Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 4

By Sigmund Freud

Chapter 4

Distortion in Dreams

  • In Chapter 4, Freud continues to argue that every dream is "the fulfilment of a wish" (4.1.1).
  • Here, Freud begins by anticipating an argument that some critics might make: "plenty of dreams occur which contain the most distressing subject-matter but never a sign of any wish-fulfilment" (4.1.2). With this in mind, how can Freud possibly say that distressing dreams are wish-fulfillments, too?
  • Freud states that it's easy to counter such objections because his theory isn't based on the "manifest" content of dreams; instead, it's based on their "latent"content—that is, on "the thoughts which are shown by the work of interpretation to lie behind dreams" (4.1.4).
  • Freud argues that even when the surface-level content of dreams is upsetting, the thoughts below the surface will still be wish-fulfillments.
  • In order to prove this theory, Freud takes a short step back from it. He writes that it will be easier to answer the question "How can distressing dreams and anxiety-dreams be wish-fulfilments?" if he addresses a different (but related) question first: "Why is it that dreams with an indifferent content, which turn out to be wish-fulfilments, do not express their meaning undisguised?" (4.1.5).
  • Freud turns his attention to the matter of "distortion" in dreams, and offers another of his own dreams as a "specimen" for analysis.
  • Freud begins by providing a short "preamble" to set the scene. He notes that the dream occurred in "the spring of 1897," soon after he had learned that "two professors at our university had recommended me for appointment as professor extraordinarius" (4.1.7).
  • As Freud goes on to explain, he had decided not to get too excited about the nomination. He had seen a number of colleagues passed over for appointments like this one, and he knew that the anti-Semitic climate in turn-of-the-century Vienna might mean the same for him.
  • After setting the scene, Freud reports the first half of his Dream of Uncle Josef. He writes: "I. ...My friend R. was my uncle.—I had a great feeling of affection for him. II. I saw before me his face, somewhat changed. It was as though it had been drawn out lengthways. A yellow beard that surrounded it stood out especially clearly" (4.1.10-11).
  • As Freud examines this dream, he asks why it conflated his friend "R." with his "uncle." Freud writes that he had only one uncle, his Uncle Josef, and so he assumes that the dream is saying something about that guy.
  • Freud explains that his Uncle Josef had been imprisoned for criminal financial dealings, and he finds it strange that his dream would associate his uncle with his friend.
  • As Freud looks for the unconscious association that brought his Uncle Josef and his friend together in his dream, he remembers another recent conversation that he had with a different friend, whom he calls "N."
  • "N." had recently congratulated Freud on his nomination for a professorship. Freud knew that "N." had been passed over for a similar position, but when Freud mentioned this, "N." had revealed—"jokingly, it seemed"—that his own nomination may have been refused because a woman had once "started legal proceedings" against him (4.1.16).
  • "N." assures Freud that the woman's accusation was false—nothing but "a disgraceful attempt at blackmail"—and that the case was dismissed (4.1.16). All the same, he thinks that the Ministry of Education might still have used it against him.
  • As he remembers this conversation, Freud realizes that the Uncle Josef who appeared in his dream represented both of his friends, "R." and "N.," and depicted each of them in a bad light: one as a "simpleton" and the other as a "criminal" (4.1.16).
  • This realization makes the wish-fulfillment aspect of the dream clear to Freud. He realizes that by representing "R." and "N." as criminals, the dream was saying to him: "Even though your friends have been passed over for professorships, that doesn't mean that you will be, too: after all, they are a simpleton and a criminal, whereas you are a fine, upstanding fellow."
  • After providing this interpretation of the dream, Freud admits that he feels embarrassed by it. His unconscious mind has depicted his friends as despicable people just so he'll look good.
  • Freud notes that he remained confused by one element of the dream: a strong feeling of "affection" that he had for "R." when he perceived that his friend was his uncle. Freud claims that he never felt affectionate toward his Uncle Josef, and that his affection for "R." in real life had never been more than collegial.
  • Why the big dream-surge of man-love?
  • Freud argues that the surge of affection was a "concealing" element in the dream—a dream "distortion" that helped to "dissimulate" the dream's true meaning.
  • In other words, as Freud says: "My dream thoughts had contained a slander against R.; and, in order that I might not notice this, what appeared in the dream was the opposite, a feeling of affection for him" (4.1.18).
  • Since he suspects that some of his readers may not accept this conclusion, Freud offers some "social parallels" to help him make his point (4.1.19). He describes a number of social situations in which people might display affection in order to conceal their dislike or disapproval of someone else.
  • Freud argues that these situations are most common when one person possesses power over another, and when the person with less power needs to disguise his or her dislike or disapproval in order to protect him- or herself—for instance, when a lowly writer wants to criticize a king (4.1.20).
  • With this in mind, Freud argues that dreams are shaped by two psychical forces that have different degrees of power: "one of these forces constructs the wish which is expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship upon this dream-wish and, by the use of that censorship, forcibly brings about a distortion in the expression of the wish" (4.1.20).
  • Freud writes that we need to think more about the force that exercises censorship in dreams, but he defers that discussion until Chapter 7. For the time being, he wants to return to the main question that he's trying to answer here: how can distressing dreams be wish-fulfillments?
  • Freud writes: "We see now that this is possible if dream-distortion has occurred and if the distressing content serves only to disguise something that is wished for" (4.1.23).
  • Freud argues that when the surface-level ("manifest") content of the dream is distressing to us, the "distressing" content is actually a ruse. Its purpose is to conceal the deeper ("latent") content of the dream, in which a wish has been fulfilled.
  • Freud admits that many of his own patients have taken issue with this theory, and so he offers a few examples to show that even when his patients think he's wrong, he's actually right.
  • Freud begins by relating an anecdote in which one of his woman patients told him of a dream that seemed to be "the exact opposite" of a wish-fulfillment. In it, "she wanted to give a supper party, but realized that she had very little in the house to serve her guests. She thought she might go out to get something, but then remembered that it was Sunday and all of the shops were closed. She thought she might call a caterer, but her telephone was out of order. So, in the end, she couldn't give the supper party" (4.1.27).
  • Freud argues that even though the woman's dream seemed to be the opposite of a wish-fulfillment (she couldn't give the supper party that she wanted to give), its "latent"content did fulfill a wish.
  • As Freud explains, his patient had recently had a conversation with a friend—a thin woman—who implied that she would have liked to be invited over for supper sometime soon. Freud's patient felt that her husband talked about this friend too much, but because she knew that her husband liked plump women better than thin women, she felt that he wasn't likely to fall for her.
  • With this information, Freud interprets the patient's dream as the fulfillment of her wish not to see her friend get plumper. By being unable to throw a supper party, the woman unconsciously prevents her friend from putting on weight—and becoming more attractive to her husband in the process.
  • Freud recounts a number of other wish-fulfillment dreams from his patients' records and demonstrates that even the most distressing dreams can actually be wish-fulfillments.
  • Freud also argues that some distressing dream-contents can fulfill a dreamer's wish to have their "masochistic inclinations" satisfied (4.1.51).
  • Freud now presents a modification to the thesis that he proposed at the end of Chapter 2. He writes: "a dream is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish" (4.1.52).
  • In the remainder of this chapter, Freud discusses anxiety dreams. He admits that it will be difficult for some readers to accept that anxiety dreams are wish-fulfillments, too, but he maintains that his theory holds true.
  • Freud suggests that anxiety dreams are dreams "with a sexual content," or dreams in which libido has been "transformed into anxiety" (4.1.54).
  • Freud doesn't expand this point further, but promises to return to it soon.

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