(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In March, 1931, in a foreword to the third English edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud expressed the opinion that the volume contained the most valuable of all the discoveries he had been fortunate enough to make. The author’s estimation of his work concurs with that of most students and critics. The ideas that dreams are wish fulfillments, that dreams disguise the wishes of the unconscious, that dreams are always important and significant, and that dreams express infantile wishes—particularly for the death of the parent of the same sex as that of the dreamer—appear in this masterpiece of psychological interpretation. In this work, the Oedipus complex is first named and explained, and the method of psychoanalysis is given impetus and credibility by its application to the analysis of dreams.

It is a common criticism of Freud to say that the father of psychoanalysis, although inspired in this and other works, went too far in his generalizations concerning the basic drives of the unconscious. Freud is charged with regarding every latent wish as having a sexual object, and he is criticized for supposing that dreams can be understood as complexes of such universally significant symbols as umbrellas and boxes.

Although Freud argues that repressed wishes that show themselves in disguised form in dreams generally have something to do with the unsatisfied sexual cravings of childhood—for dreams are important and concern themselves only with matters that one cannot resolve by conscious deliberation and action—he allows for the dream satisfaction of other wishes that reality has frustrated. These include the desire for the continued existence of a loved one already dead, the desire for sleep as a continuation of the escape from reality, the desire for a return to childhood, and the desire for revenge when revenge is impossible.

As for the charge that Freud regarded dreams as complexes of symbols having the same significance for all dreamers, this is clearly unwarranted. Freud explicitly states that “only the context can furnish the correct meaning” of a dream symbol. He rejects as wholly inadequate the use of any such simple key as a dream book of symbols. All dreamers utilize the material of their own experience in their own way, and only by a careful analytical study of associations—obscured by the manifest content of the dream—is it possible to get at the particular use of symbols in an individual’s dream. It is worth noting, Freud admits, that many symbols recur with much the same intent in many dreams of different persons; this knowledge, however, must be used judiciously. The agreement in the use of symbols is only partly a matter of cultural tendencies; it is largely attributable to limitations of the imagination imposed by the material itself. “To use long, stiff objects and weapons as symbols of the female genitals, or hollow objects (chests, boxes, etc.) as symbols of the male genitals, is certainly not permitted by the imagination.”

It is not surprising that most of the symbols discussed by Freud, either as typical symbols or as symbols in individual cases, are sexually significant. Although Freud did not regard all dreams as the wish fulfillments of repressed sexual desires, he did suppose that a greater number of dreams have a sexual connotation: “The more one is occupied with the solution of dreams, the readier one becomes to acknowledge that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes.” Freud adds, “In dream-interpretation this importance of the sexual complexes must never be forgotten, though one must not, of course, exaggerate it to the exclusion of all other factors.”

The technique of dream interpretation is certainly not exhausted, according to Freud, by the technique of symbol interpretation. Dreams involve the use of the images dreamed, the manifest dream content, as a way of disguising the unconscious “dream-thoughts” or latent dream content. The significance of a dream may be revealed only after one has understood the dramatic use of the symbolism of the dream. To interpret dreams, one needs to understand the condensation of the material, the displacement of the conventional...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)