Dreams in Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True

[(Essay date 3 June 2008) In the following essay C.S. will discuss a number of dream sequences from Wally Lamb’s novel I Know This Much Is True. It will explore the connections between the dreams and actual events that occur within the novel. C.S. makes the claim that Wally Lamb used the dreams in this novel to offer a deeper understanding for underlying thoughts and later scenes of the story.]


Dreams have the ability to be very telling of a person and their life. For some, dreams occasionally serve as a glimpse into the future of the dreamer. The same applies to works of literature, which use dreams as a method of portraying the symbolism and integral themes of the piece. In some pieces of literature, dreams are used as a form of foreshadowing, offering a vague idea of what the future of a character may hold. The dreams can also be reflective of a situation that is taking place in the novel with a character, symbolically, emotionally, or physically. An author who utilizes the symbolic quality of dreams to his literary advantage is Wally Lamb. Through Dominick’s dreams in I Know This Much Is True, Wally Lamb offers his readers clues about how the novel will progress without giving anything away, creating a challenging but entirely worthwhile read. In his novel I Know This Much Is True, Lamb uses dreams not only as a reflection of the emotions that the main character holds, but also as a connection to the past and future. It is these dream-to-reality connections that, add to the emotional impact of the novel, and show what may not have originally been clear.

With this novel, Wally Lamb uses the dreams for a variety of reasons, one being to relay the subconscious and ignored thoughts of Dominick. Although the dreams, for the better part of the novel, seem irrelevant, Lamb finds a way to draw them back into the story, revealing what they really meant. The majority of the dreams that Dominick has involve his relationship with his brother Thomas, as well as his feelings toward Thomas. The first instance of Dominick experiencing a dream that has emotional significance in the storyline is when he falls asleep after his brother sacrificing his hand: “I woke up from a dream where I was apologizing to Connie Chung for something. Begging her to forgive me. To give me the key so that I could unlock my brother. ‘La chiave,’ she said. ‘Say it. La chiave.’”(Lamb 111). This dream, superficially related to a phone call from Connie Chung searching for an interview, is much deeper into Dominick’s emotions than it seems. In his dream Dominick is seeking forgiveness, not from Connie Chung, but from his mother, the woman who taught him the word la chiave. He is apologizing, not only for what his brother has done, but also for his inability to fix Thomas, to repair his brain. In begging for the key, Dominick is asking for the knowledge and capability to rescue his brother, to understand what his brother is going through. This dream is reflective of the feeling of disconnect that Dominick experiences between himself and his brother, as well as the desire for the relationship that his brother and mother had. Wally Lamb, in making this dream the first of the novel, is offering a glimpse into what is going to come later on in the story, when Dominick finally realizes that he cannot fix everything.

Lamb continues with his use of dreams as a transition into originally suppressed or hidden matters with Dominick’s dream after the twins both quit their jobs as county laborers. Thomas and Dominick are not speaking to one another, and the beginning signs of Thomas’ paranoid schizophrenia are beginning to surface, although Dominick does not realize it. Dominick says that: “In it my brother, Ralph Drinkwater, and I are together, lost somewhere in the Vietnamese jungle, wading ankle-deep in muck. A sniper, perched in a tree, raises his rifle and aims. No one sees him but me; there’s no time to tell the others. I duck, pulling Ralph down with me. There’s a dull crack. A bullet rips through my brother’s brain…”(Lamb 398). Lamb created this dream scene as a metaphorical comparison to Thomas’ illness, and a statement about Dominick’s view of Thomas. The setting of the dream is appropriate, reflecting an unreasonable war, something that is typically the main focus of Thomas’ paranoia. The fact that Ralph is in the dream is not entirely clear, even after Thomas tells Dominick the truth, that the Drinkwater’s and he and Dominick are cousins. Then, in an end of the novel revelation, Dominick finds out that he truly is related to Ralph, and in this dream the symbolism becomes a little clearer. The bullet represents Thomas’ illness, taking his brain, manipulating him, turning him into something so that he is no longer recognizable. Dominick, in this dream, as reluctant as he is to admit it in reality, can’t save Thomas, but as he finds later, he can save himself and Ralph from the war they have been fighting, against each other, against themselves. Wally Lamb takes this dream, and makes it into a statement about the brother-to-brother, twin relationship that Dominick and Thomas are entering, a war zone of sorts, where all that is lost is the mind. Had Lamb not put this dream into his novel, the destruction that Thomas’ illness has, not only on himself, but also in his other relationships.

