The Interpretation of Dreams

Sigmund Freud (1900)
Doug Davis (1995-1999)1

"Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo"

This work was, by his own assessment, Sigmund Freud's greatest. In the process of showing how seemingly meaningless fragments of dreams suggest the whole range of personal issues in the dreamer's present and past life, Freud lays out the basis for a new psychology, and much of his later thinking about symptoms, therapy, and culture are anticipated here. In the 1931 preface to the 3rd "(revised)" English edition, Freud testified to the book's lasting import for him, writing, "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime." The German title was DieTraumdeutung, and "Dream Meanings" is, I think, an appropriate label -- this is in a sense a self-help "dream book." It is quite unlike the typical railway station fare in important respects -- it presents special difficulties for the reader and it has much broader import -- but both the rootedness of the book in Freud's introspections and his repeated challenges to try such exercises on oneself suggest the relevance of the book for the autodidact.


Reception of the work. Sales of the first 600-issue edition were at first minuscule, but those of subsequent editions increased exponentially as the fame of Freud and of psychoanalysis grew in the first decade of the 20th century. Freud's representation of the reception of the work typifies his ambivalence about his theories of unconscious dynamics: he asserts that resistance to the ideas latent in the work has been broad and deep, and simultaneously reaffirms his own conviction about it, e.g. in the 2nd (1908) edition preface:

I am glad to say I have found little to change in it. ... In the sphere of dream life I have been able to leave my original assertions unchanged. During the long years in which I have been working at the problems of the neuroses I have often been in doubt and sometimes shaken in my convictions. At such times it has always been The Interpretation of Dreams that has given me back my certainty. It is thus a sure instinct which has led my many scientific opponents to refuse to follow me more especially in my researches upon dreams.

The 1908 preface also calls attention to the influence on the book of his father's death, which Freud labels "the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life."

Chapter 1: The Scientific Literature...

Freud reports his wide reading in both the folklore and science of dreaming, noting that traditional cultures have typically believed dreams were personally and socially significant and, often, that they pointed to pathological or prophetic influences on the dreamer. 19th Century academic writing, on the other hand, found relatively little in dreams to interest the psychologist. Freud sets himself a task different from that of the traditional dream-decoder.

In the pages that follow I shall bring forward proof that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that, if that procedure is employed, every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life. I shall further endeavor to elucidate the processes to which the strangeness and obscurity of dreams are due and to deduce from those processes the nature of the psychical forces by whose concurrent or mutually opposing action dreams are generated. Having gone thus far, my description will break off, for it will have reached a point at which the problem of dreams merges into more comprehensive problems, the solution of which must be approached upon the basis of material of another kind. (p. 1)

Freud's discussion of why dreams are forgotten touches a variety of the concerns of modern cognitive psychology. Dreams are a continuation of the thought processes of the day, under the altered conditions of sleep. Freud also notes that the study of dream influences their recall:

[T]here is another fact to be borne in mind as likely to lead to dreams being forgotten, namely that most people take very little interest in their dreams. Anyone, such as a scientific investigator, who pays attention to his dreams over a period of time will have more dreams than usual-which no doubt means that he remembers his dreams with greater ease and frequency (1900, p. 44).

Chapter 2: The Method of Interpreting Dreams: An Analysis of a Specimen Dream

Freud begins by distinguishing from his own interpretive method both the "symbolic" (e.g. Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream of fat and lean cows as signifying good and bad Egyptian harvests), and the "decoding" (in which each dream element is looked up in a list in which, e.g., "letter" means "trouble" and "funeral" means "betrothal") approaches. He then offers this famous example of how a dream may be interpreted.

Background: This most-discussed on all Freud's dreams has evoked a vast secondary literature. It can serve as a microcosm of Freud biographical scholarship.2 Freud's own prefatory comments to the specimen dream call attention to the tensions between a male analyst and the woman he treats, particularly when they have an extra-therapeutic relationship.

