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Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 7

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The Psychology of the Dream-Processes

Among the dreams which have been communicated to me by others there is one which is at this point especially worthy of our attention. It was told me by a female patient who had heard it related in a lecture on dreams. Its original source is unknown to me. This dream evidently made a deep impression upon the lady, since she went so far as to imitate it, i.e. to repeat the elements of this dream in a dream of her own; in order, by this transference, to express her agreement with a certain point in the dream.

The preliminary conditions of this typical dream were as follows: A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child's body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: 'Father, don't you see that I am burning?' The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle.

The meaning of this affecting dream is simple enough, and the explanation given by the lecturer, as my patient reported it, was correct. The bright light shining through the open door on to the sleeper's eyes gave him the impression which he would have received had he been awake: namely, that a fire had been started near the corpse by a falling candle. It is quite possible that he had taken into his sleep his anxiety lest the aged watcher should not be equal to his task.

We can find nothing to change in this interpretation; we can only add that the content of the dream must be over-determined, and that the speech of the child must have consisted of phrases which it had uttered while still alive, and which were associated with important events for the father. Perhaps the complaint, 'I am burning', was associated with the fever from which the child died, and 'Father, don't you see?' to some other affective occurrence unknown to us.

Now, when we have come to recognise that the dream has meaning, and can be fitted into the context of psychic events, it may be surprising that a dream should have occurred in circumstances which called for such an immediate waking. We shall then note that even this dream is not lacking in a wish-fulfilment. The dead child behaves as though alive; he warns his father himself; he comes to his father's bed and clasps his arm, as he probably did in the recollection from which the dream obtained the first part of the child's speech. It was for the sake of this wish-fulfilment that the father slept a moment longer. The dream was given precedence over waking reflection because it was able to show the child still living. If the father had waked first, and had then drawn the conclusion which led him into the adjoining room, he would have shortened the child's life by this one moment.

There can be no doubt about the peculiar features in this brief dream which engage our particular interest. So far, we have endeavoured mainly to ascertain wherein the secret meaning of the dream consists, how it is to be discovered, and what means the dream-work uses to conceal it. In other words, our greatest interest has hitherto been centred on the problems of interpretation. Now, however, we encounter a dream which is easily explained, and the meaning of which is without disguise; we note that nevertheless this dream preserves the essential characteristics which conspicuously differentiate a dream from our waking thoughts, and this difference demands an explanation. It is only when we have disposed of all the problems of interpretation that we feel how incomplete is our psychology of dreams.

But before we turn our attention to this new path of investigation, let us stop and look back, and consider whether we have not overlooked something important on our way hither. For we must understand that the easy and comfortable part of our journey lies behind us. Hitherto, all the paths that we have followed have led, if I mistake not, to light, to explanation, and to full understanding; but from the moment when we seek to penetrate more deeply into the psychic processes in dreaming, all paths lead into darkness. It is quite impossible to explain the dream as a psychic process, for to explain means to trace back to the known, and as yet we have no psychological knowledge to which we can refer such explanatory fundamentals as may be inferred from the psychological investigation of dreams. On the contrary, we shall be compelled to advance a number of new assumptions, which do little more than conjecture the structure of the psychic apparatus and the play of the energies active in it; and we shall have to be careful not to go too far beyond the simplest logical construction, since otherwise its value will be doubtful. And even if we should be unerring in our inferences, and take cognisance of all the logical possibilities, we should still be in danger of arriving at a completely mistaken result, owing to the probable incompleteness of the preliminary statement of our elementary data. We shall not be able to arrive at any conclusions as to the structure and function of the psychic instrument from even the most careful investigation of dreams, or of any other isolated activity; or, at all events, we shall not be able to confirm our conclusions. To do this we shall have to collate such phenomena as the comparative study of a whole series of psychic activities proves to be reliably constant. So that the psychological assumptions which we base on the analysis of the dream-processes will have to mark time, as it were, until they can join up with the results of other investigations which, proceeding from another starting-point, will seek to penetrate to the heart of the same problem.

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