The dreams that Lamb constructs, as well as being reflective of Dominick’s underlying feelings about his brother and life, depict a connection between the past and the present. At one point in the novel, as Dominick falls asleep behind the wheel, he has a dream with his grandmother in it. He had only ever seen one picture of her, and at the point in the novel when this dream was dreamt Dominick had yet to read his grandfather’s autobiography. Dominick says:
In the dream, I’m my younger self, slipping and sliding on a frozen-over river. A tree’s growing out of the water – a cedar, I think it is. Beneath my shoes, babies are floating by. Dozens of them. They’re alive – trapped under the ice. They’re those babies the nuns told us about in Sunday school – the ones that died before they were baptized and had to stay stuck in limbo on a technicality until the end of the world. I worry about those babies – wonder about them, about God. If He made the whole universe, why can’t he just relax his own rule? Accept those blameless babies into Heaven? … And then Ma’s in the dream. Alive again, up in the cedar tree, holding a baby… A movement beneath the ice distracts me and when I look down I see my grandmother, alive, under the ice. Ignazia…. I recognize her from the brown-tinted photograph in my mother’s album. Her wedding portrait – the only picture of her I’ve ever seen. We make eye contact, she and I. Her eyes beg me for something I can’t understand. I run after her, slipping and sliding across the ice. ‘What do you want?’ I shout down. ‘What do you want?’ When I look up again, the cedar tree’s in flames…. (Lamb 439)
This dream is showing the many pains that Dominick has had to endure over his lifetime, and also showing him a piece of the past that he had never heard anything about. The babies under the ice are symbolic not only of Dominick’s dead daughter, but also of the baby that his grandmother lost, deaths that always haunted both he and his grandmother. His mother is in the dream as a symbol of what he has lost; the opportunity to parent a child, and to create a stronger connection with his own parent, the same struggle that she experienced in her own life. The grandmother under the ice, although the reason is not known at this point in the novel, is actually showing how Ignazia died, committing suicide in the pond behind her house. The entire pond is, as Dominick himself sees, a representation of purgatory, which we later find out is something that Dominick’s grandmother struggled with greatly. Lamb, in forming this dream, creates a connection to the past that Dominick eventually finds on his own. This bridge between the past and the present is so subtle that it is almost unnoticed until the novel is read over a second time. There is also the correlation between the feelings of a mother and son who felt displaced in their family, as well as the similar feelings between Dominick and his grandmother, who both lost a child. In exposing the parallel feelings of these three people, Lamb forms a bond between them that continues until the end of the story.

The next dream that Lamb weaves into his tale of psychological repair involves the point at which Dominick feels he is totally lost. He has nothing left to live for but his stepfather, and even that is not a huge motivator for him to continue life, and dreams that “A long, curving chain of people stands holding hands in a meadow. At the front of the line, Ray holds on to my foot. I’m floating in the air, tethered only by my stepfather’s grip. If he lets go, if my foot falls off, I’ll rise into the sky like a helium balloon…”(Lamb 485). The fact that Lamb makes the chain of people long shows the number of people that Dominick has connected with and then lost throughout his lifetime, including his ex-wife, his mother, and the brother that he remembers from their youth. It shows Dominick’s fear of losing grip with reality, of turning into his brother, caught in a world separate from those around him. Oddly enough it is Ray who is keeping Dominick grounded, holding onto him, even if it is by the foot, maintaining some connection despite the years of anger they endured from one another. It shows growth on Dominick’s part, depicting how, as much as he thinks he hates Ray, he still has an attachment to the man who has been his fill-in father. Lamb creates this dream, not only to show Dominick’s fear, but also to show some of the truth hiding within Dominick’s mind when it comes to Ray.

