Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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The Interpretation of Dreams
Sigmund Freud (1900)


If I now declare that wish-fulfilment is the meaning of every dream, so that there cannot be any dreams other than wish-dreams, I know beforehand that I shall meet with the most emphatic contradiction. My critics will object: "The fact that there are dreams which are to be understood as fulfilments of wishes is not new, but has long since been recognized by such writers as Radestock, Volkelt, Purkinje, Griesinger and others.[1] That there can be no other dreams than those of wish-fulfilments is yet one more unjustified generalization, which, fortunately, can be easily refuted. Dreams which present the most painful content, and not the least trace of wish-fulfilment, occur frequently enough. The pessimistic philosopher, Eduard von Hartmann, is perhaps most completely opposed to the theory of wish-fulfilment. In his Philosophy of the Unconscious, Part II (Stereotyped German edition, p. 344), he says: 'As regards the dream, with it all the troubles of waking life pass over into the sleeping state; all save the one thing which may in some degree reconcile the cultured person with life- scientific and artistic enjoyment....' But even less pessimistic observers have emphasized the fact that in our dreams pain and disgust are more frequent than pleasure (Scholz, p. 33; Volkelt, p. 80, et al.). Two ladies, Sarah Weed and Florence Hallam, have even worked out, on the basis of their dreams, a numerical value for the preponderance of distress and discomfort in dreams. They find that 58 per cent of dreams are disagreeable, and only 28.6 positively pleasant. Besides those dreams that convey into our sleep the many painful emotions of life, there are also anxiety-dreams, in which this most terrible of all the painful emotions torments us until we wake. Now it is precisely by these anxiety dreams that children are so often haunted (cf. Debacker on Pavor nocturnus); and yet it was in children that you found the wish-fulfilment dream in its most obvious form."

The anxiety-dream does really seem to preclude a generalization of the thesis deduced from the examples given in the last chapter, that dreams are wish-fulfilments, and even to condemn it as an absurdity.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to parry these apparently invincible objections. It is merely necessary to observe that our doctrine is not based upon the estimates of the obvious dream- content, but relates to the thought-content, which, in the course of interpretation, is found to lie behind the dream. Let us compare and contrast the manifest and the latent dream-content. It is true that there are dreams the manifest content of which is of the most painful nature. But has anyone ever tried to interpret these dreams- to discover their latent thought-content? If not, the two objections to our doctrine are no longer valid; for there is always the possibility that even our painful and terrifying dreams may, upon interpretation, prove to be wish fulfilments.[2]

In scientific research it is often advantageous, if the solution of one problem presents difficulties, to add to it a second problem; just as it is easier to crack two nuts together instead of separately. Thus, we are confronted not only with the problem: How can painful and terrifying dreams be the fulfilments of wishes? but we may add to this a second problem which arises from the foregoing discussion of the general problem of the dream: Why do not the dreams that show an indifferent content, and yet turn out to be wish-fulfilments, reveal their meaning without disguise? Take the exhaustively treated dream of Irma's injection: it is by no means of a painful character, and it may be recognized, upon interpretation, as a striking wish- fulfilment. But why is an interpretation necessary at all? Why does not the dream say directly what it means? As a matter of fact, the dream of Irma's injection does not at first produce the impression that it represents a wish of the dreamer's as fulfilled. The reader will not have received this impression, and even I myself was not aware of the fact until I had undertaken the analysis. If we call this peculiarity of dreams- namely, that they need elucidation- the phenomenon of distortion in dreams, a second question then arises: What is the origin of this distortion in dreams?

If one's first thoughts on this subject were consulted, several possible solutions might suggest themselves: for example, that during sleep one is incapable of finding an adequate expression for one's dream-thoughts. The analysis of certain dreams, however, compels us to offer another explanation. I shall demonstrate this by means of a second dream of my own, which again involves numerous indiscretions, but which compensates for this personal sacrifice by affording a thorough elucidation of the problem.

Preliminary Statement

In the spring of 1897 I learnt that two professors of our university had proposed me for the title of Professor Extraordinarius (assistant professor). The news came as a surprise to me, and pleased me considerably as an expression of appreciation on the part of two eminent men which could not be explained by personal interest. But I told myself immediately that I must not expect anything to come of their proposal. For some years past the Ministry had disregarded such proposals, and several colleagues of mine, who were my seniors and at least my equals in desert, had been waiting in vain all this time for the appointment. I had no reason to suppose that I should fare any better. I resolved, therefore, to resign myself to disappointment. I am not, so far as I know, ambitious, and I was following my profession with gratifying success even without the recommendation of a professorial title. Whether I considered the grapes to be sweet or sour did not matter, since they undoubtedly hung too high for me.

One evening a friend of mine called to see me; one of those colleagues whose fate I had regarded as a warning. As he had long been a candidate for promotion to the professorate (which in our society makes the doctor a demigod to his patients), and as he was less resigned than I, he was accustomed from time to time to remind the authorities of his claims in the hope of advancing his interests. It was after one of these visits that he called on me. He said that this time he had driven the exalted gentleman into a corner, and had asked him frankly whether considerations of religious denomination were not really responsible for the postponement of his appointment. The answer was: His Excellency had to admit that in the present state of public opinion he was not in a position, etc. "Now at least I know where I stand," my friend concluded his narrative, which told me nothing new, but which was calculated to confirm me in my resignation. For the same denominational considerations would apply to my own case.

On the morning after my friend's visit I had the following dream, which was notable also on account of its form. It consisted of two thoughts and two images, so that a thought and an image emerged alternately. But here I shall record only the first half of the dream, since the second half has no relation to the purpose for which I cite the dream.

I. My friend R is my uncle- I have a great affection for him.

II. I see before me his face, somewhat altered. It seems to be elongated; a yellow beard, which surrounds it, is seen with peculiar distinctness.

