An Erotic Table d'Hôte

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.

Freud's Dream of
Company at table d'hôte1

The dream (Freud, 1901 [On Dreams], pp. 633-637):

Company at table or table d'hôte ... spinach was being eaten ... Frau E.L. was sitting beside me; she was turning her whole attention to me and laid her hand on my knee in an intimate manner. I removed her hand unresponsively. She then said: "But you've always had such beautiful eyes." ... I then had an indistinct picture of two eyes, as though it were a drawing or like the outline of a pair of spectacles ...." (Freud, 1901, pp. 636-637)

Freud reports (p. 638) that a few weeks before the dream he and his wife Martha had in fact dined at a hotel in the Tyrol:

I was very much annoyed because I thought my wife was not sufficiently reserved towards some people sitting near us whose acquaintance I had no desire at all to make. I asked her to concern herself more with me than with these strangers. This was again as though I were getting the worst of the bargain at table d'hôte.
To proceed, I now saw that the events in the dream were a reproduction of a small episode of a precisely similar kind which occurred between my wife and me at the time at which I was secretly courting her. The caress which she gave me under the table-cloth was her reply to a passionate love-letter. In the dream, however, my wife was replaced by a comparative stranger -- E.L.
Frau E.L. is the daughter of a man [Breuer] to whom I was once in debt. I could not help noticing that this revealed an unsuspected connection between parts of the content of the dream and my associations. (Freud, 1901, p. 638)

In a brilliant discussion of Freud's "self-analysis," the period from his father's death in 1896 to the completion of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, Anzieu (1975/1986) notes that Freud was ambivalent about his much simpler followup book, On Dreams (1901), because it "seemed to him like the kind of cheap, ordinary meal you eat with strangers at table d'hôte (i.e., the set menu) unlike The Interpretation of Dreams, which might be compared to a carefully chosen menu, served à la carte and at separate tables. The role of this dream was analogous to that of the "Irma" dream, setting in apposition his relationships to Breuer and to Fliess. Since this October 1900 dream coincides with the beginning of Freud's treatment of "Dora,"2 it suggests another link between that analysis and Freud's break with Breuer, even as it supports Anzieu's claim that Freud was using "E."'s termination also as a means to break his attachment to Fliess (cf. pp. 524-526). Noting that "Freud's associations to the second dream contain not only the same message, but also, to a greater extent, the same cast of characters" as the earlier dream of "Irma's Injection," to which Freud had devoted a chapter in The Interpretation of Dreams -- his friend Fliess, his now-detested mentor Breuer, his rather disdained medical peers O. Rie and L. Rosenberg, and his wife Martha -- Anzieu (p. 535) calls attention to other likely day-residues (seemingly trivial events that had allegedly prompted unconscious associations giving rise to the subsequent dream), viz.

The marriage of one of Breuer's daughters to a friend of Fliess's, and the serious illness of Fliess's mother-in-law, who was being given treatment by Breuer of which Freud disapproved (Anzieu, 1986, p. 531).

"Dora" plays in 1900/1905 a role analogous to that of "Irma" in 1895, and Anzieu suggests that Freud's dream-image of Frau E.L.'s placing her hand on his knee in an intimate manner like that of taking Irma aside suggests his relations with Minna Bernays (p. 535).

"She showed signs of recalcitrance." -- "I removed her hand unresponsively."

Note the transformation:

A bit later Anzieu suggests that the table d'hôte, "with its colliding hands, knees, and glances, is associated with heterosexual seduction (1986, p. 537)." Anzieu then suggests (p. 538) that "E.L." is in fact Breuer's daughter Margarethe, who had married another Hammerschlag son. Freud's further associations are to looking out for one's own interests ("Do you suppose I'm doing this just for your beautiful eyes?"), to his friend the eye surgeon who has given him a bowl surrounded with painted eyes and to warding off the "evil eye," to reluctance (like his own as a child) to eating spinach on the part of one of his sons who truly has beautiful eyes, and to a previously-cited passage from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister:

Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein,
Ihr lasst den Armen schuldig werden.

Anzieu seems right on with his reading of the Fliess letters from April-May 1900, interweaving the end of five years of treatment by Freud of a hysterical male patient, "E." (cf. Davis, 1990), Freud's reformulations concerning the etiology of neurosis and his reports on his own mental state since the previous summer, and associated plans to visit Italy with his brother Alexander at Easter rather than meeting his friend Fliess [cf. Freud-Fliess: April 4, 1900, May 20, 1900, July 10, 1900, October 14, 1900].

[Freud] had written a brief introductory chapter on the various theories of dreams (philosophical, medical, popular), and was looking for an example to illustrate his next chapter on procedure ... The following Saturday night, his expectations were faithfully answered by the dream of 'Company at table d'hôte', whose content he noted down and analyzed the very next day, remarking that his most recent dream, the one he had had 'last night', would serve his purposes very well.
Similarly, the Irma dream ... had already faithfully answered his expectations. What were these? By 1895, Freud, who had got all he could out of his collaboration with Breuer, was impatient to stand on his own two feet and to embark on the exploration of infantile sexuality -- something which Breuer found repugnant. He was keen to leave for his holidays so he could verify from his own experience that, in both normal people and neurotics, dreams are wish-fulfilments. That was confirmed to him by the Irma dream.
In 1900, Freud's expectations mirrored to some extent those of 1895. He had got all he could out of his collaboration with Fliess and was keen to continue his elaboration of psychoanalytic theory without his friend, who in any case had not really understood The Interpretation of Dreams. In both cases dreams provided evidence that the internal process of detaching himself from a close colleague had begun. By 1900, Freud's psychoanalytic technique had improved, but the results of his treatment remained unpredictable [cf. "E."] and gave him the same guilt feelings he had experienced five years earlier: accordingly, both the Irma dream and the dream of 'Company at table d'hôte' fulfilled the wish to exonerate himself (Anzieu, pp. 534-535).


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

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

Freud, S. (1901). On dreams. In J. Strachey (Ed.) The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 5. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

[1] Douglas A. Davis, Haverford College. Teaching notes on Freud's dreams. Cf. A fascinating discussion of this example in
Holland, Norman N. (1985). The I. Yale University Press: New Haven and London. The Aesthetics of I.

[2] The (in)famous adolescent hysterical patient whose treatment at Freud's hands has become the lynchpin of feminist and deconstructionist criticism of Freud (cf. EC 1.13).

[3] "You lead us into life, you make the poor creature guilty."

Copyright © Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.