The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 5, Part 2 : The Material and Sources of Dreams | Summary



C. The Somatic Sources of Dreams

Freud repeats many of the arguments he outlined in Chapter 1, and he cites many of the same sources. He does not deny dreams can sometimes incorporate bodily sensations, such as the ringing of an alarm clock, but he repeats his objection from Chapter 1—the bodily sensation does not explain the choice of dream material.

Freud again cites Scherner, and agrees with Scherner's insight that dreams are a mental, not a physical, phenomenon, but he disagrees with Scherner's discussion of how bodily organs and bodily stimuli are represented by symbols in dreams.

He then recapitulates his argument thus far in summary form: "dreams possess a value of their own as psychical acts ... wishes are the motive for [dreams'] construction and ... experiences of the preceding day provide material for their content." If all this can be proved, writes Freud, then "any other theory of dreams ... stands condemned."

Next, he returns to a point he made earlier: the dream unites all "instigations to dreaming." For example, many wishes are combined in a single dream. Similarly, physical sensations are combined with mental material in a dream. He recounts a dream that was a response to a physical sensation. He dreamed he was riding a horse, but in reality he was suffering from "a boil the size of an apple at the base of my scrotum," as he tells the reader, "which caused me the most unbearable pain with every step I took." The one activity he was least ready for, he says, was horseback riding. Thus the dream fulfilled a wish not to have this painful condition. Freud imagines the dream saying "soothingly" to him, "No! Go on sleeping."

He presents another example in which a dream "succeeded in warding off a threatened interruption of my sleep." He transformed the sound of bells into an announcement of the Pope's death. He gives similar examples from others' dreams, and then generalizes: "All dreams are in a sense dreams of convenience: they serve the purpose of prolonging sleep instead of waking up. Dreams are the GUARDIANS of sleep and not its disturbers." Here Freud seems to have introduced a new function for dreams but creates unity for his theory by saying these dreams fulfill the wish to sleep.

Freud concludes if unpleasant physical sensations intrude, "the dream-work makes use of that event to represent ... the fulfillment of some wish which is normally suppressed." He recounts a dream of his, an anxiety dream of being unable to move. He was partly undressed and was going upstairs to an apartment on another floor. He saw a maid-servant and felt rooted to the spot, unable to move. He traces this feeling to a conscious memory and to emotions of shame. Freud forbears to go on interpreting this dream; its purpose has been to prove the feeling of paralysis in a dream does not have a physical cause. Like all other dream experiences, paralysis is chosen because of the dream's psychic motives.

D. Typical Dreams

There are some dreams everyone has had, including dreams of being naked, sad dreams about the death of a loved one, and test-taking dreams. Freud is concerned only with embarrassing dreams of being naked, not with dreams in which the naked dreamer feels no shame. In the embarrassing dream the onlookers are often indifferent to the dreamer's nakedness (or partial nakedness). Freud believes dreamers do not dream of scornful or derisive onlookers because wish fulfillment has done away with such a reaction.

Freud proposes two causes for embarrassing dreams of being naked. First, "the latent dream content is concerned with forbidden wishes." The nakedness is like an alarm bell or R-rated warning laid atop the rest of the dream. The dreamer feels shame instead of enjoying the fulfillment of their repressed wishes. Second, children enjoy displaying their naked bodies, says Freud. Thus, dreams of nakedness can be "dreams of exhibiting"—the fulfillment of a childhood wish. He then returns to his staircase dream, which he terms an exhibition dream. He also connects it to "prehistoric" childhood experiences of his, meaning experiences he had before he could form conscious memories. He had a harsh governess who sometimes shamed him about cleanliness.

He then considers dreams of "the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond." Sometimes these dreams are not sad, and in those cases, says Freud, the death stands for some other wish. Freud is concerned only with those dreams in which the death makes the dreamer feel grief. "The meaning of such dreams ... is a wish that the person in question may die."

Freud attempts to stave off objections by saying the wish is likely a very old one from earliest childhood. He says anyone who claims they never wished a loved one dead when they were a child does not understand children. "Children are completely egoistic," says Freud, and they are selfishly concerned only with fulfilling their desires. But he points out everyone forgives this in children because everyone knows they're not morally developed yet. Caring for others ("altruistic impulses") comes later.

