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In standard scholarly style, Freud begins The Interpretation of Dreams by surveying all of the major scientific, philosophical, and pop cultural theories of dreaming that came before his own. His goal in the first chapter of the book is to survey what's already been said about dreaming so that readers are well-prepared for his own thoughts on the subject.
After laying his critical groundwork, Freud jumps right into a "specimen dream"—his Dream of Irma's Injection. Freud's detailed interpretation of the dream is a hands-on demonstration of his unique methodology, and he concludes his analysis by arguing that his Dream of Irma's Injection fulfilled an unconscious wish. In fact, Freud doesn't stop there: he goes on to argue that every dream is "the fulfilment of a wish" (2.1.46).
Having made this somewhat surprising argument, Freud moves on to develop it in more detail. In the third chapter of the book, he takes some time to give more examples of dreams that fulfilled their dreamers' wishes. Here, he sets out to prove that the wish-fulfilling aspect of the Dream of Irma's Injection wasn't unique to that dream alone.
Freud then turns to a discussion of distortion in dreams. He anticipates the objections of readers who may not be willing to accept that all dreams are wish-fulfillments. After all, what about nightmares and other "anxiety dreams"?
Well, throughout his fourth chapter, Freud insists that "distressing" dreams are wish-fulfillments, but their true meanings are disguised. Using a number of examples from his own dream-life—and supplementing them with others from the dream-lives of his patients, family, and friends—Freud argues that a powerful psychical (or psychological) force acts as a censor while we dream. When our dreams try to express wishes that our waking selves would find distasteful or unpleasant, this psychical censorship distorts them in order to disguise their meaning.
Freud also argues that some distressing dreams may simply come from "masochistic inclinations," and so they fulfill a dreamer's unconscious desire to be distressed (4.1.51). Whatever challenges or objections are thrown his way, Freud knocks them out of the park by insisting that even the most upsetting dream content can stem from unconscious desires.
Throughout the fifth chapter of the book, Freud begins a more detailed examination of the materials that contribute to dreams. After doing another quick review of the theories that predate his own, he considers whether dreams stem from physical stimulation, or from psychical stimulation. Not surprisingly, he makes a case for the psychical origins of dreams.
It's in this chapter that readers can catch their first glimpse of Freud's infamous thoughts on the Oedipus complex. As he discusses the psychical origins of dreams, Freud argues that young children take their parents as their first love-objects. This means that young boys will desire their mothers and feel hostility toward their fathers as a result. For young girls, the opposite occurs: they'll desire their fathers and feel hostility toward their dear old moms.
Don't look at us like that. We're just telling you what Freud said.
The sixth chapter of the book is a doozy: at 200+ pages, it's long enough to be a book on its own. Here, Freud presents a very, very detailed analysis of what he calls the "dream-work"—by which he means all of the mechanisms and psychical processes that contribute to the formation of a dream.
For Freud, there are two primary psychical functions that contribute to dream-formation: "the production of the dream-thoughts, and their transformation into the content of the dream" (6.10.36). Throughout the book's sixth chapter, Freud explains the difference between the "manifest content" (the obvious stuff) and the "latent content" (the not-so-obvious stuff) of dreams, and advances the view that dreams provide a kind of psychological "release" (6.10.36).
In Freud's view, the purpose of the dream-work is to give new forms to the latent content of dreams (or the "dream-thoughts," as he calls them). It does this through four primary methods: dream-condensation, dream-displacement, "regard for representability," and secondary-revision. Want to know that those things are? Check out our Chapter-by-Chapter Summary to get the deets.
Finally, in the seventh and final chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud unveils a quasi-neurological model of human cognition. In doing so, he argues that his methods of dream-interpretation are most significant because they can contribute to radically new understandings of human nature and human thought. Here, he finally makes it clear that the ambitious goal of the entire book has been to "take a step forward in our understanding of the composition of that most marvelous and most mysterious of all instruments"—you know, the human mind (7.6.43).