Last Night I Dreamt…

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” Thus begins one of my favorite books of all time, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

It starts with a dream.

Writing advice often warns us of the dangers of inserting dreams into our narratives. Dreams interrupt the forward momentum of the story’s action, and even worse, the protagonist is asleep. Inactive. Passive. For some readers, dreams are a personal dislike, as is the debate about prologues.

But I think this dream opening works perfectly, even after 77 years of writing style changes. Because…

This dream establishes the narrator and makes it quite clear up front that she knows it’s a dream. The reader is not being fooled (at least, not about this).

The dream setting of Manderley with its overgrown grounds, magnificent enough to have a gatekeeper’s cottage (abandoned, of course!) is a lot more intriguing setting than the ordinary hotel room where the narrator sleeps.

The dream—a nightmare, really—establishes the tone of suspense. It hints at change, danger, love, fear, hurt, and loss. Something dreadful happened to send the narrator away. Those dreadful happenings still cause her to have nightmares about the place, even though enough time has elapsed to cause the grounds to become overgrown.

The dream establishes the mystery. Something devastating has happened to cause such a grand home to become neglected. Who were these people and why did they abandon such a magnificent place?

This dream pulls me in, every time I re-read it. What do you think? Do you like to read about dreams?

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7 thoughts on “Last Night I Dreamt…”

  1. Oh, one of my favorite books of all time. Movies too. What a masterpiece both were. The dream in Rebecca does not disturb me. As you say, we know it is a dream. I wonder though, if the book were written today, would the dream be considered a prologue? Food for thought.

  2. I am ashamed to say I’ve never read Rebecca. Personally, I hate “never do” rules because I’m not a fan of absolutes. Yes, dreams can frequently do all the things you mention (slow down the narrative, etc.), but when they are used well, it works. As always, I think it’s down to the needs of the story and the skill of the writer. Same with prologues.

  3. Interesting to ponder, Kait. The dream makes up the entire first chapter and transitions nicely to first line of chapter 2: “We can never go back again…”

    Mary, you are in for a treat!

  4. I think this was the first “adult” book I ever read when I was young. It haunted me much like the place haunts the narrator, probably because it hinted about so many things I wasn’t quite understanding at that age. I think this is a perfect first line. It does all that you’ve mentioned. It pulls the reader in. Why does she dream of it? What happened? It invests Manderley with mystery. Any abandoned mansion whispers secrets. We want to hear them.

  5. I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those readers who will skip over dream sequences. As soon as I get a hint that I’m reading a dream, I scan the pages until the narrative starts back up.

  6. Same for me, Theresa. My 10th grade English teacher suggested the book to me. She thought I’d like it, and was she ever right!

    Diane, I’m usually the same. Except for this particular dream!

  7. YES: fan of both book and film of REBECCA.

    And I once taught a class focused completely on dreams in literature, so I’m definitely into this topic. Love the way you wrote about dreams here!

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