The Interpretation of Dreams

by Sigmund Freud

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Historical Context

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Freud’s Austria Freud’s home of Vienna is the capital of Austria, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled by the Habsburg Dynasty, from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. The Habsburg Empire included areas that are now parts of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria.

The Eighteenth Century: Maria Theresa and Joseph II From 1740 to 1780, the Habsburg Empire was ruled by Empress Maria Theresa, the first woman to occupy this position. In 1737, her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Thereafter, the house of Habsburg was known as Habsburg-Lorraine. Maria Theresa’s right to rule the empire was challenged in the War of the Austrian Succession, which lasted from 1740 to 1748. Upon victoriously settling this power dispute, Maria Theresa successfully instituted wide-reaching reforms in the military, financial, and administrative concerns of the empire, strengthening and consolidating her power in all of these areas. She also implemented a public school system designed to offer education to the lower echelons of society.

Freud mentions the empress Maria Theresa in a dream, which features an image from the reproduction of a woodcut that appeared in a book about the history of Austria. In Freud’s dream, his father stands in the place of the empress, surrounded by a crowd. He concludes that his dream is a wish-fulfillment on his part, as a father himself, ‘‘to be a pure and great presence to one’s children after one’s death.’’

When Maria Theresa’s husband died, her son Joseph II aided her in ruling the empire until her death in 1780, when he became emperor. Joseph II, continuing his mother’s policy of reform, reigned until his death in 1790. One of his more significant accomplishments was the declaration of the 1781 Edict of Toleration, which extended religious tolerance to Jews and Protestants. This was a particularly significant change for the Jews of Austria, allowing them to enter universities and occupy trades from which they had previously been banned. In 1781, Joseph II also extended important legal rights to the peasants.

In one dream, Freud makes a statement that refers to the inscription on the pedestal of an equestrian statue to Emperor Joseph II. He concludes that this dream expressed his wish to ‘‘raise a monument to my friend,’’ recently deceased, whose name was also Josef.

The Nineteenth Century: The Revolutions of 1848 In February 1848, a revolution centralized in Paris inspired rebellions that broke out in major cities throughout Europe, many of them in the Habsburg Empire. In March, an uprising in Vienna, calling for liberal reform, led to violent confrontation between protestors and authorities. As a concession, the emperor removed from office Klemens Fürst von Metternich, the minister of foreign affairs, whom many viewed as an oppressor and enemy of the people. Nonetheless, rebellion and violence continued in Vienna throughout the year. Rebellion had simultaneously broken out throughout the empire, with varying degrees of success, in Hungary and Italy and among the Slavic and German populations. In May, the emperor and government fled Vienna, fearing for their safety. They returned to the city in August, however, and in October, the Habsburg army regained control of the city, executing many of the revolutionary leaders. Some effort was made on the part of the government to formulate a constitution, but the emperor ultimately defeated this initiative. One genuine concession on the part of the emperor was the full emancipation of the peasants and serfs.

Freud describes a dream he had in which the general atmosphere ‘‘makes something of the impression of a fantasy transporting the dreamer to...

(This entire section contains 999 words.)

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the revolutionary year of 1848.’’ He explains that this element of the dream had been sparked by the national celebration in 1898 of the fifty-year anniversary of the revolution. In one part of the dream, Freud identifies himself with one of the student leaders of the 1848 rebellion.

Count Thun Count Franz Anton Thun was the governor of Freud’s native land of Bohemia from 1889 to 1895 when he resigned. From 1898 to 1899, he was prime minister of Austria. In 1911, he was made a prince and was reinstated as governor of Bohemia until 1915. He died in 1916. Count Thun’s checkered political career was the result of opposition by both Czech and German nationalists agitating against the rule of the Habsburg Empire.

Reference to Count Thun is made in Freud’s ‘‘revolutionary’’ dream, described above. In his ‘‘preamble’’ explaining the actual events of the day, which contributed to the dream content, Freud explains that he had seen Count Thun in a train station on his way to see the emperor. Freud recalls a joke frequently made in the popular press, referring to Count Thun as Count Nichtsthun, which means Count ‘‘do-nothing’’ in German. Freud explains that, while in fact Count Thun was going to a ‘‘difficult visit to the Emperor,’’ Freud himself is the real Count ‘‘do-nothing,’’ as he is on vacation, taking his leisure. Freud concludes that the ‘‘spirit of rebellion’’ that infuses this dream is in part a wish-fulfillment to rebel against the authority of his father, who is associated with Count Thun.

