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Dream interpretation in theory: drawing on the contributions of Freud, Jung, and the Kleinians.

The Interpretation of Dreams ... contains, even according to my present day judgement, the most valuable of all the discoveries it has been my good fortune to make. Insights such as this fall to one's lot but once in a lifetime.

Freud (1931)


Since the publication of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, there has been nothing to match his great work and surprisingly little on the specifics of dream interpretation in mainstream psychoanalytic literature, as writers have noted (Sharpe, 1937; Meltzer, 1984; Schon, 2003; Schneider, 2010). This dearth raises questions about whether dream interpretation can be taught and indeed, whether it should be. Perennial debate surrounds these questions. Aristotle, cited by Freud (1900) and Rycroft (1981), held that the 'best interpreter of dreams is the man who can best grasp similarities, a master of metaphor, which is 'one thing that cannot be learnt from others" (p. 17, my italics). Freud and Jung implied that dream interpretation can be taught, given their publications on the topic. A classical paper by Erikson (1954) argued that dream interpretation should not be taught, particularly to less experienced clinicians, since teaching it fosters interpretive 'shooting from the hip'. Khan (1976) maintained that dreams are 'treated like all other reported or expressed behaviour ... to be interpreted ... in the here and now of the total transference situation' (p. 328), suggesting that training on the specifics of dream interpretation is unnecessary. Similarly, Kernberg ( 1993) made the point that we now have many 'royal roads' to the unconscious, so a focus on dreams is less important than in Freud's day.

While Kernberg's view has merit, dreams remain a unique and valuable form of material encountered in clinical practice. Greenson (in Flanders, 1993), contends that:
   All communications are not equal: the best window into the internal
   world is the dream, the freest form of free association is the
   dream, the best access to early childhood experience and the best
   hope of awakening childhood memories come from the dream (p. 13).

Greenson (in Flanders, 1993) refers to the 'exceptional' position of dreams in psychoanalysis, shown by their extensive mention in psychoanalytic literature. On the one hand, it is rare to find published case-studies where no dream is cited. On the other, Flanders (1993) writes of the special place of the dream in professional discourse, noting that it is through the dream that 'the patient is most likely to speak for himself (p. 21). Nevertheless, dreams are not necessarily easy to interpret and may be as confusing to the clinician as to the dreamer upon waking (Meltzer, 1984). Yet the uniqueness and value of dreams, and their idiosyncratic difficulties, suggest that dreams and their interpretation deserve close attention.

This is the position of psychoanalytic writers such as Rycroft (1981), Meltzer (1984), Flanders (1993), Schon (2000) and Tuckett (2000) who also advocate including diverse theorists--and in some instances, disciplines--to address the issue of dream interpretation adequately. This paper presents an exploration of the classical understandings of dream interpretation, identifying key concepts and their clinical application.

Choice of theorists and method

Coverage of Freud's (1900) work is often deemed to be mandatory in any investigation of dream interpretation, as he is considered to have made the biggest historical contribution. Jung's (1969) work (1) also merits consideration as, more than any theorist after Freud, he examined dreams and made them a central aspect of his work. Another important contributor is Klein, who did not focus on dreams but examined the 'archaic language' at their roots, calling it 'unconscious phantasy' (Meltzer, 1984). Klein (1977a; 1977b) and her followers, including Segal (1957) Bion (1962), complement the theories of Freud and Jung, and provide some convergence of thinking. (2)

However, difficulty in synthesising these theories arises from the fact that diverging views of dream interpretation and the nature of the unconscious caused disagreement between firstly, Freud and Jung in 1914, and later between followers of Freud and Klein in the late 1930s and 1940s (Symington, 1986).

I address this challenge by breaking down the process of dreams and their interpretation into four elements discernible in the works of Freud and Jung:

1) Dreams and dreaming

2) Methods of dream interpretation

3) Actual interpretation

4) Assessment of the interpretation

This structure will be used to distinguish differing perspectives and to determine common ground. Each theorist's contribution is presented chronologically for each aspect of dream interpretation examined. Freud's (1905) (3) 'A fragment of a case of hysteria' will be used to illustrate the concepts that are discussed. This case has been chosen as it contains two dreams and exemplifies Freud's method, his actual interpretations and his assessment of them, thus illustrating all four elements of the structure used here.

1. Dreams and dreaming (4)

Freud (1900) used the term 'the dream-work' to capture the process during which repressed infantile wishes--said to trigger the dream--are transformed into the manifest dream, which may be remembered and narrated in a psychoanalytic session. The dream-work performs a dual function, expressing repressed wishes, while disguising them so as to preserve the dreamer's sleep. The process of disguise occurs via the primary processes of 'condensation' (where figures are combined to form a single figure), 'displacement' (where feelings belonging to one person or object are displaced onto another), and a disregard for conventional categories of 'time' and 'space'.