Irma's Injection
(hypertext version)

We now know from the complete Fliess correspondence (Masson, 1985) that the "Irma" dream was not the one originally intended to illustrate the method. Freud analyzed another "big dream," sent the analysis to Fliess, and was persuaded by him not to include it,3 because it was either too revealing of Freud's personal feelings toward his wife Martha or of his frustrated ambitions. Freud describes the personal, professional, and family context of the dream as follows:

During the summer of 1895 I had been giving psychoanalytic treatment to a young lady who was on very friendly terms with me and my family. It will be readily understood that a mixed relationship such as this may be a source of many disturbed feelings in a psychotherapist. While the physician's personal interest is greater, his authority is less; any failure would bring a threat to the old-established friendship with the patient's family. This treatment had ended in a partial success; the patient was relieved of her hysterical anxiety but did not lose all her somatic symptoms. At that time I was not yet quite clear in my mind as to the criteria indicating that a hysterical case history was finally closed, and I proposed a solution to the patient which she seemed unwilling to accept. While we were thus at variance, we had broken off the treatment for the summer vacation. ... (SE4, p. 106)

DREAM OF JULY 23RD-24TH, 1895 (cf. German original)

A large hall -- numerous guests, whom we were receiving. -- Among them was Irma. I at once took her on one side, as though to answer her letter and to reproach her for not having accepted my 'solution' yet. I said to her: 'If you still get pains, it's really only your fault.' She replied: 'If you only knew what pains I've got now in my throat and stomach and abdomen -- it's choking me' -- I was alarmed and looked at her. She looked pale and puffy. I thought to myself that after all I must be missing some organic trouble. I took her to the window and looked down her throat, and she showed signs of recalcitrance, like women with artificial dentures. I thought to myself that there was really no need for her to do that. -- She then opened her mouth properly and on the right I found a big white patch; at another place I saw extensive whitish gray scabs upon some remarkable curly structures which were evidently modeled on turbinal bones of the nose. -- I at once called in Dr. M., and he repeated the examination and he was very pale, he walked with a limp and his chin was clean-shaven.... My friend Otto was now standing beside her as well, and my friend Leopold was percussing her through her bodice and saying: 'She has a dull area low down on the left.' He also indicated that a portion of the skin on the left shoulder was infiltrated. (I noticed this, just as he did, in spite of her dress.) ... M. said: 'There's no doubt it's an infection, but no matter; dysentery will supervene and the toxin will be eliminated.' ... We were directly aware, too, of the origin of her infection. No long before, when she was feeling unwell, my friend Otto had given her an injection of a preparation of propyl, propyls ... propionic acid ... trimethylamin (and I saw before me the formula for this printed in heavy type) .... Injections of that sort out not to be made so thoughtlessly .... And probably the syringe had not been clean. (Freud, 1900, p. 107)

1. The setting: a vacation house, grand reception hall in which Freud's wife's (Martha's) birthday might be celebrated-i.e., the juxtaposition of the personal/family and the professional (patients and colleagues) aspects of Freud's life.

2. The initial mood: "reproach", initial mutual criticism between Freud and his female patient(s), later between Freud and his male colleagues.

3. The manifest cast of characters: Irma, a "hysterical" widow (Anna Hammerschlag, daughter of Freud's Hebrew teacher); Otto (Dr. Oscar Rie), Freud's friend (tarok partner), medical assistant, and pediatrician to his children; M. (Dr. Josef Breuer), Freud's elder co-author of Studies on Hysteria (1895); Leopold (Dr. Ludwig Rosenberg), pediatrician colleague and friend of Freud and Rie; and Freud himself.

4. propyl->trimethylamin [(CH3)3CNH2]

Anzieu [noting that Lacan had the idea first] suggests that "the theory -- a triad expanding into other triads -- matches the formal construction of the dream, where figures mostly appear in sets of three" (1975/1986, p. 149). So Freud associates to "Widows" (Irma, her friend, Martha), to "Elders" (Breuer, Fleischl, Emanuel), and to "Equals" (Otto, Leopold, Fliess).