As basic or complex as Dominick’s emotionally driven dreams were, Wally Lamb found a way to successfully merge them all into I Know This Much Is True. Dominick’s suppressed thoughts emerge in his dreams, and show, symbolically, how he really feels about his brother, his mother, his stepfather, even himself. All these dreams become eventual revelations in the novel, as Dominick goes through therapy sessions, working out his jumble of thoughts and emotions. It is through these dreams that Lamb makes Dominick’s realizations and confessions relevant to the plot of the novel, and the dreams are also how he relates certain bits of history to the present of the story. Wally Lamb is a man of many literary talents, one of those talents being his ability to take dreams, seemingly forget about the dreams, and in an unexpectedly relate them back to the story. Among his many strengths, his creation of symbolism and connections within these dreams is quite admirable, as he takes the unspoken, underlying thoughts and exposes them to the reader as well as Dominick.

C.S. 2008


Whales
A Reflection of Mental State in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone

[(Essay date: 8 June 2008) This essay, written by C.S., will analyze the use of whale references in She’s Come Undone, a novel by Wally Lamb. The writer will further explore how Lamb takes the situations of the whales and creates a parallel to his main character, Dolores. C.S. will also discuss the gradual changes in the state of the whales in direct comparison to Dolores, showing the parallels between the two.]

Whales, according to some, are a symbol of emotional power, a representation of intuition and femininity. Then there are those who think of a whale, and can only grasp the concept of their sheer mass and physical attributes, unable to recognize the inner power that they hold. It is these people, the ones ignorant enough to think that all that a whale is made up of is its weight, who have a profound effect on Dolores, the main character of Wally Lamb’s novel She’s Come Undone. Lamb uses whales as a symbol to parallel the emotional and mental state of Dolores as she moves through life. It is with these whales that Lamb is able to convey the inner feelings that Dolores has about herself, but refuses to reveal to anyone.

Every work of literature has it’s symbols, and Wally Lamb, holding true to that statement, uses whales as his major symbol in She’s Come Undone. Throughout the novel Lamb makes various references to whales, creating stories that, if looked at analytically, unveil aspects of Dolores’ personality. The first mention of whales in the novel is after Dolores’ mother has miscarried, and Dolores’ father takes her to the ocean. At the ocean he tells a story:
‘Once when I was a kid about your age, I saw a whale right out past that red buoy. It was headed south and got confused. Stuck in the shallow water.’
‘What happened?’
‘Nothing bad. Swam around for a couple of hours with everybody looking at it. Then, at high tide, a few of the bigger boats drove in and nudged it back to sea.’(Lamb 13-14)

This story, about a whale that has lost its place, is foreshadowing Dolores’ future. The tale shows, as seen later on in the novel, how Dolores will, in a sense, be lost and confused, just as that whale was. The quote also is telling of how, as stuck as she might feel later on in life, there will be a way for her to escape, that someone will come to save her. Lamb, in creating this story, is giving the reader a brief summary of what Dolores is going to have to endure, and indicating that eventually Dolores will embody the whale.

Much later in the novel, Lamb makes mention of whales again, once again in a subtle, almost foreshadowing manner. It is through the references to whales as well as the use of them as a symbol of Dolores that Lamb shows the reader what she thinks about herself, and illustrates what Dolores may experience later on in She’s Come Undone. In this part of the novel, the whales are mentioned in a newspaper that Dolores buys to read on her escape from college, from a manipulative woman named Dottie, and from herself.
“In the newspaper article, a scientist said any number of conditions could be causing them to do it: scrambled sonar, parasites in their inner ears, some primal instinct to seek land. Or some reason nobody really understood – a scientific mystery. There were two pictures, one of the expert and one of three dead whales lying on the shore in a row. The paper said eleven had killed themselves so far”(Lamb 237). This “mystery” of the whales killing themselves is comparable to Dolores and her inability to decipher what is wrong with her. It shows how she feels she is looked at by people, as they try to figure out why she is so large, coming up with a variety of reasons but not really caring. The newspaper reference to the beached whales is also depicting how Dolores refuses herself the chance to work out what is wrong with her, and forces herself to live in pain and denial. It is with this article that Lamb shows the beginning connection between Dolores and whales, and the story of beached whales is directly relevant to her own situation. At this point in the novel, Dolores is a beached whale, eating herself to death and seeing no way out but to end her life in the quickest way she can, in direct comparison to the whales performing their own version of suicide. Lamb effectively uses this story of a scientific mystery to symbolize how Dolores is a mystery to herself, and, like the whales, is slowly killing herself.

