January 25, 2011


One of my favorite short stories by Herman Melville is called, “The Piazza. The plot is about a man who takes up residence in the countryside on an old farm and finding the house has no piazza from which to view his sylvan world, he builds a small one. With the project completed, he sits in the open air each afternoon to enjoy his view. One day, he notices a light emanating from a distant hill. When he discovers it appears regularly, he begins to wonder what it is. A neighbor shrugs and tells him it’s probably a bit of broken glass, but the answer does not satisfy and so the tenant of the farm decides to investigate. His quest is arduous as the hill in question is steep and overgrown with shrubbery but, eventually, the man comes upon a rundown cottage overtaken with vines. Inside, he finds a young woman sitting at her needlework. She invites her visitor inside and they talk for some time. She tells him her life story which is a lament of poverty and deprivation. But during her discourse she confesses that despite her lowly circumstances she has a dream. She points down the hill to a structure bathed brilliant sunlight. She thinks it’s a castle and tells her visitor she hopes one day to visit. The man recognizes what she sees is his humble farmhouse transformed by the sun’s fire, but he says nothing. He leaves her with her dream undisturbed. The next day, he sits in his piazza and gazes up at the hill where the sun sheds it light on that far away cottage. He images the girl sitting at her needlework, peering down upon a non-existent castle.

One is tempted to grasp the obvious for the moral of the story. It’s true, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the grass often does look greener in someone else’s yard. But I think the story is about dreams, as well.

What is life without them? They can provide our everyday existence with hope, mystery and wonder. Who isn’t filled with inspiration when Susan Boyle (blog: 1/4/2011) fulfills her fantasy of becoming a singer? We cheer for Ted Williams, the homeless man, when he is suddenly lifted from obscurity to become an overnight star known as the “golden voice.” These are the transforming moments of dreams. 

But Melville’s story also hints at the dark edges of dreams. In “The Piazza, the central character loses his dream but allows the little seamstress to keep hers.  Perhaps he senses the danger that can occur when dreams and reality collide. The joy of hope brings with it the possibility of disappointment. They are two sides of a swinging door. Susan Boyle reached for the stars to discover they are globes of fire. For a time, she was so threatened by success, she had to retreat to the safety of a medical refuge. Ted Williams too has had to pay a price for being given a second chance. Either he must face his addictions or return to the streets.  

Like any pleasure, dreams can be addictive. Sometimes we lulled by them, preferring to dream rather than to act. But sometimes, dreams burst into our lives with a dazzling light that blinds us. Hollywood is rife with the stories of starlets destroyed by their rocket rise to fame.

“The Piazza” warns us that in the cold dawn of reality, dreams may become delusions that can harm us.