Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

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Since “A Dream of a Brother” is a dream meditation, it need not conform to the logical conventions of waking reality, and Bly exploits this possibility to the fullest by juxtaposing and drawing together disparate images and allusions. The parallel between the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is particularly significant for the theme of the poem because Joseph was a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. In his first stanza Bly alludes both to Joseph’s “coat stained with goat’s blood” and to one of his dreams, in which bundles of his brother’s sheaves bow down to him. Bly counts on his readers being familiar with this biblical story and remembering that, at the end of the story, Joseph is reunited with his father and reconciled with his brothers.

To explore his subject in depth Bly draws heavily on the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and on Freud’s student, Carl Jung, another analytical psychologist. Bly draws especially on their detailed studies of dreams and of the ways dreams affect waking life. Jung is perhaps best known for describing what he called the “collective unconscious,” a substratum of the psyche in which universal, timeless, and cross-cultural elements meet and merge. Such a collective deep state of mind (itself a kind of “deep image”) is most clearly evidenced in dreams or dreamlike reveries. Bly’s account of his relationship with his brother—or, in terms of the Jungian trappings in the poem, his “relationship” with a separate side of his own consciousness, a “double” whom he sees as a “brother”—is therefore significant both literally and psychologically in the poem.

By drawing parallels among Jungian theory, the biblical story, early American history, and his own life, Bly stresses the universality of his theme. Further, at the end of his poem, he seems to suggest a resolution similar to that found in the biblical story. Bly’s poem resolves itself with the curious and surprising reference to the marmoset (“In the dark the marmoset opens his eyes”) in the final line of the poem. The suggestion seems to be that, at the end of the poem, the marmoset, although still asleep, has come to some kind of understanding. He “opens his eyes” and is awakened without literally awakening. This action is in keeping with Bly’s larger theme, since he has seemed to suggest throughout the poem that people can understand things, can “see” them—even things they might not know or understand when they are awake—during sleep. In this sense “A Dream of a Brother” is both a dream journey and a dream journal describing that journey.