Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams Themes

Sylvia Plath

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sylvia Plath’s more evident theme in this story is that there is a god of fear. Moreover, there are martyrs to the religion of fear—the psychiatric clinic patients. The narrator is an impostor who pretends to be on the side of the doctors and nurses—the religion’s persecutors—but she is in fact one of the doomed members of Johnny Panic’s flock. When the director catches her reading from her book of dreams, she asks herself, implicitly referring to her subversive beliefs: “What does he know?” Her answer is “everything.” The director does, in fact, seem to know everything; he is not surprised to find the narrator in the darkened office. Physically, he is “gray pinstripe” grotesque, with bad breath, brown shoes, a potbelly, and thick eyeglasses. Seemingly aware of everything about the narrator’s mental life, he effortlessly exerts complete command over her. His voice comes “from the cloudy regions above” the narrator’s head. He lifts her up out of her chair and guides her to her fate on the “indeterminate floor” without her resisting or thinking of resisting. By contrast, Miss Milleravage must use physical force and the help of two of “Johnny Panic’s top priests,” the big men in white shirts.

Readers who compare their own dreams and fears with those of the story’s characters may feel some relief at thinking that they are psychologically stronger than the narrator. This response may be considered a weakness of the story; readers may not identify enough with the narrator to make the use of the first person entirely effective. On the other hand, readers are obliged to acknowledge that the story effectively conveys the currents of otherness, menace, and horror that flow, mostly denied or unacknowledged, through human life. The narrator is sensitive to what most people choose to ignore.