Study Guide

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock Quotes

By Wallace Stevens

  • Versions of Reality

    The houses are haunted (1)

    Ghosts aren't real, but they do exist in our imaginations—and movies, of course. But the figurative language has already got our creative juices flowing. Our minds can turn these normal suburban houses into haunted ones. Neat.

    By white night-gowns. (2)

    White nightgowns represent our base level of imagination—meaning this is what a department store sells us for cheap. Sure, one may have a lace collar, and another might have ¾ sleeves, but for the most part, they all look just about the same.

    None are green, (3)

    Wearing a green nightgown takes a little bit of imagination and a little more money. You'd have to find a cool store to buy it in, but you could still buy it. And at least you'd be snazzier than everybody else. That's worth a few bucks, right?

    Or purple with green rings,
    Or green with yellow rings,
    Or yellow with blue rings. (4-6)

    You would never find anything like these in a store. You would have to tie-dye them and do some real imaginative work. What's interesting here, though, is that as imaginative as these nightgowns are, they're also kind of a logical progression. The purple one has green rings, then the green one has yellow rings, then the yellow one has blue rings. What about turquoise polka dots? Or magenta flowers?

    None of them are strange, (7)

    Strange is the rare version of reality that we have to seek out. These people haven't made the effort to be strange. They're too conformist. And what a shame it is.

    Only, here and there, an old sailor,
    Drunk and asleep in his boots, (12-13)

    This is the only literal and concrete bit of the poem. The rest describes possibilities and what things are not. But these sailors, they're good enough as they are, because they're too busy creating an awesome dream world in their dreamy little heads.

  • Appearances

    The houses are haunted (1)

    Ghosts appear out of nowhere, and if a ghost popped up, you would certainly be surprised to say the least. In fact, you might have to spend a lot of time thinking about if what you saw was real or just your imagination playing a trick on you.

    By white night-gowns. (2)

    So it turns out your imagination in that first line? It totally was playing a trick on you. We're not talking ghosts at all. What things look like—how they seem—isn't always what they are.

    None are green
    Or purple with green rings,
    Or green with yellow rings,
    Or yellow with blue rings. (3-6)

    The color schemes stir our imagination and make us understand how exciting the world can be. These color schemes also make us consider the strangeness of our normal color schemes and normal ways of living. Who's to say what's normal, anyway? Isn't it all relative?

    None of them are strange, (7)

    Something only appears strange if we rarely experience it. If we see something every day, it does not appear to be strange anymore, and what a bummer that would be. Now, go listen to "People Are Strange" by The Doors.

    With socks of lace
    And beaded ceintures. (8-9)

    These accessories are garish and gaudy. Anyone who wore them to bed would appear strange. And probably more than a little uncomfortable. Fierce, but uncomfortable.

    Only, here and there, an old sailor,
    Drunk and asleep in his boots, (12-13)

    The sailor's drunken and messy appearance makes us think that he has had a hard, but possibly enriching, life. He's had some fun, and that makes for fun dreams.

  • Repression

    The houses are haunted (1)

    This is a possible critique of the boredom of suburban, middle-class life. It's spooky, and it's meant to be. We're scared for these folks, who might be harmed by their own boring conformity.

    By white night-gowns. (2)

    The white nightgown may be the least sexy bed wear, second to flannel pajamas. Nobody really sees what we wear to bed except our families, so why are we afraid to wear some wacky stuff to bed? Hopefully, unlike the people in the houses, we can be our creative and unique selves when we are at home without fear of being judged as strange.

    None are green
    Or purple with green rings,
    Or green with yellow rings,
    Or yellow with blue rings.
    None of them are strange, (3-7)

    After pointing out all the things that aren't there, the speaker has left the reader hanging on every word to fill that absent space in the reader's imagination. The space is like a vacuum that wants to suck in the next creative image that it can find. We're starving for a good metaphor by this point, because all these awesome colors are being repressed.

    With socks of lace
    And beaded ceintures. (8-9)

    It's no coincidence that Stevens has chosen two French items (lace is said to have been invented on the border between France and Belgium). The French always seem exotic and exciting when it comes to fashion and accessories, don't they? Why not add a beret to this get-up?

    To dream of baboons and periwinkles. (11)

    These are not the dreams of a repressed person. No siree. If you're dreaming of baboons, Freud would say you're good to go.

    Drunk and asleep in his boots, (13)

    The old sailor is so not repressed. Not one bit. Though it's not the best alternative to repression, he's cool with getting drunk and passing out in his clothes and shoes. Classy? No. But it leads to good dreams.

  • Madness

    The houses are haunted (1)

    Although people who claim they see ghosts are often thought of as crazy, the houses are only haunted metaphorically. So everyone's still sane. For now.

    People are not going
    To dream of baboons and periwinkles. (10-11)

    Hey, we've had much weirder dreams after some spicy Thai food, but like the colors before, saying what something isn't just makes the reader want to imagine what the people could be dreaming of. Reverse psychology, anyone?

    Only, here and there, an old sailor, (12)

    We have to really use our imaginations to come up with a mental image of the sailors. It's as if a sailor represents a whole group of people that live exciting lives. Those of us who live quieter lives might envy the sailors a little as far as they are risk takers who frequently seek out new experiences.

    Catches tigers
    In red weather. (14-15)

    Um, you'd have to be mad to attempt to catch a tiger—and in red weather nonetheless.