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Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva"


Freud wrote this essay in the summer of 1906, seemingly to please Carl Gustav Jung, who had called to his attention a short story by the German writer Wilhelm Jensen that was of interest because a dream served as its point of departure.

In his essay Freud first minimally summarized and commented on the story. It is the story of Norbert Hanold, a young archeologist obsessed with his work for whom women do not exist. Visiting a museum, he is struck by the beauty of a bas-relief of young Roman woman, very light on her feet, whom he baptized "Gradiva" (she who walks). He purchases a reproduction, which he hangs on the wall of his workroom. Gradually his mind is invaded by the enigma of this young woman. One night he dreams that he is in Pompeii in August 79 c.e., just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. There he meets Gradiva and wants to warn her of the terrible danger that is about to occur, but he is powerless to rescue her. After waking, he is overcome by the desire to meet Gradiva. He leaves for Pompeii, where he meets a young woman, very much alive, whom he takes for Gradiva. In the course of the meetings that follow, he organizes his mania, stalking and interpreting signs (Gradiva appears at noon, the ghost hour, and the like). "Gradiva" seeks to cure him by gradually revealing her identity to him. Through this adventure, Norbert finally sees "Gradiva" for who she really is: his neighbor and childhood friend Zoe Bertgang ("Bertgang" is the German equivalent of "Gradiva"), who also traveled to Pompeii. For years he had not seen her and had no desire to see her, but, in love without knowing it, he had displaced his love on the young woman of the bas-relief, Gradiva. Happily, the mania yields to reality, and Norbert is cured.

Frequently citing his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud suggested in his comments that dreams "invented" by a writer can be analyzed by the same method as real ones. He meticulously analyzed the two dreams figuring in Jensen's story, linking them to residues of daytime occurrences. He thus demonstrated that dreams were substitute wish fulfillments and established that they constitute a return of the repressed. The source of Norbert Hanold's mania is his repression of his sexuality, which caused him to forget Zoe Bertgang, so as to keep him from recognizing her (anticipating his later views, Freud called such phenomena "negative hallucinations").

The dream and the mania that makes the dream real function by condensation and displacement, by way of images. The correct propositionI, Norbert, am living in the same time and place as Zoeis removed to Pompeii in the year 79. Zoe treats Norbert in the manner of a good psychoanalyst, cautiously bringing to consciousness what Norbert forgot through repression.

Freud's essay was published in May 1907. Four months later, in September, in the course of a trip to Rome, he went to see the bas-relief representing "Gradiva" at the museum of the Vatican, the same bas-relief that had inspired Jensen's tale. Just like Norbert, Freud bought a copy of it and hung it in his office, at the foot of the divan. He left it there until he left Vienna, and took it with him to London in 1938.

Roger Perron

See also: Anxiety dream; Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Archeology, the metaphor of; Fantasy; Literary and artistic creation; Negative hallucination; Passion.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1907a [1906]). Der Wahn und die Träume in W. Jensens Gradiva, Leipzig-Wien, Hugo Heller; G.W., 7, 29-122; Le Délire et les Rêves dans la "Gradiva" de W. Jensen, trad. J. Bellemin-Noël, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Connaissance de l'inconscient," dir. J.-B. Pontalis, 1986; Delusions and dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva." SE, 9, 1-95.


Engelman, Edmund. (1976), Bergasse 19, Sigmund Freud's home and offices, Vienna, 1938: The photographs of Edmund Engelman. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4, 1-338; 5, 339-625.

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