The Sandman | Study Guide

Neil Gaiman

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The Sandman | Brief Lives | Summary


About the Title

There is a lot of death and dying in Brief Lives, fitting since it deals with the search for Destruction. The title refers to the idea expressed by Capax after he's crushed under a brick wall. He'd lived for over 15,000 years and yet it still wasn't long enough. The idea is all lives are brief to the one living it. We always want more time.



An old man climbs a path up to a temple on a Mediterranean island. His name is Andros and he meets his grandson Kris at the top. They guard the head of Orpheus, the son of Dream, who readers first met in Fables and Reflections. Readers see they have been taking care of Orpheus for a long time.

Delirium wishes to find her missing brother, Destruction. He left his realm roughly 300 years earlier and hasn't been seen or heard from since. The Endless siblings have thus far followed his wishes of no contact. Delirium first asks the twins, Desire and Despair, if they will accompany her, but they refuse. Despair is deeply affected by the request, even though she says no. She remembers a meeting she had with Destruction during the plague. He talks about the changes that are coming, contradicting Despair who claims things "do not change." The next time she sees Destruction is 30 years later when he tells everyone he is leaving. Desire attempts to contact her about Delirium's quest, but Despair ignores her twin.

Delirium next seeks out Dream who is busy brooding in his castle. His latest lover, implied to be Thessaly from A Game of You, has left him. Now he calls down the rain in an outward show of his inner depression. It has been raining for weeks. Dream has ordered all signs of his ex purged from the castle.

Delirium shows up and asks Dream to accompany her on her search. In a strange exchange, Delirium is surprised Dream apologized to her. She says he has never done so in the past. Dream contacts Desire to make sure this isn't some kind of trap laid for him. Desire swears, Dream believes it. He returns to Delirium who was remembering an instance when she met with Destruction when she was still Delight.

They prepare to set off. Delirium has a list of people they can ask about Destruction's whereabouts. Lucien takes aside Dream, questioning the efficacy of the quest. Dream informs him they will not find Destruction. He says he is going along to distract himself from his heartbreak, and Delirium will soon lose interest.

Bernie Capax, one of the people on Delirium's list, gets off a bus on his way to work. He's been alive for 15,000 years when a brick wall lands on top of him. Death collects him. Meanwhile, Dream and Delirium appear in Dublin to get help traveling in the waking world from Pharamond. This is an ancient Babylonian god who owes Dream a favor.

Etain, another name from Delirium's list, wakes up and escapes her building right before a gas explosion. She goes into hiding. A man on a cliff paints a picture while being heckled by a talking dog named Barnabas. This is Destruction. He goes to a room with all of the Endless's sigils and a pool in the center he calls his "early warning system."

Road Trip

Dream and Delirium fly across the ocean to America where they are met by Pharamond's contact, a woman named Ruby. She will be their driver for their excursion. Once in the car, Delirium asks for the word that means "things not being the same always." When Dream responds, "Change" she says she was afraid that was the word.

The Alder Man or Leib-Olmai, another name from Delirium's list, feels something bad coming. He turns into a bear and makes his human shadow a simulacrum of himself. He sends his shadow-self one way while he, as a bear, goes another.

Dream and Delirium arrive at Capax's house a day after his death. Capax's son tells them this. Then he shows him all of the odd things he found in his father's desk: blank passports, a brick of cocaine, heroin, gold coins, and weapons. They leave Capax. Ruby drives them to a motel where Delirium reaches out to find the Dancing Woman from her list. She locates her helping a woman named Tiffany.

Dream contacts Lucien to check on the state of the Dreaming. He asks Lucien to check and see if anything might be thwarting them in their quest. He then remembers a time he went walking with Destruction and the Corinthian. They witness a dissection of an orangutan, and Destruction talks about the changing world, of how quickly destruction will come. Dream is interrupted before he can reach out to his brother. In the present time he is jolted out of his memory by firefighters who are there to fight the blaze. Ruby fell asleep with a lit cigarette and set fire to her bedding and the motel room, killing her. Dream and Desire continue their search without her.

Next they visit Ishtar, another goddess and Destruction's ex-lover. She works as an exotic dancer. When Dream asks her if she's been in contact with Destruction, she tells him she has not. They argue briefly about her relationship with Destruction before Dream warns her of danger and takes his leave. Ishtar dances her last dance, destroying herself, the club, and anyone left inside. Tiffany makes it out and Desire hands her a coat.


Dream decides he is done with the trip and returns to his realm, leaving Delirium to return to hers, angry and disappointed. Dream next visits with Bast, mentioning she said she had news about Destruction's whereabouts when they met in Season of Mists. Bast tells him she lied. She says Dream needs to consult an oracle if she wishes to find Destruction. He answers there is no oracle that can read the Endless if they do not wish it. Bast implies otherwise.

