The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 6, Part 1 : The Dream-Work | Summary



Introductory Text

Freud reminds readers his research on dreams is unique. Everyone else, from philosophers to lay people, has dealt only with dreams' manifest content—the obvious level, which Freud also calls the dream-content. Only Freud has noticed the existence of dreams' latent content—the hidden level, which Freud also calls the dream-thoughts. Many processes transform latent content into manifest content, which Freud names the dream-work. He describes the relationship of the manifest content and the latent content as translation: "The dream-thoughts and the dream-content are presented to us like two versions of the same subject matter in two different languages." He also compares dream-content to a rebus, a picture puzzle.

A. The Work of Condensation

Dreams are short compared to their meanings, says Freud. A dream's manifest content is "brief, meagre, and laconic," while its latent content "may occupy six, eight, a dozen times much space" if written down. So there must be a process of condensation, Freud reasons, in which dream-thoughts are boiled down or condensed into the dream-content. Freud also reminds readers one can never be sure a dream has been completely interpreted: "the possibility always remains that a dream may have yet another meaning." Since the meanings are infinite, the scale of the process of condensation is therefore immeasurable.

He then addresses the perception one has dreamed all night and forgotten most of the dreams. The remembered dream seems to be only a fragment. Freud first points out the sense of having forgotten one's dreams "is very often based on an illusion." People just think they dreamed something they can't remember.

Next Freud takes up the question of whether all the dream-thoughts that come out in interpretation were really in the dreamer's mind. To put it another way, he asks whether his interpretations read into the dream something the dreamer's unconscious never thought of. Freud gives the equivalent of a shrug: "It is no doubt true that some trains of thought arise for the first time during the analysis." But those trains start off on "other and deeper-lying connecting paths" that really do come from the unconscious.

Asking how condensation occurs he says it's necessary to start by looking at some dreams. He returns to the "Dream of the Botanical Monograph." One dream element—"botanical"—can be "represented in the dream thoughts many times over." Freud calls this relationship "overdetermination."

He then turns to an account of a patient's dream, "A Lovely Dream." A man goes with many friends down "X street" to "an unpretentious inn." Some guests end up in rooms on an upper floor; others are on a lower floor, including the dreamer. The dreamer is angry at his brother, who has an upper-floor room. After tracing many associations, Freud interprets the situation at the inn as sexual; the scene "down below" on the lower floor "alluded to fantasies of a sexual nature which occupied the patient's mind."

Then comes the analysis of the dream of an older woman patient, "The May-Beetle Dream." In the dream the woman recalls she needs to let two may-beetles out of a box or else they'll suffocate. She opens a window and one beetle flies free while the other gets crushed as she shuts the window. The dream has many associations for her, including animal cruelty, butterfly collecting, a "plague" of excess May-beetles, and arsenic used to kill butterfly specimens. She was born in May and later married in May. Other associations with the dream-content include her husband's sexual potency and the aphrodisiac called Spanish Fly.

Freud summarizes the analyses of the three dreams—the Dream of the Botanical Monograph, the Lovely Dream, and the May-Beetle Dream. In all of them "a multiplicity of connections" arises between the dream-content and the dream-thoughts, but Freud has not yet fully interpreted these dreams. Therefore, he returns to the Dream of Irma's Injection, to see how condensation works. Irma stood for other women in Freud's life, including his daughter and another patient. Irma is thus a collective figure. His friend R. in the Irma dream was a "composite figure" who was put together by superimposing portraits of various people. Freud says collective figures and composite figures are some of the main ways condensation works in dreams.

The Irma dream reappears so Freud can point out a group of ideas attached to his friend Otto, and a group of ideas attached to his "friend in Berlin," Wilhelm Fliess. Otto did not understand Freud's ideas and a whole group of negative dream-thoughts attaches itself to Otto in condensation. Fliess does understand Freud, and a whole group of affirmative, supportive dream-thoughts attaches to him. Freud says, "the work of condensation is at its clearest when it handles words and names." He shows this with five dreams. In all of these, a nonsensical German word is shown to be composed of other words with meaningful associations for the dreamer.

He then takes pains to show all spoken sentences in dreams come from somewhere else. They are remembered sentences, not novel sentences formulated and imagined during the dream.

B. The Work of Displacement

Next comes the idea of displacement: the manifest dream-content is "differently centered" than the latent dream-thoughts. This is how important latent dream-thoughts are transformed into seemingly trivial dream-content.

He hypothesizes there is a "psychical force ... operating in the dream-work." This force "strips the elements that have a high psychical value," meaning high emotional intensity. It also takes "elements of low psychical value" and gives them a new intensity, so that they "find their way into the dream content." He then says this process is the "the essential portion of the dream-work."

Dream-displacement and dream-condensation determine the form of a dream, Freud adds. For thoughts to make their way into the dream, "they must escape the censorship imposed by resistance."

C. The Means of Representation

In this section Freud discusses dreams' limited ability to represent logical connection. He notes dream-thoughts are often accompanied by their opposite, and compares them under the "pressure of the dream-work" to "pack ice"—great shards of jumbled, jagged ice. How does the dream represent logical connections among these pieces? For the most part, Freud answers, it doesn't. The logical relations implied by the conjunctions "if," "because," "just as," "although," and "either-or" cannot be represented in dreams. Dreams "disregard all these conjunctions." The interpretation has to restitch the connections "the dream-work has destroyed."

