How Freud explained a way to interpret dreams 100 years ago

Dreamy vintage rainbow fairy princess at Click Americana(1921)

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What do your dreams mean? How much significance should you give to the symbols in your dreamscapes?

There are, of course, many ways to interpret dreams. Here, see what Sigmund Freud, famously known as the father of psychoanalysis, had to suggest back in 1916. (You can also find out more about the Austrian doctor here.)

Portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt
Portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt
Sigmund Freud’s dream theory: Science gives us a new explanation of dreams (1916)

The Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, Neb.) January 30, 1916

Prof Freud’s theory that all dreams have a meaning and can be definitely interpreted and understood — We dream in symbols like the cartoonists; learn the symbols and the dream is plain

From the earliest times, mankind has been concerned about dreams. Kings and potentates of old attached the utmost importance to their dreams, and many of the most highly-honored and highly-paid personages of the realm were the royal interpreters of dreams.

Modern science has concerned itself with the phenomena of dreamland, and the new theories about dreams put forward by Dr Freud, the great German authority, have attracted wide attention.

Magical scene from 1918 at Click Americana

According to the Freud theory, the dreamer and the cartoonist of the daily newspapers are both doing things on much the same plan, since the thoughts of each are represented by symbols.

The political opponent becomes an animal; the volley of rifle bullets the personification of death sweeping the ground; the nation is represented as a bird, as Red Riding Hood, as Mars, etc.

In ancient times, the royal interpreter of dreams understood this well, and it was his task to translate the symbols into terms which could be understood.

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When Joseph of old dreamed that the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to him, his family understood that these symbols represented his parents and brethren; just as we know that the figure of “Uncle Sam” in a cartoon means the American public.

The ancient method of interpreting dreams has been made more precise by Dr Freud and his followers, who assert in addition that dream always symbolizes some unfulfilled wish.

Thus Joseph’s brethren in their day saw in that symbolized obeisance to their brother an unfulfilled wish of Joseph’s, and they took action accordingly.

Many excellent cartoons are almost impenetrable puzzles without the lettering and labels which the artists put on them to interpret their symbols. This is precisely the case in many of our dreams, according to the Freud theory.

Cleopatra as imagined in the 1910s at Click Americana

Dr Freud has worked out a list of interpretations of the various symbols which are so common in dreams, such, for instance, as the snake.

On this page are reproduced a selection of cartoons, most of which are as unintelligible to the average reader as is his dream. But when the artist’s symbols are labeled, the cartoon becomes perfectly intelligible, as does the dreamer’s dream when the interpretations of modern science explain the symbols of the dream.

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Sigmund Freud's dream theory - 1916 (4)

Dr HW Frink, of New York, instructor in clinical neurology in Cornell Medical College, in a recent article on dreams in The Interstate Medical Journal explains the point of view as follows:

Never in this world do we get everything we want. Reality always falls far short of being quite satisfactory. Even under the best circumstances, we have a great many wishes that are unfulfilled and must indefinitely remain so. It is fortunate, then, that we do not have to depend wholly upon reality to satisfy our longings.

Imagination comes to our aid and gives us what reality withholds. In our daydreams, we see ourselves achieving the impossible, conquering the unconquerable, attaining the unattainable.

The poor man is rich, the blind man sees, and the rejected lover basks in the smiles of his inamorata. In short, there is no wish so absurd, no longing so unreasonable, that imagination is unable to fulfill it.

Sigmund Freud's dream theory - 1916 (5)

The tendency to satisfy with pictures of the imagination the desires that reality leaves ungratified – a tendency that plays an enormous role in the daily life even of the most prosaic — does not become inoperative as soon as we fall asleep.

Cravings and wishes persist from the day and, if intense enough, serve to disturb our slumber. Then in our sleep, just as in our waking moments, we call imagination to our aid and attempt to still and satisfy these longings by means of fantasy, so that upon awakening we say that we have dreamed.

In short, the night-dream and the day-dream are wholly analogous. Either may be described as the imaginary fulfillment of a wish. The truth of this statement is not, however, self-evident.

Antique ocean fairy art from the 1910s at Click Americana

That the daydream is nothing but a fantasied wish-fulfillment is perfectly obvious. But that the night-dream invariably fulfills a wish seems, at first thought, impossible.

For instance, over 50 percent of dreams seem to the dreamer distinctly disagreeable, while many others, though not positively unpleasant, nevertheless apparently fail to represent anything for which a sane person might be supposed to wish.

Yet the apparent unlikeliness between the night-dream and the daydream is due not to any lapse of the principle of wish-fulfillment, but mainly to a difference in the way the desired things are represented.

In the daydream, the representation is direct; the thing or occurrence that is desired is pictured as actual and present, without any ambiguity or vagueness.

But in the night-dream, the representation is indirect. The desired things, instead of being pictured in their true form, are represented by implications, by symbols, by allegorical figures, and by associated ideas.

Sigmund Freud's dream theory - 1916 (3)

Thus, though the daydream may be taken at its face value, the meaning of the night-dream is not to be found on the surface. The night-dream, like a rebus or allegory, has to be interpreted if we would know its meaning. Only in this way can we learn what wish it fulfills.

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But in order to make perfectly clear the difference between direct and indirect representation, let me give an example of the latter.

You see here a picture of a man, who, judging from the armor he wears, would seem to belong to the time of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, he stands near a very modern lamppost on a curb of what one would suppose to be Spring Street. He holds in one hand a watch of remarkable size, and in the other a bouquet composed of flowers and bayonets.

The picture, in short, gives the same impression of absurdity as do most of our dreams, and, like a dream, it would tempt one who saw it for the first time to say that it had neither sense nor meaning.

Sigmund Freud's dream theory - 1916 (1)

But though this picture may seem as absurd as our dreams, it comes not from a dream but from a newspaper. It is a cartoon with the title “This Is the Place, but Where’s the Girl?”

It expresses a thought in much the same way that thoughts are expressed in dreams — namely, by indirect representation. Hence the picture, like a dream, has to be interpreted before we can learn its meaning.

Magical fairies - Artwork from around 1920 at Click Americana

The artist was obliging enough to label his symbols. in the original of this picture the sheet of paper which lies upon the sidewalk in front of the man was inscribed with the words “Italy to go to war in the Spring,” and the tag attached to the bouquet which the man carries bore the words “For Miss Italy.”

By the aid of these hints, the picture is very readily interpreted. Evidently, the thought it expresses is something like this: “Italy, like a fickle girl, has failed to join in the war at the time expected.” But notice the indirect representation.

The artist has used as symbols a man, a bouquet, and a lamppost to express a thought about something entirely different — namely, the attitude of a country toward expectant militarism.

Sigmund Freud's dream theory - 1916 (2)

Now this is exactly the method of representation that is used in dreams. There is this one difference, however. The symbols used in the dream are not labeled as the artist has labeled the symbols in the picture.

The dream is like the picture as I have displayed it — that is, without the printed words which appeared in the original. Hence, in interpreting a dream we ordinarily have to get the dreamer to label his symbols after the dream is finished.

This labeling of dream symbols is accomplished by obtaining from the dreamer the ideas he associates with the different elements of the dream. That is, we ask him to fix his mind upon each part of the dream in turn and to relate, without exerting any critique, all his incoming thoughts.

The associations thus obtained correspond to the words which the artist printed in the original of the picture and give the key to the interpretation of the dream in the same way that the words give the interpretation of the picture. They reveal the hidden portion of the dream.

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