The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 5, Part 1 : The Material and Sources of Dreams | Summary



Introductory Text

Freud reminds readers of the characteristics of memory in dreams:

  • Dreams prefer recent memories from the days immediately before the dream.
  • Memory works differently in dreams, focusing on unimportant or indifferent events instead of on the most emotionally charged events of the day.
  • Dreams have access to memories of early childhood, even when the waking memory of these events is not clear.

A. Recent and Indifferent Material in Dreams

First, Freud considers where the remembered material that becomes the source of dreams comes from. He asks whether it comes from the day immediately before the dream or from some longer, vaguer period, such as a few days before the dream. He prefers to think the source of remembered dream material is "the day immediately preceding the dream—which I shall speak of as the 'dream-day.'"

In paragraphs added in 1911, Freud considers whether there might be a biologically determined period that is significant for dreams. He considers dreams of his about events from 28 days earlier, 23 days earlier, and 39 or 40 days earlier. Freud notes the 28-day span of time is "Fliess's female period" and the 23-day span of time is Fliess's "male period," based on the "theory of periodicity" put forth by his physician friend Wilhelm Fliess. Ultimately, Freud finds a connection to events of the "dream-day" in all his dreams and decides Fliess's periods were not significant for dream material.

Freud concludes the question of length of time by remarking on the "instigating agent" of the dream—the thing that sets the dream going, its starting point. He says the instigating agent of every dream comes from the experiences of the dream-day. These events have not yet been "'slept on.'" He proposes to prove this by analyzing one of his dreams, the "Dream of Botanical Monograph."

Freud dreamed of writing a monograph on a certain plant. The book lay open before him and contained a dried specimen of a leaf from the plant, similar to an experience he had had on the dream-day. Through a series of associations Freud recalls his wife's favorite flowers; his own writing on cocaine, a drug which is derived from a plant; other doctors associated with the investigation of cocaine; and a conversation the evening of the dream-day with one of those doctors, Dr. Königstein.

Through the interpretation Freud determines the dream is a wish fulfillment. Like the dream of Irma's injection, this dream justifies Freud as a good scientist and a hard worker. More importantly, Freud discovers another difference between the manifest content and the latent content of the dream. The manifest content of the dream has a connection to an indifferent memory from the dream-day: Freud glanced at a book in a shop. But after interpreting the dream, Freud sees a connection to an emotionally important experience from the dream-day: his hour-long conversation with his friend Dr. Königstein. That conversation is connected to important events in his career, such as his research on cocaine.

Freud comes to a new conclusion about dream material. Dreams only seem to focus on insignificant memories from the dream-day. After the dream is interpreted, it is clear the latent content is connected to a significant memory from the dream-day.

Freud describes one type of distortion: displacement, a process he will discuss later in more detail, he says. Displacement, in Freudian thinking, means transferring psychic energy from something important to something unimportant. Now the unimportant thing is emotionally charged and can "force an entry into consciousness."

Freud remarks on a tendency of dreams to fuse all the events that instigated the dream into a single unity. He then declares that an "internal" or mental event can count as an event of the dream-day. If the dreamer spent Tuesday thinking about the death of their spouse five years ago, and then dreamed about that death on Tuesday night, that counts as an event of the dream-day.

Freud summarizes his findings about indifferent material in dreams: "there are no indifferent dream-instigators—and consequently no 'innocent' dreams." He then analyzes several seemingly "innocent" dreams to prove his point. All of the dreams, involving both male and female patients, and including various images ranging from a disappointing shopping trip to an overcoat to a broken candlestick are analyzed for their images, symbols, and language and discovered to include latent sexual content. Freud concludes, "In all of these 'innocent' dreams the motive for censorship is obviously the sexual factor."

B. Infantile Experiences as a Source of Dreams

Freud says when the dreamer cannot remember an event behind a dream, the dream may derive from early childhood. He then elaborates several instances in which a dream of childhood was independently corroborated. For example, a man dreamed of his childhood tutor in bed with his nurse (governess). The man's older brother confirmed: the tutor and the nurse used to share a bed in the presence of the three-year-old dreamer.

Freud adds that the latent content of dreams often turns out to have a connection to childhood experiences. He returns to his dream of the botanical monograph and uncovers some childhood experiences. He remembers being given an illustrated book "to destroy" when he was five years old. He finds a chain of associations that lead from the dream to the memory of ripping up the book: "cyclamen—favorite flower—favorite dish—artichoke; pulling to pieces like an artichoke, leaf by leaf ... herbarium—bookworm, whose favorite food is books."

