The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (1900)

‘Tell me some of your dreams and I will tell you about your inner self.’
(E. R. Pfaff, quoted on page 134 of The Interpretation of Dreams)


The Interpretation of Dreams may be an epoch-making book but it is far too long, running to 871 pages in the Pelican Freud Library (783 of actual text, 86 of appendix, bibliographies, index of dreams, and general index).

The first quarter or so is a vast review of the many, many theories of dreams held by people throughout Western history (seers and prophets and oneiromancers, historical philosophers and writers, right up to present-day psychologists such as Havelock Ellis), with Freud’s own commentary designed to itemise and categorise all aspects of dreams (their confused illogical nature, how we forget them soon after waking and so on).

Only about page 200 does there come the decisive insight delivered via his own dream about a patient he names Irma, namely that every dream has meaning because every dream is a wish-fulfilment. This is followed from page 200 onwards by an equally extensive series of actual dreams derived from his patients, described in great detail each with a painstaking decipherment.

The literary focus

It isn’t till page 363 that Freud takes the further step of asserting that almost all the dreams of most of his patients ultimately derive from fantasies about their parents. Here he stop for three pages to describe the legend of Oedipus and then to assert that something like Oedipal feelings occur in all his patients.

No sooner has he finished making the shocking claim that all of us, to some extent or other, go through a phase of loving the parent of the opposite sex and hating the parent of the same sex, than he moves on to a similar version of the same story, retold thousands of years later, and culturally rearranged and overlaid, to become Hamlet, then going on to mention other Shakespeare plays, Goethe, German literary critics and so on. (Goethe and Shakespeare are both mentioned about 20 times in the text, along with writers as diverse as Schiller, Heine and Zola, Jonathan Swift and Rider Haggard, the Bible, poetry in general, the music of Wagner 3 times, Mozart 4 times, Offenbach and so on.)

In other words, right from the start Freud’s conceptions of the mind were heavily conditioned and shaped by literature and by cultural forms (myths, legends, religion, folk tales) as much as, or more than, by ‘science’.

It is entirely characteristic of Freud’s focus on culture as source and subject to be investigated that in the preface to the Third Edition, he speculates that new material for the book will not be generated by, say, widening the types of patients he treats or the fast-expanding number of analyses being carried out by his followers i.e. scientific evidence based on data. No, he says the next edition will have to:

afford a closer contact with the copious material presented in imaginative writing, in myths, in linguistic usage and in folklore.


Also, it is astonishingly autobiographical. Freud shares a surprising number of important experiences in his life, starting with the place and date of his birth followed by quite a few important and poignant memories from his childhood and youth. More than that he shares, and analyses at length, upwards of 30 of his own dreams, many of which show him in a less than flattering light, which are embarrassingly candid about his ambitions, his delusions of grandeur, his sense of failure, and so on and so on.

The Interpretation of Dreams is one of the great autobiographical studies in the history of mankind; in it Freud drew freely on his inner life in an effort to construct a psychological system relevant for all of us.’ (Freud and His Followers by Paul Roazen, page 35)

For Roazen this over-sharing was a heroic achievement and sacrifice the great man made on our behalves. But many critics have pointed out the weakness of a theory which relies so very heavily on just one person’s life and experiences and feelings, and on his own interpretation of them, and then claims to extrapolate them into universal principles underpinning all of human nature.

Introduction of key concepts

The book is important because it represents Freud’s first full-length description of the unconscious and the vast role it plays in the mental life of human beings. His theories about the unconscious would be elaborated and developed right up to his death 40 years later, but this is the first, primal statement of its central role.

Freud wrote to his colleague and confidant Wilhelm Fliess, who played a vital role as sounding board for his developing ideas in the 1890s, that the Interpretation of Dreams was substantially finished by 1896. It was published in 1899 but Freud was careful to ensure that it had ‘1900’ on the title page; he was very aware of his image and reputation and that the arrival of a new century heralded the dawn of a new age. All these considerations were in the mind of this very ambitious man.

And yet, after all this careful planning, only 351 copies were sold in the first six years.

Freud began writing this immense book while on holiday in the summer of 1985 at the Schloss BelleVue near Grinzing in Austria. Later he jokingly wrote to Fliess suggesting that a plaque be put on the wall of this castle reading: ‘In this house on July 24 1895 the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr Sigmund Freud’. (Mentioned in a note by the editors on page 199.)

