Waiting for the Barbarians

The Magistrate’s Dream Symbol Analysis

The Magistrate’s Dream Symbol Icon

Throughout the novel, the magistrate has a recurring dream in which he approaches a group of children building a castle out of snow. As he gets closer, the children around the castle slowly disperse, while one hooded child remains in the center. After the magistrate begins seeing the barbarian girl intimately, the hooded child sometimes takes on her form, other times taking on the form of a monstrous, wraith-like entity. Whenever he faces the form presented to him, he falls into a spell of either absolute elation or confusing despair. Though the dream has several manifestations throughout the book, its structure is consistent. The dream reveals how the magistrate is plagued by an ambivalent desire for an ambiguous object, exploring more broadly the relationship between civilized humanity and monstrousness.

The magistrate’s search, on one thematic level, is an insignia of his complicated sexuality—a complexity provoked by the barbarian girl’s enigmatic, opaque personality—as well as his (unrequited) desire to uncover the past of the barbarian girl, to find a deeper, more profound history in the past when her body was not yet marked by Joll’s torture. This search also speaks to how the magistrate’s sexual conflict expresses a broader tension between civility and monstrousness. Though perhaps the most ‘civilized’ person in town—if we think of true civility as being opposed to the evils of Joll, even though his tactics are thought by many to preserve civilization against the barbarians—the magistrate ironically faces a remarkably uncivilized psychological problem. At once desiring and loving the barbarian girl somewhat innocently, the magistrate also has the urge to possess her. It’s this surging, possessive drive, propped up by an ambiguous sexual desire for the girl, that forces the magistrate to confront his sexuality as something which seems at once a part of him yet also alien, like a monstrousness stemming from within him but which he nevertheless can’t control. The magistrate’s conflict therefore points to how civility is always shadowed by its opposite—by monstrousness or ‘barbarism.’ While civility wants to tame barbarism, while it wants to assimilate into itself the barbarism it has cast as an Other, civility’s clash with barbarism reveals that what it perceives as ‘barbaric’ stems from itself, and that civility cannot count itself as closed-off and self-containing. It is enmeshed with its Other.

Further, we can read the snow castle in the dream as a symbol of the Empire or civilization itself. When seen as a snow castle, as a transient structure that could be blown away at any instant by the wind, the seeming longevity and enduring fortitude of the Empire is cast as an illusion. The preservation of civilization is not guaranteed—an idea furthered by the magistrate’s archeological explorations, which suggest that past Empires have risen and fallen. Additionally, in one of the magistrate’s experiences of the dream, the barbarian girl builds an elaborate model of the settlement with mittens on, amazing the magistrate. We can read this as dream-code for the magistrate coming to understand that, even though she hails from the barbarians, the girl has as equal a capacity for high artisanal, ‘civilized’ craftsmanship as anyone from the Empire.

The Magistrate’s Dream Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

The Waiting for the Barbarians quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Magistrate’s Dream. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Books edition of Waiting for the Barbarians published in 2010.
Chapter 6 Quotes

“This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Magistrate’s Dream
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

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The Magistrate’s Dream Symbol Timeline in Waiting for the Barbarians

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Magistrate’s Dream appears in Waiting for the Barbarians. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
The magistrate’s narration shifts to an account of a dream-—later on we realize that this sequence of images is, in fact, a recurring dream of... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
The magistrate says that, later that night, he dreams of a body lying on its back, with “a wealth of pubic hair glistening .... (full context)
Chapter 2
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
...since any words have passed between them. He says that, because of the girl’s poor vision, he can undress before her without embarrassment, baring the body of which he’s not proud.... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
That night, the magistrate experiences his recurring dream. In it, he once again approaches the hooded child building a snow castle, as the... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
...ends on a bitter note, and the magistrate shifts to another account of his recurring dream. This time, as he approaches the hooded child, his sight of her is blocked by... (full context)
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
The magistrate then notes that the recurring dream has firmly taken root in the life of his sleep—it’s now a nightly event. He... (full context)
Chapter 4
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
...surface is of his oily hands sliding over her body. He then has his recurring dream once more. This time, the girl is alone and unaccompanied by any children, and she’s... (full context)
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
...perhaps, it will be as much part of me as breathing.” He then has another dream of the barbarian girl; she’s once again kneeling before the snow castle with her back... (full context)
Chapter 5
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Presumably falling asleep in the hut, the magistrate experiences yet again his recurring dream. He dreams that he’s heading towards the barbarian girl in the same snow-laden town square.... (full context)
Chapter 6
History and Time Theme Icon
The novel ends with the magistrate narrating a scene that resembles his recurring dream, only it actually is from real life. He crosses the barracks yard, which is inches... (full context)