The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Quotes


I have often been in doubt and sometimes shaken in my convictions ... it has always been The Interpretation of Dreams that has given me back my certainty.

Narrator, Prefaces

Freud wrote the Preface to the Second Edition in 1908, at a time when sales of The Interpretation of Dreams were still small and reviews and scholarly commentary were few. He comments bitingly in this preface about the scholars who ignore him but also makes this confident remark about his own work on dreams. This remark about his certainty could be bravado, a show of bluster in the face of uncertainty. Yet Freud's confidence in his dream theory also seems genuine. The little boy who was told he would grow up to be a minister became a bold thinker who told the world his discoveries mattered.


Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime.

Narrator, Prefaces

Freud wrote the Preface to the Third (Revised) English Edition in 1931, more than three decades after first writing the manuscript of The Interpretation of Dreams. Although he had published many other works in those decades, his estimation of this book's place among his other works remained high. The insight he refers to is the book's central thesis: dreams are the disguised fulfillment of repressed, unconscious wishes.


When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish.

Narrator, Chapter 2

This is Freud's initial thesis statement in The Interpretation of Dreams. Later in the book he refines and clarifies the thesis—dreams fulfill repressed, unconscious wishes from childhood. But even in Chapter 2 on the basis of his one "specimen dream," the Dream of Irma's Injection, he is ready to make this universal claim: all dreams are wish fulfillments. He considers dreams that seem to be different, such as punishment dreams, anxiety dreams, and dreams that tell the future. But these, too, turn out to be motivated by unconscious wishes.


All dreams ... serve the purpose of prolonging sleep instead of waking up. Dreams are the GUARDIANS of sleep and not its disturbers.

Narrator, Chapter 5, Part 2

Freud has been discussing a "dream of convenience," as he calls it. A sleepy medical student due at the hospital for his rounds dreams he is already there; the dream conveniently satisfies his duty as a student while also fulfilling the wish to go on sleeping. Freud then points out everyone is like the sleepy medical student; all dreams are "dreams of convenience" that fulfill the wish to sleep.

The reason for Freud's all-caps emphasis may be the uniqueness of his viewpoint. Scientific research and folk tradition at the time both treated dreams as extraordinary: either sent by supernatural forces or occasioned by physical stimuli during sleep. In neither case can the dream be fitted into the chain of everyday mental acts. In proposing dreams as the guardians of sleep, Freud emphasized they were an ordinary experience, part of the normal, overall functioning of the mind.


These places are ... the genitals of the dreamer's mother; there is ... no other place about which one can assert with such conviction that one has been there before.

Narrator, Chapter 6, Part 2

The "places" Freud refers to are landscapes the dreamer is sure he has visited before. Critics are right to point out the logical inconsistencies of The Interpretation of Dreams. In Chapter 2 Freud says he cannot write a "dream-book" in the sense of a dictionary of universal dream symbols. Yet he includes a section in Chapter 6 on symbols and typical dreams. In part, this section reflects his historical time and place, and in part, it demonstrates the exceptionally contradictory object of his study, the human mind.


Dreams ... are often most profound when they seem most crazy ... those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have ... assumed a fool's cap.

Narrator, Chapter 6, Part 3

Freud is discussing absurdity in dreams. They get past the censor more easily when they are absurd, foolish, or "crazy." This remark also outlines the bitterness of the struggle between unconscious wish and "the censor." Later in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud replaces the term "the censor" with the preconscious system. It is the preconscious that clamps down on unconscious wishes and necessitates the often foolish, bizarre disguises of dreams.


The ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual.

Narrator, Chapter 6, Part 4

Freud is interpreting a dream that features his close friend Wilhelm Fliess. As with many of Freud's relationships, this one was conflictual. Fliess is only the latest figure to serve Freud in the role of "intimate friend and hated enemy," a pattern that began early in Freud's life with his nephew John. Such relationships may also have contributed to Freud's insight into ambivalence and repressed wishes; Freud was well aware of the ugly feelings lurking behind the more acceptable ones.


At our first approach to something unknown, I shall give preference in the first instance to hypotheses of the crudest and most concrete description.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 1

Freud makes this remark about his sketch of the mental "psychical" apparatus that translates sense impressions into thoughts. Because so little is known at the time, Freud feels justified in making crude hypotheses. This remark exhibits several characteristics of Freud's thought: his boldness and particularly his penchant for speculation. These speculations are not airy nothings, even though they cannot be empirically tested. Their value is in their worth as interpretations. Like his dream interpretations, Freud's speculation about psychic structures, the significance of childhood experiences, and primitive humanity has yielded many insights into mental and cultural phenomena.