Dream returns to his realm and summons Death. She is angry with him because Delirium has closed her realm and her sigil has gone black. Death tells him to fix things with Delirium, so he enters her realm to find her. Dream apologizes again to Delirium, saying he journeyed with her in the hopes of seeing his ex-lover in the waking world. When he realized the effect of their searching, he stopped, thinking to prevent further harm. But he wants to continue the search to find Destruction if Delirium is still up for it. She is.

The two journey to Destiny's realm. Destiny tells them to abandon their quest, but Dream cannot do that. Destiny then tells Dream his ex-lover never loved him really and she will never come back to him. He tells Dream only an oracle can help him find Destruction, and reminds him there is an oracle who is family to the Endless. Dream collapses to his knees with the realization, causing Delirium to collect herself long enough for Dream to recover. They leave to consult an oracle.

Destiny's book begins to flip pages, showing scenes from the past and future. It shows Destruction's departure from his duties and Dream right before Burgess captures him. It also shows Death spending her one mortal day in China and Dream—wearing white—standing before a bloodstained throne. Then he returns to the correct page of his book.

The Prodigal

Dream and Delirium arrive at Orpheus's island. He leaves Delirium outside and goes to see his son. When he returns, he is affected by the meeting and states he owes Orpheus a boon to be paid later. He tells Delirium he knows where Destruction is.

They row to the neighboring island where they are met by Barnabas and Destruction. They eat dinner and speak of the family. Readers discover Despair is not the original aspect. She had been destroyed before and a new aspect became Desire's twin. Destruction says this was why he abdicated rather than stick another aspect with his responsibilities. Dream cannot understand how he could leave behind those responsibilities.

Delirium asks Destruction to come back to his place in their family. Destruction won't do that, though he does apologize for his fail safes he put in place that got people killed. Dream tells him Orpheus led them to him eventually. When Dream asks how he could leave, Destruction tries to explain it to him, but Dream doesn't quite get it. Destruction continues on without him running it, just as creation does, an opposite side to his coin. He tells Delirium he will not be returning with them, and gives her Barnabas to watch out for her. Then Destruction walks a stairway to the stars and leaves.


Dream returns to Orpheus's island to keep his word to his son. Orpheus mentions, like Destruction did, how much Dream has changed, though Dream does not see it. He has come to grant his son's wish to die. He kills Orpheus, spilling family blood Desire has been working toward the entire series. Dream exits the temple, hands bloody. Where the blood drops, a new flower, never before seen springs up.

Despair joins Dream and Delirium, asking after Destruction, regretful she didn't join them in seeking Destruction. Dream takes his leave. Despair picks one of the new flowers and gives it to Desire. They discuss the repercussions of Dream's actions and Desire admits she is frightened.

Dream sends Andros a message to bury Orpheus's head beneath the cherry tree, then he returns to his castle. He thanks and asks after his servants, startling them all with his strange behavior. In fact, he seems so strange his gryphon door guardian doesn't recognize him for a moment. He returns to his room and washes his son's blood from his hands and then drops into a chair, overcome.



Morpheus has been slowly changing throughout the run of Sandman. Brief Lives is the deep breath right before the whirlwind action of The Kindly Ones. It is fitting this tale is a family story. All of the Endless make appearances as Morpheus seeks out his lost brother, as he and Delirium quite literally seek out Destruction. His leaving splintered the Endless, bringing about a change to beings not readily prepared for such a thing. Delirium and Despair were very close with their brother. Desire professes not to miss him in The Doll's House, but they never really say how they feel about him. Destruction and Morpheus seemed close at one time. Yet Morpheus does not understand how Destruction could just give up his responsibilities.

Destruction has always been an agent of change. It makes sense he would be the one to comfort Delight throughout her change into Delirium. It also makes sense he would welcome the new Despair into the fold. Destruction is always in flux, more able to handle shifts of perspective and rapid growth simply because of what he represents. He is also the first of the Endless to realize—or at least verbalize—what the symbiosis is between humans and Endless. He also realizes how that relationship can change.

Morpheus hasn't been the same since he came out of his glass ball prison at the beginning of the series. For the past four years, he's been working to set his kingdom to rights, to repair the damage done in his absence. Unlike Destruction, he's seen the toll his forced absence has taken on both the Dreaming and waking worlds. He could walk away like Destruction did, but he knows the consequences his actions would cause. While he's tried to fix the Dreaming, Morpheus has also become a freer of captives. He has become far more sensitive to the plight of those imprisoned than he ever has been before.

