Freud: A Life for Our Time Analysis

Peter Gay


This definitive new biography of Sigmund Freud, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century, complements such previous efforts to capture the life and times of the controversial founder of psychoanalysis as The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953-1957) by Ernest Jones and the more recent Freud: The Man and the Cause (1980) by Ronald W. Clark. Although Jones’s study of Freud is valuable for its personal insights into the life and thought of his mentor, it is often marred by his idolizing of his subject and his jealousy of Freud’s other followers. Clark’s book provides additional information about Freud’s personal life; it is weak and derivative, however, in its analysis of Freud’s thought.

Neither of these two earlier biographies provides what Peter Gay is best at recreating: the complex relationship between Freud’s thought and his life and the cultural and historical framework from which his ideas sprang. As a graduate of the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis, Gay is well prepared to explicate the intricacies of Freud’s thought; as a cultural historian whose first volume of his two-volume study The Enlightenment: An Interpretation won a National Book Award in 1967, he is eminently qualified to ground Freud in his cultural milieu. Indeed, this is the dual focus and the particular forte of Freud: A Life for Our Time.

The book is divided into three basic parts: “Foundations: 1856-1905,” which covers Freud’s life from his birth until the publication of Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1953); “Elaborations: 1902-1915,” which deals with his efforts to create a broad-based psychoanalytic movement; and “Revisions: 1915-1939,” which focuses on the high tide of psychoanalysis as a cultural theory, as well as on Freud’s flight from Nazi persecution and his battle with cancer until his death in 1939.

An early indication that this book is more a study of the intellectual life of Freud than an account of his personal experience is the fact that “Foundations,” which covers the first fifty years of Freud’s life, encompasses only approximately one-fourth of Gay’s text. Readers seeking anecdotal information about the childhood, adolescence, or early married life of Freud will find little here. Although Gay does comment on the poverty of Freud’s early life, he is primarily interested in focusing on his brilliance as a student and on his aspirations, typical of talented Jewish boys of the time, to become an educated professional. Although he discusses Freud’s love affair with Martha Bernays, citing some of his letters to her, he is mostly interested in how the letters reveal Freud’s early disposition toward psychological analysis. Indeed, soon after Freud’s marriage, his wife seems to disappear from this account as the young doctor begins his professional life.

That so much of Gay’s biography focuses on Freud’s intellectual life and so little on his personal life is appropriate for a man who from a very early age was driven by what Gay calls a “greed for knowledge.” Moreover, as a product of his cultural milieu, Freud was the typical late nineteenth century Jewish patriarchal figure: His life was dominated by his professional interests; the house and the children were the responsibility of the wife and mother; and family life focused primarily on allowing Freud to do his work. Thus, much of this first section on Freud’s early life deals with his relationship with his teacher, Ernst Brücke, and his first coworker, Josef Breuer; examines the influence of Jean Martin Charcot, whose use of hypnotism moved Freud away from physiology and toward psychology; and explores the importance of his friendship with Wilhelm Fliess, who, although a crank in many ways, served as a sounding board and an alter ego for some of Freud’s early ideas.

Part 1 also focuses on Freud’s most influential early clinical and theoretical studies, particularly his work with Breuer on hysteria and his first important case history of the talented “Anna O” (Bertha Pappenheim), who coined the term “the talking cure” for what was to become the psychoanalytic method. During this important early period Freud developed (and then abandoned) his seduction theory, which suggested that female hysteria was caused by an early sexual assault; also during this time he subjected himself to extensive self-analysis, coined the term “psychoanalysis,” began using the famous couch, formulated the “Oedipus Complex,” and, perhaps most important, wrote Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1953), that epoch-making...

(The entire section is 1935 words.)


Chicago Tribune. April 10, 1988, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, February 1, 1988, p. 177.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. XCIII, May 8, 1988, p. 1.

Nature. CCCXXXIII, May 19, 1988, p. 217.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, April 24, 1988, p. 3.

Newsweek. CXI, May 2, 1988, p. 71.

Psychology Today. XXII, July, 1988, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, March 4, 1988, p. 91.

Time. CXXXI, April 18, 1988, p. 85.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 20, 1988, p. 547.