On Dreams

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On Dreams

by Sigmund Freud


A psychological study of the function, nature, and meaning of dreams; published in German (as Über den Traum) in 1901, in English in 1914.


In On Dreams, Freud summarizes his earlier groundbreaking The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung [1900]). Against the prevailing scientific opinion of the day, this longer work argues that dreams have meaning and that every dream represents a wish of the dreamer.

Events in History at the Time of the Study

From Arthur Schnitzler’s “Lieutenant Gustl”

The Study in Focus

For More Information

A pioneer in exploring the hidden workings of the human mind, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, has been called the most influential thinker of the twentieth century. Born into a Jewish family in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), Freud moved with his family to Vienna, Austria, where he lived from early boyhood until shortly before his death. After an education in which he studied the Greek and Latin classics as well as French and German literature, Freud turned to medicine and eventually to the infant science of psychology. By the late 1890s Freud had built on the insights of several coworkers to found the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Among other revolutionary ideas, psychoanalysis proposes that much human behavior is governed by unconscious motives and that in adults many of these motives stem from sexual impulses shaped by long-forgotten childhood experiences. At the turn of the century, Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which won him slow but growing recognition in the European medical community. Shortly afterward, he summarized his findings for a general readership in On Dreams. The volume foreshadows important concepts that Freud would elaborate in later books, such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Despite his immense body of work, Freud always considered The Interpretation of Dreams his masterpiece, a view with which most observers have agreed. More than simply an inquiry into dreams, it, as well as On Dreams, lays out Freud’s basic ideas of psychoanalytic theory.

Events in History at the Time of the Study

Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century

Freud’s highly original thinking grew partly out of the unusual environment in which he lived and worked. Vienna in the last decades of the nineteenth century was a city of turbulent and intensely creative cultural turmoil. In the long run, Freudian psychoanalysis would be the most influential product of this ferment, but Viennese writers, artists, designers, architects, and musicians all made original and significant contributions to European culture during this seminal period. Freud knew many of these avant-garde figures, and admired some though not all of them, for, unlike his psychological theories, Freud the man was socially quite conventional.

For example, Freud praised the psychological insight of the sophisticated novels of Arthur Schnitzler, who in the 1890s began to chronicle the sexual and other foibles of Viennese society.

From Arthur Schnitzler’s “Lieutenant Gustl”

The girl in the [concert] box who was flirting with me before …. Where is she now? … Already gone. … Stupid of me—I left my opera glasses at home. … I wish the cute little one over there would turn around. … 1 wonder whether I ought to consider marriage seriously… . There’s something to be said for always having a pretty little wife at home at your disposal.

(Schnitzler, p. 255)

Less to Freud’s strongly classical taste in art (though later influenced by his ideas) were the works of modernist Viennese artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, who helped create the movement known as art nouveau, an attempt to create an innovative style characterized by a sinuous, organic asymmetrical type of line. Meanwhile, innovative composers such as Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, and Arthur Schoenberg wrote music that reflected a similarly unconventional and iconoclastic spirit. The creative impulse that dominated 1890s Viennese artistic and intellectual culture aimed at overturning what its proponents saw as the stuffy and repressive values of traditional Austrian society. Not surprisingly, shocked establishment figures condemned the new styles and trends as morally degenerate, a charge they would also level against Freud as well.

Behind these cultural conflicts lay a political crisis that had its roots in the 1860s (the years of Freud’s childhood) and came to a head around 1900, just as he was publishing The Interpretation of Dreams and On Dreams. During the early nineteenth century, Austria had been the leading nation in the slowly declining Habsburg Empire, a multiethnic entity that included today’s Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, as well as other lands. In 1867, after Hungary’s unsuccessful attempt to secede from the empire, a political settlement called the Ausgleich, or Compromise, established the two largest parts of the former empire as separate states joined by a common monarch. The Ausgleich gave Hungary’s ethnic majority, the Magyars, constitutional rights that allowed them to dominate in Hungary; in Austria the German ethnic majority preserved its rights to dominate this part of the so-called “dual monarchy.” Appointing a liberal national government, Austria’s emperor Franz Joseph undertook extensive building, education, and other municipal projects to modernize the capital city, Vienna. But the tenuous settlement could reverse neither the empire’s decline, or the growing tendency in the Austrian half for the majority German population to blame minorities such as the Jews for the political problems.