Freud also remarks on how common it is for siblings to be feel hostility toward one another. Additionally, children have no notion of the suffering they are wishing on someone when they wish them dead and no understanding of the decay of the body. They conceive of death as something like no longer being an annoyance. Freud recounts several dreams of patients to satisfactorily explain "a child's death-wish against his siblings."

Next, the discussion turns to childhood wishes that a parent die. He remarks a child often wishes the parent of the same sex would die. "It is as though—to put it bluntly—a sexual preference were making itself felt at an early age." He adds it is "as though" boys view their fathers as rivals and girls too feel this rivalry with their mothers. Each child views the parent of their sex "as [a] rival in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage." He first attempts to defuse critics who say children do not feel such hostility and rivalry for their parents. As with sibling rivalry, children's feelings might be different from cultural expectations. Freud cites examples from Greek mythology and points out doctors often notice "how a son's grief at the loss of his father cannot suppress his satisfaction at having at length won his freedom." Freud makes a similar case for mothers and daughters.

He then says he learns from his patients about "a child's sexual wishes—if in their embryonic stage we can even call them that." In this early stage the girl desires her father and the boy, his mother. The parents also show this favoritism ("sexual partiality"), with mothers favoring sons and fathers favoring daughters, says Freud. Freud then cites several cases from his patients in which obsessive anxiety about a parent's well-being can be traced to the opposite emotion: a suppressed childhood wish the parent would die. He adds his patients are not all that different from other people in wishing for a parent's death. "It is not my belief psychoneurotics differ sharply in this respect from other human beings who remain normal." His neurotic patients just show those feelings of love and hate for their parents on "a magnified scale."

This discovery, that children desire one parent and wish the other dead, is confirmed "by a legend ... from classical antiquity." This is the story of Oedipus in Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King. Freud summarizes the story: Oedipus was the son of Laius, the King of Thebes, and Laius's wife, Jocasta. There was a prophecy Oedipus would murder Laius, so Laius had Oedipus abandoned when he was a baby to die of exposure. Oedipus was rescued and grew up far away. He learned from an oracle he should stay away from home because he would kill his father and marry his mother.

Oedipus left what he thought was his home (his adopted home). On the road he met Laius, there was an altercation, and Oedipus killed him. Not realizing whom he'd killed, he went on to Thebes. The Sphinx, a mythical creature, had held Thebes in its sway, but Oedipus solved the Sphinx's riddle and freed Thebes. The people of Thebes made him king and he married the widow Jocasta, his mother. Years later when the truth came out, Jocasta hung herself, and Oedipus gouged out his eyes and went into exile from Thebes.

Freud contends the people still respond to Oedipus Rex because it shows Oedipus's satisfying universal childhood desires. He then compares contemporary people to Oedipus. Like Oedipus before he discovered the truth, "we live in ignorance of these wishes." When people find out about these wishes, "we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to the scenes of our childhood."

Next is his interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. While Oedipus Rex brings incestuous, murderous desire into the open, in Hamlet "it remains repressed."

Freud further discusses the wish for a parent's death in dreams. The wished-for death appears undisguised in these dreams. Freud claims, "the dream-censorship is not armed to meet this monstrosity" and it lets the wish through undisguised. However, the undisguised wish meets up with an experience of the dream-day in the form of worry about the parent. This worry provides the death-wish with some cover. Now the dreamed-of death seems like an expression of concern, not murderous jealousy.

Freud proposes dreams are egoistic, just like children. The dreamer's "beloved" ego shows up in all dreams, even if disguised, and its selfish wishes are fulfilled in all dreams. He then cites several dreams that seem to be about other people and not about the dreamer. Each time, Freud reveals the dreamer is a disguised figure in the dream.

He then considers the category of "other typical dreams." He has not had dreams of flying and falling himself, but his patients have. Freud concludes these dreams are related to pleasurable childhood experiences of rough-housing and are not caused by the sleeper's bodily sensations.