The impressions which have had the greatest effect on us—those of our earliest youth—are precisely the ones which scarcely ever become conscious.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 1

Freud makes this remark while describing his visual representation of the "psychical apparatus," the way mental energy moves through the mind. In the apparatus the greatest part is given over to the unconscious. Perhaps surprisingly, the unconscious is the place of memory, not the conscious mind, according to Freud. Consciousness does not have resources to "cathect" or energize a whole lifetime's memories simultaneously and permanently, so these memory traces remain in the unconscious.

In this remark Freud lays out the consequences of unconscious memory—we are unknown to ourselves, at least before entering psychoanalysis. The vast storehouse of unconscious memories is not neutral; central conflicts and recurring themes shape it. Thus, unconscious memory gives rise to something as individual and unique as character and dreams.


Like all other thought-structures, this dream-instigator will make an effort to advance into the Pcs. and from there to obtain access to consciousness.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 1

Freud gave a spatial metaphor for his psychical apparatus, which he is discussing here. All thought-structures in the unconscious try to enter consciousness. But later in Chapter 7 Freud tells readers not to get stuck on the spatial metaphor; the mind is also dynamic, he says. Here, with dream-instigators and every other thought trying to push their way into consciousness, one can visualize the dynamism already. The psychical apparatus—Freud's visual metaphor of the mind—is like the busy, noisy entrance door to a pop concert, with a crowd of thoughts, feelings, images, and memories threatening to storm the narrow aperture of the preconscious.


What once dominated waking life ... seems now to have been banished into the night ... the bows and arrows, that have been abandoned by adult men, turn up in the nursery.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 1

Freud is discussing wish fulfillment, and he has just said all conscious thoughts are "nothing but a substitute for a hallucinatory wish": our conscious thoughts strive to sensibly and rationally fulfill our needs and wishes to have food, wealth, esteem, or love. But while our conscious mind sets about attaining its aims in the real world of waking life, the nighttime is a type of attic or junk room where the old way of fulfilling wishes still holds sway: one satisfies a desire "along the short path of regression," by hallucinating or dreaming its satisfaction. In this attic space that is night, two archaic forms of thought survive: the childhood of the individual and the prehistoric, primitive era of humankind.


The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 2

Freud makes this statement in the final pages of The Interpretation of Dreams, but the investigation has been aiming here all along. Without this goal the book would merely be an entertainment: Interpret your dreams! Amaze your friends and family! Dreams are meaningful not only because of what they tell an individual about themselves, but because Freudian psychoanalysis will use them to understand "the composition of that most marvelous and most mysterious of all instruments"—the mind.


The unconscious is the true psychical reality; ... it [psychical reality] is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 2

Freud often makes a similar point in other parts of The Interpretation of Dreams: the unconscious is the bigger, more primary, more essential part of the mind in comparison to consciousness. Much of science and philosophy by that time had recognized the limitations of human sensory perceptions. Scottish philosopher David Hume was the first to do so, and in 1781, German philosopher Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason argued we cannot know such transcendental realities as God and freedom because our sense perceptions and reason are limited. Likewise, Freud assumes the mind is structured in a way that limits what it can know of its own inner workings, especially the workings of the unconscious.


It is ... instructive to get to know the much trampled soil from which our virtues proudly spring.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 2

Freud is discussing the ethical aspect of dreams and whether a dreamer should feel guilty for a dream about killing the emperor. Freud's remark here also demonstrates his ease with ambivalence and with ugly or ignoble feelings.

Even though Freud emphasized the universality of the Oedipal conflict and of infantile sexual wishes, he did not think people were meant to be father-slaughtering hedonists, living only for pleasure. He appears to have upheld the virtues of early 20th-century Vienna, including hard work, but saw such virtues as the result of complicated, long-standing education and effort, not as "a choice between simple alternatives" like good and evil. The trampled soil is not the evil underside of virtue, but the complicated, dynamic ground out of which virtues are cultivated.


By picturing our wishes as fulfilled, dreams are leading us into the future ... [which] has been molded by his indestructible wish into a perfect likeness of the past.

Narrator, Chapter 7, Part 2

Freud has been discussing the possibility that dreams can tell the future. He rejects this possibility in favor of dreams "giv[ing] us knowledge about the past." However, his thought does not stop there. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud shows the past is not over yet. For his neurotic patients in particular, whose dreams he quotes, the infantile past surges up in the present, in the form of symptoms and dreams. Even for typical people the unconscious wishes are "indestructible" and still have to be reckoned with in the future.

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