As middle-class German-speaking Jews, the Freud family identified with the values of the liberal era, whose days were numbered. Its values were largely discredited after the fall of the liberal government in 1879 amid financial scandals and labor unrest. By the late 1890s, when Freud was recording the dreams he would analyze in The Interpretation of Dreams, Austrian society had grown increasingly polarized, as conservative governments sought to control dissatisfied workers and to placate rising nationalist movements within Austria’s borders. The most aggressive movement, led by Czech nationalists, demanded for Czechs the same constitutional rights as Germans (such as elevating Czech to the status of official language, alongside German). Among the areas affected by such tensions were Bohemia and Moravia (the Freuds’ original home), where Czechs comprised local majorities and took the political offensive against ethnic Germans. In response to Czech pressures, the government decreed in 1897 that state employees in Bohemia and Moravia know both German and Czech. German nationalists in Vienna and other cities responded with violent rioting, and the conservative prime minister, Count Kasimir Felix von Badeni, was forced to resign.

Freud’s dreams repeatedly touch on the bleak political situation of the 1890s. One dream, for example, “carried me back from the dreary present to the cheerful hopes of the ’Bürger’ Ministry,” by which Freud means the failed liberal government of his youth, which represented the interests of the middle-class, or bürgers (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 193). Before analyzing another dream, Freud relates the real-life incident that triggered it: while waiting at the train station in Vienna, he caught sight of Count Thun, the reactionary aristocratic leader who replaced Count Badeni as prime minister. Freud reacted with barely suppressed hostility to the count’s haughty manner, thinking “all sorts of insolent and revolutionary thoughts” (The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 209). Later that night, Freud dreamed of Count Thun contemptuously addressing a crowd of students.


In interpreting the Count Thun dream, Freud explicitly associates the count’s appearance in his dream with the most disturbing political development of the 1890s, Austria’s rising anti-Semitism, reflected in fact and fiction such as this reference to a character named Kopetzy: “He’s probably a Jew… . Supposed to be a lieutenant in the reserve as well! Well, he’d better not come to practice in our regiment! If they keep on commissioning so many Jews—then what’s the point of all this anti-Semitism?” (Schnitzler, p. 253). In real life, Freud and other Viennese Jews saw the anti-Semitism manifest itself in the alarming growth in popularity of the Christian Social Party, whose virulently anti-Semitic leader, Karl Lueger, won election as Vienna’s mayor in 1897 by portraying himself as the champion of the common people against wealthy Jewish capitalists. Anti-Semitism’s victory in Vienna reflected another aspect of liberalism’s collapse, for since the late eighteenth century, Austria’s German liberals had worked to extend greater civil rights to the empire’s Jewish minority. Middle-class Jews like Freud thus had more than one reason to identify with the defeated liberal tradition in Austria.

In the “Bürger Ministry” dream (described above), the “cheerful hopes” include Freud’s youthful ambition to become a lawyer and go on to a political career. This ambition had been stirred by the appointment of several Jews as ministers in the liberal government of 1868, and Freud recalls his family’s joy afterward. However, even during the liberal heyday, Austrian Jews remained largely excluded from politics. Medicine was one of the few professional fields open to Jews, but Freud’s advancement was slowed because he was Jewish. Throughout his life, Freud experienced intense frustration with anti-Semitism, and his discussions of his dreams take as a given that anti-Semitism will close doors to Austrian Jews. Ultimately he interprets his “Bürger Ministry” dream as representing a wish that two Jewish friends with stalled medical careers be exposed as incompetent. Suggesting that they have been denied promotion for incompetence and not for their Jewishness, is a way Freud reasons, for his dreaming mind to make his own chances of promotion seem more favorable, when in fact he knows better.


The naturalized American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (1903–90), himself born and educated in Vienna, suggests that Freud’s interest in sex and death arose partly from a “morbid” preoccupation with these issues in late-nineteenth-century Viennese culture as a whole (Bettelheim, p. 10). In his essay “Freud’s Vienna,” Bettelheim offers the example of the 1889 suicide of the 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf. Heir to the imperial throne and married to a Belgian princess whom he did not love, Rudoif murdered his lover. Baroness Vetsera, after having sex with her. He then took his own life. The murder-suicide fascinated and astounded the Viennese public. “It was a shockingly vivid demonstration of the destructive tendencies inherent in man which Freud would investigate and describe later” (Bettelheim, p. 10). In his The interpretation of Dreams, sex, death, and madness recur often in the dreams discussed—both Freud’s and his patients’. In addition to society’s focus on destructive tendencies, Bettelheim points to the mental instability of Rudolf’s mother, the Empress Elizabeth, as a much discussed subject of the day. Elizabeth herself “extoiied both death and madness in remarks such as ‘The idea of death purifies’ and ‘Madness is truer than life’” (Bettelheim, p. 10).

