Dream Gates

Dream Gates

Mark Twain contemplates dream theater for healing

In “Which Was the Dream?”, a story begun the year after his beloved Susy’s sudden death from meningitis, Mark Twain attributes a series of terrifying dreams to a child character called “Bessie”. There is good reason to think that Bessie (“all soap-bubbles and rainbows and fireworks”) was modeled closely on Susy’s childhood self. It is likely that Bessie’s scary dreams – with the recurring theme of being pursued and eaten by bears – were also modeled on Susy’s dreams. Dreams of being attacked by bears often herald illness. Since the bear, in North America, is a medicine animal, being at odds with a bear in dreams is something to investigate very carefully as a possible health advisory.

In describing Bessie’s dreams, Mark Twain begins in a breezy, nonchalant fashion: “Like most people, Bessie is pestered by recurring dreams.” Then he stuns us by revealing the content: “Her stock item is that she is being eaten by bears. It is the main horror of her life. Last night she had that dream again.”

Then he describes Bessie thinking hard about these horrible dreams, and looking up like one who feels she has not been dealt a fair hand in life, and saying. “But mamma, the trouble is, I am never the bear but always the person eaten.”

Now the author introduces a thrilling and utterly unexpected plot development. The parents are hatching a plan to turn Bessie’s “persecuting dream” into something quite different. In a surprise performance to be mounted that same evening during Bessie’s birthday party, her father’s “high capacities in the way of invention” will be used to turn her dream into “something quite romantically and picturesquely delightful.”

How would this be contrived? By putting Bessie in a bear suit and having her pursue and pretend to eat party goers? By having a crowd of people in bear suits flee before her? Or by having her make friends with the bear, and feed him birthday cake, and dance with him?

We do not know, because the party is never held. A terrible fire that night destroys the house, and the father and his family are thrown into such turmoil and tragedy that their previous good fortune seems like a fading dream. Mark Twain proceeds to explore one of the favorite themes of his later years: the difficulty of distinguishing the dream of physical existence from any other dream.

But in the passage relating to Bessie’s dreams – perhaps looking back over Susy’s tragedy with hindsight – he has taken a long step towards understanding and portraying two vital aspects of dream healing. The first is that dreams alert us to possible problems before the crisis develops. The second is that by reworking dream imagery – if we can do this with sufficient “invention” and authenticity and drama – we can move towards resolution and healing. We can stop being the “person eaten” and claim the healing gifts of the bear.

It seems that, like the characters of his story, Mark Twain was unable to apply this insight fully in the circumstances of his family life. But the fact that he grasped it tells us that he was, in truth, a deep dreamer.


Which Was the Dream? And Other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years. Edited by John S. Tuckey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, 46-7. For a full account of Mark Twain’s life as a dreamer and student of coincidence, see my Secret History of Dreaming.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Nina

    Children are so sensitive to family matters that sometimes it appears to me really difficult to distinguish which topic relates to a child´s situation and which reflects all family situation. Reading about little girl´s nightmare I was just thinking about one of my students who lately shared her frequently recurring childhood dream. (I don´t discuss dreams with my students, but from time to time they appear by themselves). As a little kid in some period that young lady was dreaming over and over again about her parents being on the deck of a sinking ship. She was aware they were going to die and every time she woke up very upset with tears streaming down her cheeks. Her parents knew about her nightmare.
    Rationally she didn´t give any explanation and none of us asked questions. We probably all felt that it was very delicate issue and enquiring would be like trying to hold a butterfly by its wings. Listening seemed to be sufficient to give everyone of us the chance to perceive how frail we all are, especially in our beginnings.
    Thank you very much once again for your deep wisdom and understanding.

  • Donna

    Thank you for this post, Robert. Inspired by it, I pulled out a snippet of a story I’d written about a bear dream.

    I had a mysterious dream about a bear just a few weeks ago. Looking back, I see that it was perhaps the dawn on the horizon of recent changes. It was a dream within a dream sort of thing, where I was watching myself have the dream. Though the images were visceral and clear when I awoke, I couldn’t figure how to actually write it.

    So, I tried something new — I created a character, “gave” her the dream and wrote a story about it through her experience and eyes. Through this process, I created something unlike anything I’ve ever written before!

    I am still working this dream, and now feel even more blessed that it has come to me. I am going to post the story on my writing blog, if anyone would like to read that.

    Again, many thanks!

    • Robert Moss

      Donna – Excellent! I find that dreams within dreams, when we shift back and forth between observer, protagonist – and perhaps yet another level of consciousness – are often the most important and revealing. Great writing practice to transfer a dream or a dream-inspired plot to a character. I did that recently myself, and hope to develop the story that emerged into something bigger.

  • Wanda Burch

    Over and over again I go to Mark Twain’s remarks on dreams in his novels and his correspondence. He seemed to move quickly back and forth between remarkable insights on dreaming and then questioning those insights, much like your comment about his exploration on the difficulty of distinguishing the dream of physical existence from any other dream.

    I re-read a rather lengthy description of a precognitive dream of a death and a casket and his recording of the details as they proceeded to unfold in waking reality. He speaks on “pictures” in that dream discussion and the importance of remembering the pictures produced by dreams, a bit like remembering a dream as a series of scenes, for us today, perhaps like a movie or still shots from a cinema. When he thinks of the dream in terms of pictures, he recalls it again and again in his mind: ” I don’t believe that I ever really had any doubts whatever concerning the salient points of the dream, for those points are of such a nature that they are pictures, and pictures can be remembered, when they are vivid,… Although it has been so many years since I have told that dream, I can see those pictures now just as clearly defined as if they were before me in this room. “

    • Robert Moss

      Wanda – That was his famous precog dream of his brother’s death, exactly played out in a house of the dead in Memphis after a riverboat boiler exploded. Mark Twain KNEW his dream was important; he was so agitated that he walked about outside after satisfying himself that his brother had not actually. The family did not know how to talk to him about it and he did not have our practice of checking “future” elements in dreams and then taking action to reshape the possible future for the better. I write about that dream in my “Secret History of Dreaming”.

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