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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). The Interpretation of Dreams. 1913.

III. The Dream Is the Fulfilment of a Wish

WHEN after passing a defile one has reached an eminence where the ways part and where the view opens out broadly in different directions, it is permissible to stop for a moment and to consider where one is to turn next. Something like this happens to us after we have mastered this first dream interpretation. We find ourselves in the open light of a sudden cognition. The dream is not comparable to the irregular sounds of a musical instrument, which, instead of being touched by the hand of the musician, is struck by some outside force; the dream is not senseless, not absurd, does not presuppose that a part of our store of ideas is dormant while another part begins to awaken. It is a psychic phenomenon of full value, and indeed the fulfilment of a wish; it takes its place in the concatenation of the waking psychic actions which are intelligible to us, and it has been built up by a highly complicated intellectual activity. But at the very moment when we are inclined to rejoice in this discovery, a crowd of questions overwhelms us. If the dream, according to the interpretation, represents a wish fulfilled, what is the cause of the peculiar and unfamiliar manner in which this fulfilment is expressed? What changes have occurred in the dream thoughts before they are transformed into the manifest dream which we remember upon awaking? In what manner has this transformation taken place? Whence comes the material which has been worked over into the dream? What causes the peculiarities which we observe in the dream thoughts, for example, that they may contradict one another? (The analogy of the kettle, p. 87). Is the dream capable of teaching us something new about our inner psychic processes, and can its content correct opinions which we have held during the day? I suggest that for the present all these questions be laid aside, and that a single path be pursued. We have found that the dream represents a wish as fulfilled. It will be our next interest to ascertain whether this is a universal characteristic of the dream, or only the accidental content of the dream (“of Irma’s injection”) with which we have begun our analysis, for even if we make up our minds that every dream has a meaning and psychic value, we must nevertheless allow for the possibility that this meaning is not the same in every dream. The first dream we have considered was the fulfilment of a wish; another may turn out to be a realised apprehension; a third may have a reflection as to its content; a fourth may simply reproduce a reminiscence. Are there then other wish dreams; or are there possibly nothing but wish dreams?

It is easy to show that the character of wish-fulfilment in dreams is often undisguised and recognisable, so that one may wonder why the language of dreams has not long since been understood. There is, for example, a dream which I can cause as often as I like, as it were experimentally. If in the evening I eat anchovies, olives, or other strongly salted foods, I become thirsty at night, whereupon I waken. The awakening, however, is preceded by a dream, which each time has the same content, namely, that I am drinking. I quaff water in long draughts, it tastes as sweet as only a cool drink can taste when one’s throat is parched, and then I awake and have an actual desire to drink. The occasion for this dream is thirst, which I perceive when I awake. The wish to drink originates from this sensation, and the dream shows me this wish as fulfilled. It thereby serves a function the nature of which I soon guess. I sleep well, and am not accustomed to be awakened by a bodily need. If I succeed in assuaging my thirst by means of the dream that I am drinking, I need not wake up in order to satisfy it. It is thus a dream of convenience. The dream substitutes itself for action, as elsewhere in life. Unfortunately the need of water for quenching thirst cannot be satisfied with a dream, like my thirst for revenge upon Otto and Dr. M., but the intention is the same. This same dream recently appeared in modified form. On this occasion I became thirsty before going to bed, and emptied the glass of water which stood on the little chest next to my bed. Several hours later in the night came a new attack of thirst, accompanied by discomfort. In order to obtain water, I should have had to get up and fetch the glass which stood on the night-chest of my wife. I thus quite appropriately dreamt that my wife was giving me a drink from a vase; this vase was an Etruscan cinerary urn which I had brought home from an Italian journey and had since given away. But the water in it tasted so salty (apparently from the ashes) that I had to wake. It may be seen how conveniently the dream is capable of arranging matters; since the fulfilment of a wish is its only purpose, it may be perfectly egotistic. Love of comfort is really not compatible with consideration for others. The introduction of the cinerary urn is probably again the fulfilment of a wish; I am sorry that I no longer possess this vase; it, like the glass of water at my wife’s side, is inaccessible to me. The cinerary urn is also appropriate to the sensation of a salty taste which has now grown stronger, and which I know will force me to wake up.

Such convenience dreams were very frequent with me in the years of my youth. Accustomed as I had always been to work until late at night, early awakening was always a matter of difficulty for me. I used then to dream that I was out of bed and was standing at the wash-stand. After a while I could not make myself admit that I have not yet got up, but meanwhile I had slept for a time. I am acquainted with the same dream of laziness as dreamt by a young colleague of mine, who seems to share my propensity for sleep. The lodging-house keeper with whom he was living in the neighbourhood of the hospital had strict orders to wake him on time every morning, but she certainly had a lot of trouble when she tried to carry out his orders. One morning sleep was particularly sweet. The woman called into the room: “Mr. Joe, get up; you must go to the hospital.” Whereupon the sleeper dreamt of a room in the hospital, a bed in which he was lying, and a chart pinned over his head reading: “Joe H. … cand. med. 22 years old.” He said to himself in the dream: “If I am already at the hospital, I don’t have to go there,” turned over and slept on. He had thus frankly admitted to himself his motive for dreaming.