The early development of psychoanalysis

As a medical student in the 1870s, Freud studied under leading teachers in biology and physiology, hoping for a career in medical research. However, by the early 1880s he had met a woman named Martha Bernays, whom he hoped to marry, and he knew that research would not pay him enough to raise a family. Soon after becoming engaged, Freud joined Vienna’s General Hospital. There, for three years, he worked in one department after another: surgery, skin diseases, internal medicine, nervous diseases, psychiatry. Highly ambitious, he looked for a way to combine his research interests with a decent income and the prospect of advancement. Slowly, he began to focus on the mind, studying the ancient medical field of psychiatry (attempts to heal mental illness), then investigating the rapidly growing area of psychology (the study of the mind).

In 1885 Freud spent five months in Paris, where he studied under the well-known advocate


Doctors have long tried to help people whose mental processes have become disordered, even if psychiatric techniques before Freud’s groundbreaking work would strike the modern observer as often cruel and barbaric. On the other hand, modern psychology emerged as a separate discipline only in the late nineteenth century. It grew largely out of the two disciplines of philosophy and physiology, and at first limited itself to questions that arose from one or the other of these two branches of inquiry.’ Such questions centered around issues having to do with the relationship of the mind to the body, the nature of consciousness, how we know things, and how we perceive the world through our senses. Wilhelm Wundt, for example, a German physiologist later known as the father of experimental psychology, explored sensory perception in the world’s first psychological laboratory, which he established in Leipzig in 1879. Also during the 1870s, the American William James taught both psychology and philosophy at Harvard. Before focusing on philosophy exclusively, James pioneered studies in human consciousness, likening it to a purposeful stream in his book The Principles of Psychology (1890). One of Freud’s revolutionary achievements was to help establish the field of clinical psychology, which attempts to apply psychological knowledge to help cure mental illness.

of psychiatric hypnosis, Jean-Martin Charcot (whose hypnotic techniques hinted at the mind’s hidden activity). Returning to Vienna, Freud married Martha Bernays, and the couple began raising a family. They would have six children, to whom scholars have traced many of the children’s dreams cited in The Interpretation of Dreams and On Dreams. Also in the 1880s Freud established a partnership with physician Joseph Breuer, who had developed a method (the so-called “talking cure”) in which a patient, a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, apparently eased some physical symptoms by simply talking about them. In 1880, while caring for her fatally ill father, Bertha Pappenheim had begun suffering a number of physical complaints: headaches, loss of appetite, weakness, coughing. The symptoms grew worse, until she was regularly reporting blackouts, rapid mood shifts, and hallucinations involving black snakes, skulls, and skeletons. After these symptoms eased, Bertha Pappenheim (whom Breuer called Anna O. to protect her privacy) went on to become a well-known champion of women’s rights, but historians also consider her to have been the first patient of psychoanalysis.

In the 1890s, combining insights gained from the work of both Charcot and Breuer, as well as those from his friend Wilhem Fliess, Freud developed the ideas that would provide his approach, psychoanalysis, with a theoretical basis. (He first used the word psychoanalysis to describe his work in 1896.) Freud had opened a private medical practice before marrying, and as family life became more important to him, he moved his offices to rooms in the family home. The patients he saw there—many of them women—often reported problems similar to Bertha Pappenheim’s. In cases where Freud found no physical cause, he began to feel more and more confident about concluding that somehow these medical problems originated in the mind. Doctors in the nineteenth century grouped such symptoms together under the general name “hysteria,” and in 1895 Freud and Breuer published their work in a book called Studies in Hysteria. In the book they announced a technique called free association, in which they directed the patient to talk aimlessly, moving with apparent randomness from one topic to another. Free association, Freud believed, could give patients access to thoughts, feelings and memories hidden deep in the mind. Freud called this hidden part of the mind the “unconscious,” a term that had already been used by other writers (e.g., by Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841): “Silent with closed lips … unconscious, that they were specially brave” [Carlyle in Simpson and Weiner, p. 923]).

