The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 3 : The Dream as Wish Fulfillment | Summary



In this chapter Freud compares his investigation to a path. After passing through a narrow path and suddenly coming out on high, open ground, a climber sees a broad view. After readers come through the thicket of details in Freud's first dream interpretation, "we find ourselves in the full daylight of a sudden discovery ... Dreams ... are psychical phenomena of complete validity [dreams are meaningful]—fulfillments of wishes." He writes the discovery brings new questions with it: "If, as we are told by dream-interpretation, a dream represents the fulfillment of a wish, what is the origin of the remarkable and puzzling form in which the wish fulfillment is expressed?" Freud asks about the source of dream material, and how "dream-thoughts" change into the "manifest dream" people remember when they wake.

Freud asks those questions and many others, and then says he will hold off answering them. He proposes first staying on "the path" and finding out whether all dreams are wish fulfillments. He points to a recurring dream of his own; if he goes to bed thirsty, he soon dreams of quenching his thirst with a cool drink. "If I can succeed in appeasing my thirst by dreaming that I am drinking, then I need not wake up in order to quench it." He cites dreams of wish fulfillment from other people. Starving soldiers dream of food and drink, for example.

He remarks children's dreams are often pure wish fulfillment; in these dreams the wish is undisguised. One child was promised a trip to some mountain huts; the father did not take the child there, so the child's "wishes ... had to be satisfied in a dream."

Freud concludes by remarking he does not know what animals dream about, but a proverb claims to know. "What do geese dream of?" asks the proverb. "Maize [corn]," comes the answer. One rhyming German proverb seems to support the scientific view that dreams are nonsense: in German, "Träume sind Schäume" or "Dreams are froth." But on the whole he thinks nonscientific folk culture agrees with him in believing dreams are wish fulfillments.


After the stirring image of a broad landscape suddenly revealed, and the assurance Freud has brought us to the summit of a breathtaking new discovery, the proof offered for the central thesis seems weak. He raises interesting questions about the origin of dreams and their transformation, and then he pushes those questions aside. He does promise to answer one question: Are dreams always wish fulfillments? His answer is evasive and perhaps unsatisfactory.

Freud answers the question anecdotally. He piles up example after example of wish-fulfilling dreams; in later editions he adds even more examples, almost frantically. But no amount of anecdote could answer the question of universality; 50 wish-fulfilling dreams do not prove the 51st will not be a dream of sorrow or terror or desolation, nothing at all like a wish fulfillment. The reference to the folk proverbs is also only anecdotal. In Chapter 4 Freud discusses this issue, but the initial proof is thin.

Freud's specimen dreams in Chapter 3 are nothing like his dream of Irma's injection. These dreams have none of the characteristics outlined in Chapter 1: the disorder, the strangeness, or the baffling picture-language. It is easy to see how Freud's dream of a cool drink corresponds to a wish. But it is harder to understand a dream like Freud's. How does a dream about some white scabs glimpsed in a woman's throat satisfy a wish to be respected as a doctor? On one level, readers have just been shown exactly how, in Chapter 2, with Freud's step-by-step interpretation. Yet on another level his theory is still puzzling; where is the satisfaction, the fulfillment of a wish in such a dream?

One critic, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, has suggested the dreamer is the dupe of a series of substitutions. In place of a wished-for prize, something else (probably something strange) arrives, and in place of winning, the dreamer loses. The 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein complained about Freud's central thesis of dreams as wish fulfillment: "If the wish is cheated in this way, then the dream can hardly be called a fulfillment of it."

However, because Chapter 3 deals with straightforward, uncamouflaged dreams, the question of how a dream fulfills a wish is simpler, though still in need of an answer. How does an image of satisfaction give real satisfaction? Freud himself does not seem to notice he always woke up after his allegedly satisfying dream of the cool drink: "If I eat anchovies or olives or any other highly salted food in the evening, then I develop a thirst during the night which wakes me up. But my waking is preceded by a dream ... that I am drinking." Freud takes up these objections to his theory in Chapter 4, when he reveals dreams are the fulfillment of a disguised wish.

Some of the unsatisfactoriness of the proof in Chapter 3 is related to Freud's decision to use only examples of simple wish fulfillments, nearly all of them children's dreams. All these children's dreams in Chapter 3 are preceded by an adult telling the child no, they cannot have this or that. One child is not given a promised trip to the mountains; another child is told not to eat so much. Each child had a desire; the desire was then forbidden. The denial occasions the wish, which is then satisfied in the dream. Readers soon learn the "forbidder" is not some other person, but an element of the dreamer's own mind. This internal "forbidder" means the dream has to be distorted, which is the topic of Chapter 4.

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