Dream Reactions: Testing Your Limits

horse beating scene in dostoevsky's crime and punishment

Dream Reactions: Testing Your Limits in a Simulation

Dreams tell you so much about yourself. They are like nightly therapy sessions in a simulated environment where you can explore your desires, test yourself, and find out through your reactions what you are really made of. Then every so often a dream like the following one comes along and takes this idea to the extreme. It was recently recently submitted at Reddit Dreams and is about cruelly cutting down a horse:

[I had a] lucid dream in which I slashed down a horse with a sword. Before the slash, I already knew it was a dream and that my actions can be anything, but I don’t understand why I was so cruel towards it. Afterwards, I wanted to find a doctor for the horse or treat it in some way. I felt horrible and wanted to help it even though I KNEW it was a dream but that it was my fault it was bleeding.

I was a knight with a big castle. I thought I was all powerful with impunity in my dream, then I felt so pathetic and regretful over what I have done.

In my discussion with the dreamer, I began by talking about the symbolism of the horse. I mentioned an example of a dream where a different dreamer watches a horse drown in a pond and does nothing to help it. The horse symbolizes the dreamer. He is a “work horse” who can plow through a long list of things to do. But sometimes it gets to be too much, and instead of asking for help he just takes the entire burden onto himself. His reaction of watching the horse drown symbolizes his inability to ask for help when you needs it. Instead, he drowns in work.

But the person who had the first dream does not see himself in the horse. Instead, he says this:

In Crime and Punishment, there was a dream of a horse beaten to death by its owner and bystanders while a child tries to save it. This is referenced as a news article in the Brothers Karamazov. But that’s not it. Perhaps that’s where the animal [in my dream] came from but I don’t think I relate to the struggles of the horse.

Sounds weird, but I want to be cruel/tyrannical if I was all powerful. If there is no god, then everything is permitted. That’s why I cut down the horse on purpose. And yet, I can’t face my own cruelty…so I desperately want to save it afterwards.

What a twist! The dream is a simulation to show the dreamer what he’s really made of. On the one hand, he has thoughts about being cruel and tyrannical if there are no consequences or constraints. On the other hand, he sees in the dream how he would react to his own actions if he actually carried through with his dark impulses.

Cliff’s Notes says the following about the scene with the horse in Crime and Punishment referenced by the dreamer. The main character has a strong drink and falls asleep in a park. Then:

He dreams that he is back in his childhood, seven years old, and as he is walking with his father, he sees a drunken peasant trying to make his old horse pull a heavy wagon full of people. When the crowd laughs at him and the ridiculous spectacle, the peasant gets angry and begins beating the old, feeble horse. He beats so ferociously that others join in the “fun.” Finally they begin to use crowbars and iron shafts. The old horse at first tries to resist, but soon it falls down dead. The boy in the dream, feeling great compassion for the stricken and dead mare, throws his arms around the beast and kisses it. All through the dream the peasant owner is screaming that the mare was his and he had a right to do whatever he wanted to with her.

Upon awakening from the dream, Raskolnikov renounces that “accursed dream of mine” and wonders in horror: “Is it possible that I really shall take an axe and strike her on the head, smash open her skull. . . God, is it possible?” He then “. . .renounces this accursed fantasy of mine” because he will never summon up enough resolution to do it.

The last part refers to a fantasy he has about killing an old lady. He hears that the following night she will be at home alone, providing an opportunity to carry through on his evil desire if he wants to. In the analysis of the chapter, Cliff says this:

When Raskolnikov goes to sleep in the park, Dostoevsky lets us know that “A sick man’s dreams are often extraordinarily distinct and vivid and extremely life-like. A scene may be composed of the most unnatural and incongruous elements, but the setting and the presentation are so plausible, the details so subtle, so unexpected, so artistically in harmony with the whole picture, that the dreamer could not invent them for himself in his waking state. Such morbid dreams always make a strong impression on the dreamer’s already disturbed and excited nerves, and are remembered for a long time.”

Thus, Dostoevsky is announcing to the reader that Raskolnikov’s dream now and later will have special meaning to him and thus all the dreams are symbolic in one way or another.

dream reactions crime and punishment

Find out for yourself if Raskolnikov follows through on killing the lady. It’s a wonderfully twisted bit of storytelling. One of the morals of the story is about how people live with the consequences of their own actions, even when cruelty is self-justified or dished out without legal consequence.

The person who had the first dream finds out from his reaction after cutting down the horse that justifications don’t mean a thing when faced with the harm he commits with his own hand and seeing an innocent creature die. He even KNOWS it’s a dream and still feels terrible about what he did.

In my mind, his reaction says everything.

Dreams are fantastic opportunities to test your limits, to project out your thoughts and feelings into realistic simulations and see how you react. The dreamer finds out that if he was allowed to be as cruel as he wanted to be, he still has his conscience with which to contend. Perhaps the dream allows him to test himself in a simulation before he would do such a thing in reality and find out the hard way that, in the psyche, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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I'm the author of "Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams," and "The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Sign and Meanings." At reddit.com I'm known as RadOwl. I began studying dreams in the early 1990s and delved into all major schools of thought, especially the writings of Carl Jung.

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