32, no. 1, 1957, pp. 12–18. JSTOR, Accessed 11 May 2021.

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“Noam Chomsky on American Exceptionalism.” YouTube, uploaded by Chomsky’s Philosophy, 26 June 2020.

Selvin, Hanan C., and Warren O. Hagstrom. “Determinants of Support for Civil Liberties.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 11, no. 1, 1960, pp. 51–73. JSTOR, Accessed 5 May 2021.

Sims, Christopher A. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 67–86. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

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