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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732

At the beginning of James Hanley’s A Dream Journey, Clement Stevens is fifty-six years old; his wife, Lena, is perhaps as much as ten years older. Clem is a painter, unsuccessful and dissatisfied with his own work. Lena and he live in a flat in Chesil Place in Chelsea that...

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At the beginning of James Hanley’s A Dream Journey, Clement Stevens is fifty-six years old; his wife, Lena, is perhaps as much as ten years older. Clem is a painter, unsuccessful and dissatisfied with his own work. Lena and he live in a flat in Chesil Place in Chelsea that they have occupied since before World War II. The building has been badly damaged by bombs dropped on London, and it is scheduled to be demolished to provide a site for a block of new apartments. Clem and Lena have little money, just enough for food, rent, and the bottles of whiskey on which he depends. Alone in the building except for the caretaker Mr. Grimpen and his wife, Cis, who live in the basement, Clem and his wife get on each other’s nerves. Clem is aware that his moodiness and drinking, fed by an inability to paint, bother Lena, and he suspects, correctly, that his wife considers not coming home every time she leaves the flat to do her weekly shopping in Euston. Lena learns from Dr. Beecham that she must have a breast removed because of cancer, and Clem takes pills she gets for herself from Beecham because he has a bad heart.

Hanley calls this first section of the novel “Today” and follows it with a section titled “Yesterday,” in which he focuses on two days in 1940 during the heavy German bombing of London. The building is full of people. Richard Jones and his wife, Gwyn, live in one apartment. Jones is an air raid warden and herds the residents of the building into a basement shelter. In addition to Clem and Lena Stevens, who carry a huge, unfinished canvas with them every time they come down to the shelter, Jones is responsible for the Frasers, an elderly couple living on a civil servant’s pension; The Royal Air Force pilot Robinson and his wife and child; and a drunken sailor named Johns who appears with Celia Downes in the empty apartment of Miss Benson, the upper-middle-class owner of the house. Despite the shared experience of two days of bombing, the building’s occupants are largely concerned with themselves. Mrs. Fraser is obsessed with the fact that her apartment door will not latch. Terrified that somebody will come in while she is asleep, she stands sentinel in the doorway. The pilot Robinson stays drunk; he is more afraid on the ground than in the air, and the idea of returning to duty comforts him. Richard and Gwyn Jones find safety only in each other’s arms; the fact that his duties as warden take him out of the shelter keeps Gwyn in a state of nervous exhaustion. Surrounded by these people, all of them experiencing unusual stress, Clem and Lena Stevens do not stand out as unusual. Their habit of bringing Clem’s most recent canvas downstairs seems no more eccentric than the behavior of the others. Clem and Lena see the painting, which Robinson suggests depicts the sun rising, as fulfillment of Clem’s promise as a painter. It is his masterpiece, even if it is unfinished. Jones, however, refuses to allow Clem to bring the canvas into the shelter, and it is destroyed when a bomb hits near the house.

The loss of this painting is a devastating blow. It explains Hanley’s use of “Not Tomorrow” as the title of the third section of A Dream Journey. The morbid lack of confidence in his work that Clem develops comes from the destruction of the canvas he regards as his finest. On a Tuesday while Lena has gone to Euston to shop, Clem has a fatal accident while moving a lighted oil stove. The inquest concludes that he had a heart attack, but one policeman advances the theory that he was trying to burn paintings in his studio. Ivor Cruickshank, the former owner of a gallery at which Clem had exhibited his work before the war, calls on Lena after Cis Grimpen tells him that the painter has died. He is prompted by sympathy for Lena, memories of a brief attraction to her twenty years before, and curiosity about the quality of the work Clem has left behind. Cruickshank’s examination of the canvases in the workroom confirms Lena’s awareness that her husband failed to live up to his youthful promise as a painter.

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