The Interpretation of Dreams

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The Interpretation of Dreams

Sigmund Freud 1899

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is universally considered the "father" of psychoanalysis, and many date the birth of psychoanalytic theory from the 1899 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams (copyright 1900). Although Freudian theory, since its inception, has been relentlessly attacked from all sides, critics and proponents alike agree that Freud's ideas have exerted a profound influence on twentieth-century thought and culture.

Throughout The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud analyzes his own dreams as examples to prove his new theory of the psychology of dreams. Freud makes a distinction between the "manifest," or surface-level, dream content and the "latent," or unconscious, "dream thoughts" expressed through the special "language" of dreams. He posits that all dreams represent the fulfillment of a wish on the part of the dreamer and maintains that even anxiety dreams and nightmares are expressions of unconscious desires. Freud explains that the process of "censorship" in dreams causes a "distortion" of the dream content; thus, what appears to be trivial nonsense in a dream, can, through the process of analysis, be shown to express a coherent set of ideas. The "dream work" is the process by which the mind condenses, distorts, and translates "dream thoughts" into dream content. Freud proposes that the ultimate value of dream analysis may be in revealing the hidden workings of the unconscious mind.

The Interpretation of Dreams presents Freud's early theories in regard to the nature of the unconscious dream psychology, the significance of childhood experiences, the psychic process of "censorship," the "hieroglyphic" language of dreams, and the method he called "psychoanalysis."

Author Biography

Sigismund Solomon Freud was born into a Jewish family in Freiberg, Moravia, on May 6, 1856. His father, Jacob, was a wool merchant, and his mother, Amalie Nathansohn, was Jacob's second wife. When Sigmund was born, his father was forty and his mother only twenty. The family moved to Leipzig in 1859 and to Vienna a year later where Freud remained until a year before his death.

In 1873, Freud enrolled in the University of Vienna to study medicine. Upon completing his degree, he obtained a position as lecturer in neuropathology at the University of Vienna and set up a private medical practice in an office adjoining his home. In 1895, he co-published Studies in Hysteria with Joseph Breuer in which they described their new method of the "talking cure." In 1886, he married Martha Bernays with whom he had six children.

A watershed event in Freud's life was the death of his father in 1896 to which he responded by embarking on several years of rigorous self-analysis of his feelings toward his father. In the process, he developed a new method of interpreting dreams as an expression of unconscious feelings. The result of this self-analysis was The Interpretation of Dreams, which was first published in 1899 and which marks the birth of psychoanalysis.

A series of publications followed as Freud's reputation grew and in spite of the amount of controversy regarding his theories. In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud developed the theory that everyday slips-of-the-tongue, as well as casual jokes, express unconscious desires that are repressed from direct expression; the term "Freudian slip" came to describe this phenomenon.

Beginning in 1902, Freud's office became the locus of a weekly meeting of Jewish psychologists known as the Psychological Wednesday Circle. In 1908, they renamed themselves the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, which soon became an international organization.

Freud's introduction to American scholars was heralded in 1909 by his series of lectures given at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, along with his colleagues Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi. These lectures were later published as Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1910), which remains a classic introduction to Freudian theory.

Freud also published a series of case studies, which have come to be known by such names as "Dora" (1905), "Little Hans" (1909), the "Rat Man" (1909), and the "Wolf Man" (1918). He continued to develop his basic theories throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Significant publications during this time include Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), and Moses and Monotheism (1939).

In 1938, Freud was forced to move with his family to London to escape the clutches of Nazi forces that had annexed Austria. Freud had developed cancer of the jaw (most likely from his lifelong habit of excessive cigar-smoking) and died of cancer in London in 1939.

Plot Summary

Freud opens The Interpretation of Dreams by stating the nature of his theoretical accomplishment in writing the book:

In the following pages I shall provide proof that there is a psychological technique which allows us to interpret dreams, and that when this procedure is applied, every dream turns out to be a meaningful, psychical formation which can be given an identifiable place in what goes on within our waking life.

The Scientific Literature on Dreams

Freud provides an overview of the scientific and theoretical findings on the interpretation of dreams up to that point in history. He notes that the first written work on dream psychology dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's tract On Dreams and Dream Interpretation. However, he claims that no convincing theory of dream interpretation has yet been formulated; he asserts, "In spite of being concerned with the subject over many thousands of years, scientific understanding of the dream has not got very far." He laments that "little or nothing touching the essential nature of the dream or offering a definitive solution to any of its riddles" has been accomplished.

All Dreams Are Wish Fulfillments

Freud observes that, while scientific opinion has come to dismiss the idea that dreams can be interpreted, "popular opinion" has "stubbornly" held on to the notion that dreams do indeed have meaning. He asserts that, contrary to the reigning scientific opinion, he will prove that it is possible to interpret dreams using a scientific method.

He explains that dreams have an "ulterior motive" whereby their meaning is other than it appears on the surface. He proposes a method by which a patient is encouraged to relax the normal impulse to "censor" unwanted thoughts to more easily call to mind the associations that the dream evokes. Freud refers to this state of mind as "uncritical self-observation"; the process was later called "free association."

Freud then proceeds to analyze a dream of his own by isolating its separate elements and describing the amalgam of personal associations that cluster around each element. He concludes that this dream "represents a certain state of affairs as being as I would wish it to be."

Freud's fundamental conclusion about dreams is that "wish-fulfillment is the meaning of each and every dream, and hence there can be no dreams besides wishful dreams." Further, dreams are not meaningless but are in fact "constructed by a highly elaborate intellectual activity."

Dream Distortion

Freud further asserts that even anxiety dreams and dreams that seem unpleasant at the surface level are in fact, when analyzed, revealed to be imaginary wish-fulfillments. He makes a distinction between the "manifest" content of the dream and its "latent" content; thus, while the "manifest" content may be distressing, the "latent" content, when analyzed, is always the fulfillment of a wish.

He explains that the process by which the latent content is disguised by the manifest content is via the mechanism of "dream distortion." He compares this process to that of "censorship"—whereby, even in sleep, the mind of the individual works to cover up his or her real desires through the invention of "pretense." He describes these two opposing impulses—the urge to express a desire and the effort to censor the expression of that desire—as "two psychical forces," which together act as the "originators of dream formation in the individual." While one of these forces works to express the wish, the other "imposes a censorship on the dream wish and by this censorship distorts its expression."

He states that the anxiety experienced by a dream with a "painful content" is in part an expression of the dreamer's effort to deny the desires expressed by the dream: "everyone has wishes he would not like to communicate to others, and wishes he prefers not to admit to himself." Taking into account the process of dream distortion, Freud amends his conclusion regarding the meaning of dreams to the statement: "the dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish."

Freud suggests that the ultimate value of dream interpretation to the psychoanalyst may be that it reveals insight into the workings of the unconscious mind.

The Material and Sources of Dreams

Freud points out that there are three primary sources from which the material of dreams is constructed. First, dreams always draw material from impressions made during the day before the night in which the dream takes place; he refers to this dream material as the "remnants," or "remains," of "impressions" made during the preceding day. Second, dream content can be drawn from what he calls "somatic sources"—actual physical impressions made upon the sleeper; for instance, a person who goes to bed thirsty may dream that he is drinking a glass of water. Third, Freud asserts, dream content is drawn from childhood experiences that may be long-forgotten in the waking mind of the dreamer.

He notes that it has often been observed that dream content frequently draws from seemingly trivial impressions, made either the previous day, during sleep, or in childhood. One tends to dream, not about the most important event of the day, but of the most insignificant matters. However, Freud insists that while the "manifest" content of dreams is trivial, their "latent" psychic meaning is never trivial. He explains this phenomenon as one of "psychical displacement," whereby important psychological matter is expressed in the dream by a process of "displacement" onto representative dream material that seems to be insignificant. Thus, Freud asserts that it is his "strict and single-minded opinion" that no dream is trivial in its "latent" content, for "the dream never wastes its time on trifles."

The Dream Work

Freud refers to the mind's process of dream formation as the "dream work." The "manifest dream content" includes the images, characters, dialogue, and so forth that appear in the dream. Freud describes the manifest dream content as being like a "rebus," or "picture puzzle"; as such, it is "given as it were in the form of hieroglyphs whose signs are to be translated one by one into the language of dream thoughts."

The first element of the "dream work" is the process of "condensation." Freud here refers to the phenomenon in dreams by which many ideas may be "condensed" into a single image; for example, a single character in a dream may, in the form of a "composite figure," be identified by the dreamer as representing three different people.

The second element of dreams is that of "displacement," whereby one element within a dream may stand as a substitute for an idea that it does not literally represent; for example, the figure of a queen in a dream may represent the mother of the dreamer.

The third element is that of representation—the phenomenon by which ideas are expressed through a dream in non-verbal ways. One task of the dream analysis is thus to translate dream images into verbalized "dream thoughts."

"Secondary revision" is the process by which the conscious mind of the dreamer intrudes upon the dream thoughts to impose an artificial coherence to the dream. For instance, it sometimes occurs that a dreamer, while still in the midst of a dream, has the thought, "After all, it's only a dream." This process of "secondary revision" continues after waking, when the dreamer attempts to recall the dream as a coherent narrative. The effect of this process is that "the dream loses its appearance of absurdity and incoherence and approaches the pattern of an intelligible experience." When the "secondary revision" does not impose this veneer of intelligibility, "we are helpless in the face of a meaningless heap of fragmentary material."

However, Freud states that this apparent coherence of the dream is the work of the conscious mind, the function of the agency of "censorship," which seeks to obscure the "latent" meaning of the dream, rooted in the unconscious desires of the dreamer. To analyze a dream, the coherence imposed by the process of "secondary revision" must be ignored so that the "latent dream content" may be accessed.

Key Figures

Josef Breuer

Josef Breuer (1842-1925) was an Austrian physician with whom Freud co-wrote Studies in Hysteria in 1895. Their findings were based on Breuer's work with a patient, referred to by the pseudonym "Anna O.," who suffered from hysteria. Breuer found that Anna O.'s symptoms were relieved after he put her in a state of mind resembling hypnosis and she described an early childhood experience that had brought on her illness. Anna O. called this process the "talking cure," a term that Freud and Breuer adopted to describe their new method. By the late 1890s, Freud, in his characteristic way, found that his intense ten-year-long friendship with Breuer had cooled, in part due to differences regarding psychoanalytic theory. However, Freud considered Breuer, and not himself, to be the true father of psychoanalytic theory. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud refers to Breuer by the pseudonym "Dr. M." in describing his appearance in the "Irma" dream. Freud had this dream the night after writing down the case history of a patient named Irma to present it to Breuer for further consultation. In the dream, Breuer appears with several colleagues who examine Irma. In this same dream, Breuer appears as a "composite figure" with one of Freud's brothers; he makes the association between the two that "I was out of humor with both of them" for rejecting suggestions he had recently made to them. Freud concludes that the dream is in part a wish-fulfillment in which he portrays "Dr. M." (Breuer) as an incompetent physician, thus reassuring himself of his own professional competence, which had been put into question (in his waking life) with regard to his only partial success in treating Irma.


See Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke


See Professor Ernst Fleischl von Marxow

Wilhelm Fliess

Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), a Berlin physician, was a close friend of Freud's and an important professional influence. An unfortunate incident occurred in 1895 when Freud referred a patient of his, a female hysteric, to Fliess for an operation on her nose. Freud at that time subscribed to Fliess's theory that the nose and the sexual organs were linked. Because of his own theory that hysteria was sexual in nature, he thought that by operating on her nose, Fliess might be able to cure the patient of hysteria. After the operation, however, the patient suffered from near-fatal nosebleeds. When a different physician examined her, he found that Fliess had accidentally left half a meter of gauze in her nasal cavity. This was quite an embarrassment to Freud, who nonetheless felt obliged to defend his friend's professional competence. The figure of Fliess, referred to as "my Berlin friend Fl., " appears in several of Freud's dreams, as described in The Interpretation of Dreams. One of these dreams is sparked by criticism in a professional journal of Fliess's recent book. Freud, fearing professional criticism of his own work, has a dream in which he stands in for Fliess and the book critic is discredited. Freud's dream is thus a wish-fulfillment that those who may come to criticize him professionally are unfounded in their opinions. Freud uses this as an example to demonstrate that "there is no dream that is not prompted by egoistic movies." In this dream, for example, the dreamer (Freud) "makes my friend's case my own." Another dream is sparked by Freud's concern that Fliess may soon die as the result of a recent operation. The dream recalls associations with a past habit on the part of Freud of arriving late to work. In Fliess's case, Freud fears he may arrive in Berlin (where Fliess lives) "too late"—that Fliess will already be dead. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1877-1904, edited by Jeffrey Masson, was published in 1985.

Media Adaptations

  • A fictionalized account of the life of Freud was the subject of Freud, the 1962 Hollywood movie directed by John Huston and starring Montgomery Clift in the title role.
  • Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud, was recorded on audiocassette by Audio Scholar, read by Sydney Walker, in 1990.
  • Sigmund Freud is a biographical video recording of the life of Freud, first broadcast as part of a television series. It was produced by A&E Home Video and distributed by the New Video Group in 1997.

Amalia Freud

Amalia (maiden name Nathansohn) Freud (1835-1930) was Freud's mother. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he describes a dream in which one figure, a woman in a kitchen rubbing dough between her hands to make dumplings, evokes associations with his mother. In another dream, from age seven or eight, he dreamed that his mother had died. In these dreams, his mother is associated with both nourishment and death. Freud's strong childhood attachment to his mother and his corresponding feelings of jealousy toward his father became the basis of his theory of the Oedipus complex, one of the fundamental theories of psychoanalysis.

Anna Freud

Anna Freud (1895-1982) was Freud's youngest child. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud describes a dream from Anna's second year of life. She had gotten sick in the morning and was given nothing more to eat for the rest of the day. Her nurse had attributed the illness to eating too many strawberries. That night, Anna was heard to utter in her sleep: "Anna F[r]eud, strawberry, wild strawberry, scrambled eggs, mash." Freud observed that this was clearly the expression of a wish-fulfillment on the part of the child, who had been denied food of any kind and strawberries in particular: "the menu no doubt included everything that would have seemed to her a desirable meal." Having been told that she had eaten too many strawberries, Freud notes, "she took her revenge in her dream for this annoying report." As an adult, Anna maintained a very close relationship with her father, becoming his constant companion toward the end of his life. She also made a name for herself as a psychoanalyst in her own right, pioneering in the fields of child and adolescent psychology. From 1925 to 1928, she served as chairman of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In 1938, she fled Nazi-occupied Vienna with the Freud family to settle in England. In 1947, she founded the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic in London, serving as director from 1952 until her death in 1982. Anna Freud: A Biography, by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, was published in 1988.

Jacob Freud

Jacob Freud (1815-1896) was Freud's father. Freud's process of mourning his father's death in 1896 inspired the years of self-analysis that resulted in the writing of The Interpretation of Dreams. Throughout the book, Freud mentions several dreams that include either direct or indirect associations with his father. In many of these dreams, Freud expresses concern that he impress his father with his professional accomplishments. Freud recalls that his father had once said to his mother of the young Sigmund, "nothing will come of the boy" (as in, he will never amount to anything). He explains the impact of such a comment on his unconscious mind:

It must have been a terrible blow to my ambition, for allusions to this scene occur in my dreams again and again and are invariably connected with enumerations of my successes and achievements, as though I wanted to say: 'You see, something did come of me.'

Freud's early childhood attachment to his mother and his consequent jealousy toward his father became the basis of one of his fundamental theories of psychoanalysis: the Oedipus complex. Freud drew from the Greek myth of Oedipus, who, as ordained by fate, unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud theorized that a universal developmental stage for all (male) children is the feeling of strong sexual attachment to the mother and a corresponding desire to kill the father, whom he sees as his arch rival.

Joseph Freud

Joseph Freud was Freud's uncle. Freud had negative associations with his uncle, who was imprisoned in 1866 in connection with counterfeit money. He recalls that his father had always told him his uncle Joseph "had never been a bad man, he had been a numbskull." Freud describes a dream in which his uncle Joseph appears as a "composite figure" with two of his colleagues. He concludes that this association served the function of identifying one of these colleagues as a "criminal" and the other as a "numbskull" (although Freud makes clear that, in his waking life, he has nothing but the highest regard for both men).

Martha Freud

Martha (maiden name Bernays) Freud (1861-1951) was Freud's wife, whom he married in 1886 and with whom he had six children. Freud describes several of his dreams that call to mind associations with Martha. In one dream, his patient, Irma, suffers from abdominal pains, which remind him of a symptom suffered by his wife long ago. He observes that this dream included many indications suggesting his concern for the health of his friends, patients, and family. In one of Freud's most famous examples of his own dreams, a simple scenario in which he has just written a monograph on a certain unspecified plant, Freud is able to connect this reference to the plant cyclamen, which is his wife's favorite flower. He notes that reference to this flower gives him a sense of guilt because he rarely brings flowers to his wife although she would like it if he did.

Martin Freud

Martin Freud was Freud's second child and eldest son, born in 1889. Freud mentions a dream of Martin's, when he was eight years old, in which, having read stories from Greek mythology the previous day, he dreamed he was "riding in a chariot with Achilles, and Diomedes was the charioteer." Freud uses this as an example of the way in which children's dreams can be interpreted as simple wishfulfillments. Martin Freud's Sigmund Freud: Man and Father was published in 1958.

Mathilde Freud

Mathilde Freud was Freud's eldest child, born in 1887. He describes two of Mathilde's childhood dreams in a discussion that demonstrates the simple wish-fulfillments expressed in the dreams of children. Mathilde is further mentioned in Freud's discussion of his important dream featuring a patient of his named Irma. By association, the dream calls to mind his daughter Mathilde in two different ways: an illness observed in Irma in the dream resembles an illness suffered by Mathilde several years earlier; the name Mathilde also calls to mind a patient of Freud's by the same name whose treatment he had handled badly.

Oliver Freud

Oliver Freud was Freud's third child, born in 1891, whom he named after the famous English statesman Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Freud mentions an indirect reference to Oliver in a dream concerning his own ambitious nature. He had named this son after "a great figure in history who had attracted me powerfully when I was a boy." He explains that his own aspirations to greatness were transferred onto Oliver with the act of naming him after a "great figure in history." Freud comments, "It is not difficult to see how the vaulting ambition which the father has suppressed is transferred in his thoughts onto his children."

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is universally considered the "father" of psychoanalysis, a term that he first used in 1896. Upon his father's death, Freud began a process of intensive self-analysis, which resulted in the writing of The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). This "magnum opus" (as many have called it) puts forth Freud's early theories of the unconscious, which he was to develop throughout the remaining forty years of his life. The Interpretation of Dreams includes extensive, detailed analysis of many of Freud's own dreams, as well as those of his friends, family, and clinical patients. He asserts that, contrary to the current scientific opinion, dreams are meaningful and that though they often seem nonsensical and absurd, dreams actually function according to a logic and language different from that of waking life. It is the task of the analyst to "translate" the language of dreams, which resembles a form of "hieroglyphics," or word-pictures, into everyday speech. Through this process, analysis of dream-content can reveal valuable insight into the workings of the unconscious mind.


Freud's nephew is referred to in The Interpretation of Dreams simply as John. Although John was Freud's nephew, he was a year older than Freud, and the two had been constant playmates throughout their childhood. Freud mentions John in describing a dream that makes reference to "very early scenes of the childhood quarrels" between the two boys. He describes his "complicated infantile relationship" to John as one which became a template for his later relationships, both personal and professional, to other men:

Until I was almost four we had been inseparable, had loved each other and fought each other; and this childhood relationship has been decisive … for all my later feelings for companions of my own age.

Freud's assessment of the effect of his relationship with John on later relations is that "all my friends are in some sense incarnations of this first figure." He elaborates upon this dynamic:

An intimate friend and a hated foe have always been necessary to my emotional life; I have always been able to create for myself afresh embodiments of both, and not infrequently my childhood ideal went so far that friend and foe coincided in one person—no longer at the same time, of course, or switching repeatedly from one to the other, which was probably the case in my earliest childhood years.

Biographers frequently refer to this dynamic in Freud's life, particularly in discussion of his famous irrevocable falling-out with his once intimate friend and devoted disciple Carl Jung. A similar dynamic was enacted in Freud's relationship to friend and colleague Josef Breuer.

Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke

Ernst Brücke (1819-1892) was a German professor of physiology at the University of Vienna from 1849 to 1891. While in medical school, Freud worked in Brücke's physiological laboratory and through him was influenced by the work of Hermann von Helmholtz. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud describes one of his dreams, which takes place in Brücke's laboratory where Freud has been assigned the task of dissecting his own pelvis. Upon analysis, Freud associates the dissection of his pelvis with the process of self-analysis, which resulted in the writing of The Interpretation of Dreams. The dream also calls to mind an occasion when he was a student and Brücke reprimanded him for arriving late to the laboratory several times. Freud concludes that the dream is in part a wish-fulfillment that he submit his book for publication before it is too "late"—that is, before he grows old and dies.

Professor Ernst Fleischl von Marxow

Ernst Fleischl (1846-1891) was a close friend of Freud's. His death from cocaine addiction was both personally painful and professionally embarrassing to Freud for several reasons. One of Freud's earliest scientific accomplishments was the discovery that cocaine could be used as an anaesthetic, a finding that he published in 1884 (before anyone realized that cocaine use is both habit forming and unhealthy). Freud had encouraged Fleischl to use cocaine (instead of morphine to which Fleischl was already addicted) as a painkiller to alleviate his health problems. Fleischl subsequently developed an addiction to cocaine, which eventually led to his death. Freud mentions several dreams in which Fleischl appears, either directly or by association. In a dream that includes several references to food and nourishment, Freud associates the name Fleischl with the German word fleisch, meaning "flesh" or "meat." In another dream, Fleischl appears in a laboratory where Freud studies among several colleagues. In the dream, these colleagues are acknowledged to be dead.