Here is another dream, the stimulus for which acts during sleep itself: One of my women patients, who had had to undergo an unsuccessful operation on the jaw, was to wear a cooling apparatus on the affected cheek, according to the orders of the physicians. But she was in the habit of throwing it off as soon as she had got to sleep. One day I was asked to reprove her for doing so; for she had again thrown the apparatus on the floor. The patient defended herself as follows: “This time I really couldn’t help it; it was the result of a dream which I had in the night. In the dream, I was in a box at the opera and was taking a lively interest in the performance. But Mr. Karl Meyer was lying in the sanatorium and complaining pitifully on account of pains in his jaw. I said to myself, ‘Since I haven’t the pains, I don’t need the apparatus either,’ that’s why I threw it away.” This dream of the poor sufferer is similar to the idea in the expression which comes to our lips when we are in a disagreeable situation: “I know something that’s a great deal more fun.” The dream presents this great deal more fun. Mr. Karl Meyer, to whom the dreamer attributed her pains, was the most indifferent young man of her acquaintance whom she could recall.

It is no more difficult to discover the fulfilment of wishes in several dreams which I have collected from healthy persons. A friend who knew my theory of dreams and had imparted it to his wife, said to me one day: “My wife asked me to tell you that she dreamt yesterday that she was having her menses. You will know what that means.” Of course I know: if the young wife dreams that she is having her menses, the menses have stopped. I can understand that she would have liked to enjoy her freedom for a time longer before the discomforts of motherhood began. It was a clever way of giving notice of her first pregnancy. Another friend writes that his wife had recently dreamt that she noticed milk stains on the bosom of her waist. This is also an indication of pregnancy, but this time not of the first one; the young mother wishes to have more nourishment for the second child than she had for the first.

A young woman, who for weeks had been cut off from company because she was nursing a child that was suffering from an infectious disease, dreams, after its safe termination, of a company of people in which A. Daudet, Bourget, M. Provost, and others are present, all of whom are very pleasant to her and entertain her admirably. The different authors in the dream also have the features which their pictures give them. M. Prevost, with whose picture she is not familiar, looks like—the disinfecting man who on the previous day had cleaned the sick rooms and had entered them as the first visitor after a long period. Apparently the dream might be perfectly translated thus: “It is about time now for something more entertaining than this eternal nursing.”

Perhaps this selection will suffice to prove that often and under the most complex conditions dreams are found which can be understood only as fulfilments of wishes, and which present their contents without concealment. In most cases these are short and simple dreams, which stand in pleasant contrast to the confused and teeming dream compositions which have mainly attracted the attention of the authors. But it will pay to spend some time upon these simple dreams. The most simple dreams of all, I suppose, are to be expected in the case of children, whose psychic activities are certainly less complicated than those of adults. The psychology of children, in my opinion, is to be called upon for services similar to those which a study of the anatomy and development of the lower animals renders to the investigation of the structure of the highest classes of animals. Until now only a few conscious efforts have been made to take advantage of the psychology of children for such a purpose.

The dreams of little children are simple fulfilments of wishes, and as compared, therefore, with the dreams of adults, are not at all interesting. They present no problem to be solved, but are naturally invaluable as affording proof that the dream in its essence signifies the fulfilment of a wish. I have been able to collect several examples of such dreams from the material furnished by my own children.

For two dreams, one of my daughters, at that time eight and a half years old, the other of a boy five and a quarter years of age, I am indebted to an excursion to the beautiful Hallstatt in the summer of 1896. I must make the preliminary statement that during this summer we were living on a hill near Aussee, from which, when the weather was good, we enjoyed a splendid view of the Dachstein from the roof of our house. The Simony Hut could easily be recognised with a telescope. The little ones often tried to see it through the telescope—I do not know with what success. Before the excursion I had told the children that Hallstatt lay at the foot of the Dachstein. They looked forward to the day with great joy. From Hallstatt we entered the valley of Eschern, which highly pleased the children with its varying aspects. One of them, however, the boy of five, gradually became discontented. As often as a mountain came in view, he would ask: “Is that the Dachstein? “whereupon I would have to answer: “No, only a foot-hill.” After this question had been repeated several times, he became altogether silent; and he was quite unwilling to come along on the flight of steps to the waterfall. I thought he was tired out. But the next morning, he approached me radiant with joy, and said: “Last night I dreamt that we were at Simony Hut.” I understood him now; he had expected, as I was speaking of the Dachstein, that on the excursion to Hallstatt, he would ascend the mountain and would come face to face with the hut, about which there had been so much discussion at the telescope. When he learned that he was expected to be regaled with foot-hills and a waterfall, he was disappointed and became discontented. The dream compensated him for this. I tried to learn some details of the dream; they were scanty. “Steps must be climbed for six hours,” as he had heard.