Early days

Personally, I find Freud’s theory of dreams, his confidence that every dream represents a wish and that virtually all dreams can be decoded into various kinds of libidinal fantasy, optimistic and implausible. There feels to be a lot of pseudo-science in it. It feels very dated. For Freud, though, his ‘discovery’ that dreams have meaning, that they were suppressed and distorted wishes, was his big intellectual breakthrough, and the existence of the unconscious was always tied up for him with the breakthrough of dream interpretation.

But when I came to Freud it was through the later metapsychological works and the second theory initiated by Beyond the Pleasure Principle. By comparison with the sophistication of the second theory, with the greater role it assigns to the Death Drive, the Nirvana Principle, the greater account taken of violence and aggression (prompted by the catastrophe of the First World War), the sociological theorisation of the psychology of groups and crowds – compared with all this, going back to his early dream theory seems a little embarrassing, almost childish.

The final 50 or 60 pages take us deep, deep into what is in effect a new theory of human nature and existence, which is visionary and strange. But the hundreds and hundreds of pages of sometimes clunky dream interpretation which precede them are often cringe-inducing. Specially when he makes his stock sexist comments about women and their innate inferiority to men…

Executive summary

The Interpretation is important because it introduces several central ideas of Freud’s theory, namely the unconscious as a reservoir of instinctual wishes and desires which have been repressed from the conscious mind by censorship. These repressed urges try to re-enter the mind when the censorship is relaxed during sleep, but even then can only do so in garbled and distorted form.

So all dreams have two layers or levels which Freud defines as manifest content and latent content (p.381).

The manifest content is the narrative or series of images which we remember on waking, maybe write down or recount to a therapist. The latent content refers to the underlying ‘meaning’ of the dream.

The work of psychotherapy is to dig below the surface or manifest content to try and establish the meaning of the latent content i.e. to discover the wish lying behind the dream.

Freud then categorises the ways in which the ‘censorship’ garbles the latent content of the dream. It does this through distinct processes which he labels as:

  • Condensation – can happen in many ways, for example many ideas or wishes may be represented in one dream, or two or more people or ideas may be combined in one representation
  • Displacement – the fundamental notion that latent content, the expression of the wish underlying all dreams, is distorted and ‘displaced’
  • Representation – a great variety of ways in which images, words, sounds, word and phrases can represent the dream-wish
  • Secondary revision – not part of the process of censorship, this is what happens as the mind returns to consciousness and, half-asleep, tries to ‘make sense’ of the half-remembered dream by rearranging its elements into something closer to a coherent narrative

The comprehensive nature of this rewriting of the repressed wish explains why people can often make no sense at all of their dreams, so completely censored and disguised have they been.

Using the talking cure, free association and dream interpretation, the therapist can analyse a patient’s dreams, uncovering the secret wish which lies behind them and find a way into the reservoir of all our drives and urges and the words and images and behaviours which have become attached to them. Hence Freud’s famous declaration:

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


The text is immensely schematic, divided and sub-divided and sub-sub-divided into numbered parts, sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, as if to conceal the relative simplicity of what Freud was proposing under a mountain of academic apparatus. He recognised the work’s unmanageable length and published a much shorter version On Dreams in 1901, revised and expanded in 1911. The fact that the abbreviation is a mere slip of a thing at 53 pages in the English translation strongly hints at the redundancy of most of the material in the longer work. It’s there to bludgeon the reader into submission with the sheer quantity of ‘evidence’.

Part 1. The scientific literature dealing with the problems of dreams

The ancients had two theories: dreams as helpful messages from the supernatural or diabolical fantasy. These were said to emanate from gates of horn and of ivory, respectively.

A) The relation of dreams to waking life

Dreams seem at the same time totally removed from waking life yet continue many of the concerns of waking life.

B) The material of dreams: memory in dreams

Dreams often preserve memories much more clearly than waking life and yet what is remembered is often trivial.

C) The stimuli and sources of dreams

1. External sensory stimuli

For example, alarm clock prompts dreams of church bells etc. But why do the same external source prompts different dream-imagery?

2. Internal (subjective) sensory excitations

3. Internal organic somatic stimuli

News from internal organs, often warning of disease. But how are these messages conveyed?

4. Psychical sources of stimulation

Present definitions of psychical stimulation do not suffice.

D) Why dreams are forgotten after waking

Natural that the intensity of daytime experiences blots out dreams. More importantly, everyone proceeds to reconstruct partially remembered dreams, stringing together half-memories in usually very misleading ways.

E) The distinguishing psychological characteristics of dreams

Dreams perceived as immediate experience. Lack of critical self-consciousness. In dreams we don’t think, we experience.

Crazy chains of association. Logic and causation which we (mostly) demand in conscious life are conspicuous by their absence.

