Einstein's Dreams | Study Guide

Alan Lightman

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Einstein's Dreams | 14 April 1905 | Summary



The narration from the Prologue shifts from the waking world to the world of Einstein's dreams in this first vignette. This unnamed narrator of Einstein's dreams invites the reader to "suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself," which means the world repeats itself endlessly. People never realize their lives are an infinite loop: they have lived each moment before, so no moment is temporary. The narrator zooms in on Dream Figure, a woman who is watching her husband die of cancer, unaware she and he will experience their life together all over again. And yet just as everyone will live their lives all over again, so have they lived their lives millions of times previously. A few suspect their decisions have already been made, and they are made chronically unhappy by this feeling they can't shake.


The shift from the Prologue's setting to the worlds and "Dream Figures" Einstein conjures in his sleep signals the narration has shifted from observing the waking world to showing the inner workings of Einstein's mind as he develops his theory of time. The narrator purposely refrains from assigning the Dream Figures names so they come to stand for all humanity's hopes, fears, and anxieties about time. The nameless woman who is introduced is one of these Dream Figures, and she also serves as an example of the principle of endless repetition. This first dream introduces the reader to the concepts and theories of time Einstein will explore in his dreams. In this world time is an infinite loop in which everything will be repeated cyclically. As a consequence, nothing ever can be changed. This introduces the theme of free will in people's lives—the past will always return to the present at some point, so time is unalterable. Most people are blissfully unaware of this; they believe their actions in the present will have an impact on their future. Others, however, believe the course of their lives has already been decided, leaving them with a sense of futility. The Dream Figure of the woman in this vignette symbolizes this dual sense of home and futility—she is spared from knowing that she will watch her husband die of cancer again, but neither does she get to experience the hope that they will live their lives together again.

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