Study Guide

Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams

By Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

The Interpretation of Dreams has one protagonist, and his name is—you guess it—Sigmund Freud.

Analyst, husband, father, and friend by day; billionaire, playboy, philanthropist by night (okay, we're making those last three up), Freud is both the narrating voice and the primary analytical subject of The Interpretation of Dreams. If you think that's kind of odd for a scientific treatise, you're in good company: Freud himself was well aware that his methods were unorthodox. But, as he explains in his preface to the first German-language edition of the book, he had no other choice but to make himself the star of the show.

Inside Sigmund Freud

Freud's problem was this: in order to lay out his complex methodology for dream-interpretation, he needed to use "specimen" dreams that he could take apart and analyze down to the last detail. Given his unique method of interpreting dreams through each individual dreamer's complex associations, his options were narrowed to just two main groups of dreams—his patients' and his own.

Although Freud does use some of his patients' dreams as examples throughout the book, he felt that "the added presence of neurotic features" in those dreams would make it unacceptably complicated to rely on them alone (source).

On top of that, Freud suspected that his readers would be unwilling to accept that his theory of dreaming was universally applicable if he could only support it using examples from patients with neuroses. Since lots of his theories were shocking, he knew that it would be all too easy for readers to assume that his conclusions could only apply to the dreaming minds of "abnormal" people, not Regular Joes and Plain Janes.

With this in mind, Freud was left with no other choice but to make his own dreams the primary subject matter of the book. In an age before over-sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and Instagram was part of the status quo, this self-exposure made him uncomfortable. As he writes in his preface to the first German-language edition of the book:

But if I was to report my own dreams, it inevitably followed that I should have to reveal to the public gaze more of the intimacies of my mental life than I liked, or more than is normally necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet. Such was the painful but unavoidable necessity; and I have submitted to it rather than totally abandon the possibility of giving the evidence for my psychological findings. (source)

As you can see, Freud moved forward with the project despite his reservations about the self-exposure that it would entail. Whether you want to call that dedication to his discipline or unconscious narcissism is for you to decide.

The Interpretation of Dreams as Autobiography

Lots of smartypants scholars have said that The Interpretation of Dreams is kind of like an autobiography (see here and here, for example). In fact, some of these people even think that it's impossible to separate psychoanalysis "from the biography of its founder," and that "Freud's writings signal a significant change in the relation between autobiography and thought" (source).

While it's certainly true that The Interpretation of Dreams tells us a lot more about its author than scientific treatises usually do, what exactly do we learn about Freud through his "disguised autobiography"?

As one scholar points out, Freud's "professional ambition and anxiety" come through particularly clearly in the book, as do his relationship with his father and his "feelings of isolation" as a Jewish man in an increasingly anti-Semitic culture (source). In addition, Freud's dreams are all about sexual tensions, frustrations about class hierarchies and privilege, thoughts about the Viennese aristocracy, and a number of childhood relationships that shaped young Sigmund's psychical and sexual development.

One great example of the "autobiographical" content of The Interpretation of Dreams is Freud's analysis of his Dream of the Botanical Monograph (5.2.7). Freud introduces this dream in the book's fifth chapter and returns to it multiple times throughout the remaining 400+ pages of the book. On the surface, the dream seems fairly simple. As Freud writes:

I had written a monograph on a certain plant. The book lay before me and I was at the moment turning over a folded coloured plate. Bound up in each copy there was a dried specimen of the plant, as though it had been taken from a herbarium. (5.2.7)

Freud's interpretation of this dream covers lots of pages of text, and as he teases out all of the subtle and unconscious associations that relate to it, readers witness a number of scenes from his early childhood, young adulthood, and married life. There are even aspects of the dream-associations that Freud refuses to share with readers, telling us only that he is going to stop the interpretation "[f]or reasons with which we are not concerned" (5.2.15).

In other words, Freud makes strategic decisions about the content that he does and doesn't share with his reading public. And, as his own work tells us again and again, it's often the case that a person's silences speak louder than their words.

The Interpretation of Dreams as "Self-Analysis"

Aside from thinking of the book as form of autobiography, The Interpretation of Dreams can also be understood as a product of Freud's self-analysis. This realization came as news to Freud himself: in his preface to the second German-language edition of the book, 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)

In Sigmund Freud's Dreams, a detailed study of the materials and events that inspired many of the personal dreams that Freud recounts throughout this book, one scholar argues that although Freud doesn't present himself as "an analytic patient" in The Interpretation of Dreams, he "did have rather serious symptoms which motivated his self analysis," and "[h]is associations, investigations, synthesis of material, and ultimate therapeutic success all confirm that he was a patient as well as his own therapist" (source).

But why would Freud be treating himself through psychoanalytic therapy?

Well, the mid-1890s were a tumultuous period for Freud. In 1895, he and his colleague Josef Breuer had published Studies in Hysteria together, and in it, they wrote that that "Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences"—more specifically, from memories that were "too painful to remember consciously" (source).

As Freud moved forward with his psychoanalytic practice, he came to believe that "hysterical" women suffered from unconscious memories of childhood sexual abuse—often at the hands of their fathers. Still, over time, Freud began to doubt the validity of this theory, and so he began to take it back (source). The death of his father, in fact, may have made him think twice about issues like paternal guilt (source).

Freud's gradual abandonment of his original theory preoccupied him, and the death of his father added an additional load. "Grief, overwork, and worry brought on what has plausibly been called a creative illness," says one scholar: "It was a painful spell of inner isolation following his intense preoccupation with his ideas, and resulting in the exhilarating conviction that he had discovered a great new truth" (source).

In fact, although it was a long and arduous writing project, The Interpretation of Dreams seems to have served as Freud's own "talking cure."

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