Regression to earlier impulses. The tremendous virtuoso intensity of dream experiences. Freud reviews a wide range of views about dreams, from total disparagement to hymns to dreams’ poetic intensity.

F) The moral sense in dreams

Some say people lose all moral sense in dreams and behave with shocking amorality; others say you act in dreams according to your character. Dreams often show us insight into our deeper feelings, unknown to our conscious selves. Dreams reveal illicit desires, as in saints’ confessions of being miserable sinners. In dreams our instinctual life is exposed. We acquiesce in desires we spend our waking lives controlling and resisting.

G) Theories of dreaming and its function

The ancients thought dreams are sent from the gods as a guidance to action. More recently three schools have emerged:

  1. Rational. The dream-mind works just like the conscious mind but deprived of the sense-data of consciousness
  2. Mechanistic. Sleep relaxes the conscious control and dreams are responses of different parts of the mind to the passing sensory stimulants of the night. Or dreams are the excrescence of all the semi-cogitated impressions and thoughts of the day.
  3. Dreams are a holiday for the mind. Rest and recuperation.

H) The relations between dreams and mental diseases

Patients sometimes cured during the day continue their pathological behaviour in dreams or while asleep. ‘The madman is a waking dreamer’ etc. Dreams and psychoses are both fulfilment of wishes.

2. The method of interpreting dreams: analysis of a specimen dream

The aim which I have set before myself is to show that dreams are capable of being interpreted. (p.167)

Lay interpretation confined to symbolic reading (for example, pharaoh’s seven fat and seven lean kine; also mentioned p.448) and decoding (treating dream-language as a code).

Outline of the technique of free association.

An extended analysis of Freud’s own dream, the ‘dream of Irma’s injection’ interpreted to show how it conflates evidence to justify Freud’s treatment of her, i.e. a wish to be impregnated (pages 180 to 199).

3. A dream is a fulfilment of a wish

Elaboration of Freud’s fundamental insight, that every dream is the symbolic fulfilment of an unconscious wish. Examples of children’s dreams. The point is dreams may express wishes, but so comprehensibly distorted and garbled as to usually be unrecognisable to the dreamer.

4. Distortions in dreams

If all dreams are wish-fulfilments, why do some present as the opposite – wishing the death of a loved-one, anxiety dreams etc?

Because the wish is distorted. There are thus at least two aspects to a dream, the manifest content (the coherent narrative we make from the dream imagery) and the latent content (the real concern), and there is always an element of repression or censorship. This is the dream-work, which translates latent content into the manifest content we experience and remember.

The similarity of distortion in dreams and the hallucinations or obsessions of neurotics.

5. The material and sources of dreams

A) Recent and indifferent material in dreams

Frequent occurrence of material from the day before, the ‘dream-day’; but radically disguised or itself masking other meanings. Thus the concept of displacement.

B) Infantile material as a source of dreams

The deeper one carries the analysis of a dream, the more often one comes upon the track of experiences from childhood which have played a part among the sources of that dream’s latent content.

C) The somatic sources of dreams

All dreams are in a sense dreams of convenience. They serve the purpose of managing the processing of unconscious content in such a way as to preserve sleep. Dreams are the guardians of sleep.

If dreams are prompted by internal somatic stimulation, why do we not dream continuously of flying (the working of the lungs) etc? Because somatic stimulation is brought into the formation of a dream only when it fits with the ideational content derived from the dream’s psychic sources; only when it’s needed.

D) Typical dreams

He reviews:

1. Embarrassing dreams of being naked

2. Dreams of the death of persons whom the dreamer likes (childhood rivalries)

It is in this section that Freud describes the fierce emotions and rivalries attributable to children, which can spill over into hostility against their parents:

Being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses which is formed [n childhood] (p.362)

He starts to invoke the Greek myths and this leads up to page 363 on which he posits the central role of the Oedipus legend.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. (p.364)

3. Other typical dreams

4. Examination dreams

6. The dream-work

Freud reviews the different mental processes he claims are at work in dreams, which collectively he calls the ‘dream-work’:

A) The work of condensation

Seen at its clearest when it handles words and names. In dreams words are often treated like things, chopped up, compressed etc.

B) The work of displacement

A dream is often differently centred from the dream-thought which lies behind it. The work of displacement as well as condensation are the result of the censorship imposed on the unconscious wish material.

The kernel of my theory of dreams lies in my derivation of dream-distortion from the censorship. (p.418)

C) The means of representation in dreams

Dreams do not have any of the methods with which we construct narratives or logical arguments at their disposal.

The most striking example of absence of logic is the absence of the negative, meaning that no means yes, that something can be represented by its exact opposite: the process of reversal (p.429) This can apply to causality where normal cause and effect are reversed.

