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Einstein's Dreams | Themes



Because Einstein is so wholly preoccupied by theories of time, these theories begin to infiltrate his sleeping subconscious. Each dream world shows a different way time could work, from looping in on itself to becoming its own dimension. Although Einstein is a scientist, the Dream Figures care little for science. Rather they try to exist, love, and survive in worlds in which time's structure shapes the very nature of their lives. Lightman depicts people who grow unhappier the more they try to manipulate time, demonstrating that even if people can understand time they cannot take advantage of it. And even if time works the same way for everyone, no two individuals experience time in the same way. In the world of Einstein's Dreams time is both an organizing principle as well as a thematic backdrop that the Dream Figures must live in and face the consequences of. Lightman sets out to show not only how Einstein's theories shape our conception of time but also how time shapes the lives and decisions of individuals.

Free Will

Many of Einstein's dreams ask how much control humans can have over their lives when the passage of time is out of their control. In many of the dream worlds time dictates how much free will an individual has. For example, one dream depicts a world in which people can glimpse their futures, which takes away any sense of risk, surprise, or passion. In another dream everyone knows exactly when the world will end, which leads people to make decisions already knowing the final outcome of their fate. Yet Lightman points out free will is also a function of perception; if people perceive time has already plotted out their destinies they are less likely to attempt autonomous decisions. The way in which the author introduces the concept of free will and fate into the lives of the Dream Figures brings in a philosophical element that intersects with Einstein's scientific concepts, asking the reader to question how those elements intersect in their own lives. Science and philosophy are not disciplines that ordinarily speak the same language, and here Lightman's background as a scientist and creative writer find a thematic expression in considering the consequences of free will.


Although Einstein's Dreams deals largely with how dreams may have helped Einstein develop his theory of time, each dream also delves into the unique human perception and experience of time. Einstein's Dreams is concerned with how humans perceive time and how it shapes their thoughts, emotions, and sense of free will. The unnamed Dream Figures in the novel stand in for the whole of humanity, grappling with the structure and limits of time as Einstein conceived of it. These Dream Figures serve to humanize the more abstract theories and concepts of time Einstein presents and show humans' incredibly emotional connection to time.

The novel balances human thought and emotion with science and shows the impact of time on human perception. Many of the Dream Figures feel stuck in the past or trapped by their memories, or they sense time slipping away before they can tell someone their feelings. Their collective role serves to have humanity stand in as a larger theme in the novel since Lightman chooses not to trace individuals over the course of the vignettes but to have the Dream Figures appear randomly and often en mass. The effect of this theme is to connect the reader's own humanity to the concerns and feelings of fellow humanity. The dream worlds demonstrate that no matter how differently time functions, humanity will always be concerned with fate, free will, relationships, loss, and consequences. There is something reassuring in this universality, and it ties together and humanizes the other themes of time and free will.

Questions for Themes

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