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
“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.”