The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 6, Part 2 : The Dream-Work | Summary



D. Considerations of Representability

Freud says concrete rather than abstract terms are better for dream representation: "A dream-thought [latent content] is unusable so long as it is expressed in abstract form." Instead it is transformed into "pictorial language." He also remarks the formation of dreams "seeks to reduce dream-thoughts to the most succinct and unified expression possible" through condensation. In addition to condensing the dream-thoughts, the dream-work seeks ambiguous verbal expressions, those that have more than one meaning.

Freud reminds readers of the difficulties of interpreting dreams: "A dream never tells us whether its elements are to be interpreted literally or in a figurative sense." He lists four difficulties, starting with whether a dream element should be interpreted positively or negatively. Does the element stand for itself or its opposite? The second and third difficulties are whether to interpret the dream "historically" from the dreamer's memories, or symbolically. The fourth difficulty is "whether its interpretation is to depend on its wording." Finally, adding to these difficulties, dreams are meant to escape detection by the repressive censor; they are supposed to be difficult to understand. Freud then compares interpreting dreams to translating hieroglyphs.

Freud recounts a specimen dream. A woman dreams of a concert. A piece of coal is an element of this dream. For this dreamer, the word "coal" means "secret love," a meaning arrived at through its association with a German folk song about secret love: "No fire, no coal / So hotly glows / As secret love." This dream leads him to a third process in addition to condensation and displacement. This one is called "considerations of representability." Freud means the dream-work prefers words easily representable in visual images, such as the piece of coal. Freud then quotes from a man who recorded images that came to him while he was very sleepy and trying to do intellectual work. He thought about an "uneven passage" in his essay, and he saw the image of himself "planing a piece of wood." He lost his train of thought, and saw a typesetter's form with the last line of type falling out, and so on.

Freud then remarks the dream-work is not doing anything original in making these substitutions. It is just "following the paths already laid down by the unconscious." He then makes an analogy between dream images and neurotic fears, on the one hand, and the fears of prehistoric people on the other. For example, if a snake is an image in a dream, it did not come from nowhere; the dream-work did not produce it as original material. The paths already laid in the unconscious were laid there very long ago, Freud indicates, and they are "the paths along which all humanity passed in the earliest periods of civilization."

E. Representation by Symbols in Dreams—Some Further Typical Dreams

In a long section added in 1914, Freud starts by reconsidering symbols in dreams. He attacks the works of symbolic dream interpretation by Wilhelm Stekel, author of The Language of Dreams (1922). The interpretations are competent but their flaw, in Freud's eyes, is Stekel's "gift" for symbolic intuition. This gift cannot be scientifically repeated. He calls Stekel's (lack of) method "scientifically untrustworthy" and "reckless."

Following his previous thought about "the paths" laid down, Freud reconsiders symbols in dreams. Previously he had rejected symbolic dream interpretation as handed down in "dream books"; it was not individual enough. Now Freud says dreams do not make up symbols; they use symbols already available in "folklore, in popular myths, legends, linguistic idioms, proverbial wisdom and jokes." The problem with symbolic interpretation is it's hard to know whether to interpret a particular element symbolically, and the symbols often have several meanings. Thus symbolic elements in dreams can be "overinterpreted." For Freud this means it is possible to interpret the dream again after the initial interpretation.

Next, he presents a kind of catalog of symbols in three or so pages. For example, the king and queen often stand for one's parents. The symbols one thinks of as typically Freudian are included: "All elongated objects, such as sticks, tree-trunks, and umbrellas ... may stand for the male organ—as well as all long, sharp weapons, such as knives, daggers, and pikes." Freud says rooms in a dream "are usually women."

Freud then gives as examples 12 dreams, many of them quoted from other psychoanalysts who are followers of his, in which most of the symbols turn out to be sexual. In the eighth dream, Freud remarks, "It is fair to say there is no group of ideas that is incapable of representing sexual facts and wishes." Anything can be a sexual symbol.

He goes on to consider "the question of symbolism in the dreams of normal persons." Many of his specimen dreams in this section come from his own neurotic patients or others. However, Freud does not find the dreams of what he calls normal people so different: "Now psychoanalytic research finds no fundamental, but only quantitative, distinctions between normal and neurotic life."

