A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud

Fourteenth Lecture

The Dream

Wish Fulfillment

May I bring to your attention once more the ground we have already covered? How, when we met with dream distortion in the application of our technique, we decided to leave it alone for the time being, and set out to obtain decisive information about the nature of the dream by way of infantile dreams? How, then, armed with the results of this investigation, we attacked dream distortion directly and, I trust, in some measure overcame it? But we must remind ourselves that the results we found along the one way and along the other do not fit together as well as might be. It is now our task to put these two results together and balance them against one another.

From both sources we have seen that the dream-work consists essentially in the transposition of thoughts into an hallucinatory experience. How that can take place is puzzling enough, but it is a problem of general psychology with which we shall not busy ourselves here. We have learned from the dreams of children that the purpose of the dream-work is the satisfaction of one of the sleep-disturbing psychic stimuli by means of a wish fulfillment. We were unable to make a similar statement concerning distorted dreams, until we knew how to interpret them. But from the very beginning we expected to be able to bring the distorted dreams under the same viewpoint as the infantile. The earliest fulfillment of this expectation led us to believe that as a matter of fact all dreams are the dreams of children and that they all work with infantile materials, through childish psychic stimuli and mechanics. Since we consider that we have conquered dream-distortion, we must continue the investigation to see whether our hypothesis of wish-fulfillment holds good for distorted dreams also.

We very recently subjected a number of dreams to interpretation, but left wish-fulfillment entirely out of consideration. I am convinced that the question again and again occurred to you: “What about wish-fulfillment, which ostensibly is the goal of dream-work?” This question is important. It was, in fact, the question of our lay-critics. As you know, humanity has an instinctive antagonism toward intellectual novelties. The expression of such a novelty should immediately be reduced to its narrowest limits, if possible, comprised in a commonplace phrase. Wish-fulfillment has become that phrase for the new dream-science. The layman asks: “Where is the wish-fulfillment?” Immediately, upon having heard that the dream is supposed to be a wish-fulfillment, and indeed, by the very asking of the question, he answers it with a denial. He is at once reminded of countless dream-experiences of his own, where his aversion to the dream was enormous, so that the proposition of psychoanalytic dream-science seems very improbable to him. It is a simple matter to answer the layman that wish-fulfillment cannot be apparent in distorted dreams, but must be sought out, so that it is not recognized until the dream is interpreted. We know, too, that the wishes in these distorted dreams are prohibited wishes, are wishes rejected by the censor and that their existence lit the very cause of the dream distortion and the reason for the intrusion of the dream censor. But it is hard to convince the lay-critic that one may not seek the wish-fulfillment in the dream before the dream has been interpreted. This is continually forgotten. His sceptical attitude toward the theory of wish-fulfillment is really nothing more than a consequence of dream-censorship, a substitute and a result of the denial of this censored dream-wish.

To be sure, even we shall find it necessary to explain to ourselves why there are so many dreams of painful content, and especially dreams of fear. We see here, for the first time, the problem of the affects in the dream, a problem worthy of separate investigation, but which unfortunately cannot be considered here. If the dream is a wish-fulfillment, painful experiences ought to be impossible in the dream; in that the lay-critics apparently are right. But three complications, not thought of by them, must be taken into consideration.

First: It may be that the dream work has not been successful in creating a wish-fulfillment, so that a part of the painful effect of the dream-thought is left over for the manifest dream. Analysis should then show that these thoughts were far more painful even than the dream which was built out of them. This much may be proved in each instance. We admit, then, that the dream work has not achieved its purpose any more than the drink-dream due to the thirst-stimulus has achieved its purpose of satisfying the thirst. One remains thirsty, and must wake up in order to drink. But it was a real dream, it sacrificed nothing of its nature. We must say: “Although strength be lacking, let us praise the will to do.” The clearly recognizable intention, at least, remains praiseworthy. Such cases of miscarriage are not unusual. A contributory cause is this, that it is so much more difficult for the dream work to change affect into content in its own sense; the affects often show great resistance, and thus it happens that the dream work has worked the painful content of the dream-thoughts over into a wish-fulfillment, while the painful affect continues in its unaltered form. Hence in dreams of this type the affect does not fit the content at all, and our critics may say the dream is so little a wish-fulfillment that a harmless content may be experienced as painful. In answer to this unintelligible remark we say that the wish-fulfillment tendency in the dream-work appears most prominent, because isolated, in just such dreams. The error is due to the fact that he who does not know neurotics imagines the connection between content and affect as all too intimate, and cannot, therefore, grasp the fact that a content may be altered without any corresponding change in the accompanying affect-expression.