The next use of whales as a symbol that Lamb makes in She’s Come Undone is while Dolores is still in Cape Cod, hiding out from life, searching for death. In this portion of her life journey, she is at her lowest point, and she is like the whale her father had described: lost and confused. Dolores decides that rather than sit holed up in her hotel room thinking about suicide, she should go down to the beach and swim with the whale that had died earlier in the day, and it is at this point that Lamb shows her hit rock bottom. He writes:
I swam underwater to the front of her and resurfaced, bobbing and treading water. I was weightless. Her massive head and snout were covered with knobs – ugly, patternless bumps littered with barbed chin stubble, sharp to the touch. Her scarred mouth gaped open, as if she’d died trying to drink her way back to safe, deep water. Her jaw, half above the surface, half below, was lined with thick broom bristle. Her eyes were underwater. I held my breath and went under, my own eyes open. The eye stared back at me without seeing. The iris was milky and blank, blurred by seawater. A cataract eye, an eye full of death. I reached out and touched the skin just below it, then touched the hard globe itself. This was how I could die. This was where. (Lamb 251)
This entire situation is about Dolores’ contemplation of death, and how she sees the whale as herself in a sense, in how it just gave up. She feels as though she is that beached whale, trying to get back out to sea, but unable to muster the strength the get there. Lamb uses the whale to represent Dolores, and the description of the whale drinking its way to safe is a comparison to Dolores. She eats and eats, and uses it as her security blanket, knowing that if people don’t like her when she’s fat, the fat is the reason they dislike her, not who she really is. Dolores is always looking to protect herself, and she goes about it in unsafe ways, as Lamb shows with his symbolic connection between the two.

Whales come up a few more times in the novel, long after Dolores’ suicide attempt. By this point Dolores has lived through intense psychiatric rehabilitation, an abusive relationship reminiscent of that between her father and mother, an abortion, a divorce, the death of her grandmother, and a binge eating relapse. Lamb shows Dolores as the complex person she is, connecting her still to that first story of the whale lost in the bay, showing how she and the whale are still in the same situation of confusion and sadness. Then Dolores begins to emerge, just as the first whale is nudged out to sea, marries Thayer, and begins to overcome all that had held her back in the past. For a gift, Thayer brings her back to Cape Cod, the place where she had once considered taking her life, to give her a chance to see the whales again, in a healthy and living state. On the whale watch, Dolores is the only one to see:
She breaches. Nose first, her grooved body heads straight for the sky. Her muscular tail clears the water; her fins are black wings. The fall back is slower — grace instead of power. She cracks the ocean, and, in a white explosion of foam, reenters. I’ve seen her, swimming and flying both. I’m soaked in her spray. Christened. I laugh and cry and lick my salty lips. (Lamb 465)
Dolores, in witnessing the whale breach, is finally asserting her control over her life. She, like the whale, has taken charge, and can have fun if she wants to, and is showing her freedom. The way in which Lamb alludes to flight is symbolic of freedom, as Dolores and the whale both release themselves from the constraints that they had been held by. Lamb also uses the whale as a symbol of Dolores finding her way out of the dark and into a new page in her life, hence the christening allusion. She is cleansed, purified of her sin, and able to start fresh, without the worries of her past haunting her, and Lamb shows this in the carefree nature of the whale. Lamb also draws a close to the story with this concept of freedom, taking the first story of whales from the novel, and showing how Dolores has finally, like that lost whale, found her way back to the ocean.

Whales are mentioned throughout She’s Come Undone, in direct relation to Dolores and her emotional state at the time of the whales being mentioned. Wally Lamb takes the whales and turns them into a symbol of Dolores, using them to reflect who Dolores feels she is. The whales also contribute to the development of the novel as they demonstrate the growth that Dolores experiences as the novel progresses. In creating symbolism through whales, Lamb effectively foreshadows events in the novel and he also finds a way to communicate the emotions that Dolores is going through. The use of the whales, symbols of emotional awareness, was an effective technique for portraying Dolores’ subconscious. Lamb also wrote about the whales at moments of emotional climax in the novel, which added to the sense that Dolores and the whales were connected emotionally. Wally Lamb, by using a whale as a symbol of Dolores, is able to show how emotionally driven she is, and to show how her journey parallels that of a lost whale who finds its way back home.

C.S. 2008