Or dream images can appear by a process of similarity or consonance of even a tiny part of it with something else (p.431).

The common sensation of running but never getting anywhere.

Dreams are completely egoistic. They deal with the dreamer and only the dreamer (p.434).

D) Considerations of representability

Some dreams make use of ‘primeval’ imagery, being similes reaching back to remote antiquity (p.462).

Wherever neuroses make use of such disguises they are following paths along which all humanity passed in the earliest days of civilisation. (p.463).

E) Symbols in dreams: some further typical examples

Tempting to think that recurrent symbols in dreams may be universal symbols, specially when they recur in ‘popular myths, legends, linguistic idioms, proverbial wisdom and current jokes’ (which gives you a good sense of Freud’s evidence base).

Freud proceeds to give a lexicon or handbook of symbols, starting with the King and Queen who are, of course, the dreamer’s parents, moving on to how playing with a little child, especially beating it, betokens masturbation, and so on.

  • a hat is symbolic of a man, or the male genitals
  • a little one is the penis
  • being run over is coitus
  • buildings, stairs and shafts represent the genitals
  • female genitals represented by a landscape
  • castration dreams
  • urinary symbolism
  • staircase dreams
  • flowers represent the genitals (p.496)
  • dreams of flying or floating have a very varied meaning

He makes the ‘shocking’ claim that psychoanalysis makes no qualitative distinction between normal and neurotic life i.e. there is no ‘normality’ i.e. we are all on a spectrum (p.493).

And the centrality of sex in all these hundreds and hundreds of examples:

The more one is concerned with the solution of dreams, the more one is driven to recognise that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes. (p.520)

F) Some examples: calculations and speeches in dreams

The special significance of numbers in dreams.

Speech rarely makes sense in dreams, being recombinations of words or phrases taken from other sources.

G) Absurd dreams: intellectual activity in dreams

Obviously many dreams are absurd or absurdist in content, but Freud tries to identify different reasons for this, often to do with negative or contradictory elements in the motivating dream content.

The dream-work produces absurd dreams and dreams containing individual absurd elements if it is faced with the necessity of representing any criticism, ridicule or derision which may be present in the dream-thoughts. (p.576)

H) Affects in dreams

It is commonly observed that the mood induced by a dream lingers longer than most of the details into the waking day.

I) Secondary revision

This occurs at the end of the process of dream-construction and is the application of conscious thought processes to the dream material. Just before waking the renascent ego tries to gloss over inconsistencies in the dream narrative, trying to create sense out of absurdity.

So it’s not part of the censor’s work, not part of displacement and condensation; it comes after that and re-arranges elements of the dream, but has the practical effect of scrambling it even more, making dream interpretation even harder (pages 641 and 642).

7. The psychology of the dream process

The dream-work is not simply more careless, more irrational, more forgetful and more incomplete than waking thought; it is completely different from it qualitatively and for that reason not directly comparable with it. (p.650)

A) The forgetting of dreams

Forgetting details of a dream is a common experience. But Freud is convinced that more is retained than we commonly think and that in the therapeutic situation more can be reclaimed than you’d expect. And often the so-called ‘forgetting’ of a dream is really only the work of the censor and repression; with sensitive work it can be recalled.

Can we interpret every detail of a dream, or every dream? No. Because the power of repression and resistance is so severe. But you can interpret much more than you’d initially believe.

B) Regression

Freud works through a series of diagrams meant to convey the relationship between dream wishes, memories, the preconscious, the unconscious and so on. By ‘regression’ Freud means that, with the motor system i.e. active use of the body, shut down in sleep, wishes express their outcomes not in (sleeping) body but by bouncing back into the psyche. Regression refers to internally generated images which are fed backwards into the cortex as if they were coming from the outside. He goes on to distinguish three types of regression:

  1. topographical regression
  2. temporal regression, the harking back to earlier psychic structures
  3. formal regression, where primitive methods of expression and representation take the place of the usual ones (p.699)

He concludes by making the picturesque but now discredited claim that some element of dreams also connects us with primeval memories of our ancestors.

We may expect that the analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man’s archaic heritage, of what is psychically innate in him. Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we would have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the beginnings of the human race. (p.700)

C) Wish-fulfilment

It may be intuitively agreed that a dream expresses a wish, albeit heavily disguised by the censorship, but Freud goes on to address the paradox that anxiety and negative dreams can also express wishes. He devotes 2 pages to explaining the definition of a ‘wish’ as it first comes to be experienced by the screaming baby, considered as an inchoate organism seeking the most basic physical satisfactions.