Freud had noticed that his patients’ free association often seemed to reveal childhood memories of a sexual nature, including being sexually molested. In mainstream nineteenth-century European culture, anything to do with sex was considered dirty and shameful. Strict rales governed conversation, especially between men and women, and sexual matters were considered unmentionable. Soon Freud was beginning to see sex—or rather, society’s repressive attitudes toward sex—as more and more responsible for psychological problems like hysteria. The stress of holding back or repressing sexual memories, thoughts, or impulses, Freud began to believe, somehow created hysteria’s symptoms. Freud’s growing focus on the role of sex made Breuer highly uncomfortable, and after 1895 Breuer lost interest in further research. On his own now, based on the reports of his patients, Freud went on to develop what he believed was a revolutionary idea: that all neuroses (or mental imbalances) stemmed from repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, usually by a father or male relative. How did the medical community respond? Leading authorities contemptuously rejected his so-called seduction theory, and in 1896 Freud himself had to admit that it was untenable. Many such memories, he now decided, represented fantasies rather than real events, though others undoubtedly reflected actual abuse.

Royal road to the unconscious

After a period of extreme disappointment at the failure of seduction theory, Freud collected himself. He still believed in an unconscious sexual origin for many neuroses, but now he began looking in a new direction for evidence. Even before abandoning seduction theory, Freud had begun to examine his own memories and feelings. For several years in the late 1890s, with growing rigor Freud analyzed himself through extensive free association. Among the childhood memories he unearthed were many of a sexual nature. Others seemed violent and aggressive, or combined sexuality with aggression. Freud also recorded and analyzed his dreams, for he had begun work on a book exploring his revolutionary conviction that dreams, if properly interpreted, could reveal important psychological truths. By 1898, as he wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, he was “deep in the dream book” (Freud in Gay, p. 104). “The interpretation of dreams,” he would write near the end of that book,”is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” (The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 608).

The Study in Focus

The contents

In 13 brief chapters—some as short as a few pages—On Dreams outlines the major ideas that Freud presents in greater detail in The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud begins by distinguishing three main lines of previous thinking about dreams. The first comes from ancient beliefs, reflected in sources such as Greek mythology, that dreams are put in the dreamer’s mind by divine or demonic powers. In modern times, poets, philosophers, and others have adapted this mythological explanation to reach related conclusions, attributing to dreams such spiritual functions as liberating an immaterial soul from the body. “In sharp contrast to this,” Freud writes of the second line of previous thought,”the majority of medical writers adopt a view according to which dreams scarcely reach the level of psychic phenomena at all” (Freud, On Dreams, p. 6). These scientists maintain that dreams simply represent random, disordered activity in the sleeping brain. Popular opinion, the third main strand of thought, generally holds that “dreams have a meaning” that “relates to the prediction of the future and … can be discovered by some process of interpretation of a content which is often confused and puzzling” (Freud, On Dreams, p. 7).

Freud claims that the popular conception is closest to the truth. Dreams do have meaning, and that meaning can be interpreted. Furthermore this meaning is not supernatural but psychological. Dreams spring from the same unconscious impulses that, when unbalanced, result in mental illnesses such as phobias and obsessions. Psychoanalysis has been found useful in exposing those impulses, and so Freud proposes using its methods to interpret dreams. As in psychoanalysis, Freud warns that resistance from the conscious mind can hinder dream interpretation, for those methods rely on pursuing precisely the thoughts and associations “normally dismissed by our critical faculty as worthless rubbish” (On Dreams, p. 10).

Freud suggests that a dream acts “as a sort of substitute for the thought processes” and adds that it is much more compact than the thoughts for which it stands (On Dreams, p. 15; emphasis original). Having distinguished between a dream’s surface details and the hidden thoughts the dream represents, Freud calls the details the dream’s “manifest content” and the hidden thoughts its “latent content” or “dream thoughts.” He further terms the transformation of latent content into manifest content the “dream work.” The dreams themselves he divides into three categories: dreams that are coherent and easily understandable; dreams that are coherent yet whose meaning remains mysterious; and dreams that are fragmentary and also mysterious.