Then follow the other two portions of the dream, again a thought and an image, which I omit.

The interpretation of this dream was arrived at in the following manner:

When I recollected the dream in the course of the morning, I laughed outright and said, "The dream is nonsense." But I could not get it out of my mind, and I was pursued by it all day, until at last, in the evening, I reproached myself in these words: "If in the course of a dream-interpretation one of your patients could find nothing better to say than 'That is nonsense,' you would reprove him, and you would suspect that behind the dream there was hidden some disagreeable affair, the exposure of which he wanted to spare himself. Apply the same thing to your own case; your opinion that the dream is nonsense probably signifies merely an inner resistance to its interpretation. Don't let yourself be put off." I then proceeded with the interpretation.

R is my uncle. What can that mean? I had only one uncle, my uncle Joseph.[3] His story, to be sure, was a sad one. Once, more than thirty years ago, hoping to make money, he allowed himself to be involved in transactions of a kind which the law punishes severely, and paid the penalty. My father, whose hair turned grey with grief within a few days, used always to say that uncle Joseph had never been a bad man, but, after all, he was a simpleton. If, then, my friend R is my uncle Joseph, that is equivalent to saying: "R is a simpleton." Hardly credible, and very disagreeable! But there is the face that I saw in the dream, with its elongated features and its yellow beard. My uncle actually had such a face- long, and framed in a handsome yellow beard. My friend R was extremely swarthy, but when black-haired people begin to grow grey they pay for the glory of their youth. Their black beards undergo an unpleasant change of colour, hair by hair; first they turn a reddish brown, then a yellowish brown, and then definitely grey. My friend R's beard is now in this stage; so, for that matter, is my own, a fact which I note with regret. The face that I see in my dream is at once that of my friend R and that of my uncle. It is like one of those composite photographs of Galton's; in order to emphasize family resemblances Galton had several faces photographed on the same plate. No doubt is now possible; it is really my opinion that my friend R is a simpleton- like my uncle Joseph.

I have still no idea for what purpose I have worked out this relationship. It is certainly one to which I must unreservedly object. Yet it is not very profound, for my uncle was a criminal, and my friend R is not, except in so far as he was once fined for knocking down an apprentice with his bicycle. Can I be thinking of this offence? That would make the comparison ridiculous. Here I recollect another conversation, which I had some days ago with another colleague, N; as a matter of fact, on the same subject. I met N in the street; he, too, has been nominated for a professorship, and having heard that I had been similarly honoured he congratulated me. I refused his congratulations, saying: "You are the last man to jest about the matter, for you know from your own experience what the nomination is worth." Thereupon he said, though probably not in earnest; "You can't be sure of that. There is a special objection in my case. Don't you know that a woman once brought a criminal accusation against me? I need hardly assure you that the matter was put right. It was a mean attempt at blackmail, and it was all I could do to save the plaintiff from punishment. But it may be that the affair is remembered against me at the Ministry. You, on the other hand, are above reproach." Here, then, I have the criminal, and at the same time the interpretation and tendency of my dream. My uncle Joseph represents both of my colleagues who have not been appointed to the professorship- the one as a simpleton, the other as a criminal. Now, too, I know for what purpose I need this representation. If denominational considerations are a determining factor in the postponement of my two friends' appointment, then my own appointment is likewise in jeopardy. But if I can refer the rejection of my two friends to other causes, which do not apply to my own case, my hopes are unaffected. This is the procedure followed by my dream: it makes the one friend R, a simpleton, and the other, N, a criminal. But since I am neither one nor the other, there is nothing in common between us. I have a right to enjoy my appointment to the title of professor, and have avoided the distressing application to my own case of the information which the official gave to my friend R.

I must pursue the interpretation of this dream still farther; for I have a feeling that it is not yet satisfactorily elucidated. I still feel disquieted by the ease with which I have degraded two respected colleagues in order to clear my own way to the professorship. My dissatisfaction with this procedure has, of course, been mitigated since I have learned to estimate the testimony of dreams at its true value. I should contradict anyone who suggested that I really considered R a simpleton, or that I did not believe N's account of the blackmailing incident. And of course I do not believe that Irma has been made seriously ill by an injection of a preparation of propyl administered by Otto. Here, as before, what the dream expresses is only my wish that things might be so. The statement in which my wish is realized sounds less absurd in the second dream than in the first; it is here made with a skilful use of actual points of support in establishing something like a plausible slander, one of which one could say that "there is something in it." For at that time my friend R had to contend with the adverse vote of a university professor of his own department, and my friend N had himself, all unsuspectingly, provided me with material for the calumny. Nevertheless, I repeat, it still seems to me that the dream requires further elucidation.

I remember now that the dream contained yet another portion which has hitherto been ignored by the interpretation. After it occurred to me that my friend R was my uncle, I felt in the dream a great affection for him. To whom is this feeling directed? For my uncle Joseph, of course, I have never had any feelings of affection. R has for many years been a dearly loved friend, but if I were to go to him and express my affection for him in terms approaching the degree of affection which I felt in the dream, he would undoubtedly be surprised. My affection, if it was for him, seems false and exaggerated, as does my judgment of his intellectual qualities, which I expressed by merging his personality in that of my uncle; but exaggerated in the opposite direction. Now, however, a new state of affairs dawns upon me. The affection in the dream does not belong to the latent content, to the thoughts behind the dream; it stands in opposition to this content; it is calculated to conceal the knowledge conveyed by the interpretation. Probably this is precisely its function. I remember with what reluctance I undertook the interpretation, how long I tried to postpone it, and how I declared the dream to be sheer nonsense. I know from my psycho-analytic practice how such a condemnation is to be interpreted. It has no informative value, but merely expresses an affect. If my little daughter does not like an apple which is offered her, she asserts that the apple is bitter, without even tasting it. If my patients behave thus, I know that we are dealing with an idea which they are trying to repress. The same thing applies to my dream. I do not want to interpret it because there is something in the interpretation to which I object. After the interpretation of the dream is completed, I discover what it was to which I objected; it was the assertion that R is a simpleton. I can refer the affection which I feel for R not to the latent dream-thoughts, but rather to this unwillingness of mine. If my dream, as compared with its latent content, is disguised at this point, and actually misrepresents things by producing their opposites, then the manifest affection in the dream serves the purpose of the misrepresentation: in other words, the distortion is here shown to be intentional- it is a means of disguise. My dream-thoughts of R are derogatory, and so that I may not become aware of this the very opposite of defamation- a tender affection for him- enters into the dream.