The Twentieth Century Beginning in 1848, the Habsburg Empire was ruled by Francis Joseph, who reigned until his death 1916. He was succeeded by Charles, whose reign lasted only two years. The empire was formally dissolved in 1918 in the wake of World War I when Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria became independent nations.

In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria and declared it a part of ‘‘Greater’’ Germany. Freud’s books had been among the first to be burned in Nazi Germany, and the Freud family was put under house arrest for several months until they were given permission to leave the country. Freud, then eighty-two, was forced to sign a document stating that he had not been ill-treated by the Nazis; with great irony, he added, in his own handwriting, ‘‘I can most warmly recommend the Gestapo to anyone’’ (as quoted in the Encyclopedia of World Biography). The family took refuge in London where Freud died a year later.

Literary Style

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Narrative Voice Freud made a bold move in choosing to write The Interpretation of Dreams, a ‘‘scientific’’ treatise, in the first-person narrative voice—meaning that he inserts himself into the text as an individual, using the pronoun ‘‘I.’’ Freud’s theoretical insights, which he puts forth in The Interpretation of Dreams, are a direct result of several years of intensive self-analysis; thus, he analyses his own dreams as examples to prove his theory of dream interpretation. He explains that to demonstrate his theory, he found that his own dreams provided ‘‘an abundant and convenient fund of material coming from a more or less normal person and relating to a variety of occasions in daily life,’’ in part due to the fact that ‘‘the conditions for self-observation are more favourable than the conditions for the observation of others.’’ He acknowledges at several points throughout the book the personal risk and embarrassment involved in so publicly delving into the depths of his own psyche, thereby revealing many personal feelings about his friends, family, and colleagues:

Reporting my own dreams, however, turned out to be inextricably tied to revealing more of the intimacies of my psychical life than I could wish or than usually falls to the task of an author who is not a poet, but a scientist. This was painful and embarrassing, but unavoidable; I have bowed to it then, so that I should not entirely do without presenting the evidence for my psychological conclusions.

So strong was his sense of embarrassment at exposing himself in this manner that Freud withheld the book from publication for a year after he had completed writing it.

Nonfiction Genres: Scientific Treatise and Autobiography Many critics have acknowledged the tension in The Interpretation of Dreams between Freud’s efforts to present his groundbreaking theory in an objective manner acceptable to the scientific community and his choice to present personal material from a subjective perspective, based on experiences from his own life. Ritchie Robertson, in an Introduction to the 1999 translation, observes that the book is in part a ‘‘semi-disguised autobiography’’ of Freud, revealing much about his childhood, family of origin, social milieu, and adult relationships. At the same time, Freud took pains to satisfy the requirements of the scientific community, beginning the book with an overview of the ‘‘Scientific Literature on the Problems of Dreams’’ although he was not particularly interested in this material. Translator Joyce Crick refers to this grafting of scientific and personal narrative in The Interpretation of Dreams, calling it a ‘‘treatise-cum-autobiography.’’ Crick describes several different ‘‘registers’’ in which the book is written. The ‘‘theoretical,’’ or scientific, mode is written in the ‘‘discursive, formal language of the argued treatise, presenting evidence, argument, rebuttal, qualification, inference.’’ Another major ‘‘register’’ in which the book is written, according to Crick, is the ‘‘narrative’’ mode, used in the ‘‘preambles’’ and descriptions of Freud’s dreams.