He returns to the analysis of typical dreams many people have, such as dreams of missing a train and dreams of flying. The train dreams are wish fulfillments of a reassuring kind. "They are consolations for another kind of anxiety felt in sleep—the fear of dying." The dreamer who misses the train should be reassured; they don't have to "go" yet. Next to be interpreted are dreams of dentistry, which can be sexual when the dream-work displaces wishes about the "lower body" onto the "upper body." He also considers typical dreams of flying, falling, or floating. These he associates not with symbols but with memories. Flying relates to childhood memories of being carried, or memories of adults playing flying and riding games with children. Falling is related to anxiety, and is likewise interpreted as memory of a childhood experience. Finally, he considers dreams of swimming and says bed wetters often have these dreams. They are "repeating in their dreams a pleasure which they have long learnt to forgo."

Commenting on the fact many of the symbols he discusses are sexual, Freud asserts: "The more one is concerned with the solution of dreams, the more one is driven to recognize that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes." Only dream analysts are "qualified to make a judgment on this point." However, he adds an important qualification: "The assertion that all dreams require a sexual interpretation, against which critics rage so incessantly, occurs nowhere in my Interpretation of Dreams."

Freud makes a similar defense of his analysis of the Oedipus myth. People have protested to him they do not dream about sexual intercourse with their mother, to which Freud replies the dreams are disguised.

Now he analyzes common threads in other typical dreams. Dreams about locations one has visited before symbolize the mother's genitals. Freud says, "there is indeed no other place about which one can assert with such conviction that one 'has been there before.'" Dreams of passing through narrow spaces are dreams of birth, which are fantasies rather than memories. By means of displacement, dreams of being thrown into water are also dreams of being born, which Freud describes as coming out of "the uterine waters." Freud cites examples of this water symbol from mythology and religion, including the baby Moses set afloat in a river.

About dreams of convenience, Freud remarks they fulfill the wish to go on sleeping despite some physical sensation even though sometimes the stimulus wakes up the sleeper anyway. Freud concludes with a comment on dreams about robbers and other assailants. These represent terrifying experiences in childhood or infancy when an adult unexpectedly lifted the child out of bed and woke them up. The adult would have been ensuring the child did not wet the bed or was not masturbating, so the dream is a response to the prohibition.


When he described his own method of dream interpretation in Chapter 3, Freud said it was similar to dream decoding, not to symbolic interpretation. Symbolic interpretation relies on an impersonal, predetermined list of symbols, as in dream-books. In symbolic interpretation the symbols have the same meanings for all dreamers. Earlier, Freud rejected this in favor of decoding individualized interpretations. Now what previously looked like a malfunction of symbolic interpretation appears to be a feature: symbols have widely accepted meanings. However, his catalog of symbols is not unique to dreams, and it does not come from a dream book. Instead, he finds there are widely accepted symbols in folklore, symbols, and myths the dream-work simply makes use of but does not invent.

Freud seems to move both toward and away from symbolism. On the one hand, custom and folklore have sanctioned certain objects to stand for sexual organs. On the other hand, the list of sexual symbols is potentially infinite because, Freud remarks, "It is fair to say there is no group of ideas that is incapable of representing sexual facts and wishes." The effect of first rejecting symbolic interpretation in Chapter 3 and then accepting it in Chapter 6 would seem to render Freud's thought inconsistent, critics of Freud might say. From Freud's perspective it is dreams that are inconsistent because they are the product of an inconsistent human mind. As a result, the interpreter can never be sure whether to interpret a dream element symbolically or by other means.

Freud's uncovering of his patients' childhood sexual wishes seems to displease them. As he notes of one patient: "The dreamer quite lost her liking for this pretty dream after it had been interpreted"—after its sexual meaning had been made plain. In his catalog of dream symbols, Freud is careful to write umbrellas and other objects may, not must, stand for the male organ. In a later edition he adds a defense: "The assertion that all dreams require a sexual interpretation, against which critics rage so incessantly, occurs nowhere in my Interpretation of Dreams." This defense seems a bit legalistic and hinges on the difference between "may" and "must." Yet it is why Freud's thought remains influential; his method of dream interpretation can be applied even as customs change and sexual wishes are perhaps no longer the most prohibited ones.

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