This discovery may prove to be generally valid. As the examples in Chapter III have demonstrated, there are, of course, dreams which are undisguised wish-fulfilments. Wherever a wish-fulfilment is unrecognizable and disguised there must be present a tendency to defend oneself against this wish, and in consequence of this defence the wish is unable to express itself save in a distorted form. I will try to find a parallel in social life to this occurrence in the inner psychic life. Where in social life can a similar misrepresentation be found? Only where two persons are concerned, one of whom possesses a certain power while the other has to act with a certain consideration on account of this power. The second person will then distort his psychic actions: or, as we say, he will mask himself. The politeness which I practise every day is largely a disguise of this kind; if I interpret my dreams for the benefit of my readers, I am forced to make misrepresentations of this kind. The poet even complains of the necessity of such misrepresentation: Das Beste, was du wissen kannst, darfst du den Buben doch nicht sagen: "The best that thou canst know thou mayst not tell to boys."

The political writer who has unpleasant truths to tell to those in power finds himself in a like position. If he tells everything without reserve, the Government will suppress them- retrospectively in the case of a verbal expression of opinion, preventively if they are to be published in the Press. The writer stands in fear of the censorship; he therefore moderates and disguises the expression of his opinions. He finds himself compelled, in accordance with the sensibilities of the censor, either to refrain altogether from certain forms of attack or to express himself in allusions instead of by direct assertions; or he must conceal his objectionable statement in an apparently innocent disguise. He may, for instance, tell of a contretemps between two Chinese mandarins, while he really has in mind the officials of his own country. The stricter the domination of the censorship, the more thorough becomes the disguise, and, often enough, the more ingenious the means employed to put the reader on the track of the actual meaning.

The detailed correspondence between the phenomena of censorship and the phenomena of dream-distortion justifies us in presupposing similar conditions for both. We should then assume that in every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion. The question is: What is the nature of the authority of this second agency by virtue of which it is able to exercise its censorship? If we remember that the latent dream- thoughts are not conscious before analysis, but that the manifest dream-content emerging from them is

consciously remembered, it is not a far-fetched assumption that admittance to the consciousness is the prerogative of the second agency. Nothing can reach the consciousness from the first system which has not previously passed the second instance; and the second instance lets nothing pass without exercising its rights, and forcing such modifications as are pleasing to itself upon the candidates for admission to consciousness. Here we arrive at a very definite conception of the essence of consciousness; for us the state of becoming conscious is a special psychic act, different from and independent of the process of becoming fixed or represented, and consciousness appears to us as a sensory organ which perceives a content proceeding from another source. It may be shown that psycho-pathology simply cannot dispense with these fundamental assumptions. But we shall reserve for another time a more exhaustive examination of the subject.

If I bear in mind the notion of the two psychic instances and their relation to the consciousness, I find in the sphere of politics a perfectly appropriate analogy to the extraordinary affection which I feel for my friend R, who is so disparaged in the dream-interpretation. I refer to the political life of a State in which the ruler, jealous of his rights, and an active public opinion are in mutual conflict. The people, protesting against the actions of an unpopular official, demand his dismissal. The autocrat, on the other hand, in order to show his contempt for the popular will, may then deliberately confer upon the official some exceptional distinction which otherwise would not have been conferred. Similarly, my second instance, controlling the access to my consciousness, distinguishes my friend R with a rush of extraordinary affection, because the wish- tendencies of the first system, in view of a particular interest on which they are just then intent, would like to disparage him as a simpleton.[4]

We may now perhaps begin to suspect that dream-interpretation is capable of yielding information concerning the structure of our psychic apparatus which we have hitherto vainly expected from philosophy. We shall not, however, follow up this trail, but shall return to our original problem as soon as we have elucidated the problem of dream-distortion. The question arose, how dreams with a disagreeable content can be analysed as wish- fulfillments. We see now that this is possible where a dream- distortion has occurred, when the disagreeable content serves only to disguise the thing wished for. With regard to our assumptions respecting the two psychic instances, we can now also say that disagreeable dreams contain, as a matter of fact, something which is disagreeable to the second instance, but which at the same time fulfills a wish of the first instance. They are wish-dreams in so far as every dream emanates from the first instance, while the second instance behaves towards the dream only in a defensive, not in a constructive manner.[5] Were we to limit ourselves to a consideration of what the second instance contributes to the dream we should never understand the dream, and all the problems which the writers on the subject have discovered in the dream would have to remain unsolved.

That the dream actually has a secret meaning, which proves to be a wish-fulfillment, must be proved afresh in every case by analysis. I will therefore select a few dreams which have painful contents, and endeavour to analyse them. Some of them are dreams of hysterical subjects, which therefore call for a long preliminary statement, and in some passages an examination of the psychic processes occurring in hysteria. This, though it will complicate the presentation, is unavoidable.

