Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Johnson, J. G. Ballard has created a poor and aimless young man who has never before had the courage or opportunity to make meaningful choices. Used to finding himself at the mercy of events, Johnson assumes increasing control of his life throughout the story, first by remaining aboard the Prospero and finally by swimming back to the doomed island to free the birds, an act that will surely cost him his life. Although it is not clear whether Johnson’s visions of flight and transformation are to be taken literally, it is obvious that the one-time cabin boy and deck hand has indeed glimpsed a world in which he has an important role to play.

The nature of that world is suggested by the basic pattern Ballard creates in “Dream Cargoes,” that of a self-contained paradise inhabited by a man and woman. This situation recalls the biblical story of Adam and Eve, whose roles are taken in the story by Johnson and Chambers. When the story is read this way, the unnamed island assumes obvious parallels with the Garden of Eden, from which the first couple were driven.

Ballard delights in frustrating the expectations of his readers and in upsetting their preconceived notions. However, he does so in recurring patterns. In his novel Rushing to Paradise (1994), he took a critical look at the motives behind an environmental activist’s destructive activities on a tropical island. In “Dream Cargoes,” he uses another island setting and takes—or seems to take—a similarly unorthodox position. Playing on contemporary readers’ concerns over pollution and environmental degradation, he nevertheless presents such pollution as a means of salvation, a way out of the increasingly rigid and compartmentalized structures of modern consciousness. Ballard realizes that on a rational basis, this position is ridiculous, so he supports his story with a framework of symbols and allusions, conveying his theme in a less obvious but more compelling manner.