'A Chapter on Dreams' by Robert Louis Stevenson


Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, 'A Chapter on Dreams' refers to several themes that can be found in his novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Stevenson introduces his own childhood and his life of frightening dreams, and how these developed into anxiety dreams while he was a student, leading to a ‘double life’ as student and visitor to brothels and bars; he goes on to an adult dream of a perplexing domestic scene with unexplained and threatening details. He then proposes that these dreams stem from reading, and that in his head there are ‘little people’ who develop them. 

What is the role of the ‘little people’? 

The little people are both actors – ‘the little people of his theatre’ (p. 124) – who are both him, and separate from him. Ultimately these little people, or ‘Brownies’, are the prime movers of his imagination, those who provide the crucial parts of the plot of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Though Stevenson had reservations about the use of the powder in the transformation effect, doubts which were echoed by others, he felt it was necessary to retain this as it was a product of his dream that created the framework of the novella. 

Is this all rather disingenuous? 

Though Stevenson gives the Brownies credit for the plot, noting that he himself takes the praise, the responsibility for what is criticised is passed on to them as well. It is they who provide the story, and do the writing as well (p. 127), yet Stevenson is clearly talking about harnessing the imagination and turning dreams into fully formed literary work, as in the dream story of the son and the step-mother. This last, however, seems to owe much to well-known stories, Oedipus and Bluebeard, as well as having details reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. The duality is at work here too: the hellish dog that becomes a winking ape in the uncanny interior dream is the same colour as the productive Brownies.

Full title:
'A Chapter on Dreams'
1888, New York, US, London
Scribner's Magazine, Robert Louis Stevenson
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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