When I treat a psychoneurotic patient analytically, his dreams regularly, as I have said, become a theme of our conversations. I must therefore give him all the psychological explanations with whose aid I myself have succeeded in understanding his symptoms. And here I encounter unsparing criticism, which is perhaps no less shrewd than that which I have to expect from my colleagues. With perfect uniformity, my patients contradict the doctrine that dreams are the fulfillments of wishes. Here are several examples of the sort of dream-material which is adduced in refutation of my theory.

"You are always saying that a dream is a wish fulfilled," begins an intelligent lady patient. "Now I shall tell you a dream in which the content is quite the opposite, in which a wish of mine is not fulfilled. How do you reconcile that with your theory? The dream was as follows: I want to give a supper, but I have nothing available except some smoked salmon. I think I will go shopping, but I remember that it is Sunday afternoon, when all the shops are closed. I then try to ring up a few caterers, but the telephone is out of order. Accordingly I have to renounce my desire to give a supper."

I reply, of course, that only the analysis can decide the meaning of this dream, although I admit that at first sight it seems sensible and coherent and looks like the opposite of a wish- fulfilment. "But what occurrence gave rise to this dream?" I ask. "You know that the stimulus of a dream always lies among the experiences of the preceding day."


The patient's husband, an honest and capable meat salesman, had told her the day before that he was growing too fat, and that he meant to undergo treatment for obesity. He would rise early, take physical exercise, keep to a strict diet, and above all accept no more invitations to supper. She proceeds jestingly to relate how her husband, at a table d'hote, had made the acquaintance of an artist, who insisted upon painting his portrait, because he, the painter, had never seen such an expressive head. But her husband had answered in his downright fashion, that while he was much obliged, he would rather not be painted; and he was quite convinced that a bit of a pretty girl's posterior would please the artist better than his whole face.[6] She is very much in love with her husband, and teases him a good deal. She has asked him not to give her any caviar. What can that mean?

Goethe: And if he has no backside, How can the nobleman sit?

As a matter of fact, she had wanted for a long time to eat a caviar sandwich every morning, but had grudged the expense. Of course she could get the caviar from her husband at once if she asked for it. But she has, on the contrary, begged him not to give her any caviar, so that she might tease him about it a little longer.

(To me this explanation seems thin. Unconfessed motives are wont to conceal themselves behind just such unsatisfying explanations. We are reminded of the subjects hypnotized by Bernheim, who carried out a post-hypnotic order, and who, on being questioned as to their motives, instead of answering: "I do not know why I did that." had to invent a reason that was obviously inadequate. There is probably something similar to this in the case of my patient's caviar. I see that in waking life she is compelled to invent an unfulfilled wish. Her dream also shows her the non- fulfillment of her wish. But why does she need an unfulfilled wish?)

The ideas elicited so far are insufficient for the interpretation of the dream. I press for more. After a short pause, which corresponds to the overcoming of a resistance, she reports that the day before she had paid a visit to a friend of whom she is really jealous because her husband is always praising this lady so highly. Fortunately this friend is very thin and lanky, and her husband likes full figures. Now of what did this thin friend speak? Of course, of her wish to become rather plumper. She also asked my patient: "When are you going to invite us again? You always have such good food."

Now the meaning of the dream is clear. I am able to tell the patient: "It is just as though you had thought at the moment of her asking you that: 'Of course, I'm to invite you so that you can eat at my house and get fat and become still more pleasing to my husband! I would rather give no more suppers!' The dream then tells you that you cannot give a supper, thereby fulfilling your wish not to contribute anything to the rounding out of your friend's figure. Your husband's resolution to accept no more invitations to supper in order that he may grow thin teaches you that one grows fat on food eaten at other people's tables." Nothing is lacking now but some sort of coincidence which will confirm the solution. The smoked salmon in the dream has not yet been traced.- "How did you come to think of salmon in your dream?"- "Smoked salmon is my friend's favourite dish," she replied. It happens that I know the lady, and am able to affirm that she grudges herself salmon just as my patient grudges herself caviar.

This dream admits of yet another and more exact interpretation- one which is actually necessitated only by a subsidiary circumstance. The two interpretations do not contradict one another, but rather dovetail into one another, and furnish an excellent example of the usual ambiguity of dreams, as of all other psycho-pathological formations. We have heard that at the time of her dream of a denied wish the patient was impelled to deny herself a real wish (the wish to cat caviar sandwiches). Her friend, too, had expressed a wish, namely, to get fatter, and it would not surprise us if our patient had dreamt that this wish of her friend's- the wish to increase in weight- was not to be fulfilled. Instead of this, however, she dreamt that one of her own wishes was not fulfilled. The dream becomes capable of a new interpretation if in the dream she does not mean herself, but her friend, if she has put herself in the place of her friend, or, as we may say, has identified herself with her friend.

I think she has actually done this, and as a sign of this identification she has created for herself in real life an unfulfilled wish. But what is the meaning of this hysterical identification? To elucidate this a more exhaustive exposition is necessary. Identification is a highly important motive in the mechanism of hysterical symptoms; by this means patients are enabled to express in their symptoms not merely their own experiences, but the experiences of quite a number of other persons; they can suffer, as it were, for a whole mass of people, and fill all the parts of a drama with their own personalities. It will here be objected that this is the well-known hysterical imitation, the ability of hysterical subjects to imitate all the symptoms which impress them when they occur in others, as though pity were aroused to the point of reproduction. This, however, only indicates the path which the psychic process follows in hysterical imitation. But the path itself and the psychic act which follows this path are two different matters. The act itself is slightly more complicated than we are prone to believe the imitation of the hysterical to be; it corresponds to an unconscious end-process, as an example will show. The physician who has, in the same ward with other patients, a female patient suffering from a particular kind of twitching, is not surprised if one morning he learns that this peculiar hysterical affection has found imitators. He merely tells himself: The others have seen her, and have imitated her; this is psychic infection. Yes, but psychic infection occurs somewhat in the following manner: As a rule, patients know more about one another than the physician knows about any one of them, and they are concerned about one another when the doctor's visit is over. One of them has an attack to-day: at once it is known to the rest that a letter from home, a recrudescence of lovesickness, or the like, is the cause. Their sympathy is aroused, and although it does not emerge into consciousness they form the following conclusion: "If it is possible to suffer such an attack from such a cause, I too may suffer this sort of an attack, for I have the same occasion for it." If this were a conclusion capable of becoming conscious, it would perhaps express itself in dread of suffering a like attack; but it is formed in another psychic region, and consequently ends in the realization of the dreaded symptoms. Thus identification is not mere imitation, but an assimilation based upon the same aetiological claim; it expresses a just like, and refers to some common condition which has remained in the unconscious.