A second, far more important and more extensive consideration, equally disregarded by the layman, is the following: A wish-fulfillment certainly must bring pleasure — but to whom? Naturally, to him who has the wish. But we know from the dreamer that he stands in a very special relationship to his wishes. He casts them aside, censors them, he will have none of them. Their fulfillment gives him no pleasure, but only the opposite. Experience then shows that this opposite, which must still be explained, appears in the form of fear. The dreamer in his relation to his dream-wishes can be compared only to a combination of two persons bound together by some strong common quality. Instead of further explanations I shall give you a well-known fairy tale, in which you will again find the relationships I have mentioned. A good fairy promises a poor couple, husband and wife, to fulfill their first three wishes. They are overjoyed, and determine to choose their three wishes with great care. But the woman allows herself to be led astray by the odor of cooking sausages emanating from the next cottage, and wishes she had a couple of such sausages. Presto! they are there. This is the first wish-fulfillment. Now the husband becomes angry, and in his bitterness wishes that the sausages might hang from the end of her nose. This, too, is accomplished, and the sausages cannot be removed from their new location. So this is the second wish-fulfillment, but the wish is that of the husband. The wife is very uncomfortable because of the fulfillment of this wish. You know how the fairy tale continues. Since both husband and wife are fundamentally one, the third wish must be that the sausages be removed from the nose of the wife. We could make use of this fairy tale any number of times in various connections; here it serves only as an illustration of the possibility that the wish-fulfillment for the one personality may lead to an aversion on the part of the other, if the two do not agree with one another.

It will not be difficult now to come to a better understanding of the anxiety-dream. We shall make one more observation, then we shall come to a conclusion to which many things lead. The observation is that the anxiety dreams often have a content which is entirely free from distortion and in which the censorship is, so to speak, eluded. The anxiety dream is ofttimes an undisguised wish-fulfillment, not, to be sure, of an accepted, but of a discarded wish. The anxiety development has stepped into the place of the censorship. While one may assert of the infantile dream that it is the obvious fulfillment of a wish that has gained admittance, and of the distorted dream that it is the disguised fulfillment of a suppressed wish, he must say of the anxiety dream that the only suitable formula is this, that it is the obvious fulfillment of a suppressed wish. Anxiety is the mark which shows that the suppressed wish showed itself stronger than the censorship, that it put through its wish-fulfillment despite the censorship, or was about to put it through. We understand that what is wish-fulfillment for the suppressed wish is for us, who are on the side of the dream-censor, only a painful sensation and a cause for antagonism. The anxiety which occurs in dreams is, if you wish, anxiety because of the strength of these otherwise suppressed wishes. Why this antagonism arises in the form of anxiety cannot be discovered from a study of the dream alone; one must obviously study anxiety from other sources.

What holds true for the undistorted anxiety dream we may assume to be true also of those dreams which have undergone partial distortion, and of the other dreams of aversion whose painful impressions very probably denote approximations of anxiety. The anxiety dream is usually also a dream that causes waking; we habitually interrupt sleep before the suppressed wish of the dream has accomplished its entire fulfillment in opposition to the censorship. In this case the execution of the dream is unsuccessful, but this does not change its nature. We have likened the dream to the night watchman or sleep-defender who wishes to protect our sleep from being disturbed. The night watchman, too, sometimes wakes the sleeper when he feels himself too weak to drive away the disturbance or danger all by himself. Yet we are often able to remain asleep, even when the dream begins to become suspicious, and begins to assume the form of anxiety. We say to ourselves in our sleep: “It’s only a dream,” and we sleep on.

