Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams

By Sigmund Freud

The Interpretation of Dreams Introduction

Put on your PJs, and plump up your pillows, Shmoopers: it's time to get into bed with Sigmund Freud.

At 600+ pages, The Interpretation of Dreams might seem like a snoozeapalooza, especially seeing as how most anthologies choose just three or four short excerpts from it to get Freud's point across. But fear not, intrepid dreamers: this psychoanalytical tour de force may be heavier than your average Subaru, but Dr. Freud's determination to plumb the depths of human consciousness is sure to keep you reading.

Don't just take it from us: Freud himself considered The Interpretation of Dreams to be the most impressive achievement of his career. He even claimed in his preface to the third English-language edition that "[i]nsight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime" (source).

In the years that followed the first edition of the book, Freud also realized that The Interpretation of Dreams had a personal significance that was just as important as its professional value. In his preface to the second German-language edition, he confessed:

For this book has a further subjective significance for me personally—a significance which I only grasped after I had completed it. It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father's death—that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life. (source)

As a book that is both a scientific treatise and a deeply personal product of Freud's own "self-analysis," The Interpretation of Dreams is a unique and fascinating text—one that Freud himself returned to over and over again throughout his long and influential career.

Now, today, Sigmund Freud's name is as well known as William Shakespeare's, Jonathan Swift's, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's—three giants of Western culture whom Freud quotes throughout The Interpretation of Dreams. But back in the early 1900s, when Freud was still making his name, the young psychoanalyst worried that no one seemed to be reading or caring about his radical new theories of dream-life, the unconscious, and sexual repression. In fact, when Freud published the second German-language edition of the book in 1909, he wrote in its preface:

If within ten years of the publication of this book (which is very far from being an easy one to read) a second edition is called for, this is not due to the interest taken in it by the professional circles to whom my original preface was addressed. (source)

Freud felt that his colleagues in psychiatry and medicine had "taken no trouble to overcome the initial bewilderment caused by my new approach to dreams," and that "[t]he attitude adopted by reviewers could only lead one to suppose that my work was doomed to be sunk into complete silence" (source). Thankfully for him, by the time he published the third German-language edition in 1911, his ideas had finally begun to make waves.

And we mean a lot of waves. The first German-language edition of the book was published in 1899 (but postdated to 1900). A second edition emerged in 1909, a third in 1911, a fourth in 1914, a fifth in 1919, a sixth in 1921, a seventh in 1922, and an eighth in 1930. You see where we're going with this? Yeah, this book is legit.

For we old English speakers, The Interpretation of Dreams has been available since 1913. After three English-language editions, James Strachey's new translation in The Standard Edition became the go-to version for generations of academics, psychoanalysts, and other curious readers. Just Joyce Crick, a more recent translator of the book, has this to say about it: "Nothing can replace Strachey's The Interpretation of Dreams, just as nothing will replaced the Authorized Version" (source).

Folks, when someone compares your work to the King James Bible, you know you've left your mark.

So get under those covers and pop open this book. When you wake up, you'll actually know what was going on in your head while you slept.

What is The Interpretation of Dreams About and Why Should I Care?

Freud's influence stretched far beyond the spheres of medicine, psychology, and psychiatry. Hey, we're willing to bet that many of you have even come across his work in literature classrooms. Over the years, Freud's emphasis on the necessity of deep interpretation has attracted many literary scholars who get all googly-eyed about the process of "uncovering" or "untangling" hidden meanings in the stuff they read.

Not only that, but Freud's work in The Interpretation of Dreams is totally cultured and totally literary. In fact, he often draws on literature when he wants to support his theories with some tangible evidence (source). In his view, literary texts are peepholes into the deepest undercurrents of human nature.

Guess what? He says the same thing about dreams.

So, where does all of this leave you? After all, 600+ pages of dense psychoanalytic theory is a lot to ask of any reader—even one who wants to know a little something about the unconscious anxieties and wishes that shape our strange and inexplicable dreams. If you tackle The Interpretation of Dreams, what are you gonna get in return?

Freud's work was often met with surprise, speculation, and controversy, and his legacy has inspired the same. For many, Freud was a genius who revolutionized Western perceptions of human nature and human thought. For others, Freud was a fraud who failed his patients and built an entire psychological discipline based on misogynistic or anti-woman perceptions and a desire for self-justification.

Whatever your take on Freud, you can't escape him. His theories are everywhere in Western culture, and even if you don't realize it, they've probably shaped the way you think to some extent. There's no getting away from Freud. And in The Interpretation of Dreams, we can see him developing many of the ideas that he would later make famous—among them, his infamous thoughts on the "Oedipus complex."

When it comes to Freud's longstanding legacy in popular and academic cultures, resistance may not be futile, but all-out avoidance is probably impossible. So, whether you're looking to meet your hero or know your enemy, The Interpretation of Dreams is a good place to get acquainted with the man who rocked turn-of-the-century psychology—and who made a lasting impression on the way people talk about human consciousness today.

The Interpretation of Dreams Resources

Websites

Freud's Profile in the Encyclopedia Britannica
Freud had a long career full of rivalries, disputes, professional rifts, and mountains of controversy. His profile in the Encyclopedia Britannica is a great place to get acquainted.

Freud's Profile in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
For another detailed write-up of Freud's career and legacy, check out his profile in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Freud's Profile on Biography.com
Complete with a number of informative videos, this profile will get you primed to read The Interpretation of Dreams.

The Sigmund Freud Museum
The official website of the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna.

Movie or TV Productions

A Dangerous Method (2011)
David Cronenberg's flick explores the professional relationship of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, along with Carl Jung's relationship with his patient Sabina Spielrein. Warning: scenes of explicit sexuality earned the movie an R rating, and the trailer is pretty racy, too.

Freud (1984)
Who doesn't love a miniseries starring the great David Suchet?

Freud (1962)
Older and more obscure than A Dangerous Method and Freud the miniseries, you may find it hard to get hold of this 1962 film about Freud.

Articles and Interviews

From the Archives
Sigmund Freud's obituary in International Herald Tribune, 1939.

Audio

Sigmund Freud on the BBC
A short address that Freud recorded for the BBC in 1938. The master's voice itself, folks.

Images

The Oxford World's Classics Edition of The Interpretation of Dreams
A new translation of the 1899 edition of the book calls for a photo of Freud as a dashing young chap in his prime, right?

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar…
One of the iconic photos of Freud in his later life.