He's also become closer to humanity with snippets of compassion thrown in to counter his typical arrogant behavior. In The Doll's House readers see his growing friendship with Hob Gadling. His pride won't let him admit it and it is only after his imprisonment he is able to call Gadling his friend. He apologizes to Nada, even accepting her striking his face. He compliments Nuala when she tells him she warned Barbie in A Game of You. In Brief Lives Morpheus apologizes to Delirium multiple times, instances she comments on with surprise. At first his motivation for going with Delirium to search for their brother was selfish. When they set out a second time, he's serious. He's atoning for his mistakes. He knows he will have to confront his son after all of this time. Though he knows he will likely need to apologize to his son, Morpheus accepts the task. The Morpheus from "The Song of Orpheus" in the previous volume would not have done that.

When Morpheus returns to his realm after killing Orpheus, his door guardians don't recognize him. His choice to free his son has changed him that much. As he walks through his castle, he thanks his servants, acknowledging them in ways he's never done before. Morpheus's change is just beginning, turning him into a kinder, more aware being.


Morpheus is a character defined by his responsibilities, so it is a powerful conversation to witness when he finally gets to talk to his brother, Destruction. As Morpheus sees it, Destruction abandoned his kingdom by just walking away and he does not approve. We know Despair was killed and another Despair took her place, so Morpheus expected Destruction to do the same. When he simply packed up and left took Morpheus by surprise. Readers get the idea he never quite forgave or understood Destruction's decision. Morpheus, as he did with his son, simply put Destruction from his mind rather than deal with anything approaching grief.

Destruction realizes humanity doesn't need him, that humanity's perspective is what shapes and defines all of the Endless. Destruction will always continue as a force in the world, though perhaps more chaotic without him to run it. He realized that hundreds of years ago and his time among the humans after setting aside his sword (Destruction's sigil) has only cemented his surety. The Endless are "merely patterns. The Endless are idea. The Endless are wave functions. The Endless are repeating motifs. The Endless are echoes of darkness, and nothing more. We have no right to play with their lives, to order their dreams and their desires." While this explains Destruction's decision, it is also a direct callback to The Doll's House. That occurs when Morpheus explains to Desire (Dream and Desire) the Endless are beholden to humanity and not the other way around.

Morpheus's eyes are opened by his conversation with his brother. He realizes he has choices. He may not like or approve of them based on his own set of beliefs, but he does have them. Morpheus experiences a huge change in his attitude toward his son and recognizes his responsibility toward him. By doing so he is able to move beyond the past and stop punishing Orpheus (and himself). He's taking responsibility for freeing another captive (both himself and his son).

This isn't the first time Morpheus has been faced with a character renouncing their kingdom. Lucifer did it in Season of Mists, leaving the key to Hell in Morpheus's care. But Morpheus is denied the opportunity to make a decision about its dispensation when Heaven reclaims it. Morpheus wasn't ready for the lessons he might have learned at that point, but he has changed enough to be ready now. Destruction accuses him of never listening to things he doesn't want to hear. But in this situation, at this time, he is open to what Destruction has to teach.

Opposing Forces

One of the major themes in Brief Lives is that of opposition. Concepts are defined by their opposite as much as they are defined by themselves. Creation is the opposite of destruction, but old things must be broken down to make way for the new. It is the way progress works.

Morpheus falters and begins to fall apart in Destiny's garden at the news he must visit his son after centuries of absence. When this happens, Delirium collects herself. She becomes lucid for the first time in the series run. It hurts her and she asks Morpheus to collect himself so she can stop, but she can do it. She's tapping into the opposite side of what she represents, the other side of the coin that is her existence. Destruction does likewise in a much more literal way—all of his pastimes are creative in nature: painting, writing, cooking, and composing. He may be completely terrible at it, but creation is destruction's opposite. Again, the other side of the coin is his function. He may not be good at it, but Destruction is accepting, even embracing, of that part of himself. He's realized you cannot create something new without sometimes first tearing apart the old.

Destruction, despite his aspect, appears to be the glue that held the Endless together as a sort of loose family. He was supportive of Delight as she shifted into Delirium. He was always a fond brother to the new Despair. For a character who is defined by his auspice, Destruction is the most human of all of the Endless outside of Death. When he left, he destroyed what semblance the Endless had of closeness and stability all together.

If Dream represents dreams and fantasy, then his opposing force is reality. Nothing is more real and visceral than the panels detailing the death of Orpheus and Morpheus's response. Mervyn Pumpkinhead's comment when Morpheus returns to his castle after killing his son is a callout to that opposition. He says, "Real life. That's what guys like him never have to face up to. Real life." Morpheus just performed and experienced one of the most profound real-life experiences in the universe and is suffering the grief of that choice. The Lord of Dreams understands reality quite well.

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