To illustrate the first category, he describes several children’s dreams. In one, a little girl just under two years old was made ill by strawberries, which she nonetheless enjoyed eating. That night, she was heard in her sleep saying her name and adding, “Stwawbewwies, wild stwawbewwies, omblet, pap!” (On Dreams, p. 20; emphasis original). Freud suggests that she was dreaming of a favorite food that she believed she would no longer be allowed to eat, and characterizes this dream (and several others he cites) as “simple and undisguised wish fulfillments (On Dreams, p. 21; emphasis original). Adults, he writes, have similarly simple wish-fulfillment dreams.

In the other two more complex kinds of dream, the dream work proceeds through a process Freud calls “condensation,” by which manifest content takes on several or even many latent meanings. He gives an example of a fragmentary dream he had of a group of people near a swimming pool. Analyzing the dream, he realized it combined images from two paintings he had seen with the memory of a similar scene from his childhood. The features of two or more people can be similarly combined in dreams, and the interpretation depends on what emotional associations the people who make up the composite have for the dreamer. For example, in the longer Interpretation of Dreams, Freud describes a dream he had in which a figure physically resembled his brother, but spoke like, behaved like, and bore the name of a doctor whom Freud knew. Along with condensation, the dream work proceeds through “dramatization,” which transforms the dream thoughts into dynamic situations. Freud does not give an example of dramatization, but in The Interpretation of Dreams he explains that dramatization is what gives us the conviction that we experience a dream rather than merely thinking it.

Freud then introduces another concept that he calls “dream displacement,” in which the central element of a dream’s latent content is shifted or displaced into a peripheral role in the manifest content. In other words, the dream’s main meaning is often to be found in a part of the dream that seems vague or unimportant in our recollections of the dream. Displacement reflects Freud’s observation that dreams are triggered by trivial events, called “dream instigators,” of the dreamer’s recent past, most often the day before. Dreams can involve various degrees of displacement, but Freud suggests that the more trivial a dream appears to be, the more displacement is at work:

Where the content of the dream treats of insignificant and uninteresting… material, analysis uncovers the numerous associative paths connecting these trivialities with things that are of the highest psychical importance in the dreamer’s estimation. If what make their way into the content of dreams are impressions and material which are indifferent and trivial rather than justifiably stirring and interesting, that is only the effect of the process of displacement.

(On Dreams, p. 36)

Our dreams are also difficult to understand because the dream thoughts “are represented symbolically by means of metaphors and similes, in images resembling those of poetic speech” (On Dreams, p. 39). Things or people that in the real world have a logical connection, for example, will be close to each other in time or space in the dream, the way a painter might depict famous poets from different periods of history as standing next to each other, in a single setting that has poetic associations. In another example, if someone appears in a ridiculous situation in our dreams, it is likely that we harbor feelings of contempt for that person. Our own feelings create all dream situations, Freud declares: “no dream is prompted by considerations other than egoistic ones” (On Dreams, p. 46).

In addition to condensation, displacement, and symbolism, Freud proposes a fourth and final technique by which the mind accomplishes the dream work. Called “revision,” it works somewhat like waking thought and appears only in coherent dreams. Indeed, such dreams derive their coherence from revision, which amounts to a superficial attempt by the sleeping mind to interpret the dream content by arranging it into a story, which Freud suggests is always fragmentary in its original form. Revision allows us to awaken with the impression that a dream was well constructed and ordered.

Condensation and especially displacement are not peculiar to dreaming, Freud continues, but are psychological features of our normal waking lives. They give rise to such common phenomena as forgetting, slips of the tongue, and mistakes, all of which may appear random but in reality often conceal unconscious desires or motives. Displacement, which Freud calls “the heart of the problem,” leads him to a discussion of such hidden motives (On Dreams, p. 56). By misdirecting the dreamer’s attention, displacement hints at a dream’s essential purpose: to conceal dream thoughts that are unacceptable or inadmissible to the dreamer’s conscious mind. In psychoanalytical terms, the unconscious rejection or concealment of such thoughts is called “repression.” Repression operates like a censor, monitoring the passage of thoughts from the unconscious to the conscious. During sleep, the censor relaxes just enough to let some repressed thoughts slip by in disguised form.

Just as simple dreams represent undisguised wish fulfillments, more complex dreams, whether fragmentary or coherent, usually represent disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes. In some cases, the disguise is insufficient or missing altogether, causing the dreamer to awaken


A young woman who nevertheless had been married for many years dreamed she was at the theater with her husband. In the dream, her husband mentioned that a friend of hers, Elise L., had also wanted to come with her fiance. Since the engaged couple could only get three bad seats, the husband said, they had not come.

