Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Family

By Sigmund Freud

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Chapter 5, Section B

In connection with the three women I thought of the three Fates who spin the destiny of man, and I knew that one of the three women—the inn-hostess in the dream—was the mother who gives life, and furthermore (as in my own case) gives the living creature its first nourishment. Love and hunger, I reflected, meet at a woman's breast. (5.3.30)

As Freud analyzes a dream in which he enters a kitchen and finds three women standing there, his interpretation leads him to a number of associations in which mother figures appear as objects of desire. Freud's sense that mothers are objects of both "love and hunger" complements his thoughts on the Oedipus complex. In his view, our infantile relationships with our mothers shape us for life.

Chapter 5, Section D

A particularly gifted and lively girl of four, in whom this piece of child psychology is especially transparent, declared quite openly: "Mummy can go away now. Then Daddy must marry me and I'll be his wife." Such a wish occurring in a child is not in the least inconsistent with her being tenderly attached to her mother. (5.5.37)

As Freud continues to make the case for his interpretation of "dreams of the death of a parent," he offers anecdotal examples from his own observation of children. In this example, Freud is not suggesting that the four-year-old girl had anything like an adult sexual desire for her father; he's basically just arguing that the child wants to be the main focus of her father's affections.

It is not my belief, however, that psycho-neurotics differ sharply in this respect from other human beings who remain normal—that they are able, that is, to create something absolutely new and peculiar to themselves. It is far more probable—and this is confirmed by occasional observations on normal children—that they are only distinguished by exhibiting on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred to their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children. (5.5.42)

Despite the fact that Freud's thoughts on the Oedipus complex had been shaped by his work with "neurotic" and "hysterical" patients, Freud insists that these experiences are not unique to patients who are "abnormal." In his view, all children experience the same love for one parent and hatred for the other—for him, the difference between "normal" children and "sick" children is simply a matter of degree.

Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes, repugnant to morality, which have been forced upon us by Nature, and after their revelation we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to the scenes of our childhood. (5.5.46)

According to Freud, the shocking idea that we might have once wished to kill our father in order to take his place in our mother's affections is so repulsive that it must be repressed, which is why most people would never begin to suspect such a thing about themselves.

If a little boy is allowed to sleep beside his mother when his father is away from home, but has to go back to the nursery and to someone of whom he is far less fond as soon as his father returns, he may easily begin to form a wish that his father should always be away, so that he himself could keep his place beside his dear, lovely Mummy. One obvious way of attaining this wish would be if his father were dead; for the child has learnt one thing by experience—namely that "dead" people, such as Grandaddy, are always away and never come back. (5.5.37)

As in his anecdote about the four-year-old girl who wanted to "marry" her father, Freud is attempting to illustrate his point that children can be ruthless when it comes to their desire for affection and attention. The little boy in this example wants literally to take his father's place, and so, Freud argues, this leads to a childish desire for his father's death.

King Oedipus, who slew his father Laïus and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes. But, more fortunate than he, we have meanwhile succeeded, in so far as we have not become psycho-neurotics, in detaching our sexual impulses from our mother and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. Here is one in whom the primaeval wishes of our childhood have been fulfilled, and we shrink back from him with the whole force of the repression by which those wishes have since that time been held down within us. (5.5.46)

Earlier in this chapter, Freud had suggested that the main difference between "psycho-neurotic" and "normal" people is that "psycho-neurotics" experience hate and love for their parents more intensely than "normal" children. Here, Freud makes the additional distinction that "healthy" children and adults are the ones who succeed in detaching their sexual impulses from their parents and directing them toward other love-objects—such as intimate partners or spouses—instead.

His [King Oedipus'] destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. 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. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (5.5.46)

One of the reasons that Freud's work has appealed so strongly to literary and cultural critics is that he obviously values literature very highly, taking it for granted that literature can teach us a lot about ourselves.

In my experience, which is already extensive, the chief part in the mental lives of all children who later become psycho-neurotics is played by the 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 at that time and which is of such importance in determining the symptoms of the later neurosis. (5.5.42)

Freud readily admits that his potentially shocking theories of family dynamics have been shaped by his work with "neurotic" and "hysterical" patients. In his view, the sexual dynamics that he has uncovered are among the primary causes of neuroses.

If anyone dreams, with every sign of pain, that his father or mother or brother or sister has died, I should never use the dream as evidence that he wishes for that person's death at the present time. The theory of dreams does not require as much as that; it is satisfied with the inference that this death has been wished for at some time or other during the dreamer's childhood. (5.5.20)

As he developed his theory of dreaming, Freud came to a number of surprising conclusions about family dynamics. He figured that many of his readers would resist things like his conviction that young children are quick to wish for the deaths of their brothers, sisters, or parents. Before he could convince his readers that his method of dream interpretation was correct, he had to revolutionize their views on family tensions first.

[…] [M]en, that is, dream mostly of their father's death and women of their mother's. I cannot pretend that this is universally so, but the preponderance in the direction I have indicated is so evident that it requires to be explained by a factor of general importance. It is as though—to put it bluntly—a sexual preference were making itself felt at an early age: as though boys regarded their fathers and girls their mothers as rivals in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage. (5.5.31)

If Freud thought that his readers would resist the idea that young children could wish for the deaths of their siblings, imagine how he must have worried about this. Here, Freud is arguing that young children view the parent of the same sex as a sexual rival—that is, he's saying that little girls wish for the deaths of their mothers so that they can take their mothers' place in their fathers' affections, while little boys wish for the deaths of their fathers so that they can take their fathers' place in their mothers' affections. Yowza.

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