Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 5, Section D

By Sigmund Freud

Chapter 5, Section D

Typical Dreams

  • Freud begins this section by reaffirming that "[w]e are not in general in a position to interpret another person's dream unless he is prepared to communicate to us the unconscious thoughts that lie behind its content" (5.5.1).
  • With that said, Freud concedes that "there are a certain number of dreams which almost everyone has dreamt alike and which we are accustomed to assume must have the same meaning for everyone" (5.5.2).
  • The first group of "typical dreams" that Freud discusses is "embarrassing dreams of being naked" (5.5.3). Among these, Freud also includes dreams of being "insufficiently dressed" (like the one he recounts at the end of the previous section) (5.5.3).
  • Freud argues that the distressing, shameful, and anxiety-inducing aspects of these dreams come from the fact that "the latent dream-content is concerned with forbidden wishes that have fallen victim to repression" (5.5.8).
  • In other words, because the dream is fulfilling a wish that the dreamer's conscious self would rather not acknowledge, the wish-fulfilling aspect of the dream is "censored," and the dreamer feels shame rather than pleasure.
  • So, what wish is being fulfilled in dreams like these? According to Freud, it's the plain and simple wish for the freedom lots of children enjoy in childhood, when running around naked is the height of entertainment (5.5.9).
  • After mentioning the well-known tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes," Freud notes that "[t]here can be no doubt that the connections between our typical dreams and fairy tales and the material of other kinds of creative writing are neither few nor accidental" (5.5.13).
  • In fact, Freud argues that "[t]he deepest and eternal nature of man, upon whose evocation in his hearers the poet is accustomed to rely, lies in those impulses of the mind which have their roots in a childhood that has since become prehistoric" (5.5.14).
  • Freud now returns to his interpretation of the dream that he described in Section C, and he shows that it was an ordinary exhibition dream like the others he has just described.
  • Next, Freud discusses a different group of dreams: "dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond." Of these, he identifies two different kinds of dreams: "those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling" and "those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep" (5.5.16).
  • Freud says that there's no need to consider the first kind, because those dreams don't usually have anything to do with the death of a loved one—not really, anyway. In his view, the deaths in those dreams are usually meant "to conceal some other wish" (5.5.17).
  • Freud makes a surprising argument when he turns to the second kind of dream—the kind "in which the dreamer imagines the death of a loved relative and is at the same time painfully affected" (5.5.18). According to Freud, these dreams really do fulfill the dreamer's wish "that the person in question may die" (5.5.18).
  • Before his readers get bent out of shape about this, Freud reminds us of his theory that dreams can express wishes from our earliest childhoods. With this in mind, he argues:
  • "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" (5.5.20). Instead, Freud says, the dreamer must have wished for that person's death at some point in his or her childhood.
  • In case his readers still aren't convinced, Freud reminds them of how deeply self-involved young children can be. He writes: "Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them—especially as against the rivals, other children, and first and foremost as against their brothers and sisters" (5.5.21).
  • To give just one example, Freud relates an anecdote in which a very young child got his first look at his new baby brother. Having been told that "the stork had brought a new baby," the little boy exclaimed: "The stork can take him away again!" (5.5.23). In Freud's view, this is precisely the kind of childish death-wish that might later cause a grown man to have a distressing dream about the death of his younger brother.
  • Freud notes that all of his women patients have told him of dreams in which a brother or sister has died (5.5.26), and he offers some examples to illustrate this point.
  • In case his readers still don't want to admit that children can have such hostile feelings, Freud reminds us that children do not understand "death" in the same ways that adults do. He argues that, for many of them, "being 'dead' means approximately the same as being 'gone'" (5.5.28).
  • At this point, Freud moves on to discuss the death-wishes that children might harbor against their parents. It's one thing to grant that children might wish for the deaths of their rivals, he admits, but why should they wish for the deaths of the people who love and shelter them?
  • Freud begins by noting that children usually wish for the death of the parent whose gender they share—that is, he says that young boys wish for the deaths of their fathers, while young girls wish for the deaths of their mothers.
  • Freud writes: "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 their rivals in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage" (5.5.31).
  • Here we catch the first glimpse of Freud's thoughts on the Oedipus complex.
  • Freud knows that many of his readers will find this theory "monstrous," and so he eases into it slowly. He begins by reminding his readers of ancient myths in which sons overthrow their "despotic" fathers (5.5.33).
  • Freud then compares these mythological conflicts to modern-day tensions in families, noting that the lives of young, middle-class, turn-of-the-century men and women are often restricted by their parents' authority. In his view, these young men and women learn that their freedom will come at the cost of their parents' waning control.
  • Freud also notes that he has often observed in the middle-class families of his acquaintance that young boys and young girls seem to gravitate toward their differently-gendered parent, and that parents seem to do the same. That is, he argues that "a natural predilection usually sees to it that a man tends to spoil his little daughters, while his wife takes her son's part" (5.5.36).
  • Freud explains that adult neurotics also provide ample evidence of these childhood desires, and he provides some examples from his own records in order to make this point.
  • Having laid the groundwork for his argument, Freud turns to the mythological narrative that gave the Oedipus complex its name.
  • Freud summarizes the narrative as it appears in an ancient Greek play by Sophocles. He then argues:
  • "If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified. […] 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).
  • Freud goes on to note that Shakespeare's Hamlet contains similar themes. In fact, he argues that Hamlet is a direct expression of Shakespeare's own Oedipal relation to his mother and father (5.5.48).
  • Having "revealed" the true nature of dreams in which our mothers or fathers die, Freud asks why it is that this wish doesn't encounter more effective "censorship."
  • Freud suggests that psychical "censorship" fails in these dreams because their underlying wishes are so monstrous that our internal censors can't even handle them (5.5.49).
  • To drive home this point, Freud shouts: "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!"
  • Just kidding.
  • Freud goes on to note that the "latent" death-wish in these dreams is sometimes concealed by a worry about the person in question. This makes it easier to assume that they've dreamt of the death of a loved one because of worries about that person's health and safety (5.5.49).
  • Freud now makes an additional comment, which is that "the egoism of children's minds" is a defining quality of adult dreams as well (5.5.51). That is, he argues that the "ego" (the self) appears in all of our dreams, whether we recognize it or not.
  • To support this point, Freud lists a few examples of dreams in which known and unknown people stand in for the dreamer's own self.
  • In the last part of this section, Freud moves on to consider "other typical dreams" that have been reported to him or that he has read about.
  • Although he claims to have no personal experience of dreams of flying, Freud suggests that these dreams emerge from experiences that were had in early childhood, when young children would "fly" as their caretakers spun them around and threw them up in the air (5.5.62).
  • Freud also discusses "examination dreams," in which students dream of failing their exams. In his view, these dreams recollect childhood fears of being punished and tend to emerge whenever dreamers feel that they have "done something wrong, or failed to do something properly" (5.5.65).
  • He also notes that these dreams could have another meaning, too. He suggests that they may even be meant to lessen anxiety by reminding their dreamers of difficult events that they have already overcome. (Of course, this would only apply to examination dreams that are dreamed by folks who have already passed their exams.)
  • Freud ends the chapter by noting briefly that examination dreams might also refer "to sexual tests and sexual maturity" (5.5.69). He admits that this has often been the case for him, but doesn't expand on this point. Wonder why!

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