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The Sandman | Themes



The Endless are the family at the heart of this series. The Endless are anthropomorphic manifestations of human concepts, but they are terribly human for all of that. However, they are not the only family to influence the outcome of the series. There are a number of other families that make up the fabric of The Sandman and who impact it in similar ways. From the Walkers, to the Halls, to the families found throughout, there are ties that bind characters in ways that are not always apparent.

The Walkers are most directly related to the Endless being of their blood. Unity Kincaid was raped by Desire while she suffered from the sleeping sickness during Morpheus's imprisonment. That makes Jed and Rose related to the Endless. And just like the Endless, there is dysfunction in their family dynamic. Jed is separated from Rose and his mother, Miranda, by divorce. He goes to live with his father. When his father dies, he ends up with his aunt and uncle who abuse and neglect him. Kept in the basement and imprisoned, much like Morpheus himself in Preludes and Nocturnes, Jed retreats into his dreams. There another, better family waits to welcome him. After Unity's revelation of who she is, Rose returns to America to hunt for her brother. It is time to bring him home. In the meantime she is accepted into a sort of found family in the boardinghouse in which she lives. Hal, Zelda and Chantal, Ken and Barbie, and Gilbert all touch Rose's life in ways that affect her years later.

Lyta, Hector, and Daniel Hall are also introduced in The Doll's House. This is because of Jed's affinity for dreams, probably based on his sister's power as a dream vortex. Hector is dead in the real world, but he's alive in Jed's dreams. While alive, Lyta can pretend she has a family. When Morpheus destroys her dream by freeing Jed from Brute and Glob's influence, she blames him for Hector's death and the destruction of her family. She clings to her baby, who is all she has left of Hector. When Daniel is born, she takes overprotectiveness to a new level, determined to protect her remaining family. But Daniel gestated in dreams, giving Morpheus a claim on the boy he might otherwise never have had. Lyta's need for a fantasy family eventually results in her losing her real one.

Roderick Burgess and his son, Alex, start The Sandman series off with Roderick's attempt to capture Death. These actions have far-reaching consequences. As time passes, Alex finds himself living in the shadow of his father, neither a good magician nor a compelling presence. Alex is haunted by what the man tried to do. When Morpheus escapes, Roderick Burgess is long dead and Alex is an old man. But someone must be held accountable for Roderick's temerity and arrogant pride at flouting the rules of life and death. The sins of the father pass to the son and Morpheus curses Alex with Eternal Waking. Even though Alex was a child, motives and reasons sometimes don't matter. Someone must take responsibility.

Another found family is that of Wanda, Barbie, Hazel, Foxglove, and Thessaly in A Game of You. While some are closer than others, they band together when Barbie is in trouble. They, for the most part, are accepting of Wanda and weirdly supportive of each other. This is a marked contrast to Wanda's biological family, who refuse to recognize who she is. They insist on burying her as Alvin Mann and erasing who she really was, ignoring her wishes for their own selfishness. The family Wanda made herself was more accepting than her blood family. In a book that focuses on identity and the bonds of blood, the importance of the bonds people forge by choice cannot be overstated. Wanda, like so much else in her life, made her own way and chose her own family.

Finally, there are the Endless. Destiny and Dream (as Morpheus) seem the dourest and the most bound by their office. Destiny can't stray from his path and unchain himself from his book which records everything as it happens. Morpheus is chained by the idea of his responsibility. The Endless bicker and fight like children despite being eons old. Desire constantly picks at Dream, dragging her twin Despair along with her. The three oldest allied against the three youngest. Destruction kept the peace before finally calling it quits. There are petty squabbles that go out of all proportion when one lives for centuries. Despite this, the bonds of family are sacrosanct. Even Desire, when Morpheus kills Orpheus, admits to being scared at what is to come from his actions. Desire made it a point to try and get Morpheus killed. They got what they wanted, but they aren't sure if they are ready to deal with the outcome.


Another theme that runs throughout the series is that of change. Morpheus deals with the changes wrought upon his psyche after his imprisonment throughout The Sandman. His outward reclaiming and restoration of the Dreaming mirrors his own inward reclamation. But Morpheus's problem lies in being unable—or willing—to change enough. He's a being set in his way of thinking for centuries. It cannot be dismantled over the course of a few years.

Morpheus's changes are catalogued through the series. Calliope comments on Morpheus freeing her from her bondage to Richard Madoc in Dream Country where before he would have let her rot. When Nada slaps him across the face after the events of Season of Mists, he does not retaliate like he once would have. He faces her decision to leave him with far more grace than the first time she did so. In Brief Lives he apologizes several times to Delirium, surprising her since he's never apologized for his behavior before. In A Game of You he tells Nuala she did well when she disobeys his order. In The Kindly Ones he expresses sadness he has disappointed Odin and mentions the same thing to Lucien, an underling. For a being nearly obsessed with his position and its restrictions, this hints at a deeper personality shift than he's perhaps ready to accept.

Three of the Endless are far more comfortable with change. Desire embodies change, literally changing sexes and appearance depending upon mood. Desire is fleeting, ephemeral, and ever-changing. We want what we want until we get it and then we want something else. Desire is the opposite of Morpheus: constantly in flux where he's static. Desire is never content, though it can be sated for a brief moment. Delirium used to be Delight before she shifted for whatever reason and it left its mark on her. She too is in a constant state of flux, a state nicely contrasted with Morpheus during their tour in Brief Lives. Finally, there is Destruction, himself the harbinger of change. Destruction is a very violent way to bring it about, for good or ill. Creation requires destruction, be it a building, a pattern, or an identity.

