Interpretation of Dreams, The

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Even more than the Studies on Hysteria, written in collaboration with Josef Breuer (1895d), or the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895]), The Interpretation of Dreams may be considered the founding work of psychoanalysis. It was with this book that Freud sought for the first time to present an overall view of mental functioning. Most of its tenets were maintained unchanged throughout Freud's lifetime, and even today the book is considered indispensable to any possible theoretical progress in psychoanalysis.

Freud became interested in his patients' dreams early in his career, feeling that they might provide useful information about what, consciously or not, they hid from their doctor. He also came to believe that dreams and symptoms were formed in an analogous way. He went further, asserting that the mechanisms involved were not restricted to pathological processes, and that the analysis of dreams could serve as a powerful method for explaining mental functioning in general. He began to write down and analyze his own dreams, and the material generated in this way would eventually constitute the greater part of the empirical evidence on which The Interpretation was based.

Preparatory work went on for nearly four years, from the spring of 1896 to the end of 1899. Freud was slowed down in part by a self-imposed obligation to reviewing the whole of the existing literature on dreams, and more importantly by the fact that he had indeed embarked on the development of a general theory of the functioning of the psyche. During a burst of creative energy he produced a first outline in 1895 (the posthumously published "Project for a Scientific Psychology"). He drew inspiration from the theories of his teacher Ernest von Brücke and of Hermann von Helmholtz, who believed that all biological, and hence neurological and by extension psychological, activity could be reduced to physical and chemical processes. On this basis Freud worked out a neurobiological model that was strictly imaginary (albeit filled with extraordinary insights) and entirely based on the supposed working of neurons, which had only recently (1891) been discovered. But he was disappointed with this paper, put it aside, and set about reformulating his theory in terms of mental processes alone. Four years later, in September 1899, the manuscript of The Interpretation of Dreams was finished.

The work was published by Deuticke on November 4 of that year, butprophetically enough for a book that inaugurated the "century of psychoanalysis"it bore the publication date of 1900. The book had a rather frosty reception, however, and to begin with sales were wretchedly bad. But over the long term it enjoyed an extraordinary success: there were ten reprintings in Germany during Freud's lifetime, and innumerable translations. Over the years Freud continually modified and (especially) added to his text, so that each new edition reflected developments in his thinking.

Freud makes four fundamental claims in The Interpretation of Dreams :

1) He proposes a method for investigating mental processes. The content of a dream (its "material") rarely sheds direct light on the processes that shape it; the meaning has to be teased out of the interplay between chains of association in the mind of the dreamer (who is urged to express all thoughts that come to mind, excluding nothing, no matter how irrelevant it may seem) and interpretations offered by the analyst. Through their interaction, these associations and interpretations lead to a clarification of the "latent dream-thoughts" beneath the manifest content. For Freud the interpretation of dreams is the "royal road" to the unconsciousto that part of mental life which has been subjected to repressionin that the manifest content of the dream reveals the "return of the repressed."

2) He lays down a general rule: every dream represents a wish fulfilled. He sets out to show that even when the manifest content of a dream is distressing, the latent meaning always embodies a search for satisfaction. This is a direct echo of the "Project for a Scientific Psychology," according to which the neuronal apparatus tends to release large amounts of energy that circulate within it. In psychic terms, this becomes the "pleasure-unpleasure principle": the reduction of unpleasure and a corresponding access to pleasure by means of a discharge of energy. This account in terms of energy, the basis of the "economic point of view" in Freud's theory, derives directly from Helmholtz and Brücke; its generalization would later lead to the notion of the libido.

3) In order to transform the latent dream-thoughts into manifest content, the dream-work relies on four means of distortion. Freud sees these procedures as belonging to two stages: in the first, the primary processes operate by means of displacement, condensation, and visual representation; then secondary processes ("secondary revision") restore a consistency and surface plausibility that makes the dream content acceptable but by the same token guarantees that the dream's latent meaning is misapprehended.

4) Freud takes pains to emphasize that he is by no means offering a new "dream book": every dream has an individual meaning discoverable only by applying his principles of interpretation. All the same, the sources of human dreams lie in wishes of a similar kind, and give rise to analogous conflicting forms, while the latent content is submitted to the same transforming mechanisms. The result is the existence of "typical dreams" whose meaning is quasi-universal, even if the details are specific to the individual dreamer. Such typical dreams include dreams of nakedness, dreams of the death of loved ones, examination dreams, and so on.

How is such "common symbolism" related to the individual's symbolizing processes? This is a question which preoccupied Freud continually, and indeed gave rise to most of the many revisions he made over the years to The Interpretation of Dreams.

Roger Perron

See also: Day's residues; Dream; Dream's navel, the; Dream symbolism; Dream work; Fliess, Wilhelm; Freud, Jakob Kolloman (or Keleman or Kallamon); Freud's Self-Analysis ; Functional phenomenon; Interpretation; Irma's injection, dream of; Latent; Latent dream thoughts; Manifest; Primary process/secondary process; Psychic apparatus; Psychic causality; On Dreams ; Secondary revision; Sleep/wakefulness; Structural theories; Wish-fulfillment.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). Die Traumdeutung. Vienna: Deuticke; G.W., 2-3 ; The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.


Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Jones, Ernest. (1953-1957). Sigmund Freud: Life and work. London: Hogarth Press.

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Interpretation of Dreams, The

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