Anxious dreams about taking tests ("examination dreams") are discussed next. People dream they failed their exams, or they dream they are taking them again in adulthood, even though they have already graduated. Freud cites a colleague, Wilhelm Stekel, who says only people who passed their school exams have these dreams. One has an exam-anxiety dream in adult life right before an important business meeting, for example. The dream supplies an example of a feared event that in reality turned out fine. Freud says the dream's message is one of comfort, not fear. "Don't be afraid of tomorrow!" Freud imagines the dream saying. "Just think how anxious you were before your Matriculation [exam], yet nothing happened to you." Freud also reports Stekel's idea that exam dreams are related to "sexual tests and sexual maturity," an idea Freud has confirmed in his own experience.


Freud seems to introduce a new function for dreams in Chapter 5: "All dreams are in a sense dreams of convenience: they serve the purpose of prolonging sleep instead of waking up. Dreams are the GUARDIANS of sleep and not its disturbers." This statement stands in contrast to one Freud made earlier in Chapter 5: "Dreams are never concerned with trivialities; we do not allow our sleep to be disturbed by trifles." Now in explaining dreams are the guardians of sleep, Freud says they fulfill the wish to sleep, which means dreams can fulfill more than one wish.

In Chapters 2 and 3 Freud reveals his discovery: dreams are wish fulfillments. In Chapters 4, 5, and 6 Freud discusses how the dream-work makes these wishes unrecognizable because they are objectionable, repressed wishes. In the final section of Chapter 6 Freud reveals the disguised, repressed wishes fulfilled in dreams are childhood wishes and are often sexual wishes. Immediately after mentioning childhood sexual wishes, Freud adds a warning or a qualification; he doubts wishes in such an early stage can even be called sexual. Freud means during childhood while sexual wishes are still just beginning, they are not focused on genital pleasure. Just as children have a vague idea of death yet strongly wish it on their rival siblings, Freud means children have only a hazy idea of sex, something like having the beloved parent all to themselves.

Freud is not advocating children have sexual intercourse. So why does he insist on calling this childhood wish a sexual one? Freud insists on the continuity between these earliest, infantile experiences of pleasure and later, adult experiences of genital pleasure. The early experiences and desires are bodily and emotional and leave a strong imprint on the unconscious. Adult experiences of sexual pleasure carry traces of those early experiences, according to Freud. A baby and, later, a child, is a helpless creature handed over to adults who daily demonstrate their power to satisfy or frustrate the child, soothe it, or abandon it. Freud's theory is the child has powerful feelings about the adult who offers satisfaction and soothing, and equally powerful feelings about the adult who frustrates or blocks those pleasures.

In the other childhood dreams Freud cited earlier, the ones about strawberries and vacations, a wish formed around a forbidden desire. An adult had said no, the child could not have strawberries. The situation is similar with childhood sexual wishes, except these wishes are not discussed. First, the child perceives one parent blocks their desire for complete possession of the favorite parent. Later, this blocking or forbidding is overlayered with the universal prohibition on incest. But the wish to possess the parent, to always have unfettered access to the source of bodily pleasure and comfort, is so powerful it still shapes adult wishes, according to Freud. In this chapter he says the evidence is in dreams: "Today, just as then [in Sophocles's time], men dream of having sexual relations with their mothers, and speak of the fact with indignation and astonishment."

In citing Hamlet Freud remarks Shakespeare wrote the play right after his own father's death. Similarly, Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams in the aftermath of his father's death, as he remarks in the Preface to the Second Edition. In that preface Freud calls the death of a father "the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life." Part of its importance must therefore be that it fulfills a childhood wish for the father's death. That death is "a poignant loss," but one that was wished for, at least in childhood.

One can also consider Freud's discussion of his father in light of Freud's theory of childhood wishes. In an earlier chapter, Freud discussed how his father's dismissive comment after he urinated in his parent's bedroom constantly returns in his dreams, always in connection with his adult achievements. In light of Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus story, the scene acquires new layers. Urinating in his parents' bedroom, in their presence, was already an aggressive sexual intrusion into the space of the parents' lovemaking. (Freud points out dreams about urine have a sexual component.) Freud interprets the dream as a way of saying to his father, "You see, I have come to something." But it may also say to his father, "You see, I am a worthy opponent in the competition for my mother's love."

Freud focuses only on heterosexual preference in this account of childhood. His ideas thus could be interpreted to mean heterosexuality is natural. However, Freud might only be discussing a typical development. It could even be he is giving an account of how heterosexuality is culturally induced.

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