The Interpretation of Dreams

by Sigmund Freud

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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...

(This entire section contains 1741 words.)

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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 meaning of a symbol or utterance, or even a displacement of the “center” of the dream-thoughts. The manifest dream may center about a matter removed from the central concern of the dream. As Freud explains the problems of dream interpretation, making numerous references to dream examples, it becomes clear that dream interpretation must be at least as ingenious as dreaming—and there is nothing more ingenious.

Freud begins The Interpretation of Dreams with a history of the scientific literature of dream problems from ancient times to 1900. He then proceeds to make his basic claim: that dreams are interpretable as wish fulfillments. To illustrate his point, he begins with an involved dream of his own, justifying his procedure by arguing that self-analysis is possible and, even when faulty, illustrative.

A problem arises with the consideration of painful dreams. If dreams are wish fulfillments, why are some dreams nightmares? Who wishes to be terrified? Freud’s answer is that the problem arises from a confusion between the manifest and the latent dream. What is painful, considered as manifest, may, because of its disguised significance, be regarded as satisfactory to the unconscious. When one realizes, in addition, that many suppressed wishes are desires for punishment, the painful dream presents itself as a fulfillment of such wishes. To understand the possibility of painful dreams, it is necessary to consider Freud’s amended formula: “The dream is the (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish.”

In describing the method most useful in enabling people to recall their dreams both by facilitating memory and by inhibiting the censorship tendency of the person recounting the dream, Freud presents what has become familiar as the psychoanalytic method of free association. He suggests that patients be put into a restful position with the eyes closed, that patients be told not to criticize their thoughts or to withhold the expression of them, and that they continue to be impartial about their ideas. This problem of eliminating censorship while recounting the dream is merely an extension of the problem of dealing with the censorship imposed by the dreamer while dreaming. Dreamers do not want to acknowledge their desires; for one reason or another they have repressed them. The fulfillment of the suppressed desire can be tolerated by dreamers only if they leave out anything that would be understandable to the waking mind. Consequently, only a laborious process of undoing (or understanding) the dream can result in some understanding of the meaning that the censor tries to hide.

Among the interesting corollaries of Freud’s theory is the idea that the dream stimulus is always to be found among the experiences of the hours prior to sleeping. Some incident from the day becomes the material of the dream, its provocative image. Although the dream stimulus is from the day preceding sleep, the repressed wish that the dream expresses and fulfills is from childhood, at least in the majority of cases: “The deeper we go into the analysis of dreams, the more often are we put on to the track of childish experiences which play the part of dream-sources in the latent dream content.” To explain the difficulty of getting at the experiences in childhood that provide the latent dream-content, Freud argues for a conception of dreams as stratified: In the dream, layers of meaning are involved, and it is only at the lowest stratum that the source in some experience of childhood may be discovered.

Among the typical dreams mentioned by Freud are the embarrassment dream of nakedness, interpreted as an exhibition dream, fulfilling a wish to return to childhood (the time when one ran about naked without upsetting anyone); the death-wish dream in which one dreams of the death of a beloved person, interpreted as a dream showing repressed hostility toward brother or sister, father or mother; and the examination dream in which one dreams of the disgrace of flunking an examination, interpreted as reflecting the ineradicable memories of punishments in childhood.

Of these typical dreams, the death-wish dream directed to the father (by the son) or to the mother (by the daughter) is explained in terms of the drama of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. Oedipus unwittingly murders his own father and marries his mother. When he discovers his deeds, he blinds himself and exiles himself from Thebes. The appeal of the story is explained by Freud as resulting from its role as a wish fulfillment. The drama reveals the inner self, the self that directed its first sexual impulses toward (in the case of a male) the mother and its first jealous hatred toward the father. These feelings have been repressed during the course of developing maturity, but they remain latent, ready to manifest themselves only in dreams somewhat more obscure than the Oedipus drama itself. Freud mentions William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark(pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) as another play in which the same wish is shown, although in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark the fulfillment is not achieved. Freud accounts for Hamlet’s reluctance to complete the task of revenge by pointing out that Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill a man who accomplished what he himself wishes he had accomplished: the murder of his father and marriage to his mother.

In his discussion of the psychology of the dream process, Freud calls attention to the fact that dreams are quickly forgotten—a natural consequence, if his theory is correct. This fact creates problems for the analyst who wishes to interpret dreams in order to discover the root of neurotic disturbances. The self that forgets the dream, however, is the same self that dreamed, and it is possible by following the implications of even superficial associations to get back to the substance of the dream.

Realizing that many would be offended by his ideas, Freud attempts to forestall criticism by insisting on the universal application of his theory and by claiming that dreams themselves—since they are not acts—are morally innocent, whatever their content.

There seems little question that Freud’s contribution to psychology in The Interpretation of Dreams will remain one of the great discoveries of the human mind. Whatever its excesses, particularly in the hands of enthusiastic followers, Freud’s central idea gains further confirmation constantly in the experiences of dreamers and analysts alike.