The images: Associations

The "latent" (associated) content

The issue of Irma's opening her mouth "properly," to which Freud connects his wish to replace her with her friend, leads him to the "navel" of the dream, the descent into which he either will not make or will not share with us. This is the first of many instances in which Freud appears to abandon or censor very personal thoughts connected with his dreams. The images (to which Freud alludes later, in Chapter 6.D) are "oral" in the psychodynamic sense, and hence preoedipal and -- given Freud's concurrent interest in the etiology of the neuroses -- connected with oral sex acts, Freud's interest in which at this time is attested by the Fliess letters [cf. "Dora"]). Freud's interest in the nose in this period is the prototype of some of his later thinking about orality, and about obsession. (see Freud, 1909 , p. 248)]

Freud & Fliess & Emma Eckstein

Finally, the unconscious motives of the dream seem to be rooted in medical malpractice by friend's closest friend, Wilhelm Fliess, on the occasion of the nose operation on Ms. Emma Eckstein he had performed at Freud's request the previous April. Freud's personal state and intellectual concerns in the summer of 1895 -- as well as his concurrent psych-pharmacology -- are illustrated by his letter to Fliess on 12 June, reporting the "nasal" case of a Mrs. R (note Midas ref):

You are right that I am overflowing with new ideas, theoretical ones as well. My theories on defense have made an important advance of which I shall give you an account next time. Even the psychological construction behaves as if it would come together, which gives me immense pleasure. Reporting on it now would be like sending a six-month fetus of a girl to a ball.4
I am feeling I to IIa. I need a lot of cocaine. Also, I have started smoking again, moderately, in the last two to three weeks, since the nasal conviction [that his cardiac symptoms were of nasal origin, Masson suggests] has become evident to me. I have not observed any ensuing disadvantage. If you again prohibit it, I must give it up again. But do consider whether you can do this if it is only intolerance and not etiology.
I began it again because I constantly missed it (after fourteen months of abstinence) and because I must treat this psychic fellow [psychischenkerl] well or he won't work for me. I demand a great deal of him. The torment, most of the time, is superhuman. (Masson, 1985, pp. 131-132).

When The Interpretation of Dreams was finally finished, Freud wrote to Fliess (6/12/1900) that he had recisited Bellevue, the site of the "Irma" dream, and found himself wondering whether there would one day be a marble tablet there:

In This House, on July 24th, 1895
the Secret of Dreams was Revealed
to Dr. Sigm. Freud
Freud made his dreams come true, (see Jones, Sulloway).

Notes on the remainder of The Interpretation of Dreams are linked here. They are optional for my "Foundations of Personality" course but may come in handy for other purposes. These notes are not organized as a coherent narrative and they cannot substitue for reading Freud's text.

References and Suggested Reading

Anzieu, D. (1986). Freud's self-analysis (P. Graham, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1975)

Balmary, M. (1982). Psychoanalyzing psychoanalysis: Freud and the hidden fault of the father. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published 1979)

Bernheimer, C., & Kahane, C. (Eds.) (1985). In Dora's case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bonaparte, M., Freud, A., & Kris, E. (Eds.) (1954). The origins of psychoanalysis. Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes: 1887-1902 (E. Mosbacher & J. Strachey, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1950)

Bonaparte, M., Freud, A., & Kris, E. (Eds.) (1950). Aus den anfängen der psychoanalyse. London: Imago.

Davis, D.A. (1990). Freud's unwritten case. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 7, 185-209

Davis, D.A. (1994). A theory for the 90s: Freud's seduction theory in historical context. Psychoanalytic Review, 81, 627-640.

Ellenberger, H.F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Foulkes, David. A grammar of dreams. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

Freud, S. (1899). Screen memories. S.E., 3, pp. 301-322.

Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. S.E., 4-5. (cf. Joyce Crick, Trans., 1999)

Freud, S. (1901). The psychopathology of everyday life. S.E., 6.

Freud. S. (1905). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. S.E., 7, pp. 7-124.

Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.

Gicklhorn, R. (1969). The Freiberg period of the Freud family. Journal of the History of Medicine, 24, 37-43.

