The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 4 : Distortion in Dreams | Summary



Introductory Text

Freud begins by addressing objections to the theory all dreams are wish fulfillments. He ventriloquizes an opponent who points out many dreams are unpleasant. In answer, Freud says his theory is based on what is hidden in dreams, not what is in plain sight. The surface or obvious part of a dream Freud calls its manifest content. The hidden part of a dream Freud calls its latent content. A dream with an unpleasant manifest content could still have a latent content of wish fulfillment. He says he will discuss two questions: how anxiety dreams can turn out to be wish fulfillments, and why dreams are distorted.


Freud discovered two colleagues had recommended him for a promotion in academic rank, to professor extraordinarius. He assumed the administrators in charge would not act on those recommendations and would not actually give him the promotion. He had seen this happen with two of his friends; they got the recommendations but not the promotion.

One of the two friends who was waiting for a promotion visited Freud. This friend told Freud he often went to the offices of the officials in charge of the promotion to "pay his respects." This time he had bluntly asked an official to admit his lack of promotion was due to "denominational considerations." (This is a roundabout way of referring to anti-Semitism; Freud and the two unpromoted friends are Jewish.) The cornered official blustered and hesitated, which the friend took as an admission of anti-Semitism.

The morning after the friend's visit, Freud has a dream. The dream consists of two thoughts and two pictures, says Freud, though he only tells his readers one of each. The other part of the dream he decides to keep private. He dreams his friend R. is his uncle and he feels great affection for him. In the dream R.'s face is different than in real life; it is long and he has a yellow beard.

Piece by piece Freud interprets the dream. Because he had only one uncle, R. in the dream must be his Uncle Josef. Josef had been cheated out of money a long time ago in an illegal business deal. Freud's father said Josef was not bad man but was "a simpleton." Freud interprets the dream to mean his friend R. is a simpleton.

Freud recalls a few days before the dream he had met his friend N., also recommended for a professorship. This friend had been involved in a case of blackmail earlier and congratulated Freud on having been recommended. Freud replies N. should know nothing will come of it. N. replies the blackmail case may be to blame for his lack of advancement. Freud, says N., has no such mark against him.

Freud decides Josef in the dream stands for both R. and N., who had not been promoted to professorships: "the one as a simpleton and the other as a criminal." If R. and N. were not promoted because they were Jewish, Freud would be in the same boat. If Freud could think of other reasons, perhaps there was still hope for his own promotion. Thus the dream of his Uncle Josef fulfills a wish: the wish that Freud's promotion is on its way after all.

Considering the feeling of affection for R. in the dream, Freud concludes his latent dream-thoughts about R. are negative, labeling R. a simpleton. He interprets the feeling of affection as distortion that disguises the not-so-nice judgment about R. in the dream's latent content. Freud proposes this type of distortion has "general validity"—meaning, it happens in all dreams. He compares it to the methods of a writer trying to get around an authoritarian censor by disguising his meanings. Freud proposes dreams are formed by "two psychical forces" inside the dreamer—one force forms the wish expressed by the dream, the other force censors the wish. The censor, Freud proposes, is the force that allows thoughts to enter consciousness. It distorts the dream to make it admissible to conscious thought. Freud hopes interpreting dreams in this manner will enable insight into the structures of the mind.

Freud relates a dream a female patient told him. She said his wish fulfillment theory would not be able to account for her dream. She dreamed she wanted to give a dinner party. It was Sunday and all the stores were closed. She wanted to call a caterer but her telephone was broken so she couldn't have the dinner party.


The woman's husband was a butcher. The day before the dream he told her he wanted to lose weight. He was going to exercise, eat right, and not accept any dinner invitations. She had a thin friend, of whom she was jealous. The friend asked her when she was going to invite her for dinner. The dream thus fulfills the female patient's wish to thwart her friend. The lack of a dinner party means the thin friend cannot eat more and thus become more attractive to the patient's husband.

Freud gives another interpretation of the same dream. The woman had also related an anecdote about caviar. She wanted caviar but it was expensive, so she pretended not to want it and claimed she preferred to tease her husband about caviar rather than have it. An undisguised wish fulfillment might be a dream fulfilling her wish for caviar, but instead of getting what she wanted (caviar), the dream showed her friend being denied what she wanted (a dinner party). So the thwarted hostess in the dream might be the patient's friend, not herself. Freud terms this "hysterical identification." A hysterical patient usually shows their mental problem in some symptom: a fear of drinking water, an avoidance of horses, a mysterious pain or ailment. But in hysterical identification, a person can use someone else's experiences as their own symptoms. Freud also uses "identification" in the everyday sense of putting oneself in another person's place. The patient feared the friend would take her place with her husband, so she identified with her thin friend in the dream and put herself in her friend's place. The dream made it a place of dissatisfaction and thwarted desires.

Freud cites another dream by another female patient, also a challenge to his theory because she dreamed of the opposite of what she wished for. Freud resolves the contradiction in the same way: the nonfulfillment of one wish is actually the fulfillment of some other wish. Freud says this patient's deeper wish was that Freud be incorrect in his analysis. Therefore, her contradictory dream of not fulfilling a wish actually did fulfill a wish, the wish to triumph over Freud.

Freud cites more examples of this kind and calls them "counter-wish dreams." One of their causes is "the wish that I [Freud] might be wrong." In response to Freud's treatment, his patients have these types of dreams. Another cause, Freud says, is masochism. Masochism is a psychological term for the sexual enjoyment of physical pain. In light of these examples of distressing dreams, Freud reformulates his theory: "a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish." He mentions anxiety dreams as a subset of distressing dreams and promises to write more about them later.


Freud's theory of wish fulfillment is clearly subject to criticism. He freely interprets dreams differently, rather than consistently, unsurprisingly supporting his theory in the process: Dreams about strawberries and cool drinks support his wish-fulfillment theory; dreams about not getting any supper also support his theory. If a patient has a dream that appears to disprove Freud's dream theory, then the patient is fulfilling a hidden wish to prove Freud wrong, or the patient is fulfilling a hidden, masochistic wish. A dreamed-of satisfaction supports Freud's wish-fulfillment theory and a dreamed-of dissatisfaction also supports his theory under the heading of the "counter-wish dream."

At the outset of The Interpretation of Dreams Freud says he will use his own dreams for evidence. The dreams of his neurotic patients, he says, require him to go into the details of their neuroses. However, the real issue with the value of his patients' dreams becomes apparent in Chapter 4—Freud is involved in the production of these dreams. Freud's patients may have been cooperating with him. (He calls them "my dreamers.") Thus, their dreams might not be free expressions of their psyches. Instead, their dreams might be contrived to please or displease their psychoanalyst, Freud.

In Chapter 4 Freud speaks of his patients as both favored students and formidable antagonists. He calls one of the women who tells him a counter-wish dream "the cleverest of all my dreamers." He says of another patient her "dream was ... brought up against me." The obvious meaning is the woman mentioned a dream that refutes Freud's theory; the less obvious meaning is she produced the dream with Freud in mind. On one level, a patient who dreams a "counter-wish" dream shows Freud's patients can think for themselves. On another level, Freud's rebellious dreamers cooperate by producing vexing, contentious dreams that require Freud's attention.

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