The Interpretation of Dreams  

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"The interpretation of dreams is the via regia to a knowledge of the unconscious in the psychic life."--The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) by Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams (German: Die Traumdeutung, published in 1899, dated 1900, translated in English in 1913) is a book by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The book introduces Freud's theory of the unconscious with respect to dream interpretation, and also first discusses what would later become the theory of the Oedipus complex. Freud revised the book at least eight times and, in the third edition, added an extensive section which treated dream symbolism very literally, following the influence of Wilhelm Stekel. Freud said of this work, "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime."

The initial print run of the book was very low — it took many years to sell out the first 600 copies. Freud was paid $209. However, the work gained popularity as Freud did, and seven more editions were printed in his lifetime.

The text was translated from German into English by A. A. Brill, an American Freudian psychoanalyst, and later in an authorized translation by James Strachey, who was British. Because the book is very long and complex, Freud wrote an abridged version called On Dreams.



Freud spent the summer of 1895 at manor Belle Vue near Grinzing in Austria, where he began the inception of The Interpretation of Dreams. In a 1900 letter to Wilhelm Fliess, he wrote in commemoration of the place:

"Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words: 'In this house on July 24th, 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud'? At the moment I see little prospect of it." - Freud in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, June 12th, 1900

In 1963, Belle Vue manor was demolished, but today a memorial plate with just that inscription has been erected at the site by the Austrian Sigmund Freud Society.


Dreams, in Freud's view, are all forms of "wish fulfillment" — attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict of some sort, whether something recent or something from the recesses of the past (later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud would discuss dreams which do not appear to be wish-fulfillment). However, because the information in the unconscious is in an unruly and often disturbing form, a "censor" in the preconscious will not allow it to pass unaltered into the conscious.

During dreams, the preconscious is more lax in this duty than in waking hours, but is still attentive: as such, the unconscious must distort and warp the meaning of its information to make it through the censorship. As such, images in dreams are often not what they appear to be, according to Freud, and need deeper interpretation if they are to inform on the structures of the unconscious.

Freud used to mention the dreams as "The Royal Road to the Unconscious". He proposed the 'phenomenon of condensation'; the idea that one simple symbol or image presented in a person's dream may have multiple meanings. For this very reason, Freud tried to focus on details during psychoanalysis and asked his patients about things they could even think trivial (i.e. while a patient was describing an experience in their dream, Freud could ask him/her: "was there any sign upon the walls? What was it?"). As Freud was focusing upon the biologic drives of the individual (a fact that alienated him from several colleagues of his like Breuer, Jung and Adler), he stated that when we observe a hollow object in our dreams, like a box or a cave, this is a symbol of a womb, while an elongated object is a symbol for penis. Due to these statements, Freud attracted much criticism from those who believed him a "sexist" or "misanthrope", as he was alleged to have overemphasised the role of instinct, as though he believed people were "wild beasts". Nevertheless, he sometimes admitted "Even a cigar may be just a cigar."


The first edition begins:

"In the following pages, I shall demonstrate that there exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state. I shall furthermore endeavor to explain the processes which give rise to the strangeness and obscurity of the dream, and to discover through them the psychic forces, which operate whether in combination or opposition, to produce the dream. This accomplished by investigation will terminate as it will reach the point where the problem of the dream meets broader problems, the solution of which must be attempted through other material."

Freud begins his book in the first chapter titled The Scientific Literature on the Problems of the Dream by reviewing different scientific views on dream interpretation, which he finds interesting but not adequate. He then makes his argument by describing a number of dreams which he claims illustrate his theory.

Much of Freud's sources for analysis are in literature. Many of his most important dreams are his own — his method is inaugurated with an analysis of his dream "Irma's injection" — but many also come from patient case studies.


Some later psychoanalysts have expressed frustration with this section, as it encouraged the notion that dream interpretation was a straightforward hunt for symbols of sex, penises, etc. (Example: "Steep inclines, ladders and stairs, and going up or down them, are symbolic representations of the sexual act." However, Freud repeatedly argued that he never claimed anything of the sort and felt compelled to address this simplistic interpretation of his work in the fifth edition of the book (1919):

"The assertion that all dreams require a sexual interpretation, against which critics rage so incessantly, occurs nowhere in my Interpretation of Dreams. It is not to be found in any of the numerous editions of this book and is in obvious contradiction to other views expressed in it." tr. James Strachey, 1953

Some authors, such as Hans Eysenck, have argued that the dreams Freud cites do not really support his theories. Eysenck argues in Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire that Freud's examples actually disprove his dream theory. Max Schur, Freud's physician and friend, has provided evidence that the first dream that Freud analyzed, his so-called "Irma dream" was not very disguised, but actually portrayed rather closely a medical disaster of Emma Eckstein, one of Freud's patients.

Further reading

  • Marinelli, Lydia and Andreas Mayer A. (2003) Dreaming by the Book: Freud's 'The Interpretation of Dreams' and the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, New York: Other Press. ISBN 1-59051-009-7 (Mayer and Marinelli explore textual changes in different versions of The Interpretation of Dreams and offer an historical account of how the book became the founding text of the psychoanalytic movement).
  • The Language of Psycho-Analysis, Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis; trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, ISBN 0-393-01105-4
  • "On the Smashing of Dreams", Johann Sterling.
  • Blechner, M. (2001) The Dream Frontier. New York: Routledge.

English translation

An unauthorized concoction of portions of The Interpretation of Dreams and On Dreams has appeared in two editions in America under the title of Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners (with an introduction by André Tridon).

Full text

Die Traumdeutung (full German text), The Interpretation of Dreams (Brill translation)

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