Grinstein, A. (1980). Sigmund Freud's dreams. New York: International Universities Press.

Harris, J. & Harris, J. (1984). The one-eyed doctor, Sigismund Freud: Psychological origins of Freud's works. New York: Aronson.

Jones, E. (1953-1957). The life and work of Sigmund Freud (3 vols.) New York: Basic Books.

Kanzer, M., & Glenn, J. (Eds.). (1983). Freud and his self-analysis. New York: Aronson.

Krüll, M. (1986). Freud and his father. New York: Norton, 1986. (Original work published 1979)

Masson, J.M. (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McGrath, W.J. (1986). Freud's discovery of psychoanalysis: The politics of hysteria. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and philosophy (D. Savage, Trans.). New York: Yale University Press.

Rudnytsky, Peter. L. (1987). Freud and Oedipus. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schur, M. (1972). Freud: Living and dying. New York: International Universities Press.

Sulloway, F.J. (1979). Freud, biologist of the mind: Beyond the psychoanalytic legend. New York: Basic Books.

Swales, P.J. (1982). Freud, Minna Bernays, and the conquest of Rome: New light on the origins of psychoanalysis. New American Review, 1, 1-23.

Swales, P.J. (1983). Freud, Martha Bernays, and the language of flowers: Masturbation, cocaine, and the inflation of fantasy.

Young-Bruehl, E. (1988). Anna Freud: A biography. New York: Summit Books.

1Note: This material is designed to be used in conjunction with my Haverford Psychology courses, and not as a stand-alone introduction to Sigmund Freud's ideas. Please do not cite without permission. Copywrite ©1994-1998, Douglas A. Davis. Updated September 3, 2003

Epigram: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo : "If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions" (lit., "I will stir up Acheron.").

Freud suggested in a later (1925) work that "this line of Virgil is intended to picture the efforts of the repressed instictual impulses." He had earlier (12/4/1896) informed his friend Fliess that he planned to use the phrase to introduce a chapter on symptom-formation in a projected book for which The Interpretation of Dreams became a substitute. The scene in Virgil's Aeneid is at Aeneas' landing on the Italian mainland, after leaving poor Dido in Carthage [Book 4]. Juno is returning from Argos, riding the air, and she "saw before her the now jubilant Aeneas." Noticing the progress of his landing:

She stiffened, pierced by sharp pain; and tossing her head she spoke a torrent of heartfelt words: 'Ah, hated, hated breed of Troy, with your Phrygian destiny opposing my own!

She has attempted to block them at every step, but to no avail, and now she's pissed:

But meanwhile I, Jupiter's high queen, after forcing myself in failure to shrink from no humiliation, after leaving no means untried, I am vanquished, and by Aeneas. Well, if my own divine strength is too slight, I am not one to shrink from asking aid from any power, anywhere. If I cannot change the will of Heaven I shall release Hell (Aeneid, VII, 312 [Trans. W.F. Jackson Knight]).

This is the dream's relation to waking, reasonable thought, according to Freud: the residues of each day's seemingly trivial experiences awaken unconscious themes linked to the dreamer's current hopes and fears, which become associated during sleep with repressed childhood issues, and these subterranean thoughts give rise to the dream. Freud quotes this phrase again in the concluding chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams, following the claim:

In waking life the supporessed material in the mind is prevented from finding expression and is cut off from internal perception owing to the fact that the contradictions present in it are eliminated -- one side being disposed of in favour of the other; but during the night, under the sway of an impetus towards the construction of compromises, this suppressed material finds methods and means of forcing its way into consciousness.

