Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tessa Hadley’s “Bad Dreams” was originally published in the September 23, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m a big fan of Tessa Hadley, so I consider the steady flow of her work into The New Yorker to be a good thing. That said, I’m often slightly disappointed by the ending of her stories, which doesn’t seem to match the strong set up. That wasn’t the case here: I thought the entire story fascinating.
“Bad Dreams” is told in three distinct sections. In the first, a nine-year-old girl is awakened by what could be called a bad dream; in the second, the girl’s mother awakens and wanders about the house to find a disturbing scene; in the third, the whole family is awake for breakfast, the night and its mystery drifting away, thankfully — maybe.
Interestingly, the title suggests multiple bad dreams, but the only dream we know about is one that awakens the young girl, something so disturbing that “the strong dread it had left behind didn’t subside with the confusion of waking.” In this dream, the young girl was reading her favorite book, Swallows and Amazons, one of those innocent but adventurous books that feels like eternal summer and childhood. However, in the dream, this book contained an epilogue that, in succinct, adult language (at least, the succinct, adult language her subconscious could manufacture), explained the ultimate fate of the six children in the book. For example: “Roger drowned at sea in his twenties.”
Roger was the youngest of them all, the ship’s boy, in whom she had only ever been mildly interested: this threw him into a terrible new prominence.
Part of her knows the epilogue that described the deaths of her favorite characters — young children just like her — is not real, but she cannot erase the taint. Particularly terrible is the line, “Susan lived to a ripe old age.”
Susan was the dullest of the Swallows, tame and sensible, in charge of cooking and housekeeping. Still, the idea of her “ripe old age” was full of horror: wasn’t she just a girl, with everything ahead of her?
I’m a sucker for stories in which a child gets his or her first intimations of mortality, and “Bad Dreams” does this incredibly well. These children, children she imagines herself to be, are grown, are dead, are drifting into the past. This realization is so terrible, her relationship with the world and those around her will never be the same again:
For the first time, the child felt as if she were alone in her own home — its rooms spread out about her, invisible in the night, seemed unlike their usual selves.
The young girl gets out of bed and wanders around in the unfamiliar, moonlit world of her house at nighttime. She reflects on her family, and particularly sad is her idea of her tired father.
There’s more night wandering and secrets in the next section when the mother awakes. It doesn’t say she awoke because of a dream. Something seemed to prompt her to wake, though, and wide awake she also goes on her own nighttime adventure. Her daughter has gone back to sleep, but the peace the house might hold is completely destroyed, leading to the mother’s own ruminations on her husband. It’s a fascinating section, I won’t go into here, though I do want to pull the passage where she goes back to bed:
In the bedroom, she lay down beside her husband with her back turned; her awareness of her situation seemed pure and brilliant, and she expected to lie awake, burning at his nearness. There was less than an hour to wait before she had to get up again; she’d got back into bed only because her feet were cold and it was too early to switch on the electric fire in the kitchen. But almost at once she dropped into a deep sleep — particularly blissful, as if she were falling down through syrupy darkness, her limbs unbound and bathing in warmth. When she woke again — this time her little boy really was calling out to her — she remembered immediately what had happened in the night, but she also felt refreshed and blessed.
The small third section, almost a coda, has the family up the next morning, eating breakfast. The night has passed, and perhaps for the most part any strong emotions have begun to subside, as they often do when daylight washes it all away.
Perhaps they are moving about their business, and certainly all seems to be well. But I can’t get past the title: “Bad Dreams.” The plural suggests that there’s more than one going on here, and it probably doesn’t include the one about the non-existent epilogue to Swallows and Amazons.
For me, it’s just possible they’ve awoken to a bad dream, one that happens to be real. The daughter has awakened to see clearly the end of her childhood idyll, exemplified by the book; she sees that there will be an end to life. The mother has awakened to a disturbing scene that causes unsettled emotions to surface with stark clarity. Then, in the coda, they’ve all gone back to sleep – though it will not be as peaceful a sleep, given the bad dreams.
“Bad Dreams,” by Tessa Hadley, is made all the more interesting because it’s a doubled story: it takes place in the minds of both a young mother and her nine-year-old daughter. Hadley is fearless in her approach to the psychology of women and girls. She appears to rely on intuition and observation, and she is not afraid to devote an entire story to an ordinary girl or an ordinary woman, or in this case, a mother and a daughter.
But Hadley is particularly interested in the way women view their lives in relation to men, and in this case, it’s the young husband and father who is the man. He’s not just any man – he’s a benighted fellow who is writing a thesis on Hobbes, the English philosopher who believed that the only good government was one headed by an absolute monarch. Curiously, Hobbes is much revered for the many good ideas he had, in spite of this one towering very bad idea. So this is the household where the young girl and her young mother live. It is important that their apartment is in the basement, beneath the pressure of four stories of heavy Victorian architecture. It’s a bit stuffy and oppressive!