In hysteria, identification is most frequently employed to express a sexual community. The hysterical woman identifies herself by her symptoms most readily- though not exclusively- with persons with whom she has had sexual relations, or who have had sexual intercourse with the same persons as herself. Language takes cognizance of this tendency: two lovers are said to be "one." In hysterical phantasy, as well as in dreams, identification may ensue if one simply thinks of sexual relations; they need not necessarily become actual. The patient is merely following the rules of the hysterical processes of thought when she expresses her jealousy of her friend (which, for that matter, she herself admits to be unjustified) by putting herself in her friend's place in her dream, and identifying herself with her by fabricating a symptom (the denied wish). One might further elucidate the process by saying: In the dream she puts herself in the place of her friend, because her friend has taken her own place in relation to her husband, and because she would like to take her friend's place in her husband's esteem.[7] -

The contradiction of my theory of dreams on the part of another female patient, the most intelligent of all my dreamers, was solved in a simpler fashion, though still in accordance with the principle that the non-fulfilment of one wish signified the fulfilment of another. I had one day explained to her that a dream is a wish-fulfilment. On the following day she related a dream to the effect that she was travelling with her mother-in- law to the place in which they were both to spend the summer. Now I knew that she had violently protested against spending the summer in the neighbourhood of her mother-in-law. I also knew that she had fortunately been able to avoid doing so, since she had recently succeeded in renting a house in a place quite remote from that to which her mother-in-law was going. And now the dream reversed this desired solution. Was not this a flat contradiction of my theory of wish-fulfilment? One had only to draw the inferences from this dream in order to arrive at its interpretation. According to this dream, I was wrong; but it was her wish that I should be wrong, and this wish the dream showed her as fulfilled. But the wish that I should be wrong, which was fulfilled in the theme of the country house, referred in reality to another and more serious matter. At that time I had inferred, from the material furnished by her analysis, that something of significance in respect to her illness must have occurred at a certain time in her life. She had denied this, because it was not present in her memory. We soon came to see that I was right. Thus her wish that I should prove to be wrong, which was transformed into the dream that she was going into the country with her mother-in-law, corresponded with the justifiable wish that those things which were then only suspected had never occurred.

Without an analysis, and merely by means of an assumption, I took the liberty of interpreting a little incident in the life of a friend, who had been my companion through eight classes at school. He once heard a lecture of mine, delivered to a small audience, on the novel idea that dreams are wish-fulfilments. He went home, dreamt that he had lost all his lawsuits- he was a lawyer- and then complained to me about it. I took refuge in the evasion: "One can't win all one's cases"; but I thought to myself: "If, for eight years, I sat as primus on the first bench, while he moved up and down somewhere in the middle of the class, may he not naturally have had the wish, ever since his boyhood, that I too might for once make a fool of myself?"

Yet another dream of a more gloomy character was offered me by a female patient in contradiction of my theory of the wish-dream. This patient, a young girl, began as follows: "You remember that my sister has now only one boy, Charles. She lost the elder one, Otto, while I was still living with her. Otto was my favourite; it was I who really brought him up. I like the other little fellow, too, but, of course, not nearly as much as his dead brother. Now I dreamt last night that I saw Charles lying dead before me. He was lying in his little coffin, his hands folded; there were candles all about; and, in short, it was just as it was at the time of little Otto's death, which gave me such a shock. Now tell me, what does this mean? You know me- am I really so bad as to wish that my sister should lose the only child she has left? Or does the dream mean that I wish that Charles had died rather than Otto, whom I liked so much better?"

I assured her that this latter interpretation was impossible. After some reflection, I was able to give her the interpretation of the dream, which she subsequently confirmed. I was able to do so because the whole previous history of the dreamer was known to me.

Having become an orphan at an early age, the girl had been brought up in the home of a much older sister, and had met, among the friends and visitors who frequented the house, a man who made a lasting impression upon her affections. It looked for a time as though these barely explicit relations would end in marriage, but this happy culmination was frustrated by the sister, whose motives were never completely explained. After the rupture the man whom my patient loved avoided the house; she herself attained her independence some time after the death of little Otto, to whom, meanwhile, her affections had turned. But she did not succeed in freeing herself from the dependence due to her affection for her sister's friend. Her pride bade her avoid him, but she found it impossible to transfer her love to the other suitors who successively presented themselves. Whenever the man she loved, who was a member of the literary profession, announced a lecture anywhere, she was certain to be found among the audience; and she seized every other opportunity of seeing him unobserved. I remembered that on the previous day she had told me that the Professor was going to a certain concert, and that she too was going, in order to enjoy the sight of him. This was on the day before the dream; and the concert was to be given on the day on which she told me the dream. I could now easily see the correct interpretation, and I asked her whether she could think of any particular event which had occurred after Otto's death. She replied immediately: "Of course; the Professor returned then, after a long absence, and I saw him once more beside little Otto's coffin." It was just as I had expected. I interpreted the dream as follows: "If now the other boy were to die, the same thing would happen again. You would spend the day with your sister; the Professor would certainly come to offer his condolences, and you would see him once more under the same circumstances as before. The dream signifies nothing more than this wish of yours to see him again- a wish against which you are fighting inwardly. I know that you have the ticket for today's concert in your bag. Your dream is a dream of impatience; it has anticipated by several hours the meeting which is to take place to-day."