2In a chapter (#12) devoted to "The Myth of the Hero in the Psychoanalytic Movement," Sulloway (1979) catalogues instances of important components of Ernest Jones' picture of Sigmund Freud being based on false or seriously distorted recollection of the actual history of the movement. Explaining this systematic (and therefore "complex"-betraying) distortion in light of Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, Sulloway argues that the "real" picture he presents involved much less actual deprivation and rejection than Freud regularly implied in discussing his background (a background with which each Aspirant to the psychoanalytic profession had to become familiar through The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life). This distortion may be explained partly by reference to romantic notions instilled in Freud by his adolescent reading in the humanities and partly by his characteristic relationships with his followers. For example:

According to Campbell's survey, symbolic 'rites of passage' and the theme of a perilous journey are typical in such [myths of the hero]. The dangerous journey itself has three common motifs: isolation, initiation, and return, all of which appear prominently in the Freud legend. Take the theme of the perilous journey. The initial call to adventure, Campbell notes, is usually precipitated by a 'chance' circumstance (cf. the remarkable case of Anna O., which antihero Josef Breuer, 'intimidated' by his own momentous discovery, would not publish but happened to discuss with the more persistent Freud). A temporary refusal of the call (in Freud's case for some six years) may then occur; if so, its later acceptance may be assisted by another protective figure or guide (cf. Charcot, who subsequently convinced Freud of the lawlike nature of hysterical phenomena and thus led him to return to the whole subject). The hero must now survive a succession of difficult trials, and he may be misled in the process by women who act as temptresses (cf. the blunder of Freud's seduction theory, which temporarily diverted him from discovering infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex). But a secret helper continues to aid the hero (viz., Fliess in his supposedly invaluable role as a 'transference' figure during Freud's courageous self-analysis). At this stage along the 'hero-path,' atonement with the father is another frequent theme (cf. Freud's coming to terms with his own Oedipus complex following his father's death in 1896). (Sulloway, 1979, pp. 446-447; cf. Anzieu, 1975/1986, pp. 155-174)

And again:

As a young medical student at the University of Vienna, he used to stroll through the great arcaded court amidst the busts of all the famous professors who had taught there. According to Jones (1955, p. 14), not only did Freud imagine, as many other students must have imagined of themselves, that he would one day be figured among these busts, but he even envisioned the precise inscription-in Greek from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex-that his own statue would bear: "who divined the famed riddle [of the Sphinx] and was a man most mighty." ... Like the solution to the Sphinx's famous riddle, Freud's novel insights into the enigma of the human mind required a developmental conception of man in which the dramatic story of Oedipus himself came to play a significant part. Thus Freud's psychoanalytic discoveries were indeed an uncanny fulfillment of his youthful phantasy in the university arcade. It therefore came as a considerable shock to Freud when in 1906 his followers secretly had a medallion prepared in honor of his fiftieth birthday and coincidentally [sic] chose for it the same inscription from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. "When Freud read the inscription," Jones reports, "he became pale and agitated and in a strangled voice demanded to know who had thought of it. He behaved as if he had encountered a revenant, and so he had" (Jones, ibid.). Today, as a result of Ernest Jones's instigation, a bust of Freud carrying the fated inscription from Sophocles stands in the very court where Freud had imagined it. Such was the remarkable self-fulfilling power of Freud's personal myth of the hero! (Sulloway, pp, 480-481)

3June 9, 1898

My dear Wilhelm,

Many thanks for your beautiful picture! My brother made the acute ovservation that the photographer must know you; this is actually so, as you told me. It will get the place of honor on my desk, the place you hold in my friendship.

Many thanks too for your citique. I know that you have undertaken a thankless task. I need your critical help, because in this instance I have lost the feeling of shame required of an author. So the dream is condemned. Now that the sentence has been passed, however, I would like to shed a tear over it and confess that I regret it and that I have no hopes of finding a better one as a substitute. As you know, a beautiful dream and no indiscretion -- do not coincide. Let me know at least which topic it was to which you took exception and where you feared an attack by a malicious critic. Whether it is my anxiety, or Martha, or the Dalles, or my being without a father land? So that I can omit what you designate in a substitute dream, because I can have dreams like that to order. (Masson, 1985, p. 315)

 4In her fine biography of Anna Freud, with whom Martha Freud was four months pregnant at the time of the "Irma" dream, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl says of this comment to Fliess:

According to this image, Freud was gestating at a pace about two months ahead of his wife, and it seems that his project was not of the sex to be named Wilhelm (Young-Bruehl, 1988, p. 27).