The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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



Introductory Text

Freud begins by allying himself with one group of dream theories from the previous chapter. He stands with those who regard dreams as a specific mental activity, not just a response to bodily stimuli. Freud restates his book's aim: "to show that dreams are capable of being interpreted." This aim puts Freud's new theory in opposition to prevailing medical theories of dreams around 1900, which focus on the body. Freud is closer to the view of nonscientists who believe dreams have a hidden meaning.

Freud discusses two methods nonscientists use to interpret dreams: symbols and codes. For the symbolic method Freud takes an example from the book of Genesis in the Bible—Joseph's interpretation of the pharaoh's dream of seven fat kine (cows) who eat seven lean kine. This method interprets the dream as a whole, states Freud.

He then discusses the second nonscientific method of dream interpretation—decoding. The parts of a dream are looked up in a dream book, a fixed alphabet of the meanings of dream elements. For example, receiving a letter in a dream means trouble; a funeral in a dream should be decoded as a wedding. The dream is decoded piece by piece.

For Freud decoding and the symbolic method cannot be the foundation of a scientific method of dream interpretation. The symbolic method depends on inspiration, says Freud; it is not scientific. The decoding method depends on a dream book, but there can be no scientific validation of a dream book's meanings. However, he agrees with the nonscientists in general: dreams are meaningful.

Freud discusses the method of relaxed attention necessary for psychoanalysis. The patient must suppress the urge to criticize his or her thoughts. Instead the patient must let his or her thoughts flow, even if they seem trivial. In interpreting dreams, this relaxed attention is brought to bear on the parts of the dream. With each part, the dreamer is asked what it reminds them of.

Freud explains why he chooses to analyze his own dreams in this book. His patients' dreams refer to their own neurotic symptoms which Freud would have to explain at length. Therefore, he analyzes his own dreams because he is "an approximately normal person." He will also use some dreams "reported to me by normal persons of my acquaintance."


This section gives some background to Freud's dream. He had the dream in the summer of 1895. He had been treating a young woman for neurosis and she was also a friend of his family. Her treatment was only partially successful. He cured her anxiety but she still had physical symptoms. While Freud was on vacation with his family, he ran into a friend, Otto. This friend told Freud that Irma was "better, but not quite well." This report irritated Freud. In the evening he wrote about Irma's case, intending to send the text to Dr. M., an acquaintance. That night Freud had the dream he reports in the next section.

Dream of July 23–24, 1895

Freud dreamed he and his wife greeted their evening guests in a great hall. One of the guests was Irma, a woman Freud had treated for hysterical symptoms. Other doctors had treated her physical symptoms. Freud takes Irma aside and tells her it is her own fault she is not better. Freud looks into Irma's mouth and throat; he sees white scabs and some curly structures. Two other doctors examine her: Dr. M and Freud's friend Otto. Freud and the doctors use medical jargon to discuss Irma's case. They notice her shoulder is infected ("infiltrated"). In the dream Freud concludes Otto should not have given her an injection so readily. Additionally, the needle was not clean.


Freud interprets the dream, bit by bit, in a lengthy analysis. He takes note of the way the dream distorts events and people from his daily life. People he knows look different in the dream: Irma looks pale and puffy; Dr. M has no beard. In real life Otto gave someone an injection but it wasn't Irma. In the dream Otto has worsened Irma's symptoms by giving her an injection. Freud teases out highly personal associations for the dream elements, which could not have been found in any standardized dream book. The dream's mention of the chemical trimethylamine reminds Freud of his friend "Leopold" (actually Wilhelm Fliess), "who believed that one of the products of sexual metabolism was trimethylamine." The dream-image of the white patches in the throat and of the nasal bones reminds Freud of his guilt in another medical case. Freud adds in a footnote a dream can never be entirely interpreted: "There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable—a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown."

He analyzes his reproach to Irma in the dream: "If you still get pains, it's your own fault." Freud's reproach excuses him: "If [the pains] were her fault they could not be my fault." This prompts him to ask whether the whole dream aims at exonerating him: "Could it be that the purpose of the dream lay in this direction?"

After examining the parts, Freud tells the meaning of the whole dream. He interprets the dream as the fulfillment of a wish. In waking life, he was dismayed to hear Irma was not better; her continued illness seemed a reproach against himself and his methods of treating hysteria. The dream shifts the blame for Irma's symptoms first onto Irma herself, and then onto Otto's carelessness, and finally onto a dirty needle. "The dream represents a particular state of affairs as I should have wished it to be. Thus its content was wish fulfillment and its motive was wish fulfillment." At the end of the chapter, Freud restates this interpretation as applying to all dreams: "When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish."


Freud emphasizes he is an outlier because he agrees with the peculiar thinker Scherner and unscientific lay people. Against Freud is ranged the whole medical and scientific establishment. The Interpretation of Dreams is not a dramatic or fictional book, but Freud depicts himself in a heroic fashion, an embattled visionary inviting his readers along on a perilous but rewarding journey.

The decision to interpret his own dreams is an important one. Freud wants his dream interpretation method to be viewed as a scientific advance. However, the decision to self-report and self-analyze his own dreams poses problems. How can Freud's own dreams be treated as scientific data? How can his results be repeated or contested?

Freud's use of his own dreams is similar to the method of the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. In his Meditations, Descartes systematically doubts the outside world and his own sense impressions. What is left—the core of his certainty—is a minimum degree of mental activity; he is certain he is thinking. That is not open to doubt. This gives rise to Descartes's often-quoted statement, "I think, [therefore] I am." Freud uses a similar scientific method as Descartes, and one that was widely accepted in his time.

This first dream analysis shows Freud's method of dream interpretation is not about turning everything into a sexual symbol. Instead, Freud patiently sifts through his moods, memories, and associations and connects them to events recent and distant. Not everything he considers contributes to the story of Irma, or at least not directly so. A long chain of associations concerning the dream-word "dysentery"—a hysterical patient, a letter from Egypt, a disagreement with Dr. M.—brings Freud to another, subsidiary interpretation. Dr. M. does not take hysteria seriously, in Freud's estimation. The dream exacts revenge on Dr. M. by having him utter a nonsensical diagnosis.

Freud expresses reservations about reporting his own dreams and opening so much of his private life to the reading public. Indeed, the "Dream of Irma's Injection," as it is known, has been reinterpreted. The patient Irma has been decoded as a stand-in for another patient of Freud's, Emma Eckstein. In 1894 Freud sent Eckstein to be treated by his friend Wilhelm Fliess, who operated on her nose. The operation was not a success, and afterward Eckstein complained of pain, bleeding, and a rotten smell.

As it turned out, Fliess had left surgical gauze in Irma's sinuses. Freud was present later when another doctor extracted the half-meter of gauze from Eckstein's nose, causing a severe hemorrhage and shock. So it is possible the Irma dream was Freud's attempt to distance both himself and Fliess from guilt over the suffering undergone by Eckstein. However, far from disproving Freud's method of dream interpretation, this analysis makes use of Freud's interpretive method.

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