Study Guide

Gold and Black

by Michael Ondaatje

Gold and Black Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Gold and Black” is a poem about the unconscious, which is portrayed through nightmares and dreams. In one sense, the sleeper’s underlying thoughts control the sleeper—as dreams and nightmares are seldom controlled—and illuminate hidden fears and desires of which the dreamer may or may not be aware. When one sleeps, the subconscious surfaces and sheds lights on innermost thoughts. The idea of being surrounded by darkness in order to see innermost thoughts has been explored by many poets. Ondaatje takes a somewhat unusual approach, however, in that here the light illuminates horror and violence, as opposed to beauty and truth, and it leaves the dreamer feeling helpless against his innermost fears. The shift to the third person at the end of the poem suggests, but does not definitively conclude, that all people are prisoners in their unconscious minds.

“Gold and Black” is also about isolation. The dreamer, in his nightmare, is isolated from the world and his loved ones. He must face his unconscious alone. Communication with the outside world is impossible within the nightmare, but as a loved one turns and wakes the dreamer, the nightmare goes dark, the light in the unconscious now out. “Gold and Black” takes the reader into the chaotic world of the senses and illustrates the difficulty that a suffering individual has in communicating his fears to the outside world—and even to himself.