Morpheus may be a repository of stories, but he doesn't create them himself. He relies on other people, which is why in the end, he tells Shakespeare, "But I have no story of my own." He is what inspires, not what acts. Perhaps that is why he is so terrible at change. It explains his overreliance on rules. For a control freak like Morpheus, it is a compelling reason not to change. After the events of Brief Lives, his door guardians do not recognize him at first. He has come back a changed man, but it is too little and far too late to avert the catastrophe headed his way.

When Death asks him in The Kindly Ones if he couldn't just do what Destruction did, she realizes he can't. It's not in his nature. Based on the way Morpheus defines himself, walking away is not an option for him. He's changed, but he hasn't changed enough. He is the illustration of evolution: change or die. Morpheus chooses to die knowing he can't bend enough (or doesn't want to bend enough) to make the ensuing eons tolerable.

Barbie in A Game of You is another character who has to change or die. She has to grow up, to grow beyond her childhood dream of The Land and find an adult identity. Barbie has been in a stasis, a sort of Sleeping Beauty of identity. She has to let go, to let the Cuckoo fly free or it will kill her. In contrast there is Thessaly, a centuries-old witch, who seems to know exactly who and what she is. She has not changed in all of that time. She's adapted, but her core identity is still the same. At the end of A Game of You, Barbie is determined to find out who she really is and what that means. This is a welcome difference from the beginning of the volume. Her act of defiance at Wanda's grave is another mark of change. Wanda has been buried under her dead name, her parents effectively erasing the changes she made to her own life. Barbie reclaims that identity for Wanda, knowing how important she was.


Rules order the universe of The Sandman, just as responsibilities anchor Morpheus, its protagonist. Morpheus is a ruler who defines himself by rules, unable to break the cage of them even when he sees a way out. When this becomes too much, he recreates himself into an aspect that is less beholden to them. This aspect has more flexibility.

Rules (and the breaking of them) wind their way throughout the story. There is the oldest rule the Furies enforce: that of not spilling family blood. It is first introduced in The Doll's House when Morpheus realizes what Desire almost made him do. Desire vowed to set the Kindly Ones on him in Fables and Reflections, so they have followed through on it. Even if Morpheus had inadvertently broken the rule, he would still have been held responsible for it. The motivation behind it doesn't seem to matter. When Morpheus kills his son, even though Orpheus's body had been destroyed long ago, it didn't matter to the Furies. He shed family blood and must pay the price for that act.

It is really Lyta who rouses the Furies to action. Morpheus may have broken the rules, but the Furies must be appealed to in order to take their retribution. Lyta petitions them to punish Morpheus for the death of Daniel. But they reply he did not kill her son so they can do nothing for her. But he did kill his son and that is a grievance for which he can be punished. Lyta is the catalyst for the engagement of the rules that ultimately lead to Morpheus's death. Rules also govern the Furies—they wouldn't have been able to assist Lyta if it had only been Daniel's death at stake. Because Morpheus had killed Orpheus, the Furies were free to act. They are just as bound by rules as Morpheus is.

Other instances of rule breakers occur throughout the narrative. The story begins with Roderick Burgess seeking to bind Death in Preludes and Nocturnes. He aims to break the rules of life and death that govern the universe. Orpheus breaks the rules governing life and death in order to try and get Eurydice back from the Underworld. He winds up caught in a half-life as nothing but a head. The Corinthian breaks the rules surrounding his creation, invading the real world and creating havoc in his passing. Azazel breaks the rules of Morpheus's hospitality in Season of Mists. Cluracan strays from the path in Morpheus's castle and ends up creating his own nemesis in The Kindly Ones. Characters who break the rules suffer the consequences in The Sandman.

Personal responsibility shapes and guides the decisions of many characters in The Sandman. Most obvious is Morpheus, whose sense of responsibility to his function is nearly obsessive. He cannot grasp those who would flee that responsibility. This causes his estrangement with his brother, Destruction, and his confusion over Lucifer's decision to leave Hell. Both of these characters had a responsibility in the roles as function and monarch. Both decide to renounce them for remarkably similar reasons. Destruction realizes destruction will continue on without him to guide it. He understands it may become more chaotic but it will not stop just because he walks away. Lucifer comes to a similar conclusion about Hell. The souls of the damned want to be punished and they think of the punishments themselves. He doesn't accept the unnecessary responsibility of running what is not even his show anymore. It's God's. Lucifer renounces his role of the adversary as the defining point of who he is. When Remiel appears in Los Angeles to ask Lucifer to return to Hell, Lucifer laughs in his face. It is now Remiel's responsibility. Remiel is not ready to deal with the repercussions should he choose to follow in Lucifer's footsteps. The angel is trapped like Morpheus is, though the Dream King has a more elegant way of resolving his conundrum.

Morpheus is a being defined by his responsibilities and the rules of behavior he ties to himself. He does not understand these actions by Destruction and Lucifer. To him they seem foolish, unwise, and well, irresponsible. He has seen the chaos his being absent from the Dreaming wrought on both his realm and the human one. It made him more aware of the responsibility he has to the dreamers who enter his realm, not less. He feels the weight of his duty keenly upon his return to the Dreaming in Preludes and Reflections.

Death is a character with the same work ethic and sense of responsibility, but she doesn't let it cage her or rule her as Morpheus does. For a grim reaper, she finds joy in her job, far more than Morpheus seems to, while still performing her tasks. She's a foil for Morpheus in his current incarnation. She is a version of the Endless he could be if he could just uncouple himself from his reliance on responsibility. When Daniel springs into being as the new incarnation of Dream, he is softer, kinder, and more tentative. Yes, he is just beginning his function. But he also has all of Morpheus's memories, without all of the baggage to go along with it.

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