Primary processes, typical of unconscious thinking, are governed by association, and are distinct from secondary processes, typical of conscious thinking, which are governed by logic, sequence, reason and due regard for time and space.

An excerpt from Freud's (1905) case-study will be used to illustrate 'the dream-work' and to identify key concepts: The patient, a girl of 18 whom he called Dora, informs Freud that she had 'once again had a dream which she had already dreamt ... on many previous occasions' (p. 64):
   A house was on fire. My father was standing beside my bed and woke
   me up. I dressed quickly. Mother wanted to stop and save her
   jewel-case; but Father said: 'I refuse to let myself and my two
   children be burnt for the sake of your jewel-case '. We hurried
   downstairs, and as soon as I was outside, I woke up.

Freud remarked that, as the dream was a recurrent one, he 'naturally' asked the patient when she had first dreamt the dream. She could not remember, but recalled having had it three nights in succession when she was on holiday with Mr and Mrs K. (The Ks were friends of Dora's parents and Dora suspected that her father and Mrs K were having an affair. She herself was both attracted and repelled by Mr K.) Freud believed that Dora had had the dream after a scene in which Mr K had made advances upon her and she had slapped his face.

Freud's comments highlight the value he placed on the trigger of a dream and on recurrent dreams, as well as illustrating his theory of dream function. For example, Freud remarked that in the dream Dora running off with her father and leaving her mother to burn could represent the fulfilment of sexual and aggressive wishes, analogous to the myth of Oedipus, which he considered one of the most common themes in dreams. The disguise may be a result of the displacement of Dora's sexual feelings toward Mr K onto her father or it may be a condensation of three figures: Dora's father, Mr K and Freud himself. The jewel-case, Freud suggested, is a symbol of the female genitals.

Jung's main arguments concern the function of dreams and the nature of the unconscious (Jung, 1933; 1945; 1969; 1964). Jung suggested that dreams not only express repressed childhood wishes but may also be forward-looking, communicating future possibilities. Jung might have considered Dora's dream to be prospective, insofar as hurrying away from a burning house could represent the need to escape danger.

Jung (1969) argued that rather than involving disguise and the need to preserve sleep, dreams reveal the 'truth' about the dreamer. The language of dreams is difficult to understand as it is symbolic and uses 'analogies nearest to hand' (Jung, 1969, p. 263). An image is symbolic when it implies more than its obvious and immediate meaning (Jung, 1964) and symbols do not have fixed meanings. Jung would not have assumed that the jewel-case was symbolic of the vagina. Jung (1964) believed that no dream symbol can be separated from the dreamer.

A third area of contention concerns the notion of wishes. Jung believed that dreams do not derive only from two instinctual wishes, but depict a myriad of instincts and behaviour patterns, sourced in archetypes. He compared archetypal themes and imagery with the motifs of mythology (Jung, 1945). Freud was mindful of the link between dreams and mythology; The Interpretation of Dreams is replete with myth. However, Jung (1919) developed a new conceptual understanding of the link between dreams and mythology. Rather than distinguishing between only consciousness and the unconscious, Jung conceived of a divide between two realms of the unconscious, the personal and the collective.

In Dora's dream, there is a clear mythological motif (reminiscent of Oedipus and Electra). However, Jung would not have considered this dream typically archetypal. He contended that archetypal dreams are not derived from personal experience but reflect a deeper realm common to mankind, the collective unconscious. Classifying a dream as archetypal is contingent on factors such as the dream's universality, the intensity of the emotions evoked, stark and polarised imagery, and a lack of connection with external reality. Jung's contribution is useful in that each area of contention presents a different angle on certain basic themes (5).

Klein and her followers shed further light on these themes and provided some convergence of thought, evident in her development of the concept 'unconscious phantasy'. Although Klein (1977a; 1977b) was a follower of Freud, her views differed so radically that they led to another major schism in psychoanalysis, culminating in the Controversial Discussions of the 1930s and 1940s. Klein retained Freud's (1915) notion of two instincts, but her view of instincts became increasingly psychological rather than biological. She conceived of the individual's own body not as the source of biological drives but as the medium by which the psychological drives of love and hate ... are expressed (Bott Spillius, 1994, p. 327). Klein also acknowledged the centrality of the Oedipus complex, although dating the onset to a considerably earlier period than Freud did.

However, some aspects of Klein's theory are more akin to Jung. For example, Jung believed that 'we continually dream even while awake' (Rycroft, 1981, p. 32); similarly, for Klein, unconscious phantasy is ongoing during waking and sleep. Thus the immediate present, the 'here and now', is the most important temporal dimension in this school of thought.

