Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

On a fundamental level, Gail Godwin’s “Dream Children” explores the nature of the real world—that which is quantifiable and explicable—versus the many levels of the mystical otherworlds, including the dream world. It also questions whether the otherworlds are observable reality or mere extensions of insane minds. Mrs. McNair searches for the meaning of the visits with her dead child by voraciously reading about the experiences of others. Through her research, she discovers that night journeys, apparitions, and paranormal experiences have captured the imaginations of countless generations of intelligent, literate people.

She further muses over the nature of reality while observing her dog. Does the rabbit of which he dreams have a separate reality, she wonders? Her search for explanation is an empty one, for her experience is personal and unique, not quantifiable. Finally, she does not care whether she has simply dreamed of her child or whether he has on some level actually visited her. Either way, she is supremely happy in her secret otherworld, for no matter what, she is convinced that her son loved her.

Mrs. McNair is not the only character to undergo a mystical awakening in “Dream Children.” An exhausted nurse, after having worked for forty-eight hours during a strike, mistakenly gives Mrs. McNair another mother’s child. In her almost hallucinatory exhaustion, the nurse undergoes a profoundly mystical revelation. After seeing the woman and the baby clinging to each other, she realizes that all children and mothers are interchangeable. Neither belongs to the other; one could no more own a child than one could own an idea. For the nurse, however, unlike the mother, the mystical revelation quickly fades.

Mr. McNair experiences an altogether different sort of reality. In the city, he lives with his mistress, a sensitive, understanding woman whom he loves. Nevertheless, with his mistress’s blessing, each weekend he returns to his wife, whom he also loves, acting on weekends, at least, as her tender protector. He is acutely aware of his role in bringing about her tragedy and will never leave her. Mrs. McNair is unconcerned by his duality, for she also lives two lives, each separate and distinct. Mr. McNair’s mistress, in her own version of reality, compassionately accepts her lover’s duty to his wife while presumably living her own double life on the weekends.