Literary References and Allusions Freud is well known for the rich array of literary references on which much of his writing relies. His central theoretical construct of the Oedipus Complex, for example, is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, and the plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (496–406 B.C.). Throughout his prolific body of psychoanalytic theory, Freud draws many examples from the plays of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he makes reference to some twenty different literary figures from throughout history, including French, English, and Greek, as well as German, literature. His reliance on examples from world literature in part explains the lasting impact of Freudian theory on the field of literary theory and criticism in the late twentieth century where his influence is as pervasive and enduring as it is in psychology. One may even regard Freud’s dream analysis as parallel to literary analysis, as he makes much use of word play and verbal allusion in dissecting the narrative content of his dreams. Some critics have even come to regard Freud himself as a kind of poet of the mind, interpreting the everyday experiences, dreams, and memories of each individual as a literary creation, rife with literary allusion, symbolism, and allegorical or mythological meaning. Jonathan Lear observes, in a 1995 article in the New Republic, that one of Freud’s greatest contributions is the realization that ‘‘creativity is no longer the exclusive preserve of the divinely inspired, or the few great poets,’’ for, ‘‘from a psychoanalytic point of view, everyone is poetic; everyone dreams in metaphor and generates symbolic meaning in the process of living.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1278: The Habsburg Empire acquires Austria and makes Vienna its capital city.

1860: Freud’s family moves to Vienna.

1867: The Habsburg Empire centralizes authority over Hungary in Vienna, thus creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

1914: World War I is initiated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Serbian nationalist.

1916–1918: With the death of Francis Joseph, Charles becomes emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

1918: Following World War I, Emperor Charles is forced to abdicate, and the Habsburg Empire is formally dissolved into several independent nations, including an Austrian republic. Vienna is made the capital of the newly formed republic.

1938–1945: Austria is occupied by German forces under Hitler, who declares it part of ‘‘Greater’’ Germany. He declares Vienna a German province and renames it ‘‘Greater’’ Vienna.

1945–1955: In the wake of World War II, Austria is divided into four regions, each occupied by one of the Allied forces. Vienna is divided into four separate occupation zones.

1955: In the Austrian State Treaty, Austria is reestablished as a sovereign nation, with Vienna as its capital, and is declared a permanently neutral country.

1990s: Austria joins the European Union in 1995. Austria and Switzerland have come to be known as the ‘‘neutral core’’ of Europe. As a neutral city, Vienna has become an international conference center and home of many world organizations.

1781: Emperor Joseph II of the Habsburg Empire establishes the Edict of Toleration, which extends religious freedoms to Protestants and Jews.

1873: A stock market crash in Austria inspires virulent anti-Semitism, as many citizens blame Jews for the economic crisis.

1895: The highly influential anti-Semitic politician Karl Lueger is elected to the Austrian Parliament.

1897: Lueger becomes mayor of Vienna.

1938–1945: During the German occupation of Austria, approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population of Vienna flee to escape Nazi persecution. Freud and his immediate family are among those who flee to England. Most of the Jews who remain in Vienna, including four of Freud’s sisters, are killed in the Holocaust.

1972–1981: Suspected Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim represents Austria as secretary-general of the United Nations.

1986–1992: International controversy is sparked by the election of Waldheim as president of Austria in 1986. In 1987, a previously suppressed United States Justice Department report reveals that Waldheim was (as stated in Encyclopaedia Britannica) ‘‘a key member of Nazi units responsible for executing prisoners, killing civilians, identifying Jews for deportation, and shipping prisoners to slave labour camps.’’ Nevertheless, Waldheim retains office as president until 1992.

1994: For the first time in history, the Austrian government publicly accepts responsibility for its participation in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Vienna is the site of the largest ever United Nations World Conference on Human Rights.

Media Adaptations

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A fictionalized account of the life of Freud was the subject of Freud, the 1962 Hollywood movie directed by John Huston and starring Montgomery Clift in the title role.

Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud, was recorded on audiocassette by Audio Scholar, read by Sydney Walker, in 1990.

Sigmund Freud is a biographical video recording of the life of Freud, first broadcast as part of a television series. It was produced by A&E Home Video and distributed by the New Video Group in 1997.


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Elliott, Anthony, ed. Freud 2000. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1998. The essayists examine how Freud’s theories apply to current issues in the social sciences and humanities.

Frieden, Ken. Freud’s Dream of Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Frieden asserts that despite Freud’s denials, he was influenced by biblical and rabbinical modes of dream interpretation. Convincingly argues that because interpretation is never a neutral act, Freud failed to acknowledge the prophetic aspect of his dream work.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as Imaginative Writers. New York: Atheneum, 1962. Hyman contends that the power of Freud’s ideas owes a great deal to his ability as an imaginative writer. He examines the tone, imaginative organization, and thematic metaphors of The Interpretation of Dreams.