Klein (1977a, 1977b) also introduced a new divide in the realm of conscious and unconscious thinking, that between the internal and external worlds. Unconscious phantasy reflects both worlds. The internal world is built up through projection and introjection. Thus phantasy influences perceptions of the external world and experience of the external world colours the internal world. Dreams provide a useful reflection of the internal world (Meltzer, 1984).

Klein saw the internal world as populated by internal objects. Implicit in the theories of Freud and Jung is the idea of wishes or instincts being linked to objects. In Klein's approach object relationships are central and constitute another important theme in dreams. Instinctual and bodily experiences which register in the mind as phantasy are interpreted as relationships with objects that cause these experiences. Such objects are not purely internalisations of important figures but are continually shaped by projection and introjection.

The nature of object relationships changes during the first months of life. Klein's theory (1977a; 1977b) adds to our knowledge of dream-life in terms of her delineation of the two developmental positions which colour unconscious phantasy, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. Each position has its own typical anxieties, object relationships and defences. Phantasy typical of the paranoid-schizoid position would depict persecutory anxiety, part object relationships and defences such as projection and splitting. Thus a dream stemming from this level of development would capture stark and polarised imagery (6). Conversely, phantasy typical of the depressive position would reveal depressive anxiety (fear of bringing harm to the other and attempts at reparation), whole object relationships and defences such as the manic defence.

Viewing Dora's dream through a Kleinian lens, the dream may speak of a moment in the analysis between Freud and Dora:

Viewing Dora's dream through a Kleinian lens, the dream may speak of a moment in the analysis between Freud and Dora. Dora reported the dream after Freud had fetched her from the waiting room. When he came into the room, Dora 'hurriedly concealed a letter' which Freud believed indicated that Dora wanted to 'play secrets' with him (Freud, 1905, p. 78).

'Playing secrets' could be considered seductive and related to Dora's hurrying away with her father, a representation of Freud in the 'here and now'. Furthermore, the dream depicts her nuclear family members (obviously linked to external reality) but at the same time it portrays an internal drama about Dora and her internal object relationships. This drama resembles the Oedipal situation in its portrayal of hatred towards the mother and love for the father.

Klein's work offered a new perspective on themes evident in Freud and Jung: the third dimension of time; a link between drives, the body and emotions; 'object relationships' made explicit; and a fresh divide associated with the 'unconscious'. Kleinian theory also encompasses the idea that dreams might conceal and reveal their true meaning since unconscious phantasy consists of defences and constructive processes typical of the dreamer's level of functioning. Finally, Klein's followers contributed to understandings of the related areas of symbol, poetic diction and myth.

Segal (1957) elaborated on the process of symbol formation as a continuous development from primitive symbols where substitutes are felt as if they were the equivalent of the original object to true symbol formation, which requires a differentiation between self and other, real and imagined, omnipotent and realistic thinking.

Segal conceived of symbol formation as a triangular situation comprising the symbol, the symbolised and the person for whom the one represents the other. This is not the situation while dreaming, where there is an inability to distinguish the real from the imagined, and thus a dyadic rather than a triadic situation. We attach complete belief while dreaming; it is only on waking that symbolic significance may become evident.

Closely linked to symbolism is poetic diction. Freud notes that figures of speech typical of poetry are very common in dreams. Sharpe (1937) identifies and defines a range of figures of speech to be found in dreams. Mainstream writers drawing on Freud and Klein, tend to follow Aristotle's view that metaphor is primary (Nowottny, 1965; Ogden, 1997). A metaphor implies that one thing is like another in a statement of identity. A good example may be found in one of Freud's (1900) own dreams:
   A hill on which there was something like an open-air closet: a very
   long seat with a large hole at the end of it. Its back edge was
   thickly covered with small heaps of faeces of all sizes and degrees
   of freshness ... I micturated on the seat. A long stream of urine
   washed everything clean. ... (p. 605).

In this dream, the washing clean is metaphoric since a bodily process micturating --is equated with washing. The dream also exemplifies how figures of speech are enacted in dreams, it is only in the narration of the dream that they are put into words (Schon, 2003).

In literary terms, a symbol or metaphor is part of a greater narrative or myth. Bion (1962) is the first theorist after Freud and Jung to acknowledge the value of myth. He puts myth at the same level in his hierarchy of thought as dreams. Both constitute a truth of emotional experience which can be taken to higher levels of sophistication, but some pain or tolerance is required. For example, a dream can be remembered, taken to a session and explored, or it can be dismissed at each level. Bion provides a cogent theory for Freud's (1900) notion of 'preservation of sleep' (p. 735). If the dream contains (Bion, 1962) the emotion, the dreamer sleeps on; if the emotions are too overwhelming, the dreamer wakes up.