Freud then says dreams do have ways to represent complex relationships. Dreams represent logical connection by "simultaneity in time." They represent cause and effect by sequence: an "introductory dream" (the cause) is followed by the "main dream" (the effect). However, dreams sometimes represent these in the opposite order. Freud gives an example. A woman dreams at length an "introductory dream" about her maids. In the main dream, the woman was "descending from a height over some strangely constructed palisades, and felt glad that her dress was not caught in them." Freud interprets the introductory dream to be about the woman's origins; she was not from the upper classes. The main dream fulfilled a wish: "I am of high descent." The underlying logical thought, says Freud, is because "I am of such low descent, the course of my life has been so and so." Freud adds causal relationships can be represented in dreams by "one image in the dream ... being transformed into another."

Freud says "either-or" relationships cannot be represented in dreams. He also says dreams "simply disregard" the "category of contraries and contradictions." Instead dreams "show a particular preference for combining contraries, or for representing them as one and the same thing." Additionally, dreams often represent something by its opposite; night might be represented in a dream by day. This can make interpretation difficult.

The only logical relationship dreams do like to represent is similarity, or the conjunction "just as." Dreams sometimes identify one thing or person with another, which Freud calls "identification." Sometimes they construct new combinations of things, which Freud calls "composition." Both operations bring similar things together to get them past the censor. If person A is associated with certain ideas the "censorship objects to," a dream about person B, "who is also connected with the objectionable material, but only with part of it," could still make it past censorship.

Freud returns to his idea that dreams, like children, are "completely egoistical." If the dreamer does not appear in the dream, then the dreamer "lies concealed, by identification," behind some other person in the dream. The relationship also works the other way; the dreamer might represent someone else. Freud then gives examples of places being identified, such as Rome standing for Prague. He gives an example of a "composite structure," which is the result when dream-work combines things in composition. A woman dreams about a branch that has cherry-blossoms and camellias blooming on it. These have associations with her suitors. Dreams themselves, Freud points out, are "a mass of these composite structures."

Repeating the idea "dreams have no means of expressing ... a contradiction, a contrary, or a 'no,'" Freud then modifies this statement by explaining identification can be used to suggest contraries. For evidence he cites a dream of his in which the 18th-century German writer Goethe attacks a young man. In the dream an important author attacked an unimportant man. In Freud's real life the opposite situation occurred: "a man of importance," his friend Fliess had been verbally attacked by "an unknown young writer." Freud calls this operation "reversal, or turning a thing into its opposite." Chronological reversal also happens in dreams, he says.

Freud returns to the sensation of not being able to move in a dream, which he says is often part of the dream's meaning. He recounts a dream of his in which he was accused of dishonesty. He interprets the dream as a wish fulfillment—he wants to be proved an honest man. At one moment in the dream he cannot find his hat and so cannot leave. Not being able to do or move something is a way the dream expresses the negative: "My not being able to find my hat meant accordingly: 'After all, you're not an honest man.'" He adds, "so ... my earlier statement that dreams cannot express a 'no' requires correction."


In his discussion of condensation Freud takes pains to show all spoken sentences in dreams come from somewhere else. They are remembered sentences, not newly created sentences. Freud wants to emphasize the dream-work is not a creative power; it does not produce anything new, except by rearranging fragments through displacement and condensation. He wants to show dreams are created by the dreamer's own thoughts, even though they are created unconsciously. This argument specifically counters the superstitious belief that dreams are sent by gods (or demons) and supports Freud's thesis that dreams are the product of the dreamer's own mental activity.

Freud starts his discussion of condensation by pointing out how dream-content is shorter than dream-thoughts, so one would expect condensation to make the dream-thoughts "smaller," because dream-thoughts are condensed into fewer elements of dream-content. However, Freud says that, "each of the elements of the dream's content turns out to have been 'overdetermined,' to have been represented in the dream-thoughts many times over." Each of the elements of the dream-content turns out to represent many, many dream-thoughts.

The discussion of condensation also shows interpretation is potentially infinite. Freud gives accounts of three dreams and partly interprets them. However, Freud is not satisfied with these incomplete interpretations: "since the analysis of none of these [three] dreams has been traced to its end, it will perhaps be worthwhile to consider a dream whose analysis has been recorded exhaustively." So he returns to the dream he's already fully analyzed, the Dream of Irma's injection. Still, in Section C, having re-analyzed the already-exhausted Dream of Irma's injection, Freud is not satisfied. The only real way to demonstrate the work of condensation would be to perform a "dream-synthesis": account for all the thoughts a dream brings up, and then work backward, to trace how the dream-thoughts were transformed into dream-content.

However, Freud says he cannot do a complete dream-synthesis on his dream of Irma's injection, darkly hinting "the psychical material involved" "forbids" him from doing so. At the outset of The Interpretation of Dreams, he explained he would sometimes omit personal material. He therefore never performs his ideal and complete demonstration of condensation and interpretation, a "dream-synthesis," in the book.

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