In analysis, Freud established the following associations in talking with the woman:

  • The dream situation reminded her of an actual incident when she had rushed to the theater to buy tickets in advance, only to find plenty of seats left at curtain time. Her husband had teased her about being in such a needless hurry.
  • The friend, Elise L., was three months younger than the woman (part of the significance of the number three).
  • Shortly before the dream, in real life the young woman had learned from Elise L. that she was engaged (this incident was the dream instigator.

Based on these facts, Freud concluded that the dream signified the woman’s repressed wish that she had not married as early as she had. Just as she rushed needlessly to the theater in real life, she had been in a needless hurry to find a husband and could have done better for herself if she had waited. The absurdity of the couple’s obtaining three seats represents the absurdity she unconsciously attributes to her decision to marry so quickly.

with a sense of anxiety. Contrary to a popular view that dreams disturb sleep, Freud suggests that dreams generally act as “the guardians of sleep” (On Dreams, p. 65). This explains the common experience of incorporating sensory stimuli into a dream. A repeated knock, for example, may appear as some similar sound woven into the dream. The sensation of needing to urinate is also commonly woven into dreams in this way, allowing us to continue sleeping rather than acknowledge the intrusion. Protecting sleep is thus an important part of the function of dreams.

Having laid the theoretical groundwork, Freud in conclusion refines his earlier thesis that dreams represent disguised wish fulfillments: “most of the dreams of adults are traced back by analysis to erotic wishes” (On Dreams, p. 70; emphasis original). Openly sexual dreams are common, but even those dreams that seem wholly unerotic in content, Freud insists, can usually be traced to repressed erotic wishes. The reasons for this are cultural as well as psychological:

No other group of instincts has been submitted to such far-reaching suppression by the demands of cultural education, while at the same time the sexual instincts are also the ones which, in most people, find it easiest to escape from the control of the highest mental agencies.

(On Dreams, p. 71)

This helps to explain the psychological value of disguising erotic thoughts with dream symbolism, in which sexual objects such as the genitals can be represented by everyday items bearing a metaphorical resemblance to them. For example,”long and stiff objects, such as tree trunks and sticks, stand for the male genital, while cupboards, boxes, carriages or ovens may represent the uterus” (On Dreams, p. 72). Freud points out that such symbolism is found not only in dreams, but also in fairy tales, jokes, folklore, and literature.

Forbidden wishes

Freud argues that forbidden wishes lie at the heart of dream production. Curiously, forbidden wishes also lie at the heart of several crises in Freud’s life as the theory took shape. In a seminal book on Viennese culture and politics at the end of the nineteenth century, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1980), historian Carl Schorske suggests that Freud’s dream theories emerged from a three-fold crisis in his life—political, professional, and personal.

On the political level, Austria was undergoing problems that reflected those of Europe as a whole: “The Habsburg Empire was pulling apart at the seams internally as Europe was internationally” (Schorske, p. 185). Nationality had become a divisive issue—people were newly showing a fervent passion for their regional affiliation. Also the practice of identifying with one’s social class became more common, as did divergent ways of looking at society and the place of humankind in it. It was a volatile time of social upheaval in both thought and deed. As a Jew, Freud had special reason for anxiety as the century drew to a close:

The fall of Vienna to Karl Lueger’s anti-Semites … was a stunning blow to the bearers of liberal culture, Jew and Gentile. The forces of racial prejudice and national hatred, which they had thought dispelled by the light of reason and rule of law, reemerged in terrifying force… . Sigmund Freud, by family background, conviction, and ethnic affiliation, belonged to the group most threatened by these new forces: Viennese liberal Jewry.

(Schorkse, p. 185)

Meanwhile, Freud’s professional and personal circumstances added an individual atmosphere out of which his dream theories emerged. On the professional level, Freud had experienced deep frustration due both to the failure of his seduction theory and to his slow advancement in the newly resurgent atmosphere of anti-Semitism. On a personal level, Freud’s troubles were exacerbated by the death of his father in 1896.