The Unconscious

Freud makes an important distinction between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The concept of the "unconscious" was not itself Freud's invention and had already been in use at the time of his writing. However, Freud developed his theory of the unconscious far beyond any previous understanding of it. He makes a distinction between "manifest," or conscious, dream content—the surface-level content of the dream, which can be described by the dreamer upon waking—and the "latent," or unconscious, "dream thoughts," which are only revealed upon analysis. He demonstrates that, through dream analysis, it is possible to access the workings of the unconscious mind, which is less accessible in the waking thought process.

Childhood Experiences

One of Freud's original insights was his assertion of the importance of early childhood experiences on the unconscious mind, as expressed in dream thoughts. He observed that, while dreams draw manifest material from the "remnants" of the previous day, this material could always be linked back to associations drawn from early childhood. More specifically, Freud asserted that the wishes expressed through dreams are always rooted in infantile desires that have been repressed and yet remain an active part of the unconscious psychical life of the adult. Thus, childhood experiences play a significant role in the unconscious mind of the adult dreamer. For example, in analyzing his own dreams, Freud recalled significant events from his childhood, including interactions with his mother and father, as well as a formative friendship with his nephew (who was a year older than he) during his youth.

Psychoanalysis: The "Talking Cure"

The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) followed Freud's book Studies in Hysteria (1895), which was co-written with Josef Breuer. In Studies in Hysteria, Freud and Breuer put forth their findings that patients suffering from hysteria experienced some relief from their symptoms through a method one patient (given the pseudonym "Anna O.") termed the "talking cure." In a hypnotic-like state, the patients in these case studies described significant childhood experiences that had first brought on their symptoms. Freud and Breuer observed that, through the process of the patient describing these memories, some of the symptoms of hysteria were dispelled. They concluded that hysterics "suffer mainly from reminiscences." This was the beginning of what developed into Freud's method of psychoanalysis, in which his patients were encouraged to describe dreams and childhood experiences that could be clues to their unconscious desires and fears. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud extended this method, based on his finding that many patients in the process of "free association" spoke of their dreams.

Censorship and Free Association

Freud makes much of the process of "censorship," which functions to conceal unconscious desires from the conscious mind of the individual. Thus, desires and wishes that are deemed unacceptable or inappropriate are "censored" from the conscious thoughts. Further, although unconscious desires are expressed through dream thoughts, the work of censorship functions to distort the content of dreams so that, even in sleep, the wishes and desires of the individual are disguised. Freud later referred to the psychic agent of "censorship" as the "superego."

Freud's method of dream analysis essentially functions to undo the process of censorship to bring to light the buried desires of the individual. The process of treating patients, including the dream analysis, thus requires that the patient be put in a state of mind that relaxes the process of censorship—catches the censor off guard, so to speak. In earlier work, Freud and Breuer used hypnosis to this effect. However, Freud found that, if the patient lies down on a couch and is put in as unguarded a state as possible, a similar result could be reached without hypnosis. Freud called this state one of "unguarded self-reflection" and the process one of "free association," whereby the patient was encouraged to freely express whatever mental associations came to mind in the course of analysis.

Topics for Further Study

  • Read one of the lectures from Freud's Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1910). What is his central theoretical point in this lecture? To what extent do you agree or disagree with his conclusions?
  • Carl Jung was Freud's most famous disciple with whom he had a falling-out over differences in psychoanalytic theory. Learn more about Jung and his contributions to psychoanalytic theory, particularly his theories of dream psychology. In what ways does Jung's theory of dream psychology differ from that of Freud? To what extent do you find his ideas convincing?
  • Learn more about current approaches to psychology and psychotherapy. What are some of the more significant differences between current approaches and those of Freud? What similarities remain?
  • Freud's life was deeply affected by the status of Jews in Vienna during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Learn more about Jewish life and culture and the expression of anti-Jewish sentiment in Vienna during Freud's lifetime (1856-1939).
  • Analyze a recent dream of your own based on Freud's theory of dream analysis. Do you find this analysis of your own dream convincing or insightful? Can you think of another way to interpret the same dream?
  • Freud drew some of his most important theories from examples of Greek mythology. Find a collection of Greek myths, such as Mythology, by Edith Hamilton, and read one of the myths. What insight does this myth offer into human psychology and behavior?

The Language of Dreams

Freud's aim in The Interpretation of Dreams is to demonstrate that dreams are by no means nonsensical or meaningless but in fact operate in a rational fashion, according to the "language" of dreams. To make sense of dreams, however, the analysis must involve a process of translating the dream into a comprehensible language of "dream thoughts." Freud compares the language of dreams to that of hieroglyphics, which communicate in a series of images that can be translated into spoken language. He further compares the process of dream analysis to that of deciphering a particular word-image puzzle called a "rebus," which is the presentation of a series of apparently unrelated visual symbols, each of which must be interpreted individually to represent a word or sound and then recombined to form a coherent sentence. Freud asserts that the dream analysis similarly requires a process of isolating individual elements of the dream to tease out the multiple associations that each evokes in the dreamer. He explains that dreams only appear to be absurd, trivial, and nonsensical when they are assumed to operate according to the same logic used in waking life. He asserts that the logic upon which dreams operate is not, contrary to surface-level appearance, "more negligent, more unreasonable, more forgetful, more incomplete, say, than waking thought"; rather, the logic of the language of dreams "is qualitatively something completely different from" waking thought processes "and so at first not comparable to it." However, when translated through dream analysis, the thought process of dreams reveals glimpses of the rich unconscious life of every dreamer.


Narrative Voice

Freud made a bold move in choosing to write The Interpretation of Dreams, a "scientific" treatise, in the first person narrative voice—meaning that he inserts himself into the text as an individual, using the pronoun "I." Freud's theoretical insights, which he puts forth in The Interpretation of Dreams, are a direct result of several years of intensive self-analysis; thus, he analyses his own dreams as examples to prove his theory of dream interpretation. He explains that to demonstrate his theory, he found that his own dreams provided "an abundant and convenient fund of material coming from a more-or-less normal person and relating to a variety of occasions in daily life," in part due to the fact that "the conditions for self-observation are more favourable than the conditions for the observation of others." He acknowledges at several points throughout the book the personal risk and embarrassment involved in so publicly delving into the depths of his own psyche, thereby revealing many personal feelings about his friends, family, and colleagues:

Reporting my own dreams, however, turned out to be inextricably tied to revealing more of the intimacies of my psychical life than I could wish or than usually falls to the task of an author who is not a poet, but a scientist. This was painful and embarrassing, but unavoidable; I have bowed to it then, so that I should not entirely do without presenting the evidence for my psychological conclusions.

So strong was his sense of embarrassment at exposing himself in this manner that Freud withheld the book from publication for a year after he had completed writing it.

Nonfiction Genres: Scientific Treatise and Autobiography

Many critics have acknowledged the tension in The Interpretation of Dreams between Freud's efforts to present his groundbreaking theory in an objective manner acceptable to the scientific community and his choice to present personal material from a subjective perspective, based on experiences from his own life. Ritchie Robertson, in an Introduction to the 1999 translation, observes that the book is in part a "semi-disguised autobiography" of Freud, revealing much about his childhood, family of origin, social milieu, and adult relationships. At the same time, Freud took pains to satisfy the requirements of the scientific community, beginning the book with an overview of the "Scientific Literature on the Problems of Dreams" although he was not particularly interested in this material. Translator Joyce Crick refers to this grafting of scientific and personal narrative in The Interpretation of Dreams, calling it a "treatise-cum-autobiography." Crick describes several different "registers" in which the book is written. The "theoretical," or scientific, mode is written in the "discursive, formal language of the argued treatise, presenting evidence, argument, rebuttal, qualification, inference." Another major "register" in which the book is written, according to Crick, is the "narrative" mode, used in the "preambles" and descriptions of Freud's dreams.

Literary References and Allusions

Freud is well known for the rich array of literary references on which much of his writing relies. His central theoretical construct of the Oedipus Complex, for example, is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, and the plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (496-406 b.c.). Throughout his prolific body of psychoanalytic theory, Freud draws many examples from the plays of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he makes reference to some twenty different literary figures from throughout history, including French, English, and Greek, as well as German, literature. His reliance on examples from world literature in part explains the lasting impact of Freudian theory on the field of literary theory and criticism in the late twentieth century where his influence is as pervasive and enduring as it is in psychology. One may even regard Freud's dream analysis as parallel to literary analysis, as he makes much use of word play and verbal allusion in dissecting the narrative content of his dreams. Some critics have even come to regard Freud himself as a kind of poet of the mind, interpreting the everyday experiences, dreams, and memories of each individual as a literary creation, rife with literary allusion, symbolism, and allegorical or mythological meaning. Jonathan Lear observes, in a 1995 article in the New Republic, that one of Freud's greatest contributions is the realization that "creativity is no longer the exclusive preserve of the divinely inspired, or the few great poets," for, "from a psychoanalytic point of view, everyone is poetic; everyone dreams in metaphor and generates symbolic meaning in the process of living."

Historical Context

Freud's Austria

Freud's home of Vienna is the capital of Austria, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled by the Habsburg Dynasty, from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. The Habsburg Empire included areas that are now parts of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria.

The Eighteenth Century: Maria Theresa and Joseph II

From 1740 to 1780, the Habsburg Empire was ruled by Empress Maria Theresa, the first woman to occupy this position. In 1737, her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Thereafter, the house of Habsburg was known as Habsburg-Lorraine. Maria Theresa's right to rule the empire was challenged in the War of the Austrian Succession, which lasted from 1740 to 1748. Upon victoriously settling this power dispute, Maria Theresa successfully instituted wide-reaching reforms in the military, financial, and administrative concerns of the empire, strengthening and consolidating her power in all of these areas. She also implemented a public school system designed to offer education to the lower echelons of society.

Freud mentions the empress Maria Theresa in a dream, which features an image from the reproduction of a woodcut that appeared in a book about the history of Austria. In Freud's dream, his father stands in the place of the empress, surrounded by a crowd. He concludes that his dream is a wishfulfillment on his part, as a father himself, " to be a pure and great presence to one's children after one's death."

When Maria Theresa's husband died, her son Joseph II aided her in ruling the empire until her death in 1780, when he became emperor. Joseph II, continuing his mother's policy of reform, reigned until his death in 1790. One of his more significant accomplishments was the declaration of the 1781 Edict of Toleration, which extended religious tolerance to Jews and Protestants. This was a particularly significant change for the Jews of Austria, allowing them to enter universities and occupy trades from which they had previously been banned. In 1781, Joseph II also extended important legal rights to the peasants.

In one dream, Freud makes a statement that refers to the inscription on the pedestal of an equestrian statue to Emperor Joseph II. He concludes that this dream expressed his wish to "raise a monument to my friend," recently deceased, whose name was also Josef.