On this excursion wishes, destined to be satisfied only in dreams, had arisen also in the mind of the girl of eight and a half years. We had taken with us to Hallstatt the twelve-year-old boy of our neighbour—an accomplished cavalier, who, it seems to me, already enjoyed the full sympathy of the little woman. The next morning, then, she related the following dream: “Just think, I dreamt that Emil was one of us, that he said papa and mamma to you, and slept at our house in the big room like our boys. Then mamma came into the room and threw a large handful of chocolate bars under our beds.” The brothers of the girl, who evidently had not inherited a familiarity with dream interpretation, declared just like the authors: “That dream is nonsense.” The girl defended at least a part of the dream, and it is worth while, from the point of view of the theory of neuroses, to know which part: “That about Ernil belonging to us is nonsense, but that about the bars of chocolate is not.” It was just this latter part that was obscure to me. For this mamma furnished me the explanation. On the way home from the railway station the children had stopped in front of a slot machine, and had desired exactly such chocolate bars wrapped in paper with a metallic lustre, as the machine, according to their experience, had for sale. But the mother had rightly thought that the day had brought enough wish-fulfilment, and had left this wish to be satisfied in dreams. This little scene had escaped me. I at once understood that portion of the dream which had been condemned by my daughter. I had myself heard the well-behaved guest enjoining the children to wait until papa or mamma had come up. For the little one the dream made a lasting adoption based on this temporary relation of the boy to us. Her tender nature was as yet unacquainted with any form of being together except those mentioned in the dream, which are taken from her brothers. Why the chocolate bars were thrown under the bed could not, of course, be explained without questioning the child.

From a friend I have learnt of a dream very similar to that of my boy. It concerned an eight-year-old girl. The father had undertaken a walk to Dornbach with the children, intending to visit the Rohrerhütte, but turned back because it had grown too late, and promised the children to make up for their disappointment some other time. On the way back, they passed a sign which showed the way to the Hameau. The children now asked to be taken to that place also, but had to be content, for the same reason, with a postponement to another day. The next morning, the eight-year-old girl came to the father, satisfied, saying: “Papa, I dreamt last night that you were with us at the Rohrerhütte and on the Hameau.” Her impatience had thus in the dream anticipated the fulfilment of the promise made by her father.

Another dream, which the picturesque beauty of the Aussee inspired in my daughter, at that time three and a quarter years old, is equally straightforward. The little one had crossed the lake for the first time, and the trip had passed too quickly for her. She did not want to leave the boat at the landing, and cried bitterly. The next morning she told us: “Last night I was sailing on the lake.” Let us hope that the duration of this dream ride was more satisfactory to her.

My eldest boy, at that time eight years of age, was already dreaming of the realisation of his fancies. He had been riding in a chariot with Achilles, with Diomed as charioteer. He had, of course, on the previous day shown a lively interest in the Myths of Greece, which had been given to his elder sister.

If it be granted that the talking of children in sleep likewise belongs to the category of dreaming, I may report the following as one of the most recent dreams in my collection. My youngest girl, at that time nineteen months old, had vomited one morning, and had therefore been kept without food throughout the day. During the night which followed upon this day of hunger, she was heard to call excitedly in her sleep: “Anna Feud, strawberry, huckleberry, omelette, pap!” She used her name in this way in order to express her idea of property; the menu must have included about everything which would seem to her a desirable meal; the fact that berries appeared in it twice was a demonstration against the domestic sanitary regulations, and was based on the circumstance, by no means overlooked by her, that the nurse ascribed her indisposition to an over-plentiful consumption of strawberries; she thus in the dream took revenge for this opinion which was distasteful to her.

If we call childhood happy because it does not yet know sexual desire, we must not forget how abundant a source of disappointment and self-denial, and thus of dream stimulation, the other of the great life-impulses may become for it. Here is a second example showing this. My nephew of twenty-two months had been given the task of congratulating me upon my birthday, and of handing me, as a present, a little basket of cherries, which at that time of the year were not yet in season. It seemed difficult for him, for he repeated again and again: “Cherries in it,” and could not be induced to let the little basket go out of his hands. But he knew how to secure his compensation. He had, until now, been in the habit of telling his mother every morning that he had dreamt of the “white soldier,” an officer of the guard in a white cloak, whom he had once admired on the street. On the day after the birthday, he awakened joyfully with the information which could have had its origin only in a dream: “He(r)man eat up all the cherries!”

What animals dream of I do not know. A proverb for which I am indebted to one of my readers claims to know, for it raises the question: “What does the goose dream of?” the answer being: “Of maize!” The whole theory that the dream is the fulfilment of a wish is contained in these sentences.

We now perceive that we should have reached our theory of the hidden meaning of the dream by the shortest road if we had merely consulted colloquial usage. The wisdom of proverbs, it is true, sometimes speaks contemptuously enough of the dream—it apparently tries to justify science in expressing the opinion that “Dreams are mere bubbles;” but still for colloquial usage the dream is the gracious fulfiller of wishes. “I should never have fancied that in the wildest dream,” exclaims one who finds his expectations surpassed in reality.