The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Main Ideas


Wish Fulfillment

Freud announces his main thesis in Chapter 2 of The Interpretation of Dreams: "When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish." At first he illustrates this thesis with simple dreams about straightforward wishes: a prisoner dreams of a sumptuous meal; a child dreams of a Sunday excursion. In each of these dreams some external authority has forbidden what the dreamer wants: the prison warden has restricted food, and a parent has canceled the Sunday excursion. As Freud develops his thesis, the "forbidder" becomes an internal force in the dreamer's mind, and the dreams grow more complicated and distorted.

Finally Freud shows dreams are the fulfillment of disguised, unconscious wishes from early infancy. The wishes are often but not always sexual in nature. What Freud calls "the dream-work" (the processes that compose the dreams) must distort and disguise the unconscious wishes because an internal force in the dreamer's mind has censored the wishes. Freud initially calls this internal force "the censor"; in Chapter 7 he names it "the preconscious."

Because they fulfill unconscious wishes, dreams are significant mental acts. In Freud's view, dreams are worth looking at. They are guides to how the waking mind works.

Infantile Sexual Wishes

Some of the unconscious wishes the dreamer's preconscious rejects are sexual wishes formed in infancy or childhood. This is one of Freud's bolder ideas, which he elaborated more fully in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). In that book he theorized a child passes through several stages in which its body has different erotic focuses. As an infant, the erotic focus is the mouth; later stages are anal and genital. Also in these essays Freud theorized the infant is "polymorphously perverse": its body is not separated into erotic and nonerotic zones, so every bodily sensation is one of erotic intensity. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud is not so specific about the bodily experience of infantile sexual wishes, but he is certain these wishes are universal and he outlines some typical directions for them.

In The Interpretation of Dreams the basic infantile sexual wish is to possess the parent of the opposite sex after murdering the other parent, one's rival in love. Because Freud mainly talks about boys here, it is simpler to say the boy wishes to sexually possess his mother and murder his father. Freud illustrates this idea with reference to the story of Oedipus, in the ancient Greek play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. In the play, Oedipus, raised by foster parents, murders a man who turns out to be his father. He then marries a woman who turns out to be his mother. Freud says the tragedy of Oedipus is of lasting interest because all viewers are fascinated and horrified by the sight of a man who has done exactly what they long to do. Although Freud had not yet worked out what later came to be called "the Oedipus complex," he first wrote about these ideas in The Interpretation of Dreams.

As Freud remarks in his discussion of sibling rivalry, a child's idea of what it means to be dead is very hazy. Therefore the wish to murder the father is perhaps likewise lacking in knowledge of the consequences. Similarly, although Freud ascribes intense erotic wishes to children, he does not ascribe sexual knowledge to them or advocate sexual activity for them. Freud's main point is the child does not experience pint-sized emotions, but feels intense rage toward one parent and erotic longing for the other. Moreover, because unconscious wishes are "indestructible," as Freud says, these wishes continue to shape the adult's psyche.

Structures of the Mind

After his father died in 1896, Freud embarked on a long self-analysis that included writing down and interpreting his dreams. But The Interpretation of Dreams is not only aimed at what dreams can illuminate about the psyche of an individual dreamer, but it also looks to dreams for clues about how everyone's mind works.

In Chapter 7 Freud makes a sketch of how the mind processes "excitations" or energetic impulses, like nerve impulses. The excitations start with sensory perception (such as sight). Then they move through a series of "memory traces," progressively growing more detailed. Next they meet with the preconscious, a kind of gate or screen limiting access to consciousness. Finally, if the excitations are not turned back at the gate, they enter consciousness, which controls movement and conscious thought.

Dreams run through the apparatus backward, a process Freud calls "regression." The preconscious represses a wish, not letting it into consciousness. Then the wish travels through a series of memory traces, becoming less complicated as it goes and losing its logical connections. Finally, the wish becomes dream content that can be perceived in the mind's eye as hallucinations.

Freud makes a drawing of the mind's workings. Chapter 7 includes illustrations of what he calls the "psychical apparatus." However, it is important to realize Freud's sketch is purely speculative; its spatial shape is a metaphor for something still unknown. Freud says he is not drawing the structures of the brain, nor is he defining locations in the mind. He also tells readers to think of these systems dynamically, as processes or movements. The important thing for Freud is the increase and decrease in energy, not the spatial shape or the location.

The proportions of Freud's model of the mind are unusual. In his model, the unconscious is the largest part. It serves as the warehouse for memories. Perception is located there, though it creates no memory. The preconscious, too, is ultimately part of the unconscious, a gate on the unconscious side. Consciousness is much smaller, comparatively. Therefore, most of what shapes human behavior and emotion occurs outside conscious control.

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