Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The title of the novel implies Hanley’s principal theme. Not only is life a dream; it is also a journey in pursuit of dreams. As such, the quest is doomed to failure, and each man must reconcile himself to disappointment. Realization of this, for Clem and Lena Stevens, comes during the bombing of the house in Chesil Place: “This was glass breaking, this was raining glass.” All the characters in A Dream Journey are aware of life’s fragility and of the impermanence of their goals. There is irony in the fact that Clem consoles himself by drinking whiskey. After he dies, Lena must remove sixty empty glass bottles from the cupboard in their sitting room.

It is significant that Clem is a painter and that his chief preoccupation is capturing the effects of light. He turns out conventional flower studies to pay the butcher’s bill, but his goal is to capture the play of light across surfaces. One night during World War II, Clem leaves the house and walks the Chelsea streets to watch the light from exploding German bombs. His masterwork, the canvas Lena and he carry down four flights of stairs, represents a sunrise. Hanley may intend this painting to suggest the old-fashioned nature of Clem’s style, something vaguely Post-impressionist and not in sympathy with the avant-garde painting of the period. Its subject matter implies an optimistic affirmation of life. The sunrise suggests that the world will survive the forces of destruction unleashed in World War II.

Destruction of the painting provides a more pessimistic conclusion, one closer to Hanley’s own vision in A Dream Journey. Art does not provide man with hope of survival. Only Clem’s portrait of the model Celia Downes escapes the general condemnation of his work by Ivor Cruickshank, and its eventual destruction, and that is because Celia herself has appropriated the canvas from the artist’s studio.