When does it happen that the dream-wish is in a position to overpower this censorship? The conditions for this may be just as easily furnished by the dream-wish as by the dream-censorship. The wish may, for unknown reasons, become irresistible; but one gets the impression that more frequently the attitude of the dream censorship is to blame for this disarrangement in the relations of the forces. We have already heard that the censorship works with varying intensity in each single instance, that it handles each element with a different degree of strictness; now we should like to add the proposition that it is an extremely variable thing and does not exert equal force on every occasion against the same objectionable element. If on occasion the censorship feels itself powerless with respect to a dream-wish which threatens to over-ride it, then, instead of distortion, it makes use of the final means at its disposal, it destroys the sleep condition by the development of anxiety.

And now it occurs to us that we know absolutely nothing yet as to why these evil, depraved wishes are aroused just at night, in order that they may disturb our sleep. The answer can only be an assumption which is based on the nature of the condition of sleep. During the day the heavy pressure of a censorship weighs upon these wishes, making it impossible, as a rule, for them to express themselves in any manner. At night, evidently, this censorship is withdrawn for the benefit of the single sleep-wish, in the same manner as are all the other interests of psychic life, or at least placed in a position of very minor importance. The forbidden wishes must thank this noctural deposition of the censor for being able to raise their heads again. There are nervous persons troubled with insomnia who admit that their sleeplessness was in the beginning voluntary. They did not trust themselves to fall asleep, because they were afraid of their dreams, that is, of the results due to a slackening of the censorship. So you can readily see that this withdrawal of the censor does not in itself signify rank carelessness. Sleep weakens our power to move; our evil intentions, even if they do begin to stir, can accomplish nothing but a dream, which for practical purposes is harmless, and the highly sensible remark of the sleepers, a night-time remark indeed, but not a part of the dream life, “it is only a dream,” is reminiscent of this quieting circumstance. So let us grant this, and sleep on.

If, thirdly, you recall the concept that the dreamer, struggling against his wishes, is to be compared to a summation of two separate persons, in some manner closely connected, you will be able to grasp the further possibility of how a thing which is highly unpleasant, namely, punishment, may be accomplished by wish-fulfillment. Here again the fairy tale of the three wishes can be of service to us: the sausages on the plate are the direct wish-fulfillment of the first person, the woman; the sausages at the end of her nose are the wish-fulfillment of the second person, the husband, but at the same time the punishment for the stupid wish of the woman. Among the neurotics we find again the motivation of the third wish, which remains in fairy tales only. There are many such punishment-tendencies in the psychic life of man; they are very powerful, and we may make them responsible for some of our painful dreams. Perhaps you now say that at this rate, not very much of the famed wish-fulfillment is left. But upon closer view you will admit that you are wrong. In contrast to the many-sided to be discussed, of what the dream might be-and, according to numerous authors, is — the solution (wish-fulfillment, anxiety-fulfillment, punishment-fulfillment) is indeed very restricted. That is why anxiety is the direct antithesis of the wish, why antitheses are so closely allied in association and why they occur together in the unconscious, as we have heard; and that is why punishment, too, is a wish-fulfillment of the other, the censoring person.