The Nineteenth Century: The Revolutions of 1848

In February 1848, a revolution centralized in Paris inspired rebellions that broke out in major cities throughout Europe, many of them in the Habsburg Empire. In March, an uprising in Vienna, calling for liberal reform, led to violent confrontation between protestors and authorities. As a concession, the emperor removed from office Klemens Fürst von Metternich, the minister of foreign affairs, whom many viewed as an oppressor and enemy of the people. Nonetheless, rebellion and violence continued in Vienna throughout the year. Rebellion had simultaneously broken out throughout the empire, with varying degrees of success, in Hungary and Italy and among the Slavic and German populations. In May, the emperor and government fled Vienna, fearing for their safety. They returned to the city in August, however, and in October, the Habsburg army regained control of the city, executing many of the revolutionary leaders. Some effort was made on the part of the government to formulate a constitution, but the emperor ultimately defeated this initiative. One genuine concession on the part of the emperor was the full emancipation of the peasants and serfs.

Compare & Contrast

1278: The Habsburg Empire acquires Austria and makes Vienna its capital city.

1860: Freud's family moves to Vienna.

1867: The Habsburg Empire centralizes authority over Hungary in Vienna, thus creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

1914: World War I is initiated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Serbian nationalist.

1916-1918: With the death of Francis Joseph, Charles becomes emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

1918: Following World War I, Emperor Charles is forced to abdicate, and the Habsburg Empire is formally dissolved into several independent nations, including an Austrian republic. Vienna is made the capital of the newly formed republic.

1938-1945: Austria is occupied by German forces under Hitler, who declares it part of "Greater" Germany. He declares Vienna a German province and renames it "Greater" Vienna.

1945-1955: In the wake of World War II, Austria is divided into four regions, each occupied by one of the Allied forces. Vienna is divided into four separate occupation zones.

1955: In the Austrian State Treaty, Austria is reestablished as a sovereign nation, with Vienna as its capital, and is declared a permanently neutral country.

1990s: Austria joins the European Union in 1995. Austria and Switzerland have come to be known as the "neutral core" of Europe. As a neutral city, Vienna has become an international conference center and home of many world organizations.

1781: Emperor Joseph II of the Habsburg Empire establishes the Edict of Toleration, which extends religious freedoms to Protestants and Jews.

1873: A stock market crash in Austria inspires virulent anti-Semitism, as many citizens blame Jews for the economic crisis.

1895: The highly influential anti-Semitic politician Karl Lueger is elected to the Austrian Parliament.

1897: Lueger becomes mayor of Vienna.

1938-1945: During the German occupation of Austria, approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population of Vienna flee to escape Nazi persecution. Freud and his immediate family are among those who flee to England. Most of the Jews who remain in Vienna, including four of Freud's sisters, are killed in the Holocaust.

1972-1981: Suspected Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim represents Austria as secretary-general of the United Nations.

1986-1992: International controversy is sparked by the election of Waldheim as president of Austria in 1986. In 1987, a previously suppressed United States Justice Department report reveals that Waldheim was (as stated in Encyclopaedia Britannica) "a key member of Nazi units responsible for executing prisoners, killing civilians, identifying Jews for deportation, and shipping prisoners to slave labour camps." Nevertheless, Waldheim retains office as president until 1992.

1994: For the first time in history, the Austrian government publicly accepts responsibility for its participation in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Vienna is the site of the largest ever United Nations World Conference on Human Rights.

Freud describes a dream he had in which the general atmosphere "makes something of the impression of a fantasy transporting the dreamer to the revolutionary year of 1848." He explains that this element of the dream had been sparked by the national celebration in 1898 of the fifty-year anniversary of the revolution. In one part of the dream, Freud identifies himself with one of the student leaders of the 1848 rebellion.

Count Thun

Count Franz Anton Thun was the governor of Freud's native land of Bohemia from 1889 to 1895 when he resigned. From 1898 to 1899, he was prime minister of Austria. In 1911, he was made a prince and was reinstated as governor of Bohemia until 1915. He died in 1916. Count Thun's checkered political career was the result of opposition by both Czech and German nationalists agitating against the rule of the Habsburg Empire.

Reference to Count Thun is made in Freud's "revolutionary" dream, described above. In his "preamble" explaining the actual events of the day, which contributed to the dream content, Freud explains that he had seen Count Thun in a train station on his way to see the emperor. Freud recalls a joke frequently made in the popular press, referring to Count Thun as Count Nichtsthun, which means Count "do-nothing" in German. Freud explains that, while in fact Count Thun was going to a "difficult visit to the Emperor," Freud himself is the real Count "do-nothing," as he is on vacation, taking his leisure. Freud concludes that the "spirit of rebellion" that infuses this dream is in part a wish-fulfillment to rebel against the authority of his father, who is associated with Count Thun.

The Twentieth Century

Beginning in 1848, the Habsburg Empire was ruled by Francis Joseph, who reigned until his death 1916. He was succeeded by Charles, whose reign lasted only two years. The empire was formally dissolved in 1918 in the wake of World War I when Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria became independent nations.

In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria and declared it a part of "Greater" Germany. Freud's books had been among the first to be burned in Nazi Germany, and the Freud family was put under house arrest for several months until they were given permission to leave the country. Freud, then eighty-two, was forced to sign a document stating that he had not been ill-treated by the Nazis; with great irony, he added, in his own handwriting, "I can most warmly recommend the Gestapo to anyone" (as quoted in the Encyclopedia of World Biography). The family took refuge in London where Freud died a year later.

Critical Overview

The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud's magnum opus, was first published in 1899 but was given a copyright date of 1900 to associate it with the new century. This proved prophetic, as the book's impact on twentieth-century thought and culture has been immeasurable.

In a Preface to the third (revised) English edition, Freud himself said of his seminal work—which, he observes, "surprised the world"—that it represents "the most valuable of all the discoveries it has been my good fortune to make," adding that "insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime."

Initial Reception

Freud was gravely disappointed by the initial reception of The Interpretation of Dreams, which was, according to Ritchie Robertson in an Introduction to the 1999 translation, "muted but respectful"; it sold only 350 copies in the first six years of publication. However, as Freud's reputation as the founder of psychoanalysis grew throughout the first decade of the century, a second printing was called for (1909), and a third was in demand within a year. Over the next ten years, he revised the book for eight different editions, adding a preface with each new printing.

Criticism and Controversy

Freudian theory, though highly influential and much celebrated during Freud's lifetime, was, from its inception, controversial and subject to extensive criticism. Since his death, psychoanalytic theory has been attacked on many fronts. In 1953, Nathaniel Kleitman discovered the phenomenon of rapid-eye-movement (REM) during the dream state of sleep. This and subsequent neurological and sleep-lab research over the past half-century have led many to conclude that Freud was wrong in most, if not all, of his theories of dream analysis. Feminist theory, as early as the 1950s, attacked Freudian theory for being gender biased and having a disastrous effect on societal attitudes toward women. In addition, the development and increasing use of drugs to treat depression and other psychological disorders has tended to throw psychoanalysis as an effective method of treatment into a dubious light.

Freud's Legacy

Peter Gay, author of the much-celebrated biography Freud: A Life for Our Times (1988), has made the oft-repeated assessment that "today we all speak Freud," meaning, "his ideas—or ideas that can be traced, sometimes circuitously, back to him—have permeated the language." In a 1999 article in Time magazine, Gay quotes the poet W. H. Auden, who, upon Freud's death in 1939, stated, "If often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion." Gay goes on to assert that although Freud remains controversial, "on one thing the contending parties agree: for good or ill, Sigmund Freud, more than any other explorer of the psyche, has shaped the mind of the 20th century." He adds, "The very fierceness and persistence of his detractors are a wry tribute to the staying power of Freud's ideas."

A 1989 article in Psychology Today, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Freud's death, includes comments from leading psychologists concerning Freud's legacy to the twentieth century. Though he remains highly controversial within the profession, "Most agree that we owe a great deal to Freud." Jerome L. Singer describes Freud's legacy as that of "a lifelong exploration that has stirred the imagination of thousands of thinkers in this century." Will Gaylyn concurs that Freud "has influenced our language, perceptions and institutions more than anyone else in the twentieth century." Robert Jay Lifton similarly considers Freud "a great figure who was responsible for one of the great intellectual breakthroughs in our history."

In a 1995 cover story in the New Republic, Jonathan Lear, while acknowledging the many legitimate criticisms of Freudian theory, psychoanalysis, and Freud himself, asserts that Freud's most significant contribution to twentieth-century thought withstands criticism of these specifics. He describes Freud as "a deep explorer of the human condition," in the philosophical, religious, and literary tradition of Plato, Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Proust, and Nietzsche. Freud shares with these great thinkers the "insistence that there are deep currents of meaning, often crosscurrents, running through the human soul which can at best be glimpsed through a glass darkly." Lear notes, "Psychoanalysis … is a technique that allows dark meanings and irrational motivations to rise to the surface of conscious awareness." He thus attributes the popularity of "Freud-bashing" in the late twentieth century to "a culture that wishes to ignore the complexity, depth and darkness of human life." He concludes that "none of the attacks on Freud addresses the problems of human existence to which psychoanalysis is a response."


Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses expressions of Freud's Jewish identity.

Although Freud was not religious, his identity as a Jewish man in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the mid-to-late nineteenth century was central to his psychic life, as revealed through the interpretation of his own dreams. He describes strong impressions, dating back to early childhood, which engendered in him a deep sense of injustice in the face of anti-Semitism and a fierce desire to persevere in his professional ambitions, despite the restrictions Austrian society placed on its Jewish population.

While Freud eventually became famous as the "father" of psychoanalysis, he began his career as a doctor, making his living from both a private medical practice and as a lecturer in neuropathology at the University of Vienna. Anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) caused the delay of a well-deserved promotion at the university for years after Freud had made a name for himself through a number of noteworthy publications. The equally deserved promotions of several of his colleagues were similarly denied or delayed due to their Jewish identity in the increasingly anti-Semitic climate of Austrian public affairs.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud describes several dreams that address his ambitious nature (the "wish" to be successful) in the face of the virulent anti-Semitism, which cast a shadow over his hopes and "dreams" of personal success, as well as over the future of his children. Although he makes the disclaimer, "I am not, as far as I know, ambitious," his biographers frequently comment that Freud, in fact, was exceptionally ambitious.

In one dream, Freud associates two of his colleagues with his uncle Josef. He states in the "preamble" to this dream that he had just learned his own name had been proposed for a promotion to the prestigious title of professor extraordinarius. Freud explains that he had made a point of not getting his hopes up because he had witnessed the disappointment of several Jewish colleagues who had been denied such promotions. The day before the dream in question, he had also been visited by a colleague who had just learned that, once again, his own promotion had been denied due to "considerations of religion."