During which he makes the kind of comment that I like, namely that ‘thought is after all nothing but a substitute for the basic physical wish’.

D) Arousal by dreams: the function of dreams: anxiety dreams

Further clarification of why anxiety dreams and other dreams with acutely negative affect are, nonetheless, expressions of a wish. The anxiety is an index of the force of the repression needed to keep the unacceptable wish material under wraps.

E) The primary and secondary processes: repression

In technical and difficult phraseology, Freud repeats the basic idea that the primary system (the unconscious) is concerned with securing the free discharge of the quantities of excitation which are troubling it, while the second system, attempts to inhibit this discharge (p.759).

The primary process endeavours to bring about a discharge of excitation in order that, with the help of the amount of excitation thus accumulated, it may establish a ‘perceptual identity’ with the experience of satisfaction. The secondary process, however, has abandoned this intention and taken on another in its place – the establishment of a ‘thought identity’ with that experience.

All thinking is no more than a circuitous path from the memory of a satisfaction (a memory which has been adopted as a purposive idea) to an identical cathexis of the same memory which it is hoped to attain once more through an intermediate stage of motor experiences. (pages 761 to 762)

These final pages take us deep, deep into Freud’s most theoretical musings about the nature of the mind and of thought, which tend to undermine the possibility of ‘reason’ at all, because he makes all the activities of the mind arise from a really primeval stratum of primitive needs, as transmuted into wishes, as repressed and distorted into a thousand and one memories, behaviour patterns, obsessions and so on. Nobody can think rationally, because this unconscious swamp is the basis of all human thought.

I’m not sure it’s worth reading the preceding 750 pages to get here, but they are in a sense the preface to a deep dive into a truly other vision of human nature, the human mind, human existence. All thinking is, in a sense, repeated attempts to recapture the primeval, primitive physical satisfactions of the baby which have been so thoroughly repressed that they can never be achieved. All humans are, in a sense, condemned to search endlessly for the unfindable. Hence [Freud doesn’t say this, I’m saying this] the universal notion of The Quest found across all human cultures.

F) The unconscious and consciousness: reality

The unconscious is vast and the basis of the psyche. The conscious mind is a small, fragile blip floating on the great unknown ocean of the unconscious.

The unconscious must be assumed to be the general basis of psychical life. The unconscious is the larger sphere which includes within it the smaller sphere of the conscious….The unconscious is the true psychic reality. (p.773)

Typically, Freud immediately goes on to say that this explains a lot of creative process too, with numerous poets and composers describing how their great works ‘came to them’ without planning, unexpectedly, whole and complete. Well…the unconscious!

The conscious mind is like a kind of sense organ for the perception of psychic qualities. It is entirely typical of Freud that this dense and difficult conceptualising gives way, on the page before last, to yet another reference to Greek mythology, and to the story of Zeus castrating his father, Kronos. Literature and myth are never far away in Freud’s writings. And are often a welcome respite from the more difficult technical passages.

And one of the oldest traditions of dreams, which he mentioned right at the start, 780 pages earlier, widely believed in the ancient world that they predict the future. Do they? No, not in a literal sense, no. And yet, in another sense:

By picturing our wishes as fulfilled, dreams are, after all, leading us into the future. But this future, which the dreamer pictures as the present, has been moulded by his indestructible wish into a perfect likeness of the past. (last sentences, page 783)


The same period (1895 to 1900) saw the zenith of detectivehood in the fictional figure of Sherlock Holmes. Very widespread was the idea human personality as a mystery, a puzzle to be solved.

And the idea of psychic division into two opposing parts, light and dark, good and bad: the döppelgänger or split personality abounds in the stories of the time: Jeckyll and Hyde and The Secret Sharer and Dorian Gray and all the characters in Holmes leading respectable lives while concealing depths of vice and criminality.

After the long dull review of existing dream literature, Freud’s exposition his new theory of the interpretation of dreams contains steadily more and more personal material, including candid stories of antisemitism. He shares with us his identification with Hannibal; he describes himself as a conquistador; the narrative of the dream of Irma’s injection is above all a wish to be justified.

Surprisingly, maybe, there is no mention of the Oedipus Complex and little mention of childhood sexuality. He added notes about these to all the later editions, but reading the text as first published makes you realise how very bare of all his theories it is, or to put it another way, what a huge edifice of complex psychological theory it was to grow into.

Throughout the book you can see Freud extending the mechanisms revealed by his own dream analysis backward and forward in order to derive a psychology of all stages of life; in particular pushing the source of dreams back into childhood. The nature of childhood fantasy and its connection with childhood sexual feelings were become central to the development of the theory over the next five years.

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