On the whole, then, I have made no concessions to your protestation against the theory of wish-fulfillment. We are bound, however, to establish wish-fulfillment in every dream no matter how distorted, and we certainly do not wish to withdraw from this task. Let us go back to the dream, already interpreted, of the three bad theatre tickets for 1 Fl. 50 Kr. from which we have already learned so much. I hope you still remember it. A lady who tells her husband during the day that her friend Elise, only three months younger than herself, has become engaged, dreams she is in the theatre with her husband. Half the parquet is empty. Her husband says, “Elise and her fiancé wanted to go to the theatre, too, but couldn’t because they could get only poor seats, three for one gulden and a half.” She was of the opinion that that wasn’t so unfortunate. We discovered that the dream-thought originated in her discontent at having married too soon, and the fact that she was dissatisfied with her husband. We may be curious as to the manner in which these thoughts have been worked over into a wish-fulfillment, and where their traces may be found in the manifest content. Now we know that the element “too soon, premature” is eliminated from the dream by the censor. The empty parquet is a reference to it. The puzzling “three for 1 Fl. 50 Kr.” is now, with the help of symbolism which we have since learned, more understandable.36 The “3” really means a husband, and the manifest element is easy to translate: to buy a husband for her dowry (“I could have bought one ten times better for my dowry”). The marriage is obviously replaced by going into the theatre. “Buying the tickets too soon” directly takes the place of the premature marriage. This substitution is the work of the wish-fulfillment. Our dreamer was not always so dissatisfied with her early marriage as she was on the day she received news of the engagement of her friend. At the time she was proud of her marriage and felt herself more favored than her friend. Naive girls have frequently confided to their friends after their engagement that soon they, too, will be able to go to all the plays hitherto forbidden, and see everything. The desire to see plays, the curiosity that makes its appearance here, was certainly in the beginning directed towards sex matters, the sex-life, especially the sex-life of the parents, and then became a strong motive which impelled the girl to an early marriage. In this way the visit to the theatre becomes an obvious representative substitute for being married. In the momentary annoyance at her early marriage she recalls the time when the early marriage was a wish-fulfillment for her, because she had satisfied her curiosity; and she now replaces the marriage, guided by the old wish-impulse, with the going to the theatre.

36 I do not mention another obvious interpretation of this “3” in the case of this childless woman, because it is not material to this analysis.

We may say that we have not sought out the simplest example as proof of a hidden wish-fulfillment. We would have to proceed in analogous manner with other distorted dreams. I cannot do that for you, and simply wish to express the conviction that it will be successful everywhere. But I wish to continue along this theoretical line. Experience has taught me that it is one of the most dangerous phases of the entire dream science, and that many contradictions and misunderstandings are connected therewith. Besides, you are perhaps still under the impression that I have retracted a part of my declaration, in that I said that the dream is a fulfilled wish or its opposite, an actualized anxiety or punishment, and you will think this is the opportunity to compel further reservations of me. I have also heard complaints that I am too abrupt about things which appear evident to me, and that for that reason I do not present the thing convincingly enough.

If a person has gone thus far with us in dream-interpretation, and accepted everything that has been offered, it is not unusual for him to call a halt at wish-fulfillment, and say, “Granted that in every instance the dream has a meaning, and that this meaning can be disclosed by psychoanalytic technique, why must this dream, despite all evidence to the contrary, always be forced into the formula of wish-fulfillment? Why might not the meaning of this nocturnal thought be as many-sided as thought is by day; why may not the dream in one case express a fulfilled wish, in another, as you yourself say, the opposite thereof, an actualized anxiety; or why may it not correspond to a resolution, a warning, a reflection with its pro’s and con’s, a reproach, a goad to conscience, an attempt to prepare oneself for a contemplated performance, etc? Why always nothing more than a wish, or at best, its opposite?”

One might maintain that a difference of opinion on these points is of no great importance, so long as we are at one otherwise. We might say that it is enough to have discovered the meaning of the dream, and the way to recognize it; that it is a matter of no importance, if we have too narrowly limited this meaning. But this is not so. A misunderstanding of this point strikes at the nature of our knowledge of the dream, and endangers its worth for the understanding of neuroses. Then, too, that method of approach which is esteemed in the business world as genteel is out of place in scientific endeavors, and harmful.

My first answer to the question why the dream may not be many-sided in its meaning is the usual one in such instances: I do not know why it should not be so. I would not be opposed to such a state of affairs. As far as I am concerned, it could well be true. Only one small matter prevents this broader and more comfortable explanation of the dream — namely, that as a matter of fact it isn’t so. My second answer emphasizes the fact that the assumption that the dream corresponds to numerous forms of thought and intellectual operations is no stranger to me. In a story about a sick person I once reported a dream that occurred three nights running and then stopped, and I explained this suppression by saying that the dream corresponded to a resolution which had no reason to recur after having been carried out. More recently I published a dream which corresponded to a confession. How is it possible for me to contradict myself, and maintain that the dream is always only a fulfilled wish?

