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In Freudian theory, the fulfillment of a wish is an aspiration, theme, or, one might even say, motor principle, of unconscious formations like dreams, hysterical symptoms, and fantasies. In these formations an unconscious, infantile sexual wish is expressed and fulfilled in imagination in a more or less disguised way. From this point of view, the fulfillment in question is neither total nor definitive, but unique and dynamic.

Freud set forth his theory of wish fulfillment in chapter 3 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), though he had already mentioned the idea in the preceding chapter, "The Method of Interpreting Dreams," in connection with his dream of Irma's injection: "The dream represented a particular state of affairs as I should have wished them to be. Thus its content was the fulfilment of a wish and its motive was a wish. When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfilment of a wish" (1900a, pp. 118-119, 121). In fact, four months before his dream of injecting Irma, in his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, Freud first alluded to the general principle of the dream as wish fulfillment. The context was in the account of the "dream of convenience" of "Mr. Pepi" (Rudi Kaufmann, a nephew of Josef Breuer), who dreamed he was in the hospital so as not to have to wake up in the morning (Letter of March 4, 1895, p. 114).

Only interpretation and analysis can penetrate the disguise under which a wish-fulfillment is expressed. An unconscious wish is fulfilled in an imaginary way and appears to the dreamer in masked form. Dream work transforms the latent content of the dream into manifest content by means of the processes of condensation and displacement. Wish fulfillment is not the cause of the dream, but it shapes the intentional structure of the dream. Hence the need for the work of interpretation. To be fulfilled, the wish, as an instinctual intrapsychic force, must effect what Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), called "perceptual identity" (pp. 566-567). The path followed leads from the triggering of an internal need to its satisfaction in the experience of a hallucinated wish-fulfillment.

Thirty years later, in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]), Freud reaffirmed that "in every dream an instinctual wish has to be represented as fulfilled. The shutting-off of mental life from reality at night and the regression to primitive mechanisms which this makes possible enable this wished-for instinctual satisfaction to be experienced in a hallucinatory manner" (pp. 18-19).

His study of traumatic dreams connected with accident neuroses led Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), to postulate aims of the dream other than the fulfillment of an unconscious wish. On the face of it, a dreamer whose dreams regularly culminated in anxiety could not be striving to satisfy an unconscious wish, yet even "if you want to take these latter objections into account, you can say nevertheless that a dream is an attempt at the fulfilment of a wish," Freud wrote (1933a [1932], p. 29). With respect to hysterical symptoms, Freud noted that an unconscious, infantile wish was certainly being fulfilled, but so was a preconscious wish, so that two opposing wishes, issuing from two different mental agencies, were being fulfilled. As for fantasies or daydreams, "like dreams, they are wish-fulfilments. . . . The wishful purpose that is at work in their production has mixed up the material of which they are built, has rearranged it and has formed it into a new whole" (Freud, 1900a, p. 492).

A wish never arises in isolation; it always encounters other wishes, opposing it in an open structure, so that desire is always in the process of organizing meaning. Jacques Lacan considered this always-incomplete destiny of desire to be the basis of the dialectic between demand and desire, which for him defined the human condition.

Delphine Schilton

See also: Amentia; Anxiety dream; Convenience, dream of; Dream screen; Experience of satisfaction; Fantasy; Formations of the unconscious; Illusion; Interpretation of Dreams, The ; Nightmare; Reverie; Transgression; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion).


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

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Lacan, Jacques. (1998). Le séminaire. Book 5: Les formations de l'inconscient. Paris: Seuil.