Study Guide

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock Themes

  • Versions of Reality

    Stevens wasn't much of a religious guy, but one thing he did believe in was the power of imagination. Why? Because imagination opens up all possible versions of reality. How does it do that? By creating reality in the first place. Are your minds blown? Well, they should be. All right, enough already. We'll stop asking questions and leave you with this nugget of wisdom: "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" is about this very dynamic. Folks with imagination are able to create their own interesting realities, while folks without it are, well, not.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. In the poem, how do reality and facts influence the dreams of the characters?
    2. What is the purpose of listing different color schemes from line 3 to line 6? Does that change the meaning of the poem for you? 
    3. In line 7, does "them" refer to the people in the houses or the nightgowns, or both? Why? 
    4. If most of the images are of what the nightgowns and people are not, are there any images in the poem that represent "reality" as we know it? What are they and why are they important?
    5. How do the sailors create their own reality?

    Chew on This

    The only image in the poem that isn't figurative (meaning the thing is literally there in the world of the poem) is the image of the sailor asleep in his boots, which is meant to show the reality of his imagination.

    The purpose of listing different colors, and accessories, is to let the reader know that there are infinite variables in life, and only the imagination can limit the possibilities.

  • Appearances

    Our speaker is totally judging by appearances. And he doesn't like what he sees. All the people in the little boxes they call houses are boring the speaker to death. They don't ever push the metaphorical envelope. Even when they're in their own homes, they don't take the opportunity to let loose and put on some funky bed wear. Their appearances are total yawnsville. The speaker of "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" offers an alternative to his readers, so that we, too, don't commit the same fashion crime of being bland.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. In "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," what is the connection between reality and appearances? Are appearances reality? Does reality create appearances? Does imagination create appearances? Or do appearances affect imagination?
    2. What do the speaker's clown-like color schemes suggest about the speaker's ideal version of reality?
    3. In the poem, how do dreams differ from realities and how are they connected? 
    4. What does the sailor's physical appearance have to do with his dream?

    Chew on This

    In the poem, outward appearances are both the result and source of the inner realities (imagination, consciousness, self-image, etc.) of the people. It's a vicious (and awesome) cycle.

    The clown-like color schemes suggest that the speaker's ideal version of reality is one filled with excitement, wonder, and theatrics.

  • Repression

    "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" was written in 1915, so middle-class America was still holding on to the hopes that it could be the European middle class. It was all a bit stuffy, and Stevens was in the thick of it. But this poem isn't about repression like your classic, sexless Victorian Novel was. Instead it calls for the reader to be like the old sailor, sound his or her barbaric yawp, and dream of hunting tigers. Let loose, in other words. At least in your dreams, if nowhere else.

    Questions About Repression

    1. Besides the cliché of using sheets as props for ghosts, why has Stevens associated the word "haunted" with the houses and nightgowns?
    2. Why are lines 3-11 all about what is not happening? What is happening? 
    3. How does color stand in contrast to whiteness in this poem? 
    4. What about the sailor defies repression?

    Chew on This

    Lines 3-11 build up a sense of mental containment and confinement that can only be overcome by imagining new possibilities.

    Stevens uses "haunted" to signify the intangible and unnoticed absences of excitement and color. It's not obvious, but it's totally there.

  • Madness

    "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" seems to ask, "What's crazier: dreaming of baboons and tigers, or living a boring life?" The obvious answer, or not, is that a boring life and a boring dream life are the pits, and therefore, are not the sane choice. A little madness keeps things fresh. It's saner to be crazy. At least, in your dreams it is.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is the haunting of the houses a result of madness, or does the madness lead to the haunting?
    2. Is "strange" a positive or negative attribute according to the speaker?
    3. Is it mad to dream of baboons and periwinkles?
    4. Who's saner? The nightgowned sleepers or the drunk sailor?

    Chew on This

    "Strange" is a positive attribute in this poem, because it's the opposite of boring.

    The haunting of the house is the result of the madness of the unimaginative and uncreative lifestyle. Turns out being boring makes you crazy.