I do that, because I do not wish to admit a stupid misunderstanding which might cost us the fruits of all our labors with regard to the dream, a misunderstanding which confuses the dream with the latent dream-thought and affirms of the dream something that applies specifically and solely to the latter. For it is entirely correct that the dream can represent, and be replaced by all those things we enumerated: a resolution, a warning, reflection, preparation, an attempt to solve a problem, etc. But if you look closely, you will recognize that all these things are true only of the latent dream thoughts, which have been changed about in the dream. You learn from the interpretation of the dreams that the person’s unconscious thinking is occupied with such resolutions, preparations, reflections, etc., out of which the dream-work then builds the dream. If you are not at the time interested in the dream-work, but are very much interested in the unconscious thought-work of man, you eliminate the dream-work, and say of the dream, for all practical purposes quite correctly, that it corresponds to a warning, a resolution, etc. This often happens in psychoanalytic activity. People endeavor for the most part only to destroy the dream form, and to substitute in its place in the sequence the latent thoughts out of which the dream was made.

Thus we learn, from the appreciation of the latent dream-thoughts, that all the highly complicated psychic acts we have enumerated can go on unconsciously, a result as wonderful as it is confusing.

But to return, you are right only if you admit that you have made use of an abbreviated form of speech, and if you do not believe that you must connect the many-sidedness we have mentioned with the essence of the dream. When you speak of the dream you must mean either the manifest dream, i.e., the product of the dream-work, or at most the dream-work itself — that psychic occurrence which forms the manifest dream out of the latent dream thought. Any other use of the word is a confusion of concept that can only cause trouble. If your assertions refer to the latent thoughts back of the dream, say so, and do not cloud the problem of the dream by using such a faulty means of expression. The latent dream thoughts are the material which the dream-work remolds into the manifest dream. Why do you insist upon confusing the material with the work that makes use of it? Are you any better off than those who knew only the product of this work, and could explain neither where it came from nor how it was produced?

The only essential thing in the dream is the dream-work that has had its influence upon the thought-material. We have no right to disregard it theoretically even if, in certain practical situations, we may fail to take it into account. Analytic observation, too, shows that the dream-work never limits itself to translating these thoughts in the archaic or regressive mode of expression known to you. Rather it regularly adds something which does not belong to the latent thoughts of waking, but which is the essential motive of dream-formation. This indispensable ingredient is at the same time the unconscious wish, for the fulfillment of which the dream content is rebuilt. The dream may be any conceivable thing, if you take into account only the thoughts represented by it, warning, resolution, preparation, etc.; it is also always the fulfillment of an unknown wish, and it is this only if you look upon it as the result of the dream-work. A dream is never itself a resolution, a warning, and no more — but always a resolution, etc., translated into an archaic form of expression with the help of the unconscious wish, and changed about for the purpose of fulfilling this wish. The one characteristic, wish-fulfillment, is constant; the other may vary; it may itself be a wish at times, so that the dream, with the aid of an unconscious wish, presents as fulfilled a latent wish out of waking hours.

I understand all this very well, but I do not know whether or not I shall be successful in making you understand it as well. I have difficulties, too, in proving it to you. This cannot be done without, on the one hand, careful analysis of many dreams, and on the other hand this most difficult and most important point of our conception of the dream cannot be set forth convincingly without reference to things to follow. Can you, in fact, believe that taking into consideration the intimate relationship of all things, one is able to penetrate deeply into the nature of one thing without having carefully considered other things of a very similar nature? Since we know nothing as yet about the closest relatives of the dream, neurotic symptoms, we must once again content ourselves with what has already been accomplished. I want to explain one more example to you, and propose a new viewpoint.