The "manifest" content of the Uncle Josef dream consists of two parts. Freud describes the first part as the thought: " My friend R. is my uncle—I feel great affection for him"; the second part of the dream consists of the image of a "composite figure," combining suggestions of his uncle, his friend R., and another friend, whom he refers to as N. This dream, though very simple at the level of "manifest" content, reveals upon analysis a complex cluster of associations expressing the wish that he be promoted on the basis of his own merit rather than being denied promotion on the basis of his religious identity.

Freud explains that the uncle referred to in the dream is his uncle Josef. He notes that he had always had negative associations with this uncle, who in 1866 was sentenced to ten years in prison in connection with the circulation of counterfeit money. He recalls that his father had told him his uncle Josef "had never been a bad man, he had been a numbskull." Thus, through a string of associations, his dream equates his friends R. and N. with his uncle Josef to the effect that it represents R. as a "numbskull," like his uncle, and N. as a "criminal," like his uncle. (He makes it clear that, in his conscious mind, he respects and admires both of these colleagues and has no desire whatsoever to regard them in a negative light.)

Both R. and N. had recently been denied promotions at the university, no doubt because they were Jewish. Freud concludes that this dream is a wish fulfillment in the sense that it provides an alternative explanation for these men not getting the desired promotions—thereby discounting the real reason of their being Jewish. Because Freud himself was hoping for a professorship, he wished to imagine that he would not be denied the promotion simply because he was Jewish. He explains, "if I can ascribe their rejection to other grounds which do not apply to me, my hopes will remain undisturbed." By imagining his Jewish colleagues to be incompetent or otherwise unqualified, he could conclude that his own qualifications were all he needed—as he is neither a "numbskull" nor a "criminal" and therefore "can look forward to my appointment as professor" without concern for being held back by anti-Semitism. (Although Freud did eventually receive the desired promotion, it was delayed for several years because of his Jewish identity.)

Freud further analyzes a series of dreams that take place in and around Rome and that center on wish fulfillments in regard to the status of Jews in Austrian society.

He mentions that, in a recent visit to Italy, he was disappointed when, having traveled to within eighty miles of Rome, he was obliged for various reasons to turn back before reaching the "Eternal City" he had always wanted to see. Freud makes the connection between his own experience of having to turn back just outside of Rome and the historical experience of Hannibal (247-183 b.c.), the ancient Carthaginian general who fought in the Second Punic War against Rome. Hannibal, though considered a great conqueror, brought his army within three miles of Rome but never successfully entered the city. Freud explains that, in being prevented from seeing Rome, he himself was "following in Hannibal's footsteps; like him, I had not been granted a sight of Rome."

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Letters of Sigmund Freud (1960), edited by Ernst L. Freud, includes a selection from Sigmund Freud's prolific lifelong correspondence to family, friends, and colleagues.
  • In The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud elaborates upon his fundamental theory of the basic structure of the human psyche, composed of the id, the ego, and the superego.
  • Dreams (1974) is a collection of Carl Jung's papers on dream psychology.
  • Sigmund Freud: His Life in Pictures and Words (1978), edited by Ernst Freud, Lucie Freud, and Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, includes a wide array of photographs from throughout Freud's life, as well as a biographical sketch by K. R. Eissler.
  • In The Interpretation of Dreams: Freud's Theories Revisited (1987), Laurence M. Porter explores critical responses to Freud's theories of dream analysis from the perspective of developments in the field of dream psychology throughout the late twentieth century.
  • Freud: A Life for Our Times (1988) is the celebrated biography of Freud by Peter Gay, who has written numerous books on Freud's life and work.
  • Freud's Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1989), which was first published in 1910, is one of his seminal texts. In it he develops the fundamental elements of his theory of psychoanalysis. The 1989 edition is edited by James Strachey and includes a biographical introduction by Peter Gay.
  • In A Primer of Freudian Psychology (1999), Calvin S. Hall provides an introductory level overview of the central concepts in Freudian theory.

To demonstrate the importance of childhood experiences on the dream life of adults, Freud discusses several strong associations with Rome that date back to his childhood and that continue to influence his dreams. In his dreams of Rome, Freud identifies himself with Hannibal. He notes that Hannibal had been his "warrior ideal" and "favourite hero" while in grade school. When, in high school, he became increasingly aware of the forces of anti-Semitism and "the consequences of being descended from an alien race," the figure of Hannibal, considered a "Semitic" general, "rose even higher" in his esteem.

As Rome is the seat of the Catholic Church, Freud associates it with anti-Jewish sentiment; thus, Hannibal, a Semitic warrior who came close to conquering Rome, became equated in his mind with the efforts of the Jewish (Semitic) people to overcome the oppressive powers of Christendom, as represented by the city of Rome: "Hannibal and Rome symbolized to me the opposition between the tenacity of Jewry and the organization of the Catholic Church." Hannibal becomes an image of Jewish perseverance against the forces of anti-Semitism. (Yet he adds that the current efforts of Jews to overcome anti-Semitism seem as ill-fated as were Hannibal's efforts to conquer Rome.)

Freud elaborates upon the childhood roots of his strong psychical associations with Rome and with Hannibal, as expressed in his dreams. He recalls that, when he was ten or twelve years old, his father related to him an experience of anti-Semitism from years earlier in their native Bohemia. Freud's father, Jacob Freud, had been wearing his finest clothes and a new fur hat when a Christian, passing him on the sidewalk, knocked his hat into the street, shouting, "Jew, get off the pavement!" Passively submitting to this degrading treatment, Freud's father merely stepped into the street to recover the hat. Freud recalls hearing of this passivity on the part of his father with dismay, noting, "That did not seem to me very heroic of the big, strong man who was leading me by the hand."

The young Freud at that time contrasted his father's passiveness with an incident from Hannibal's life in which his father "makes his son swear before the domestic altar to take revenge on the Romans." Again, Hannibal becomes a symbol for Jewish resistance against the oppression of Christian society, as represented by Rome. Freud notes that after he had been told of the former incident in the life of his own father, the courageous and vengeful Hannibal "had a place in my fantasies."

Freud then traces his strong associations with Hannibal, the would-be conqueror of Rome, even further back in his childhood memories. He states that one of the first books he ever read as a child was a history of France and that afterward he stuck labels on the backs of his toy soldiers, designating each by the names of Napoleon's military marshals. He notes that his "declared favorite" of the French marshals among his toy soldiers was André Masséna (1758-1817), a leading general in both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. By a parallel in military accomplishments, Freud later associated the armies of Napoleon with those of Hannibal. Like Hannibal, Masséna represented a Jewish war hero, as he was popularly believed to have been Jewish (although in fact he was not).

Thus, Freud's many dreams of Rome represent a wish, deeply rooted in his childhood psyche, that Jews become triumphant members of society, rather than the increasingly oppressed population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which they became over the course of his life.

Ritchie Robertson has pointed out, in an Introduction to The Interpretation of Dreams, that the book is as much a work of autobiography on the part of Freud as it is a scientific treatise on the theory of dream psychology. Freud's identity as an ambitious Jewish professional, with high hopes for the future success of his children, is central to his "dreams" of Jewish perseverance in the face of anti-Semitism.


Liz Brent, Critical Essay on The Interpretation of Dreams, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

" Freud's father, Jacob Freud, had been wearing his finest clothes and a new fur hat when a Christian, passing him on the sidewalk, knocked his hat into the street, shouting, 'Jew, get off the pavement!"'

Harold Bloom

In the following introductory essay, Bloom examines critical responses to Freud's dream interpretation, including reading Freud's work as literature.

Charles Rycroft explains his use of the word "innocence" in the title of his The Innocence of Dreams as a reference to "the idea that dreams back knowingness, display an indifference to received categories, and have a core which cannot but be sincere and is uncontaminated by the self-conscious will." Such an explanation is itself innocent and hardly accounts for the polemical force of the title, since the book is largely written against Freud where Freud is strongest, in the interpretation of dreams. The actual rhetorical force of Rycroft's title is that it contains an implicit interpretation of Freudian theory, in effect making the title of what Freud called the "Dream Book" into The Guilt of Dreams. So many years after the publication of Die Traumdeutung (1900), it is an admirable act of audacity for an experienced psychoanalyst like Rycroft to dissent so completely from the Freudian theory of dream interpretation. But whether Rycroft has much more than audacity to offer in this book is a question that thoughtful readers must decide by returning to the text of Freud. That impetus to return, like analytic audacity, has its own value, and also must be judged a service that Rycroft has helped perform.

These are still the days, in many critical circles, of "French Freud," meaning Jacques Lacan and his influence. Lacan and his admirers assert continuously that the principal virtue of Lacan is that he has gone back to the problematics of a serious reading of Freud's text as text. Whether one credits this assertion, or takes precisely the contrary view with Richard Wollheim, who insists that Lacan gives us psycholinguistics and not Freud's psychoanalysis, the issue is clearly one of accurately reading Freud. Rycroft takes no part in this debate, but I fear that his performance as a reader of Freud will encourage the disciples of Lacan. Unlike Wollheim, whose Sigmund Freud (1971) is a close and formidable reading, and unlike Philip Rieff in this country, Rycroft gives us an account of Freud that I am compelled to judge as a weak misreading. My judgment, if correct, will not remove all value from Rycroft's book, since its constructive aspect stems not so much from his argument against what Freud truly never said as it does from his own experience as an analyst.

Rycroft starts out by setting himself against the analogical method that is always central to Freud's work. So Rycroft argues: "Freud maintained that dreams are neurotic symptoms or, to be more precise, are analogous to neurotic symptoms." This is to begin by missing a crucial point, precisely stated by Rieff in Freud: The Mind of The Moralist:

The inclusiveness of Freud's idea of a symptom should be kept in mind: ultimately all action is symptomatic. There are "normal" symptoms, like the dream, as well as somatic symptoms like a facial tic or a paralyzed leg.

Rycroft believes that for Freud "dreams and neurotic symptoms betoken failures of repression." Freud's largest actual statement about dreams has a different emphasis: "a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish." Though Rycroft does not say so, I suspect that his reaction away from Freud on dreams begins with his distaste for the crisis-like aspect of The Interpretation of Dreams, which seems to me the book's most literary quality. The crisis for Freud was double, involving both the death of his father and the agonistic relationship with Fliess. Doubtless Freud's greatest work pays a price in darkened knowledge because of its origin in Freud's path-breaking self-analysis. Freud's own dreams became for him "normal" occurrences of what in others he would have judged to be the "psychopathological." It can be argued against Freud that the dream need not have been the inevitable paradigm of hallucination, but though the choice was arbitrary, it was analogically workable. Most powerful interpretive models tend to be arbitrary in their origins, but become inescapable in later interpretive traditions. It was for Freud that dream-interpretation proved the royal road to the Unconscious. Coming after Freud, we inherit his insight at the expense of his dominance over us.

Rycroft's fundamental dissent from this dominance comes in his account of the Primary and Secondary Processes, an account which is again not Freud's own. But rather than contrast each of Rycroft's summaries with the actual Freudian text, a wearisome process, I advance to Rycroft's list of the four defects he finds in the Freudian relation of Primary Process to dreaming. These are:

1) Since everyone dreams, Freud implicitly argues that everyone is neurotic.