In order to disguise her wish she had obviously selected a situation in which wishes of the sort are commonly suppressed- a situation so sorrowful that love is not even thought of. And yet it is entirely possible that even in the actual situation beside the coffin of the elder, more dearly loved boy, she had not been able to suppress her tender affection for the visitor whom she had missed for so long.

A different explanation was found in the case of a similar dream of another patient, who in earlier life had been distinguished for her quick wit and her cheerful disposition, and who still displayed these qualities, at all events in the free associations which occurred to her during treatment. In the course of a longer dream, it seemed to this lady that she saw her fifteen-year-old daughter lying dead before her in a box. She was strongly inclined to use this dream-image as an objection to the theory of wish-fulfilment, although she herself suspected that the detail of the box must lead to a different conception of the dream.[8] For in the course of the analysis it occurred to her that on the previous evening the conversation of the people in whose company she found herself had turned on the English word box, and upon the numerous translations of it into German such as Schachtel (box), Loge (box at the theatre), Kasten (chest), Ohrfeige (box on the ear), etc. From other components of the same dream it was now possible to add the fact that the lady had guessed at the relationship between the English word "box" and the German Buchse, and had then been haunted by the recollection that Buchse is used in vulgar parlance to denote the female genitals. It was therefore possible, treating her knowledge of topographical anatomy with a certain indulgence, to assume that the child in the box signified a child in the mother's womb. At this stage of the explanation she no longer denied that the picture in the dream actually corresponded with a wish of hers. Like so many other young women, she was by no means happy on finding that she was pregnant, and she had confessed to me more than once the wish that her child might die before its birth; in a fit of anger, following a violent scene with her husband, she had even struck her abdomen with her fists, in order to injure the child within. The dead child was therefore, really the fulfilment of a wish, but a wish which had been put aside for fifteen years, and it is not surprising that the fulfilment of the wish was no longer recognized after so long an interval. For there had been many changes in the meantime.

The group of dreams (having as content the death of beloved relatives) to which belong the last two mentioned will be considered again under the head of "Typical Dreams." I shall then be able to show by new examples that in spite of their undesirable content all these dreams must be interpreted as wish- fulfilments. For the following dream, which again was told me in order to deter me from a hasty generalization of my theory, I am indebted, not to a patient, but to an intelligent jurist of my acquaintance. "I dream," my informant tells me, "that I am walking in front of my house with a lady on my arm. Here a closed carriage is waiting; a man steps up to me, shows me his authorization as a police officer, and requests me to follow him. I ask only for time in which to arrange my affairs." The jurist then asks me: "Can you possibly suppose that it is my wish to be arrested?"- "Of course not," I have to admit. "Do you happen to know upon what charge you were arrested?"- "Yes; I believe for infanticide."- "Infanticide? But you know that only a mother can commit this crime upon her new-born child?"- "That is true."[9] "And under what circumstances did you dream this? What happened on the evening before?"- "I would rather not tell you- it is a delicate matter."- "But I need it, otherwise we must forgo the interpretation of the dream."- "Well, then, I will tell you. I spent the night, not at home, but in the house of a lady who means a great deal to me. When we awoke in the morning, something again passed between us. Then I went to sleep again, and dreamt what I have told you."- "The woman is married?"- "Yes."- "And you do not wish her to conceive?"- "No; that might betray us."- "Then you do not practice normal coitus?"- "I take the precaution to withdraw before ejaculation."- "Am I to assume that you took this precaution several times during the night, and that in the morning you were not quite sure whether you had succeeded?"- "That might be so."- "Then your dream is the fulfilment of a wish. By the dream you are assured that you have not begotten a child, or, what amounts to the same thing, that you have killed the child. I can easily demonstrate the connecting-links. Do you remember, a few days ago we were talking about the troubles of matrimony, and about the inconsistency of permitting coitus so long as no impregnation takes place, while at the same time any preventive act committed after the ovum and the semen meet and a foetus is formed is punished as a crime? In this connection we recalled the medieval controversy about the moment of time at which the soul actually enters into the foetus, since the concept of murder becomes admissible only from that point onwards. Of course, too, you know the gruesome poem by Lenau, which puts infanticide and birth-control on the same plane."- "Strangely enough, I happened, as though by chance, to think of Lenau this morning."- "Another echo of your dream. And now I shall show you yet another incidental wish-fulfilment in your dream. You walk up to your house with the lady on your arm. So you take her home, instead of spending the night at her house, as you did in reality. The fact that the wish-fulfilment, which is the essence of the dream, disguises itself in such an unpleasant form, has perhaps more than one explanation. From my essay on the aetiology of anxiety neurosis, you will see that I note coitus interruptus as one of the factors responsible for the development of neurotic fear. It would be consistent with this if, after repeated coitus of this kind, you were left in an uncomfortable frame of mind, which now becomes an element of the composition of your dream. You even make use of this uncomfortable state of mind to conceal the wish-fulfilment. At the same time, the mention of infanticide has not yet been explained. Why does this crime, which is peculiar to females, occur to you?"- "I will confess to you that I was involved in such an affair years ago. I was responsible for the fact that a girl tried to protect herself from the consequences of a liaison with me by procuring an abortion. I had nothing to do with the carrying out of her plan, but for a long time I was naturally worried in case the affair might be discovered."- "I understand. This recollection furnished a second reason why the supposition that you had performed coitus interruptus clumsily must have been painful to you."