Freud considers dreams that fulfill wishes originating in early childhood. He returns to his dream about R., N., and his Uncle Josef. The dream fulfilled his wish to be appointed a professor. Freud then says this ambition is "pathological" and "alien to me." He finds the source of this ambition in childhood, citing various predictions and other instances. Eventually, he finds himself identifying with the anti-Semitic minister, by viewing R. and N. as undeserving of their promotions for reasons other than their heritage. He calls this identification his "retaliation," and says he is "turning the tables on His Excellency with a vengeance!"

Freud recalls a dream that leads him to childhood experiences of anti-Semitism. The first occurred in his later years in the "Gymnasium" (the equivalent of high school). Freud had begun to "understand for the first time what it meant to belong to an alien race" as he became aware of "anti-Semitic feelings among the other boys." In response he identified with the Carthaginians, enemies of the Roman empire in the Punic Wars. The Punic Wars were three wars fought between the Roman Empire and the Carthaginian Empire in the years between 264 BC and 146 BC. (The city of Carthage was in what is now Tunisia, in Africa.) Freud particularly identified with the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who took his army over the Alps to fight the Romans in Italy during the second Punic War. Just as Freud perceived himself to be, the Carthaginians were members of an "alien race."

Freud recalls another experience of anti-Semitism in his childhood regarding his father. He felt his father behaved "unheroically" in response to taunts on the street. He concludes, "the deeper one carries the analysis of dreams," the more one finds childhood experiences connected to the sources of the dream's latent content.

Freud comments if a childhood experience is alluded to in a dream's manifest content, often the only access to that childhood experience is through dream interpretation. This is different from Freud's memories of Hannibal and his father, which are his conscious memories. These other childhood experiences are too early to be consciously remembered. Instead, the experience can be "inferred" from the evidence of the manifest dream content. Freud says the correctness of this procedure "is provided by a whole number of factors in psycho-analytic work, which are mutually consistent and thus seem sufficiently trustworthy." Freud relates four such dreams.

In the first dream, a woman dreams of being in a hurry and falling down. This is associated with a childhood game of saying words so fast they turn into nonsense. Freud says the memory of this innocent childhood word game stands in for "other, less innocent" experiences. In the second dream, a woman dreams of "an orthopedic institute." Clues lead Freud to her childhood experience of soiling her bed and being punished for it. In the third dream, a man dreams of seeing boys fighting in the street. A chain of clues leads Freud to an interpretation of the man's excitement as a young boy at glimpsing female genitals. In the fourth dream, an elderly woman dreams of falling down in the street. Freud remarks, "If a woman dreams of falling, it almost invariably has a sexual sense: she is imagining herself as a 'fallen woman.'"

Freud recounts two of his dreams. In the first one, he goes into a kitchen for some pudding and he sees three women standing there. He interprets them as three Fates, who determine people's destinies. The dream also brings him to various associations. In childhood he was told "we were made of earth" and return to earth in death. The dream also reminds him of his research into cocaine. Freud then refrains from interpreting the dream further.

Freud begins the second dream with a preamble, setting the scene by telling what happened on the dream-day. He had been in high spirits all evening then waited for a train on the platform. He saw a man he recognized as a "government invigilator at medical examinations." An invigilator is someone who administers tests. The invigilator asked for a first-class compartment all to himself, because he was a high-ranking person. Freud fumed. He got his own compartment too, but it had no access to a bathroom.

That night he dreamed of "a crowd of people, a meeting of students." A count came by and was challenged to say something; the count replied his favorite flower was coltsfoot. Freud then dreamed he was in the great hall at his university where he came upon a housekeeper. Later he left, went downstairs, and started climbing up a path. The dream shifted; it focused on getting out of town. He drove a cab to a train station. Then he was in a train compartment with "a peculiar, plaited [braided] long-shaped object" in his buttonhole. Then he found himself on the train platform again in the company of an elderly man. The man seemed to be blind, or anyway had only one eye. Freud handed him "a male glass urinal" (such as a bed-bound patient in a hospital might use). "So I am a sick-nurse," Freud thought, humiliated. He concentrated on remaining unrecognized. The last sentence of his dream account is: "Here the man's attitude and his micturating [urinating] penis appeared in plastic form." (Plastic here means sculptural, three-dimensional; the material called plastic hadn't been invented in Freud's time.)