Let us again take up that dream to which we have several times recurred, the dream of the three theatre tickets for 1 Fl. 50 Kr. I can assure you that I took this example quite unpremeditatedly at first. You are acquainted with the latent dream thoughts: annoyance, upon hearing that her friend had just now become engaged, at the thought that she herself had hurried so to be married; contempt for her husband; the idea that she might have had a better one had she waited. We also know the wish, which made a dream out of these thoughts — it is “curiosity to see,” being permitted to go to the theatre, very likely a derivation from the old curiosity finally to know just what happens when one is married. This curiosity, as is well known, regularly directs itself in the case of children to the sex-life of the parents. It is an impulse of childhood, and in so far as it persists later, an impulse whose roots reach back into the infantile. But that day’s news played no part in awaking the curiosity, it awoke only annoyance and regret. This wish impulse did not have anything to do immediately with the latent dream thoughts, and we could fit the result of the dream interpretation into the analysis without considering the wish impulse at all. But then, the annoyance itself was not capable of producing the dream; a dream could not be derived from the thought: “It was stupid to marry so soon,” except by reviving the old wish finally to see what happens when one is married. The wish then formed the dream content, in that it replaced marriage by going to the theatre, and gave it the form of an earlier wish-fulfillment: “so now I may go to the theatre and see all the forbidden things, and you may not. I am married and you must wait.” In such a manner the present situation was transposed into its opposite, an old triumph put into the place of the recent defeat. Added thereto was a satisfied curiosity amalgamated with a satisfied egoistic sense of rivalry. This satisfaction determines the manifest dream content in which she really is sitting in the theatre, and her friend was unable to get tickets. Those bits of dream content are affixed to this satisfaction situation as unfitting and inexplicable modifications, behind which the latent dream thoughts still hide. Dream interpretation must take into consideration everything that serves toward the representation of the wish-fulfillment and must reconstruct from these suggestions the painful latent dream-thought.

The observation I now wish to make is for the purpose of drawing your attention to the latent, dream thoughts, now pushed to the fore. I beg of you not to forget first, that the dreamer is unconscious of them, second, they are entirely logical and continuous, so that they may be understood as a comprehensible reaction to the dream occasion, third, that they may have the value of any desired psychic impulse or intellectual operation. I shall now designate these thoughts more forcibly than before as “day-remnants”; the dreamer may acknowledge them or not. I now separate day-remnants and latent dream thoughts in accordance with our previous usage of calling everything that we discover in interpreting the dream “latent dream thoughts,” while the day-remnants are only a part of the latent dream thoughts. Then our conception goes to show that something additional has been added to the day-remnants, something which also belonged to the unconscious, a strong but suppressed wish impulse, and it is this alone that has made possible the dream fabrication. The influence of this wish impulse on the day-remnants creates the further participation of the latent dream thoughts, thoughts which no longer appear rational and understandable in relation to waking life.

In explaining the relationship of the day-remnants to the unconscious wish I have made use of a comparison which I can only repeat here. Every undertaking requires a capitalist, who defrays the expenses, and an entrepreneur, who has the idea and understands how to carry it out. The role of the capitalist in the dream fabrication is always played by the unconscious wish; it dispenses the psychic energy for dream-building. The actual worker is the day-remnant, which determines how the expenditure is to be made. Now the capitalist may himself have the idea and the particularized knowledge, or the entrepreneur may have the capital. This simplifies the practical situation, but makes its theoretical comprehension more difficult. In economics we always distinguish between the capitalist and the entrepreneur aspect in a single person, and thus we reconstruct the fundamental situation which was the point of departure for our comparison. In dream-fabrication the same variations occur. I shall leave their further development to you.

We can go no further here, for you have probably long been disturbed by a reflection which deserves to be heard. Are the day-remnants, you ask, really unconscious in the same sense as the unconscious wish which is essential to making them suitable for the dream? You discern correctly. Here lies the salient point of the whole affair. They are not unconscious in the same sense. The dream wish belongs to a different unconsciousness, that which we have recognized as of infantile origin, fitted out with special mechanisms. It is entirely appropriate to separate these two types of unconsciousness and give them different designations. But let us rather wait until we have become acquainted with the field of neurotic symptoms. If people say one unconsciousness is fantastic, what will they say when we acknowledge that we arrived at our conclusions by using two kinds of unconsciousness?

Let us stop here. Once more you have heard something incomplete; but is there not hope in the thought that this science has a continuation which will be brought to light either by ourselves or by those to follow? And have not we ourselves discovered a sufficient number of new and surprising things?

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