A young physician, who heard this dream related in my lecture- room, must have felt that it fitted him, for he hastened to imitate it by a dream of his own, applying its mode of thinking to another theme. On the previous day he had furnished a statement of his income; a quite straightforward statement, because he had little to state. He dreamt that an acquaintance of his came from a meeting of the tax commission and informed him that all the other statements had passed unquestioned, but that his own had aroused general suspicion, with the result that he would be punished with a heavy fine. This dream is a poorly disguised fulfilment of the wish to be known as a physician with a large income. It also calls to mind the story of the young girl who was advised against accepting her suitor because he was a man of quick temper, who would assuredly beat her after their marriage. Her answer was: "I wish he would strike me!" Her wish to be married was so intense that she had taken into consideration the discomforts predicted for this marriage; she had even raised them to the plane of a wish.

If I group together the very frequent dreams of this sort, which seem flatly to contradict my theory, in that they embody the denial of a wish or some occurrence obviously undesired, under the head of counter-wish-dreams, I find that they may all be referred to two principles, one of which has not yet been mentioned, though it plays a large part in waking as well as dream-life. One of the motives inspiring these dreams is the wish that I should appear in the wrong. These dreams occur regularly in the course of treatment whenever the patient is in a state of resistance; indeed, I can with a great degree of certainty count on evoking such a dream once I have explained to the patient my theory that the dream is a wish-fulfilment.[10] Indeed, I have reason to expect that many of my readers will have such dreams, merely to fulfil the wish that I may prove to be wrong. The last dream which I shall recount from among those occurring in the course of treatment once more demonstrates this very thing. A young girl who had struggled hard to continue my treatment, against the will of her relatives and the authorities whom they had consulted, dreamt the following dream: At home she is forbidden to come to me any more. She then reminds me of the promise I made her to treat her for nothing if necessary, and I tell her: "I can show no consideration in money matters."

It is not at all easy in this case to demonstrate the fulfilment of a wish, but in all cases of this kind there is a second problem, the solution of which helps also to solve the first. Where does she get the words which she puts into my mouth? Of course, I have never told her anything of the kind; but one of her brothers, the one who has the greatest influence over her, has been kind enough to make this remark about me. It is then the purpose of the dream to show that her brother is right; and she does not try to justify this brother merely in the dream; it is her purpose in life and the motive of her illness.

A dream which at first sight presents peculiar difficulties for the theory of wish-fulfilment was dreamed by a physician (Aug. Starcke) and interpreted by him: "I have and see on the last phalange of my left forefinger a primary syphilitic affection."

One may perhaps be inclined to refrain from analysing this dream, since it seems clear and coherent, except for its unwished-for content. However, if one takes the trouble to make an analysis, one learns that primary affection reduces itself to prima affectio (first love), and that the repulsive sore, in the words of Starcke, proves to be "the representative of wish-fulfilments charged with intense emotion."[11]

The other motive for counter-wish-dreams is so clear that there is a danger of overlooking it, as happened in my own case for a long time. In the sexual constitution of many persons there is a masochistic component, which has arisen through the conversion of the aggressive, sadistic component into its opposite. Such people are called ideal masochists if they seek pleasure not in the bodily pain which may be inflicted upon them, but in humiliation and psychic chastisement. It is obvious that such persons may have counter-wish-dreams and disagreeable dreams, yet these are for them nothing more than wish-fulfilments, which satisfy their masochistic inclinations. Here is such a dream: A young man, who in earlier youth greatly tormented his elder brother, toward whom he was homosexually inclined, but who has since undergone a complete change of character, has the following dream, which consists of three parts: (1) He is "teased" by his brother. (2) Two adults are caressing each other with homosexual intentions. (3) His brother has sold the business the management of which the young man had reserved for his own future. From this last dream he awakens with the most unpleasant feelings; and yet it is a masochistic wish-dream, which might be translated: It would serve me right if my brother were to make that sale against my interests. It would be my punishment for all the torments he has suffered at my hands.

I hope that the examples given above will suffice- until some further objection appears- to make it seem credible that even dreams with a painful content are to be analysed as wish- fulfilments.[12] Nor should it be considered a mere matter of chance that, in the course of interpretation, one always happens upon subjects about which one does not like to speak or think. The disagreeable sensation which such dreams arouse is of course precisely identical with the antipathy which would, and usually does, restrain us from treating or discussing such subjects- an antipathy which must be overcome by all of us if we find ourselves obliged to attack the problem of such dreams. But this disagreeable feeling which recurs in our dreams does not preclude the existence of a wish; everyone has wishes which he would not like to confess to others, which he does not care to admit even to himself. On the other hand, we feel justified in connecting the unpleasant character of all these dreams with the fact of dream-distortion, and in concluding that these dreams are distorted, and that their wish-fulfilment is disguised beyond recognition, precisely because there is a strong revulsion against- a will to repress- the subject-matter of the dream, or the wish created by it. Dream-distortion, then, proves in reality to be an act of censorship. We shall have included everything which the analysis of disagreeable dreams has brought to light if we reword our formula thus: The dream is the (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish.[13]

I will here anticipate by citing the amplification and modification of this fundamental formula propounded by Otto Rank: "On the basis of and with the aid of repressed infantile-sexual material, dreams regularly represent as fulfilled current, and as a rule also erotic, wishes in a disguised and symbolic form" (Ein Traum, der sich selbst deutet).

Nowhere have I said that I have accepted this formula of Rank's. The shorter version contained in the text seems to me sufficient. But the fact that I merely mentioned Rank's modification was enough to expose psycho-analysis to the oft-repeated reproach that it asserts that all dreams have a sexual content. If one understands this sentence as it is intended to be understood, it only proves how little conscientiousness our critics are wont to display, and how ready our opponents are to overlook statements if they do not accord with their aggressive inclinations. Only a few pages back I mentioned the manifold wish-fulfilments of children's dreams (to make an excursion on land and or water, to make up for an omitted meal, etc.). Elsewhere I have mentioned dreams excited by thirst and the desire to evacuate, and mere comfort- or convenience-dreams. Even Rank does not make an absolute assertion. He says "as a rule also erotic wishes," and this can be completely confirmed in the case of most dreams of adults.

