Gail Godwin's Dream Children and Tobias Wolff's Essay

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Gail Godwin's "Dream Children" and Tobias Wolff's "The Liar" are both stories about escapism. In "Dream Children" a woman whose baby was stillborn and who may have had a hysterectomy because of it finds solace in out-of-body experiences and dreams. Her escapism is harmless, and yet it deeply disturbs her neighbor and worries her husband. Likewise, James's compulsive fibbing in "The Liar" is not intended to hurt anyone, but the behavior gravely disturbs his mother. James lies to create alternative realities, just like Mrs. McNair uses astral travel. The two short stories are told from different points-of-view: "The Liar" in first person and "Dream Children" in third. However, the tales share a considerable amount in common including characterization, resolution, and theme. Both Godwin and Wolff show how escapism is a natural human response to painful life situations.

Godwin and Wolff are both Southern writers; both were born in Alabama but later moved to New York. Their short stories were both written in the mid-20th century. "Dream Children" is set in a "quaint unspoiled village" (p. 237), whereas most of "The Liar" takes place in San Francisco. Setting takes a back seat to characterization in both of these short stories. Although the rural setting is crucial for Mrs. McNair's daily horseback riding, James and his mother would have experienced identical strains in their relationships if they lived anywhere else. In fact, the relationship between James's mother and Dr. Murphy makes "The Liar" seem more like it was set in a small town than a big city. The inclusion of city buses does underscore the fact that James and his mother do live in an urban area, though.

Both the protagonists, Mrs. McNair and James, have seen doctors to address their psychological problems. Mrs. McNair was sent to a psychiatrist when she was a child. She was a sleep walker, and one day her parents were startled to see that she had walked out of the house to their small pond. Their fear that she might have drowned caused them to send the young girl to a psychiatrist. The doctor "hypnotized" her into ceasing her nocturnal journeys (p. 248). However, the psychiatrist also told the young girl that "children are surrounded by a magical reality that keeps them safe," (p. 242). She encouraged the young girl to cease her sleepwalking if only to appease her parents. Grownups, the psychiatrist said, "tend to forget...they worry, they are afraid of so many things," (242-3).

The doctor in "The Liar" is no psychiatrist; he is simply the family physician as well as a friend of the family. Like the psychiatrist in "Dream Children," Dr. Murphy proves to be a supportive ally for the main character. The doctor in each story serves as a sort of surrogate parent: an adult who helps the child feel safe. The alternative parent provides an outlet for the child distinct from the parents. The parents in each case are over-worried, and the doctors both understand that children need to escape from reality. Escapism is natural. Therefore, both the doctors in the short stories, help the protagonist reframe their experiences from a rational perspective. While they continue to use escapism, they also understand that what they are doing is viewed by others as a break from reality.

Both "The Liar" and "Dream Children" are told from the point-of-view of the protagonist. "Dream Children" is told from a third person narrator's literary point-of-view. However, Godwin manages to use the third person point-of-view to create empathy for Mrs. McNair. The reader can see how Mr. McNair and Mr. DePuy feel about Mrs. McNair, but still sympathizes only with the main character. Mr. McNair "no longer felt lust when he looked at her, only a sad determination to protect her," (p. 247). The neighbor Mr. DePuy "resented her" wished that a woodchuck hole would trip the horse on which Mrs. McNair rode (p. 250). Mr. DePuy "wished deep in a violent level of himself he never knew he had" because he thought himself too "practical" to ride horses the way Mrs. McNair did (p. 250). Revealing Mr. DePuy's point-of-view enhances the sympathy readers feel towards Mrs. McNair. Mr. DePuy is too "practical" and could use a bit more fun and imagination in his life. Godwin also shows Mrs. McNair from the perspective of the horse and dog to enhance understanding of the protagonist. The horse sympathizes with her, as she "felt weightless to the horse," (p. 250). The horse symbolizes the effortlessness, magic, and joy of the dream state. Although she loves her dog Blue Boy, Mrs. McNair is struck by the fact that dogs cannot deal as well as horses can with the alternative reality. Mrs. McNair concludes that horses are "more magical than dogs," which are "realistic," (p. 248). Thus, both Blue Boy and Mr. DePuy represent realism. The dog and the neighbor do not understand escapism. Mr. McNair has "an anxious, growing certainty about his wife," (p. 245). Like the dog and Mr. DePuy, the husband finds a "physical revulsion" to her interest in escapism (p. 246). In fact, Mr. McNair is also escaping reality without being aware of it or admitting it to himself. Not only is his job on television symbolic of his ability to be in two places at once; Mr. McNair is having an affair. His affair is a clear symbol of his need to escape his wife. Mr. McNair "no longer felt lust when he looked at her, only a sad determination to protect her," and views his wife as a child (p. 247).

As in "Dream Children," animals play key roles in Wolff's "The Liar." One of the pivotal memories of the story is the family camping trip to Yosemite. James bonds with his father over a "shared fear" of the bear (p. 505). They are the only two in the family who remain frightened of the bear. James's mother displays a remarkable amount of courage by throwing rocks at the creature, and James's siblings laugh at the situation. The bear symbolizes fear itself, and is one of the main ways that James's character is developed in the short story. His reaction to the bear incident and the subsequent bonding he experiences with his father are cornerstones of James's character.

Both Mrs. McNair and James escape from reality and have no desire to stop doing so. They are aware of what they are doing, which ironically makes both characters seem more sane than those around them. Both Mrs. McNair and James have experienced psychological trauma in the form of death. The way they choose to deal with the aftermath of the trauma is slightly different; Mrs. McNair uses astral travel and James lies. Yet the effect of their escapism is the same. They use their alternative realities to find a voice for their pain. Neither character is so out of touch with the outside world that they cannot cope with reality. In fact, Dr. Murphy in "The Liar" points out to James's mother that she should be thankful her son isn't beating up other kids or stealing. Dr. Murphy also laments the fact that his own son is distant and elusive, which is worse than James's lies. In "Dream Children," Mrs. McNair finds happiness in her daily ride. She does not use drugs or alcohol to escape.

Motherhood is a theme in both "The Liar" and "Dream Children," although the theme is addresses differently in each story. In "The Liar," the relationship between James and his mother creates the central conflict of the story. The death of James's father affected his mother and him differently. More importantly, James's mother does not seem to respect her son. James points out, "I didn't underestimate her. She underestimated me," (p. 499). James's mother emasculated him, accusing him of…[continue]

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