This complex dream leads Freud to many childhood associations. At age seven or eight he went into his parents' bedroom and urinated in their chamber pot while they stood there, shocked. His father scolded him and also said, "The boy will come to nothing." Freud thinks, "this must have been a frightful blow to my ambition," because this scene is "constantly recurring" his dreams, where it is connected to a listing of his "achievements and successes." Freud concludes such dreams are his way of saying to his father, "You see, I have come to something."

Freud then interprets the blind old man in his recent dream as a figure for his father, who was blind in one eye due to glaucoma. In the dream the tables are turned; the father is reduced to urinating in front of Freud. What had seemed humiliating in the dream's manifest content—handing the old man a urinal—is the dream's proudest moment, revenge on the scolding, judgmental father.

Freud offers a conjecture on dreams: "every dream was linked in its manifest content with recent experiences and in its latent content with the most ancient experiences."

He concludes with a final remark on the nature of dreams—they have more than one meaning. They can contain several wish fulfillments, either next to each other or "superimposed on one another [stacked up], the bottom one being the fulfillment of a wish dating from earliest childhood."


Freud puts a lot of effort into testing his dream theory against Fliess's theory of periodicity. His concern with Fliess's theory may seem bizarre—Fliess also hypothesized there was a connection between sexual drive and the structures of the nose. However, Freud found Fliess an enthusiastic sounding board for his own strange new ideas, such as the importance of the unconscious in mental life. Fliess's presence in the text acts as a sort of sounding board of the type Freud often used in his practice.

Freud emphasizes unintended puns and accidental autobiographical associations in his interpretations. He finds clues where the dreamer did not consciously intend to create a meaningful statement. Freud intentionally goes to the most obscure part of a dream to find the meaning, in places where the light of consciousness is turned off, either in sleep or free association.

One criticism often leveled at Freud is that he searches often exclusively in the area of unconscious sexual desires, and every dream association he finds is sexual. However, if one accepts a censor is distorting dream-thoughts to allow them into consciousness, certainly Freud's bourgeois Viennese patients would not have spoken openly about atypical sexual desires or sexual memories from childhood or adolescence. Here Freud seems to rely on his research into sexuality without sharing it with his readers. Later, Freud makes a similar gesture, bolstering his argument with a wave toward his larger, unexplained work. He assures readers he can infer a childhood experience from a dream-thought by relying on "a whole number of factors in psycho-analytic work, which are mutually consistent and thus seem sufficiently trustworthy."

The stereotypical image of Freud is of a doctor who says everything is about sex, without even having to stop and think about it. In this chapter Freud patiently piles up a lot of evidence to show some things are about sex. He takes the most difficult route possible to arrive at a sexual interpretation in the series of five "innocent" dreams. He shows readers extensive word associations before saying the filled trunk is a sexual symbol. In addition, he takes pains to provide evidence that a sexually inexperienced woman overheard a fraternity song about the sexual use of a candle. His interpretations in Chapter 5 do not usually rely on a predetermined list of sexual symbols. (There is one exception. He says almost every time a woman dreams of falling, she is imagining herself a "fallen woman," a sexually licentious woman.)

Freud returns to the dream about R. and Uncle Josef. In Chapter 4, Freud had remarked on the dream's content, the promotion to a professorship, "So far as I knew, I was not an ambitious man." In Chapter 4 he also went on to claim he did not view the out-of-reach promotion as sour grapes. The rank of professor was too far out of his reach for him to care about, he said. Thus, in Chapter 4 Freud denied having professional ambitions. He claimed he could not want what was impossible for him to have. But this part of Chapter 5 is threaded through with Freud's ambition and his desire for fame.

For example, he now reinterprets the dream of Uncle Josef as a dream in which he, Freud, identifies with the minister in charge of academic promotions; like the minister, he scorns the Jewish candidates for promotion, R. and N. Freud calls this "retaliation" on the minister and "vengeance." It seems more like revenge on himself for the perceived flaw of being Jewish; he kicks himself before the minister can do it. The dream reminds Freud of a family legend. It was said he was destined to be a great man, perhaps a minister. Similarly, the recurring memory of the embarrassing incident when he urinated in his parents' bedroom is linked to Freud's ambition and the family account of those ambitions.

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