Dream Cargoes Summary
by J. G. Ballard

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Dream Cargoes Summary

The short story "Dream Cargoes" by J.G. Ballard follows a young soldier named Johnson, who is aboard an ill-fated sea vessel carrying chemical waste products. The ship encounters a hurricane in the middle of the sea. The ship is named "the Prospero," and the captain is Captain Galloway. The ship is facing inclement weather, and the leaking chemicals are destroying the boat. Galloway and the First Officer Pereira decide to abandon the sinking vessel by means of lifeboats. Johnson, who reflects on having spent much of his life either washing dishes for little pay or sitting idly in school and learning little, decides that this is his opportunity to take command of the ship. He resolves to stay on board, and he sleeps in Captain Galloway's former bed, which is filled with empty bottles alcohol.

As Johnson is reliving this event in his dream, he is awakened by Christine Chambers, an American biologist doing research on the island where Johnson is stuck. Johnson self-righteously claims to have deliberately beached his (dilapidated) lifeboat on the island for "repairs," but Christine sees through his ruse. Johnson maintains the story that he is the captain of the ship. Christine explains that the original ship seems to have gone down and that no one is looking for it. She is polite and offers some of her sandwich to Johnson. Christine then explains that the unique growth on the island is caused by the organophosphates that have leaked. She eagerly explains that the reaction is unprecedented.

The story fast-forwards to four months later, when Christine is pregnant with his child. They are continuing to experiment on the wildlife and animals on the island. Johnson eats a piece of fruit and becomes confused, losing his sense of time. At her wit's end and afraid for Johnson, Christine radios the US Navy and asks to be transported back to the mainland. Hallucinating, Johnson jumps overboard, convinced that he will be able to save the birds and fly.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Dream Cargoes” is narrated in the third person, for the most part through the consciousness of a simple young sailor named Johnson. The story takes place over a period of six months but is presented in brief episodes, with flashbacks supplying details necessary to explain Johnson’s peculiar situation and the anomalous condition of the island on which he is marooned.

The story opens one morning with a description of the fantastic plant life enveloping a Caribbean island. Beholding the spectacle is a sailor named Johnson aboard the beached freighter Prospero. Johnson realizes that the vegetation has grown even more luxuriant overnight, but he is more interested in one Dr. Christine Chambers, whose raft he has sighted on the beach for the past few days and whose name he has learned from labels on equipment in her raft. This morning, however, Chambers is not to be seen. Johnson wades ashore through the chemical wastes leaching out of the rusting hulk, but once there, he falls asleep in a ruined army staff car. As the story progresses, Johnson sleeps with increasing frequency and ease.

Thanks to its illegal cargo of poisonous chemicals, the Prospero had been denied use of ports throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The ship was leaking and listing badly, and when the freighter’s captain and crew abandoned it within sight of Puerto Rico, Johnson had decided—for the first time in his life—to seize control of events and to remain on board. However, the nearly illiterate young man quickly found himself lost at sea and sickened by chemical fumes. He had gladly run the Prospero aground near a tiny island—an abandoned U.S. Army garbage dump—and allowed the sea to flood its hold. Almost immediately, the once-barren island, somehow nourished by the leaking cargo, had sprung to frightening life.

Johnson is awakened by Chambers, who has to cut away the vines that have grown up around the staff car while he slept....

(The entire section is 1,007 words.)