The Method of Interpreting Dreams: An Analysis of a Specimen Dream
Having surveyed all of the major scientific and philosophical work on dreaming, Freud begins to lay out his own method of interpreting dreams.
Freud identifies two "essentially different" methods that have previously been used to interpret dreams: "symbolic" dream interpretation and the "decoding" method (2.1.3-4).
Freud states that both methods are flawed and that neither one is suitable for a truly "scientific treatment of the subject" (2.1.5).
Freud goes on to explain that his own method of dream interpretation has emerged from his psychoanalytic practice.
While treating patients who suffer from "hysterical phobias" and "obsessional fears," says Freud, he has learned to "unravel" their pathological ideas in order to find the source of their symptoms. This same "unravelling," he argues, should be applied to the interpretation of dreams (2.1.7).
Freud explains that during the course of treatment, he would ask his patients to tell him "every idea or thought that occurred to them in connection with some particular subject" (2.1.7).
In Freud's view, by following these associations back to their source—or as near to it as possible—the meaning of dreams could be understood.
Freud notes that he has probably analyzed "over a thousand" dreams in this way, but he states that he can't use them as examples in The Interpretation of Dreams. For one thing, he suspects that his critics would find it too easy to dismiss his findings by saying that the symptoms of neurotics and "hysterics" don't apply to the dream-lives of Plain Janes and Regular Joes.
For this reason, Freud intends to use his own dreams as his primary source materials throughout the book. He's well aware that this is unusual, but he asks the reader to go along with him anyway.
Freud gets ready to jump into his first "specimen dream": the Dream of Irma's Injection. Before he makes the leap, he offers a short "preamble" to set the scene.
After setting it up, Freud gets into the dream itself. He writes of being in a large hall with many other people, including his patient Irma. He takes Irma aside to scold her for not moving forward with his recommended treatment. Irma complains of terrible pains in her throat and stomach, and Freud examines her mouth. He finds white patches and scabs in her mouth, along with "some remarkable curly structures" (2.1.16).
Freud calls in another doctor, Dr. M., who examines Irma and confirms what Freud has found. Freud's good friend Otto appears, too, along with another friend, Leopold. All of the men stand around Irma and examine her. Dr. M. declares that it is an infection, but that it will soon be cleared. Freud feels certain that Irma's infection has come from an injection that Otto has given to her: he can see the formula clearly in his mind's eye, and he thinks to himself that the syringe was probably dirty (2.1.16).
After recounting the dream, Freud begins to analyze it piece-by-piece. As he does, he unveils his unique method of dream interpretation.
As he painstakingly interprets the dream, Freud demonstrates that the dream expresses a number of unconscious wishes. For instance, he recognizes an unconscious wish that he could have a more docile and receptive patient than Irma. He also recognizes an unconscious wish that his medical skill would be recognized as being above reproach.
Freud also realizes that the dream makes a number of his close friends and medical colleagues look bad so that he can look good by comparison.
Freud concludes that "the dream fulfilled certain wishes which were started in me by the events of the previous evening. […] The conclusion of the dream, that is to say, was that I was not responsible for the persistence of Irma's pains, but that Otto was" (2.1.43).
This conclusion allows Freud to argue that the dream's content "was the fulfilment of a wish and its motive was a wish" (2.1.43).
Freud concludes the chapter by suggesting that every dream, not just this one, is "a fulfilment of a wish" (2.1.46).