The matter has, however, a different aspect if we employ the word sexual in the sense of Eros, as the word is understood by psycho- analysts. But the interesting problem of whether all dreams are not produced by libidinal motives (in opposition to destructive ones) has hardly been considered by our opponents.

Now there still remain to be considered, as a particular sub- order of dreams with painful content, the anxiety-dreams, the inclusion of which among the wish-dreams will be still less acceptable to the uninitiated. But I can here deal very cursorily with the problem of anxiety-dreams; what they have to reveal is not a new aspect of the dream-problem; here the problem is that of understanding neurotic anxiety in general. The anxiety which we experience in dreams is only apparently explained by the dream- content. If we subject that content to analysis, we become aware that the dream-anxiety is no more justified by the dream-content than the anxiety in a phobia is justified by the idea to which the phobia is attached. For example, it is true that it is possible to fall out of a window, and that a certain care should be exercised when one is at a window, but it is not obvious why the anxiety in the corresponding phobia is so great, and why it torments its victims more than its cause would warrant. The same explanation which applies to the phobia applies also to the anxiety-dream. In either case, the anxiety is only fastened on to the idea which accompanies it, and is derived from another source.

On account of this intimate relation of dream-anxiety to neurotic anxiety, the discussion of the former obliges me to refer to the latter. In a little essay on Anxiety Neurosis,[14] written in 1895, I maintain that neurotic anxiety has its origin in the sexual life, and corresponds to a libido which has been deflected from its object and has found no employment. The accuracy of this formula has since then been demonstrated with ever-increasing certainty. From it we may deduce the doctrine that anxiety-dreams are dreams of sexual content, and that the libido appertaining to this content has been transformed into anxiety. Later on I shall have an opportunity of confirming this assertion by the analysis of several dreams of neurotics. In my further attempts to arrive at a theory of dreams I shall again have occasion to revert to the conditions of anxiety-dreams and their compatibility with the theory of wish-fulfilment.


[1] Already Plotinus, the neo-Platonist, said: "When desire bestirs itself, then comes phantasy, and presents to us, as it were, the object of desire" (Du Prel, p. 276).

[2] It is quite incredible with what obstinacy readers and critics have excluded this consideration and disregarded the fundamental differentiation between the manifest and the latent dream- content. Nothing in the literature of the subject approaches so closely to my own conception of dreams as a passage in J. Sully's essay, Dreams as a Revelation (and it is not because I do not think it valuable that I allude to it here for the first time): "It would seem then, after all, that dreams are not the utter nonsense they have been said to be by such authorities as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. The chaotic aggregations of our night-fancy have a significance and communicate new knowledge. Like some letter in cipher, the dream-inscription when scrutinized closely loses its first look of balderdash and takes on the aspect of a serious, intelligible message. Or, to vary the figure slightly, we may say that, like some palimpsest, the dream discloses beneath its worthless surface-characters traces of an old and precious communication" (p. 364).

[3] It is astonishing to see how my memory here restricts itself- in the waking state!- for the purposes of analysis. I have known five of my uncles and I loved and honoured one of them. But at the moment when I overcame my resistance to the interpretation of the dream, I said to myself: "I have only one uncle, the one who is intended in the dream."

[4] Such hypocritical dreams are not rare, either with me or with others. While I have been working at a certain scientific problem, I have been visited for several nights, at quite short intervals, by a somewhat confusing dream which has as its content a reconciliation with a friend dropped long ago. After three or four attempts I finally succeeded in grasping the meaning of this dream. It was in the nature of an encouragment to give up the remnant of consideration still surviving for the person in question, to make myself quite free from him, but it hypocritically disguised itself in its antithesis. I have recorded a "hypocritical Oedipus dream" in which the hostile feelings and death-wishes of the dream-thoughts were replaced by manifest tenderness ("Typisches Beispiel eines verkappten Oedipustraumes." Zentralblatt fur Psychoanalyse, Vol. I, No. I-II [1910]). Another class of hypocritical dreams will be recorded in another place (see Chap vi, "The Dream-Work").

[5] Later on we shall become acquainted with cases in which, on the contrary, the dream expresses a wish of this second instance. -

[6] To sit for the painter.

[7] I myself regret the inclusion of such passages from the psycho- pathology of hysteria, which, because of their fragmentary presentation, and because they are torn out of their context, cannot prove to be very illuminating. If these passages are capable of throwing any light upon the intimate relations between dream and the psycho-neurosis, they have served the intention with which I have included them.

[8] As in the dream of the deferred supper and the smoked salmon. -

[9] It often happens that a dream is told incompletely, and that a recollection of the omitted portions appears only in the course of the analysis. These portions, when subsequently fitted in, invariably furnish the key to the interpretation. Cf. Chapter VII, on forgetting of dreams.

[10] Similar counter-wish-dreams have been repeatedly reported to me within the last few years, by those who attend my lectures, as their reaction to their first encounter with the wish-theory of dreams.

[11] Zentralblatt fur Psychoanalyse, Jahrg. II, 1911-12.

[12] I will here observe that we have not yet disposed of this theme; we shall discuss it again later.

[13] A great contemporary poet, who, I am told, will hear nothing of psycho-analysis and dream-interpretation, has nevertheless derived from his own experience an almost identical formula for the nature of the dream: "Unauthorized emergence of suppressed yearnings under false features and names" (C. Spitteler, "Meine fruhesten Erlebnisse," in Suddeutsche Monatshefte, October, 1913).

[14] See [previous reference] above.

(go on to Chapter 5)

(return to index)