Isbister, J. N. Freud: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1985. Evaluates Freud’s ideas in a biographical and philosophical context and finds them wanting. Criticizes Freudian psychology as reductive and nihilistic. Calls for a revision of psychoanalytic dream theory in light of later studies on sleep.

Liu, Catherine, et al., eds. The Dreams of Interpretation: A Century down the Royal Road. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. A reevaluation of Freud’s book, with essays by psychoanalysts, philosophers, literary critics, and other writers who describe how Freud’s work changed the way people think about psychology, politics, and culture.

Marinelli, Lydia, and Andreas Mayer. Dreaming by the Book: Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” and the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement. Translated by Susan Fairfield. New York: Other Press, 2003. Traces the changes in the eight editions of the book that appeared between 1899 and 1930 in relation to psychoanalytic practice.

Neu, Jerome, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Freud. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Collection of essays analyzing various aspects of Freud’s philosophy. The references to The Interpretation of Dreams are listed in the index.

Soule, George. “Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams.” In Books That Changed Our Minds, edited by Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith. New York: Kelmscott, 1939. Traces the widespread influence of Freud’s ideas on art, language, culture, and the study of history. Attempts to distinguish psychoanalytic theory from popular misconceptions.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Crick, Joyce, ‘‘Note on the Translation,’’ in The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. xlii.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated and edited by James Strachey, Avon Books, 1965, p. xxxii.

———, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by Joyce Crick, with notes and an introduction by Ritchie Robertson, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gay, Peter, ‘‘Psychoanalyst: Sigmund Freud,’’ in Time, Vol. 153, No. 12, March 29, 1999, p. 66.

Lear, Jonathan, ‘‘The Shrink Is In: A Counterblast in the War on Freud,’’ in New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 26, December 25, 1995, p. 18.

‘‘Re-examining Freud,’’ in Psychology Today, Vol. 23, No. 9, September, 1989, p. 48.

‘‘Sigmund Freud,’’ in Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2d ed., Vol. 6, Gale Research, 1998, pp. 103–06.

‘‘Year in Review 1994,’’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1994–2000 (February 3, 2001).

Further Reading Beller, Steven, Vienna and the Jews, 1867–1938: A Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, 1989. Beller provides historical information on the status and culture of Jews in Vienna during a period roughly coinciding with Freud’s lifetime, including discussions of anti-Semitism, the intellectual milieu of Jews in Vienna, and the influence of Jewish culture on Viennese society and history.

Buhle, Mari Jo, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis, Harvard University Press, 1998. Buhle provides an historical overview of the feminist response to Freudian theory as it developed throughout the twentieth century.

Crews, Frederick C., Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, Viking, 1998. Crews grapples with the controversial elements of Freudian theory in an attempt to address the many criticisms it has received.

Ferris, Paul, Dr. Freud: A Life, Counterpoint, 1998. Ferris’ biography of Freud is one of the more recent of several that have been published since Freud’s death.

Forrester, John, Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and Its Passions, Harvard University Press, 1997. Forrester provides an historical analysis of the many critical responses to Freudian theory throughout the twentieth century.

Freud, Sigmund, Dora: Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, edited by Philip Rieff, Collier Books, 1993 (first published in 1905). One of Freud’s most famous case histories, Dora is the account of his analysis of a young woman suffering from symptoms of hysteria.

Hale, Nathan G., The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans, Oxford University Press, 1995. Hale provides an historical account of the influence of Freudian theory on American psychological thought in the twentieth century.

Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, Basic Books, 1995. Mitchell and Black provide an historical account of the development of psychoanalytic theory throughout the twentieth century.

Roazen, Paul, Freud and His Followers, Da Capo Press, 1992. Roazen provides an historical account of Freud’s friends, associates, colleagues, and disciples and their impact on the development of psychoanalytic theory.

Robinson, Paul A., Freud and His Critics, University of California Press, 1993. Robinson offers an overview of critical responses to Freudian theory in the late twentieth century.


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