2) To assume that acquiring the capacity for rational or Secondary Process thinking depends on repression of the Primary Process "implies that human beings enter the world totally unadapted to meet it, an inherently improbable assumption."

3) By supposedly relating imagination and creative activity to the Primary Process, Freud had to characterize them as "in principle neurotic, regressive and symptom-like."

4) Freud's formulations belong to his "mechanistic assumption that the mind is a mental apparatus within which energy circulates.… Unfortunately, however, we really have no idea what mental energy is or what the concept means."

Of Rycroft's four objections, the first has been met already by Rieff's accurate account of Freud's idea of a symptom. The second is indeed Freud's tragic premise, and ultimately explains why there is a civil war in the human psyche, so that the Unconscious and not nature or the state is what most inescapably threatens each of us. The third, to which I will return later, is wholly inadequate to Freud's quite troubled and finally evasive view of art. The fourth begins by accusing Freud of a reductionism that he proudly espoused and then goes on to a complaint that Freud met quite cheerfully by acknowledging that his theory of drives was the necessary mythology that psychoanalysis had to exploit. To sum up Rycroft's objections, their common element is an inability to accept what is most basic in Freud's theories of the mind, which means that Rycroft has become another "humanistic" revisionist of Freud, or most simply, if Rycroft is still a psychoanalyst, then Freud was something else.

If I myself were to criticize Freud's theories of dream-interpretation, I would start with what seems to me his most striking notion about dream-thought, which is that such thought is truly marked by clarity, although its clarity has been repressed. For Freud, the manifest "text" of the dream, its telling by the patient to the analyst, carries the stigma of being the work of the Unconscious, but the "latent" content or true significance of the dream is itself not Primary but Secondary Process labor. Something Secondary and rational has been repressed, and the work of analytical interpretation undoes the repression and yields a clear account of a "normal" thought. Jung scorned the Freudian idea here in both respects. For Jung, the true thought at the origin of the dream and its true interpretation must both come up out of the Primal or Gnostic Abyss of a truly creative Unconscious. Though I accept Freud and not Jung on dreams, there is little doubt but that Jung shows more affection for dreams than for their interpretations, whereas what delights Freud is what he can make out of dreams. It is in this rather ironic sense that Rycroft actually teaches "the innocence of dreams."

Wollheim, who seems to me as faithful an expositor as Freud could find, usefully emphasizes that the element of wish in dreams is not expressed by dreams, and so Freud was able to posit what he called the dream-work as something that disguised wish. This must mean that wish is repressed before it gets into the dream. Such a conclusion also serves to devalue dreams and reminds us again that the Freudian Unconscious is a deliberate reduction of the rich, dark Abyss of the ancient (and now Jungian) Unconscious.

What gives Freud the interpretive self-confidence to so reduce dreams, and to insist so mercilessly that dream-thought, as opposed to dream-work, is at one with his own rationalizing interpretations? Part of the answer, and another vulnerable aspect of Freudian procedure, is that Freud's dream-text for interpretation is partly written by Freud himself, since it is a version of dream that emerges from the analytic session. This means that it is subject to the dynamics of the transference, and so is a telling that takes place within the context of the analyst's authority.

Rieff gallantly attempts to rescue the dream from the full consequences of Freud's authority by seeing every dreamer as a natural poet and intellectual precisely in the effort to outwit his interpreter, the force of culture as personified in Freud: "The chief quality of the dream as interpreted is not so much its meaning as the elaborateness of its meaningful disguises." Upon this, two observations: first, that Freud would have disagreed with Rieff here, though my own sympathies are with Rieff, and second, it is exactly this aspect of Freudian interpretation that partly justifies Lacan. If there is so large a gap between the elaborations of manifest content and the simplicity of latent content, then dreams (in their Freudian context of the transference) provoke the Lacanian strong misreading of the priority of signifier over signified or the contrast between rich figuration and poverty-stricken meaning. It is worth recalling that Rieff anticipated many of the major insights of the Lacanian school and indeed set their pattern when he remarked: "In radical opposition to constitutional psychology, Freud puts language before body."

" If I myself were to criticize Freud's theories of dream- interpretation, I would start with what seems to me his most striking notion about dream-thought, which is that such thought is truly marked by clarity, although its clarity has been repressed."

Rycroft would have profited by pondering Rieff again before he too easily dismissed the cunning intensities of Freudian dream-interpretation. Freud characteristically condemns the dream as an unfaithful translation of the dream-thoughts, and so "a highly incomplete and fragmentary version of them." Rieff invokes Hazlitt, with his dictum that "poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms, feelings as they suggest other feelings." Commenting upon this as analogue to Freud, Rieff catches the essential agonistic relationship between Freud and the dream:

Assuming a dream never means what it says, that it is always a substitute for something else which cannot be said and leads to further associations which are in themselves substitutes, Freud may compliment a dream so far as to call it an "exceptionally clever dream production." But this is the compliment paid by a gracious antagonist; Freud treated a dream as an opponent in the work of interpretation, trying by its cleverness to outwit the interpreter.

This means that a dream, however elaborate, is only a substitute for a truer text, indeed an interpretive substitute and so particularly suspect. A dream, in the Freudian view, is thus a belated text, an inadequate commentary upon a missing poem. Its plot is probably irrelevant; what matters is some protruding element, some image that seems hardly to belong to the text. In this sense, Freud is a legitimate father to Lacan and Derrida, with their deconstructions of the drive, except that he would have urged them to the abysses of the dream and not of his own texts.

Rycroft, once he has moved on from Freud to various types of dreams, their relations to sleep, and to cultural patterns, transcends the drubbing I have been administering. This makes me wish he had not taken on Freud, but that is the burden of the writing psychoanalyst, who is tempted to a battle he is doomed to lose. Rycroft is drily persuasive when he writes that neither he nor anyone he has known seems to have had what Ernest Jones would classify as a true nightmare, the criteria of Jones's On the Nightmare (1910) being too severe for mere reality to satisfy. Similarly, Rycroft is able to use the later Freud against the author of The Interpretation of Dreams on the difficult issue of anxious dreams. Anxiety is a subject by which Rycroft's intellect is kindled, and he makes an original contribution (at least to me) when he shows that it is possible to dream about anxiety without necessarily having a dream that itself causes anxiety. I wish he had done more, in this book, to demonstrate that Freud's later modifications of his theories of defense and anxiety render his ideas on dreams less valid or stimulating.

Freud is a weaker antagonist on the subject of sleep and the physiology of dreams, which seems to me Rycroft's best chapter. Freud was not much interested in sleep, and he assumed that the function of the dream was just to keep the dreamer from waking. Here Rycroft has the universal advantage of all latecomers: more facts. Freud did not know that there was normal sleep, with several depths, and also paradoxical sleep, during which the sleeper in some ways hovers near wakefulness. Evidently most dreams, perhaps even all, take place during paradoxical sleep, which seems to be as much a necessity as normal sleep. Rycroft will not go so far as to say we sleep in order to dream, but he goes back to the great neurologist Hughlings Jackson (died 1911) who thought that sleep both got rid of the previous day's useless memories and consolidated the necessary ones, probably during dreamless sleep. If Jackson yet proves to be correct, then one function of dreams is quite unlike anything Freud conceived, since without dreams we would be burdened by more data than we could bear.

In a witty, brief penultimate chapter, Rycroft offers a reprise, saying that the manifest content of his book is his attempt to go back beyond Freud (and Jung) to what he calls the traditional, literary view of dreams, with the difference of holding on to certain Freudian ideas, particularly body symbolism in dream imagery and the genetic inheritance of the family romance. The latent theme of the book then would have to be, as he says, the question of the origin of creative or imaginative energy. This is the subject of Rycroft's final chapter, but unfortunately there is little here that is either new or important. Rycroft falls back upon unanalyzed Coleridgean Imagination and undiscussed Keatsian negative capability, while he largely dismisses Freud upon art and artists. Psychoesthetics is a still inchoate field, but Rycroft seems to know nothing of it, whether British, American, or French.

I conclude, in a coda, by suggesting what I wish Rycroft had discussed, if only he had felt more respect for the Freudian achievement in dream-interpretation. Rieff's assertion that psychoanalysis parodies the traditions of religious hermeneutics is still valid and provocative. But psychoanalysis is also a reductive parody of poetry, which may be another way of saying that poetry has always been a transcendental kind of psychoanalysis, a mode marked by patterns of transference and counter-transference, or of influence and in anxieties. Freud spoke truly (and also somewhat anxiously) in his repeated admissions that the poets had been there before him. Certainly Lacan, at his rare best, gives us what the poets have given more fully and freely. Dreams, like psychoanalysis, parody and reduce poems, if we follow Freud by treating dreams in terms of their latent content or "meaning." But dreams, in their manifest content, in plot and imagery, share in the poetic elements that tend to defy reduction and reductiveness.

Freud wanted and needed his reductions, his quest being scientific and therapeutic. As a therapeutic diviner of dreams he is beyond all competition, ancient and modern, and this more because of than in spite of his interpretive overconfidence. But dreams are not poems, not even bad poems, and Freud was too wary to expend his formidable energies in reducing poems. Rycroft has an honorable nostalgia for treating dreams with a more literary respect than Freud accorded them. It would be more interesting to accept Freud's voluntary limitation and then to see just what kind of an enabling act was constituted by this pragmatic disrespect for dreams. Beyond this acceptance, and this seeing, might come a fresh awareness of the multiple ways in which poetry and psychoanalysis converge and yet differ as modes of interpretation. Freud found his peers in the poets because of their power of interpretation, but his aims were not compatible with the largest ambitions of poetry, as I think he came to understand.


Harold Bloom, Introduction, in Sigmund Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams," edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations series, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 1-7.

Richard Wollheim

In the following essay, Wollheim surveys and analyzes Freud's study of dreams.

I shall begin with Freud's study of dreams, which is in many ways the most distinctive and the most remarkable single element in his vast survey of the mind. It is the topic of his most important work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which, besides being what its title indicates, is also a work of confession, in that Freud committed to its pages many of the findings of his self-analysis. And Freud continued to feel a special attachment to dream-interpretation, both for the exactness of its findings and for the precious evidence it provided for the deeper workings of the mind in normality and abnormality alike. The view expressed in the maxim "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind" is one from which he never wavered.

Let us start with the most general statement about dreams, which is repeated with slight variations at several places: "A dream is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish." One feature of this thesis, which calls for immediate comment, can best be brought out by considering an objection to it, now standard: If the wish that finds fulfillment in a dream is invariably disguised, how can we tell of its existence? Or, How can we tell that there is disguise, unless we know of the existence of the wish and what it is? The point that this objection effectively makes is that the thesis falls into parts—the assignment of a fulfilled wish to each dream, and the predication of disguise or concealment of that wish—and, consequently, it insists that there should be separate evidence for each of the two parts of the theory. I shall respect the objection, or its implicit point, to the extent of expounding the two parts of the thesis successively.

