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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

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Inspired by Hindu and Buddhist ideas, Strindberg is either suggesting that life is a dream or he is simply using the "seemingly logical structure of the dream" (from his forward) to illustrate how life is also "seemingly logical." In other words, dreams are often illogical and nonlinear. They are hard to make sense of. This is how life is presented in this play. So one theme is the absurdity of life and how difficult it is to make sense of things.

With dreams, anything can happen, and events are not subject to a certain order. Rather than spell out a meaning in a logical order, the dream is something that needs to be decoded. There is no central idea, philosophy, or way of life that is clear and obvious. The mystery of the changing cloverleaf door symbolizes this frustration. The characters wait and wait. Surely, there must be some universal idea that explains life and the universe. But in the end, the door is opened and nothing is there. Even the elitist academics (philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, and theology) arrogantly fail to explain the nothingness. Here, the theme of meaninglessness emerges. One can interpret this in a number of ways. Given the themes of absurdity and meaninglessness, existentialism comes to mind. This ethos suggests that there is no inherent meaning in the world (already there from God, nature, etc.); rather, humans should create their own meaning—as daunting as that might be.

Consider that the Officer suffers like an ascetic waiting for his Victoria. His suffering is virtuous in strands of Buddhist thought, but what is the point of life if he never gets to enjoy love? He tries to make meaning in his waiting but ends up miserable. With each character, misery and happiness go hand in hand. Edith plays beautiful music but no one dances with her. For the Mother (early in the play), her children are her joy and sorrow. She raises them and then they leave. Clearly, misery tips the scales in this play and dominates all the characters' lives. Here we have the theme of the binary or duality. Light and dark, love and loss, happiness and misery, joy and sorrow, present and absent: these are all binaries that seem to govern life. Are these primal parts of life or do humans frame their lives in these pairs? Why can't we just be happy and mitigate pain and suffering? Why must opposites always be paired together?

In a diary entry, Strindberg notes:

Am reading about the teachings of the Indian religion. —The whole world purely an illusion.

(The world) is a vision seen in a dream . . . a phantom whose destruction is the task of asceticism. But that task is at odds with the urge to love, and the final result is an incessant penitential torment! — That seems to be the solution to the riddle of the world!

Here, he articulates the frustration of life—how to be virtuous and passionate, or how to indulge and to restrain. One of the refrains in the play is that humans "are to be pitied" because they must endure these paradoxes in seemingly every aspect of life. How can they know what to choose when there is no guiding light behind the door? This is what Agnes learns and promises to report when she ascends back to heaven.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

A Dream Play consists of numerous variations on the theme of the essential unhappiness and meaninglessness of human existence. This is the same theme, in sum, of ancient Greek tragedy and of twentieth century existentialist literature. Indra’s Daughter (as Agnes) explains it mythically shortly before her ascension: Brahma, the potential energy of the universe, permitted Maja, the World Mother, to activate him so that there would be complexity; the union of the divine Brahma with the earthly Maja was the Fall. Brahma’s consequent descendants must, in order to free themselves from earthly bonds, cultivate asceticism and suffering, but the need to suffer is in conflict with the inherent predisposition toward pleasure and love. Ultimately love finds its greatest pleasure in the greatest suffering; the struggle between the suffering in pleasure and the pleasure in suffering produces the power that sustains the world; peace and rest are to be found only in death. Agnes’s explanation, in concert with her understanding of the Nothing behind the cloverleaf door, reads like a passage from the new physics: Matter comes from nothing, from a state of complete entropy (or potential energy); energy’s consciousness of itself kineticizes itself, and the material universe with all of its complexity results, but the complexity (the struggle) will eventually wind down as the universe returns to complete simplicity (complete entropy), possibly to be reactivated by its consciousness of itself.

Greek tragedy and existentialist literature both call upon humans to confront the nothingness of universal existence and to find meaning in accepting the responsibility for being what they are. Strindberg’s admonition to this effect is implicit in his refrain, “Det är synd om människorna,” which, as at least one critic (Evert Sprinchorn) has pointed out, means not only “Humans are to be pitied” but also “Sin is inherent in humans.” The first meaning, with its element of pity, is dominant in Agnes’s first six utterances of the line. In her seventh utterance of the line, during the Fairhaven-Foulstrand episode, the two meanings are in equipoise. Her subsequent two utterances of the line give dominance to the second meaning, with its element of sin. Agnes learns that humans deserve pity for the imperfections of human existence and that these very imperfections constitute sin.

Strindberg’s observation of the paradox of human existence is expressed throughout the play, chiefly in reflections by characters that nothing is ever what one wants it to be. Homely Edith plays beautiful music, but no one will dance with her; her ugliness is her sorrow. Beautiful Victoria has the attractiveness that Edith desires, but Victoria’s beauty itself is her sorrow. Humans want absolute or preordained meaning to exist behind the cloverleaf door, but there is nothing there; Strindberg thus reminds his audiences and readers that much of human life consists in fashioning meanings out of nothing.