Typical Dreams

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A typical dream is a dream that, in its content and form, is very much alike for a great many people. Freud devoted a long section to typical dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a): these are "dreams which almost everyone has dreamt alike and which we are accustomed to assume must have the same meaning for everyone" (p. 241).

These dreams could be considered to be an exception to the rule that the meaning of a dream can only be deciphered through the dreamer's own interpretation; furthermore, Freud added, associations connected with such dreams are in general weak and vague. He was interested primarily in four kinds of typical dream.

  • dreams of nudity, gratifying an exhibitionist desire dating from childhood;
  • dreams of the death of loved ones, of which there are two varieties: death of a brother or a sister, an expression of infantile jealousy, and death of a parent, the direct expression of oedipal hatred for a parent of the same sex (it was in this passage that Freud gave for the first time a closely reasoned description of that which he later was to call the Oedipus complex ). Any dream of the death of a loved person would therefore be an expression of a death wish, Freud commenting that in this case, contrary to what has been observed in most dreams, the result of the wishdisguised as a fearis represented without displacement: it really is the death of the loved person that is represented. Freud specified that in these dreams of infantile satisfaction, death does not have the meaning it has for the adult; it is simply absence, which is why the dream is often not very painful;
  • dreams of flying. A note added in 1925 suggested that this could be a representation of the primal scene (sexual rapports between parents);
  • dreams of being obliged to retake an examination, as an adult, that has been taken and passed successfully at a younger age. The meaning of this is frequently reassurance before a difficult moment ("you have passed this examination before, therefore you will succeed again . . .").

Freud returned to this subject later in the same book, where he maintained that typical dreams deploy symbolic representations rooted in the culture and found in tales, folklore, and myths: "the question is bound to arise of whether many of these symbols do not occur with a permanently fixed meaning, like the 'grammalogues' in shorthand" (p. 351). Yet, in most cases, something personal to the dreamer is added to the "universal" symbol. Freud illustrated this proposition with a great number of examples of dreams of stairways, tooth extractions, theft, birth, etc., where, however, this distinction seems to be a little vague.

Thereafter, the subject of typical dreams did not come up much in Freud's work. It has been discussed by Denise Braunschweig and Michel Fain (1975) from the perspective of castration, these kinds of dreams appearing to them to bear witness to a "hysterical kernel," which they describe as "a capacity to turn something into its opposite, so creating a double meaning susceptible of satisfying the demands of bisexuality."

Roger Perron

See also: Death (representation of) in psychoanalysis; Dream; Dream of birth; Dream of mourning; Dream of nakedness; "Dream of the wise baby, The"; Dream symbolism; Examination dreams; Myth of the Birth of the Hero, The ; Silence.


Braunschweig, Denise and Michel Fain. (1975). La nuit, le jour. Essai psychanalytique sur le functionnement mental [Night and day: psychoanalytical essay on mental functioning]. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

Further Reading

Myers, Wayne A. (1989). The traumatic element in the typical dream of feeling embarrassed at being naked. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 37, 117-130.

Renik, Owen. (1981). Typical examination dreams, "superego dreams" and traumatic dreams. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 50, 159-189.