First, then, that dreams are wish-fulfillments. This, we can see, is itself a composite thesis: for it traces dreams to wishes, and it asserts that these wishes belong to the primary process. They belong, that is, to that mode of mental functioning within which, characteristically, no distinction is observed between a desire and its satisfaction—indeed, even to use these terms is perhaps anachronistic, in that as yet the difference has not manifested itself. For the wisher the experience is unitary, and, in consequence, dreams cannot be said merely to express a wish, for, wherever the wish belongs to the content of the dream, so also does the fulfillment of the wish. "A dream does not simply give expression to a thought, but represents the wish fulfilled as a hallucinatory experience." And Freud goes on to say that if the wish "I should like to go on the lake" instigates a dream, the dream has for its content "I am going on the lake."

Freud at various stages considered the objection that not all dreams are wish-fulfillments, and that surely some derive from other types of mental state; the most obvious counterexamples being anxiety dreams. But, with minor exceptions, Freud held to the universality of his thesis, and he was at pains to point out that in every case brought against it there is either an inadequate analysis of the dream or an inadequate conception of the wish. It was in development of the second point—the first we shall have to take up at greater length—that Freud was led to make a distinction in Lecture 14 of the Introductory Lectures. "No doubt," he wrote,

a wish-fulfilment must bring pleasure; but the question then arises "To whom?" To the person who has the wish, of course. But, as we know, a dreamer's relation to his wishes is a quite peculiar one. He repudiates them and censors them—he has no liking for them, in short.

Freud then went on to distinguish between two separate people amalgamated in the dreamer, one of whom has the wish whereas the other rejects it, and it is only the former who is satisfied. Freud's distinction could be made, less dramatically, as one not between two different people, but between two different roles—the man insofar as he has the wish, and the man insofar as he rejects it; or, weaker still, we could contrast the satisfaction of the man and the satisfaction of the wish; and the point would hold. A wish can be satisfied, even though the man who has it isn't. Of course, we might press for an explanation why this was so, and the answer in the case of dreams is obviously connected with the deviance of wish or its discrepancy from the man's other wishes. It is no gross anticipation of Freud's argument to say that we are here approaching—though now from the other side, from consideration of its consequences, not its causes—the issue of the "incompatible" idea with which Freud had been struggling since the first drafts for the "Preliminary Communication." For the wish that, when satisfied, leaves the wisher unsatisfied is "incompatible."

Secondly, the wishes expressed in dreams are disguised. Here we come to a central notion of Freud's, that of the dream-work. To understand this notion, we must first understand a distinction upon which it rests and which he claimed was always to some degree or other misconceived by his critics: that between the "manifest content" and the "latent content" of the dream. The manifest content is that which we experience or remember; it constitutes the subject of the dream report. The latent content is that which gives the dream its sense or meaning: it is sometimes called the "dream-thoughts," where these are contrasted with the dream content. On the distinction two points are to be observed. First, the dream-thoughts are not restricted to the wish that instigates the dream. Rather they include the whole setting or context of the wish. Secondly, the distinction between manifest and latent content is a functional distinction: that is, it refers to the role the thoughts play, so that the possibility is open that the manifest and the latent contents may coincide.

Once this distinction is clear, the dream-work may then be regarded as the process, or piece of mental activity, by which the dream-thoughts are converted or transcribed into the dream content. Note "dream-thoughts": for it is crucial to Freud's conception of the dream that the latent content of the dream goes piecemeal, element by element, into the manifest content, inside which only a halfhearted attempt is made to mold it into a unity. For this reason a metaphor which it seems natural to invoke in this context, and which Freud himself employed, that of translation from one language to another, is inexact. For the dream lacks that which is most characteristic of a language: grammar, or structure. A more appropriate comparison that Freud makes is to the rebus, or picture puzzle, in which pictorial elements, words, letters of the alphabet appear side by side and it is only by replacing each element with a syllable or word that sense can be made of the whole.

There are four activities in which the dream-work consists: condensation, displacement, representation (or consideration of representability), and secondary revision. On whether the last properly forms part of the dream-work Freud was later to have his doubts. Each of these activities is, more or less, explained by its name.

" Freud continued to feel a special attachment to dream- interpretation, both for the exactness of its findings and for the precious evidence it provided for the deeper workings of the mind in normality and abnormality alike."

Condensation is exemplified in the fact that "the manifest dream has a smaller content than the latent one," or, more exactly, that this abbreviation is achieved without omission. Freud lists various results of condensation—such as the preference given to items that occur several times over in the dream-thoughts, and the formation of composite or intermediate figures. But condensation is seen at its clearest in the handling of words or names, which makes it, from an expository point of view, peculiarly vulnerable in translation. It is condensation that prevents there being any neat one-one correspondence between the elements of the manifest content and those of the latent content. And it is also condensation that permits a more general feature of the dream: that is, overdetermination, according to which, for any given manifest content, there can be more than one latent content, or any one dream can express several quite separate wishes.

By "displacement"—or "transference" as Freud sometimes called it in the early years, before the word took on its technical sense in psychoanalytic theory—Freud meant two distinct but related processes. One is that whereby the dream is differently "centered" from the dream-thoughts, so that it does not reflect the relative importance of those thoughts. The other is that whereby elements in the dream do duty for elements in the dream-thoughts, the substitution being in accordance with a chain of association. Displacement is peculiarly connected with the disguise that the dream wears.

The third process, of representation, is the transposition of thoughts into imagery. Freud, in one of his many apt analogies, compared the difficulty under which the dream labors as a representational device to the limitations that, according to classical aesthetic theory, are inherent in the plastic arts of painting and sculpture in contrast to poetry, and he revealed the ingenuity with which the dream-work tries to incorporate the most recalcitrant or abstract material. Freud said—and it may sound surprising—that this third process is "psychologically the most interesting." Possibly what he had in mind is the way in which the plasticity of dreams links them to the prototype of the primary process: the hallucinatory experience of satisfaction.

The processes of condensation and displacement can be economically illustrated from the so-called "Autodidasker" dream from Freud's own experience. One evening Freud's wife, who had been reading some stories which he had given her, by J. J. David, an Austrian writer and a friend of Freud's brother, told him how moved she had been by one of them about a man of great talents who went to the bad: and she then went on, after a discussion of the talents their children might have, to express the wish that a similar fate would not be theirs. Freud reassured her, and talked of the advantages of a good upbringing. That night he had a dream in which two wishes were expressed: one for his son's future, and the other that his still unmarried brother, Alexander, might have a happy domestic life—and both wishes are represented as fulfilled. The dream fell into two distinct parts. The first consisted simply in the made-up word "Autodidasker." The second was the reproduction of a phantasy recently entertained to the effect that the next time Freud saw a colleague of his, Professor N., he would say, "The patient about whose condition I consulted you recently is in fact only suffering from a neurosis, just as you suspected."

Let us now see how the dream-thoughts that Freud somehow collected are transposed into the dream content by the means we have been considering. As to the dream-thoughts Freud enumerated the following: an author; a good upbringing; Breslau, as a place where a friend of Freud's who had married had gone to live; then the names of two men, both of whom lived in Breslau and who had come to a bad end through women—Lasker, who died of syphilis, and Lassalle, killed in a duel; a novel of Zola's, L'Oeuvre, in which the author introduces himself, with his name ingeniously altered, as a happily married character; and the desire, pertaining to both wishes, that Freud might be proved wrong in his fears. The last thought is expressed fairly directly in the second part of the dream, where it is shown as fulfilled—for Freud is apologizing. The other thoughts are all crammed into the first or prefatory part of the dream. Author, Lasker, and Lassalle figure fairly evidently inside "Autodidasker." A good upbringing is represented through its opposite, i.e., "autodidact." L'Oeuvre appears more obliquely, in that the transformation, in the book, of Zola's name into "Sandoz" exhibits a parallel to that of "Alex (ander)" into "Autodidasker"—in both cases an anagram of the original is buried at the end of the substitute name, which contains a prefix for disguise.

If this dream very well illustrates the processes of condensation and displacement in action—indeed, in joint action—the third element in dream-work is present to a degree so peculiarly low as to elicit comment from Freud. To illustrate visual representation, I shall follow Freud and cite specific details from dreams. So, a man dreams that he is an officer sitting at table opposite the Emperor: and this represents his putting himself in opposition to his father. Or a woman dreams that she is walking with two little girls whose ages differ by fifteen months; and this represents the fact that two traumatic events of childhood, of which she is dreaming, were fifteen months apart.

As to secondary revision, this is the attempt by the mind to order, to revise, to supplement the contents of the dream so as to make an acceptable or intelligible whole. Even in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud distinguished this factor from the rest of the dream-work by pointing out that it makes no new contribution to the dream in the way of representing dream-thoughts not otherwise included, and he suggested that it should be attributed to the very psychic agency that the dream is otherwise intended to evade. In the encyclopedia article of 1922 entitled "Psycho-analysis," Freud definitely excluded secondary revision from the dream-work.

Freud insisted that the dream-work is confined to these three (or four) processes. Other activities, which appear to take place in dreams—mathematical calculations, or the making of a speech—are simply to be regarded as items or elements that constitute the content of the dream. In reporting them, we report not what we did, but what we dreamt of. For in a dream we do not do things, we only dream of doing them.

At this stage, I should perhaps introduce a topic mentioned only briefly in the original text of The Interpretation of Dreams but which figured increasingly in later editions, and which is widely assumed to be central to Freud's theory of the dream. I refer to the symbolism according to which there are certain invariants in dream representations so that certain basic thoughts or preoccupations find a regular form of expression: for instance, the parents are represented by kings and queens; the penis by sticks, tree trunks, umbrellas, nail files, or long, sharp weapons; the womb by boxes, cupboards, ovens, or hollow objects like ships. In one way, such symbolism must be classified with the dream-work, since it provides a transition from the latent to manifest content; yet in another way it must be contrasted to it, precisely because it reduces the element of work on the part of the dreamer. It is a corollary of this last point that, where symbolism is employed, the dreamer is unable to associate to his dream. Furthermore, Freud pointed out that, insofar as dream symbolism is found plausible, it exhibits a capacity of the mind more general than the phenomenon of dreaming. In the Introductory Lectures Freud spoke of an "ancient but extinct mode of expression" or "a primal language" which legitimizes the occurrence of symbols in dreams: seemingly an old idea with Freud, which we first catch sight of in a letter to Fliess of 1897, where he talks of a new subject, "psychomythology." But in the massive application of symbolism to dream interpretation it would seem that Freud was heavily influenced by a pupil later to go astray, Wilhelm Stekel.

So much for the nature of the dream-work. Two questions now arise, Why is the dream-work necessary? and, Are any limits imposed upon its scope?—of which the first is really about the latent content of the dream and the second about the manifest content.

In answer to the first question, Freud said that the dream-work is necessary because the wish that finds expression in the dream is invariably a repressed wish. In a footnote added in 1909, Freud said that "the kernel of my theory" lies in the "derivation of dream-distortion from the censorship." Two other characterizations of the dream-wish—that it is infantile, and that it is generally (though not always) sexual—are intimately connected with this thesis, but at the time that Freud was writing The Interpretation of Dreams, he was not yet in a position to establish the connections.