The daughter is a reader, and she loves, absolutely loves, the Arthur Ransome series, Swallows and Amazons, whose boys and girls live adventurous, independent lives, much of it sailing aboard their little boats, one boy even going so far afield as to be blown to France in a storm. I’m guessing the little girl longs to be blown to France and exploded out of her ordinary life. I would be so curious to know if boys found the series fun; for girls like me in the fifties, the series was guide for the liberation that arrived only later.
Which brings me to another question: exactly when did Hadley mean this story to be set? The mother makes money sewing, and she is a former art student who gave up art, feeling elbowed out by the men who got the prizes and the plums. Somehow, this all feels before Betty Friedan, before Gloria Steinem, and before Germaine Greer. At the same time, Hadley has blurred the time period to the degree that the reader might still see herself – that is, if the reader still uses secrets as a means to power. I think that is Hadley’s push: she is asking if things have changed all that much.
The little girl is awakened by a nightmare; she is reading one of the Swallows and Amazons books, and she comes upon an epilogue that details how the characters end up. They end up dead! Even the one who is alive might as well be dead, so dull is the life she appears to be leading.
In a kind of sleepwalking, in the grip of a terrible dread, the girl gets up, walks around the basement flat, and tips over the chairs in the living room. She decides to return to bed, vowing to never tell a soul about the dream or the about the way she upended the lives of the chairs in the living room. (In a curious PageTurner interview, Hadley reveals that she actually once did such a thing, complete to telling no one that she was the one who had done it.)
Mum gets up in the morning and “reads” the scene. She decides that her husband has done the chair tipping as a rebuke to her for her housekeeping. Here’s where this is not an American story. In an American story, the housewife would be neglecting her housekeeping in order to read or paint or, more darkly, drink. No, this British housewife keeps a very good house, and she imagines her husband doing this in protest against her up-tight orderliness. The king is “demanding” that things loosen up! She decides, like her daughter, to keep what she knows to herself, but she greets him in the morning with extra affection and the smell of bacon.
What interests me is that both the mother and the daughter, and to a degree, Hadley herself, are talking about empowerment: what they know gives them power, especially if they do not tip their hand. They both have an experience, somewhat à la Henry James, in which they “see.” After their night of bad dreams, they have an understanding of reality which will guide them. The wife thinks she sees her buttoned down husband calling out to her to loosen up; the daughter sees that it just might be possible to upend the world. (Hadley, after all, grew up in the era just before the liberation of women, and yet she grew up to become a writer. She upended things.)
Hadley is having a little go at the old fashioned household where a man might be king of his castle, even if his castle was the basement apartment underneath the weight of four stories of proper Victorian architecture, and it is his wife who is sewing him to shore, pin by pin.
In these days when we are obsessed with secrets, privacy, and leaks, here are two females who decide to just keep what they think to themselves, and feel all the more powerful for it. The mom has just been waiting for a reason to feel more physically affectionate, and the daughter has just been waiting for her doubts about adulthood to surface so she can deal with them.
After all, this is a girl who is worried about her dad, as if his struggle to become a certified adult may kill him. This is a girl who is wondering if being an adult means you basically must become half-dead.
No, her sub-conscious decides! She upends the living room, and that’s probably not the end of that. None of this oppression for her!
At the same time, the wife’s decision to welcome more affectionate may be the very thing that will help her husband finish that Hobbesian thesis – that bad dream to end all bad dreams. Hadley did not call this tale “Nightmares.” You get post-traumatic stress from nightmares. No, she called it “Bad Dreams,” and you wake up from bad dreams. England, after all, recovered from their civil war enough to continue on their path to democracy. The story feels as if Hadley’s hoping these people are going to all wake up from their Hobbesian bad dream and smell the bacon cooking.
So where does this fit with her other stories? In several other New Yorker stories that Tessa Hadley has written, the way that girls traverse the wilderness between childhood and adulthood is very important. In this story, the little girl has a can-do mother, a mother disappointed by life for sure (no longer the promising art student), but a mother the girl has faith in. She says she doesn’t worry about her mother the way she worries about her father. We get the sense the little girl will make it: that she will keep up-ending the bad dreams, and not carry on about it.
I think Hadley thinks the girl will turn out alright (after all, Hadley herself did), and so will the mother. While scary dark stories captivate and delight us, I don’t think Hadley intends this story to give us bad dreams. I think she intends to say a little something about little girls grow up – having a resilient mother helps.