Each of these three crises can be seen as reflecting hidden wishes comparable to those that Freud sees as driving dream production. In political terms, Austria’s (and Europe’s) liberal rulers had for a time suppressed, or made forbidden, the wishes of hatred and prejudice, which were violently forcing themselves to the surface just as Freud was writing. (Those same destructive wishes would soon play a great part in touching off two world wars—ending in a Holocaust that nearly annihilated European Jewry.) Turning to Freud’s professional wishes, they were in several senses forbidden. Anti-Semitism thwarted his wishes for medical advancement just as it had thwarted his youthful dreams of a political career. On a deeper level, Freud himself “forbade” his own ambition, which at one point he calls “pathological” (The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 192). Feelings of guilt long kept him from engaging in the self-promotion ultimately required to secure the advancement he desired. Significantly, only after completing his dream books (which he viewed as his self-analysis) could Freud bring himself to call on powerful friends to put in a good word for him. Even then he felt deeply ambivalent about doing so. Finally, as The Interpretation of Dreams makes clear, Freud’s relationship with his father hinged on forbidden wishes, including a repressed wish for his father’s death. If Freud’s theories suggest that dreams grow out of forbidden wishes, the theories themselves emerged from a historical and autobiographical context in which hidden wishes played an important role.

Sources and literary context

The dreams on which Freud based his theories came from four sources. First and most important were his own recorded dreams. Freud acknowledges many of the dreams he discusses as his own, and several times openly declines to give embarrassing or indiscrete details. Scholars have suggested that many of those dreams he attributes to other sources were in fact Freud’s as well, leading to much speculation about the dreams’ biographical meaning. Other dreams have been traced to family members. For example, the strawberry dream (see above) has been attributed to Freud’s daughter Anna, later a famous psychoanalyst herself. In addition, Freud himself frequently attributes dreams he discusses to acquaintances (rarely to friends) and, finally, to patients. Nowhere does he identify the dreamer, except through fictitious names or initials.

Freud loved literature and read widely. He was inspired to go into medicine on hearing a poem,”Ode to Nature,” by his favorite poet, the highly influential German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Freud quotes Goethe frequently in The Interpretation of Dreams. Overall, like much late-nineteenth-century thought, Freud’s thinking was shaped most profoundly by the revolutionary ideas of English naturalist Charles Darwin. By establishing the fact that living organisms evolve, and suggesting natural selection as the primary means by which evolution occurs, Darwin’s book The Origin of Species (1859) founded modern biology. Freud repeatedly declared that his highest goal was to put psychology on a similarly sound scientific footing.

Reception and impact

Neither of Freud’s two books on dreams sold well in the years immediately following their publication. The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, sold only 351 copies in its first six years. For decades, Freud and his strongest supporters (such as his disciple and first biographer, Ernest Jones) claimed that scholarly reviewers either ignored the books or dismissed them in a few brief unfavorable reviews. The claims did much to reinforce what later observers have called the myth of Freud’s early isolation, a heroic picture that Freud and his followers perhaps deliberately fostered. In fact, however, more recent scholars have uncovered close to 40 scholarly reviews of the two books within a few years of their publication, and most of these were strongly favorable. In 1899, for example, the very first reviewer of The Interpretation of Dreams called the book “epoch-making,” while in 1901 a leading German psychologist, Paul Näcke, wrote that “the book is psychologically the most profound that dream psychology has produced so far” (Metzentin and Näcke in Sulloway, pp. 450–51).

By the 1910s both The Interpretation of Dreams and the shorter summary On Dreams had found a wide readership. In fact, by then Freud’s work had begun to make an indelible impact not just on psychology but on modern Western culture as a whole. An early form of many ideas that would later pass into common usage can be found in Freud’s discussions of dreams: examples include sibling rivalry and the Oedipal complex, in which a child feels sexual attraction towards a parent of the opposite sex and jealousy towards the other parent (see Oedipus the King, also in Literature and Its Times). Researchers today generally disagree with many details of Freud’s dream theory, including his claim that all dreams represent wish fulfillments. Most, however, would agree with Freud’s basic—and revolutionary—premise that dreams can tell us something significant about the hidden workings of the human mind.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans, and ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1955.

_____. On Dreams. Trans, and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1951.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1988.

Grinstein, Alexander. On Sigmund Freud’s Dreams. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968.

Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Signet, 1954.

Porter, Laurence M. The Interpretation of Dreams: Freud’s Theories Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Robertson, Ritchie. Introduction and Notes to The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Trans. Joyce Crick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Schnitzler, Arthur. “Lieutenant Gusti.” In Arthur Schnitzler: Plays and Stories. Trans. Richard L. Simon. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Schorske, Carl. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Vintage, 1981.

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