In answer to the second question, Freud said that the material for the dream comes from varying sources, and in chapter 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams he classified them: recent and indifferent events, infantile experiences, somatic needs, and the repertoire of what Freud called "typical dreams"—dreams of flying and falling, of being naked, of examinations, of the death of loved ones. But Freud laid particular weight on the first of these sources. Indeed, he committed himself to the thesis that every dream contains "a repetition of a recent impression of the previous day." The impression itself may have been significant or it may have been indifferent—where significance and indifference mean, respectively, belonging or not belonging to the latent content of the dream.

Putting together the answers to these last two questions, we may now follow Freud in reconstructing the immediate history of the dream. There is a persisting repressed wish, which forms the motive behind the dream. In the course of the day, this wish comes into contact, or forms an association, with a thought or train of thought. This thought has some energy attached to it, independently of this contact, through not having as yet been "worked over": hence the phrase, the "residues of the day." The upshot is that the thought—or an association to it—is revived in sleep, as the proxy of the wish.

The question that remains to be asked about this alliance is, Why should it assert itself while we are asleep? The answer is not that sleep is peculiarly well-disposed to the alliance, but that it prefers it to any more naked version of the same forces. If the wish did not express itself in the disguise of the dream, it would disturb sleep. And so we come to the overall function of dreams: they are "the guardians of sleep."

I now want to ask, What is the evidence for the Freudian theory of dreams? I have already argued that we require separate evidence for the two parts of the theory—for the ascription of dreams to wishes, and for the characterization of the wishes as disguised.

The first piece of evidence comes to us just because the thesis that the wishes involved are disguised admits of a few exceptions. There are dreams that directly express wishes. Such dreams, which Freud referred to in The Interpretation of Dreams for their evidential value and to which he devoted a whole lecture in the Introductory Lectures, are commonest among children. Freud cited the story of his daughter, then nineteen months old, who, after an attack of vomiting, had spent the day without food and in her sleep called out, "Anna Fweud, stwawbewwies, wild stwawbewwies, omblet, pudden." At this time the little girl used to use her own name to express the idea of taking possession of something. Undisguised dreams also occur to people subjected to extreme privation, and Freud quoted from the explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, who tells how on an Antarctic expedition his men would dream of food and drink in abundance, of tobacco piled up in mountains, of a ship arriving in full sail, or of a letter delivered after a long delay for which the postman apologized.

Turning to the great majority of dreams which do not overtly express wishes, Freud adduced evidence to show that these dreams are disguises. The evidence is that we can, i.e., we have a capacity to, undisguise them. In the majority of cases, we can produce associations to each element in the dream in turn, and these associations, after running for a certain while, will terminate on a point that seems natural. Here Freud is using as evidence something he had already used in therapy as a method of collecting evidence; for in therapy he had used the associations themselves, here he is using the fact that such associations are forthcoming. This capacity, Freud argues, finds additional support in the thesis of psychic determinism (which, as we have seen, was equivalent for Freud to a commitment to science), and also in the word-association experiments devised by Wundt and taken up in Zurich by Bleuler and Jung, which constituted "the first bridge from experimental psychology to psycho-analysis." Of course, the appeal to association as establishing the existence of a disguised thought instigating the dream is plausible only if we already accept the far more general assumption that a man may know something, or something about himself, without knowing that he knows it: a point which Freud thought was proved beyond doubt by hypnosis and hypnotic suggestion.

That the process of association should sometimes run into difficulty is no argument against its evidential value. For if disguise has been found necessary, should we not expect the process of removing it to be attended with difficulty? Indeed, if no difficulty were encountered, disguise would be inexplicable.

If we now assume that dreams are disguises and that they can be undisguised along paths of association, and we then proceed to undisguise them—or "interpret" them, as the activity is usually called—we find that we are led to a wish whose existence can be independently established. Alternatively, if association is not forthcoming, though there is evidently disguise, and we proceed to interpret the dreams as examples of primal symbolism, we once again find ourselves led to wishes that are independently verifiable. This is the third piece of support that the theory receives. A related argument starts from the character of the wishes that dreams express. Given that they are, as Freud tersely put it, "evil," by which he meant evil in our estimation, it is only to be expected that they should find expression in a disguised form. Neither of these last two arguments, it should be pointed out, offends against the evidential requirement that the two parts of the theory should be confirmed separately, for this is compatible with one part of the theory being used to confirm the other.

Fourthly, the infantile form of dreams—for instance, their plasticity—does much to suggest that they have an infantile content, which means, in Freud's view, that they deal with wishes. Or, to use the terminology of The Interpretation of Dreams, the regression in dreams is both formal and material.

Nevertheless, much of the plausibility of Freud's theory of the dream must derive from a somewhat more general conception of the mind and its engagement in the primary processes. As Freud later, somewhat laconically, put it:

It was discovered one day that the pathological symptoms of certain neurotic patients have a sense. On this discovery the psycho-analytic method of treatment was founded. It happened in the course of this treatment that patients, instead of bringing forward their symptoms, brought forward dreams. A suspicion thus arose that the dreams too had a sense.

By the time Freud came to write The Interpretation of Dreams, not merely had his suspicion hardened to a certainty, but the parallel between dreams and symptoms had allowed his two sets of findings to confirm each other.

Finally, I want to turn to the application of the dream theory, to that remarkable feat of prestidigitation, the interpretation of dreams. The dream I shall select is cited in all three places where Freud talked extensively of dreams—The Interpretation of Dreams, the essay "On Dreams," and the second section of the Introductory Lectures, in the latter receiving its most elaborate treatment.

A lady, who though still young had been married for many years, had the following dream: She was at the theater with her husband. One side of the stalls was completely empty. Her husband told her that Elise L. and her fiancé had wanted to go too, but had only been able to get bad seats—three for 1 florin 50 kreuzers—and of course they could not take those. She thought it would not really have done any harm if they had.

As a preliminary the dreamer disclosed to Freud that the precipitating cause of the dream appears in its manifest content. That day her husband had told her that her friend Elise L., approximately her contemporary, had just become engaged. She then produced the remaining dream-thoughts by association to different elements in the dream. Thus: The week before she had wanted to go to a particular play and had bought tickets early, so early that she had had to pay a booking fee. Then on arrival at the theater, one whole side of the stalls was seen to be empty, and her husband had teased her for her unnecessary haste. The sum of 1 fl. 50 kr. reminded her of another sum, a present of 150 florins (also alluded to during the previous day) which her sister-in-law had been given by her husband, and which she had rushed off to exchange, the silly goose, for a piece of jewelry. In connection with the word "three," introduced in a context where we would expect "two," all the dreamer could think of was that Elise, though ten years her junior in marriage, was only three months younger than she. But to the idea in which the word was embedded—that of getting three tickets for two persons—she could produce no associations.

In reaching an interpretation, Freud was struck by the very large number of references, in the associations to the dream, though, significantly, not in the manifest content of the dream, to things being too early, or done in a hurry, or got overhurriedly, to what might be called temporal mismanagement and the absurdity that attaches to this. If we put these thoughts together with the precipitating cause of the dream—the news of her friend's belated engagement to an excellent man—we get the following synthesis or construction: "Really it was absurd of me to be in such a hurry to get married. I can see from Elise's example that I could have got a husband later." And perhaps, if we take up the ratio between the two sums of money: "And I could have got one a hundred times better with the money, i.e., my dowry." If we pause at this stage, we can observe massive displacement, in that the central dream thoughts, i.e., the preoccupation with time, do not figure in the dream. And there is an ingenious piece of representation in that the important thought "It was absurd (to marry so early)" is indicated simply by a piece of absurdity, i.e., three tickets for two.

But this last element has gone uninterpreted and, since there were no associations to it, Freud invoked the symbolic equivalences of "three" with a man or a husband and "going to the theater" with getting married. So, getting three tickets for 1 fl. 50 kr. and going to the theater too early also express the idea of a marriage regretted: too early, and to a man of low value.

It is to be observed that the link whereby a visit to the theater can symbolize marriage presupposes that marriage is seen in a happy light. For not merely can young wives go to the theater and see all the plays which respectability had hitherto prohibited, but marriage initiates them into an activity which hitherto it had been their secret desire to gaze on: sexual intercourse. (We can see here how a universal symbolism gains its authority from widespread ways of thinking and feeling.) Now this put Freud on the track of another interpretation, showing another wish-fulfillment in the dream, this time relating to an earlier phase in the dreamer's life. For who is not at the theater? Elise, as yet unmarried. So the dream expresses, as fulfilled, an older wish, that she, the dreamer, should see what happens in marriage, and that she should see it before her friend and near-contemporary. In this case, of course, the two dream wishes are not unconnected. Indeed, Freud suggests that the new angry wish could not have instigated a dream without support from the older, more obviously sexual, wish. Within the dreamer's world, "an old triumph was put in the place of her recent defeat."


Richard Wollheim, "Dreams," in Sigmund Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams," edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations series, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 77-87.


Crick, Joyce, "Note on the Translation," in The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. xlii.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated and edited by James Strachey, Avon Books, 1965, p. xxxii.

———, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by Joyce Crick, with notes and an introduction by Ritchie Robertson, Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Further Reading

Beller, Steven, Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938: A Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Beller provides historical information on the status and culture of Jews in Vienna during a period roughly coinciding with Freud's lifetime, including discussions of anti-Semitism, the intellectual milieu of Jews in Vienna, and the influence of Jewish culture on Viennese society and history.

Buhle, Mari Jo, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis, Harvard University Press, 1998.

Buhle provides an historical overview of the feminist response to Freudian theory as it developed throughout the twentieth century.

Crews, Frederick C., Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, Viking, 1998.

Crews grapples with the controversial elements of Freudian theory in an attempt to address the many criticisms it has received.

Ferris, Paul, Dr. Freud: A Life, Counterpoint, 1998.

Ferris' biography of Freud is one of the more recent of several that have been published since Freud's death.

Forrester, John, Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and Its Passions, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Forrester provides an historical analysis of the many critical responses to Freudian theory throughout the twentieth century.

Freud, Sigmund, Dora: Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, edited by Philip Rieff, Collier Books, 1993 (first published in 1905).

One of Freud's most famous case histories, Dora is the account of his analysis of a young woman suffering from symptoms of hysteria.

Hale, Nathan G., The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hale provides an historical account of the influence of Freudian theory on American psychological thought in the twentieth century.

Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, BasicBooks, 1995.

Mitchell and Black provide an historical account of the development of psychoanalytic theory throughout the twentieth century.

Roazen, Paul, Freud and His Followers, Da Capo Press, 1992.

Roazen provides an historical account of Freud's friends, associates, colleagues, and disciples and their impact on the development of psychoanalytic theory.

Robinson, Paul A., Freud and His Critics, University of California Press, 1993.

Robinson offers an overview of critical responses to Freudian theory in the late twentieth century.

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