In summary, the main theorists regarding dreams often use the terms 'dreams' and 'dreaming' interchangeably. Obviously, an understanding of theories of dreaming assists with the unravelling of a dream. A dream is different to other material encountered in practice, in having its own structure and conveying a message from the unconscious, uncontaminated by rational thought. While all theorists agree on the phenomenology of dreams, different understandings of the nature and function of dreams influence technique.

2. Methods of dream interpretation

Central to Freud's (1900) method of interpreting dreams is 'free association', a task which he assigns to the dreamer, and which affords more agency to the patient, in contrast to his earlier use of hypnosis as a method of treatment. Free association necessitates paying attention to all perceptions and ideas which spontaneously come to mind, while disregarding any form of critical judgement, so that seemingly unimportant ideas are not discarded. A restful and impartial self-observation assists this process. Free association, as it pertains to dreams, entails abandoning deliberate thought and dwelling on each element of the dream in turn.

Freud's discovery that dream material was included in his patients' free associations led him to understand the importance of dreams and to apply free association to dreams themselves. When falling asleep, there is a relaxation of deliberate thought and, while dreaming, involuntary ideas emerge and are transformed via the dream-work into visual images. During free association involuntary thoughts are transformed into voluntary thoughts, condensations are expanded and displacements rectified.

In Freud's (1905) handling of Dora's dream, he sought its trigger by asking when she had first dreamt the dream. She had had the dream three nights in succession at the place where the scene with Mr K had occurred. To discover the trigger of 'its recent recurrence, [he] asked Dora to take the dream bit by bit and tell [him] what occurred to her in connection with it' (p. 64). Dora's first association was a recent dispute between her parents about locking the dining room door at night. Her mother wanted it locked and her father wanted it unlocked. The reason for this was that Dora's brother's bedroom could only be reached via the dining room and her father did not want his son locked in 'as something might happen in the night so that it might be necessary to leave the room' (p. 65).

Freud reiterates the phrase 'something might happen in the night', noting to the reader that it has an ambiguous ring to it. To prompt further associations, he says to Dora, 'And that made you think of the risk of fire' (p. 65). Dora then finds a link between this recent dispute and the holiday where she was propositioned by Mr K. Her father had said he was afraid of fire when he took Dora to the place; there was a violent thunderstorm when they arrived and they would be staying in a small wooden house without any lightning conductor.

As Freud continues to explore the dream with her, Dora has another association. After the incident with Mr K, she went to lie down in her bedroom and awoke to see Mr K standing next to her. Freud makes the link between this and her father standing next to her bed in the dream. It also emerges that Mr K had given Dora a jewel-case some time before. Freud tells her that 'jewel-case' is a favourite expression for the female genitals and suggests that Dora might be saying to herself, 'This man is persecuting me; he wants to force his way into my room. My 'jewel-case' is in danger ...' (p. 69).

Freud interrupts his report of the session to assert that:
   [D]reams stand ... on two legs, one of which is in contact with the
   main and current exciting cause, and the other with some momentous
   event in the years of childhood. The dream sets up a connection
   between those two factors--the event during childhood and the
   event of the present day--and it endeavours to re-shape the
   present on the model of the remote past (p. 71) (7).

Freud detects the connection between childhood and the present. In a long intervention (p. 72), he tells Dora that playing with fire and masturbation are linked and that the latter leads to bedwetting as alluded to in her association: 'something might happen in the night so that it might be necessary to leave the room'. The jewel-case signifies sexual temptations of childhood and the current day; these are masturbation and her fear of yielding to Mr K. Another association which Dora brings the next day is that she smelt smoke when she awoke from the dream. The fact that both her father and Mr K smoke is another example of past and present concerns. Freud reflects that he too smokes and ponders the transference implications. He thinks this implies a longing for a kiss with a smoker.

Jung (1964) argued that free association may well lead to the heart of a patient's complexes, but will not shed light on the precise message of the dream. He suggested that free association and amplification achieve different results. He saw free association as reductionist and eliciting a chain of causally connected associations leading backward, to the repressed wish in Freud's terms and to the complexes in his terms (Jung, 1969). For Jung, amplification enriches the dream content, going in different directions in time and space; thus taking the dream forward in terms of unrealised potential and laterally in terms of universal meaning. Amplification entails staying closely with each image in turn in order to elucidate the 'chains of association that are directly connected with particular images' (Jung, 1933, p. 14), which may include the dreamer's personal associations to each motif, or the more universal symbols which the images bring to mind.

Despite the differences between free association and amplification, both methods entail taking the dream 'bit by bit' (Freud, 1905, p. 64) and allowing the dreamer to go in any direction. Dora's associations certainly broaden and enrich the dream content. What is technically different in Jung's terms, is that amplification lets the clinician add his or her own associations, particularly mythological elements. Free association and amplification are clearly an important aspect of unravelling a dream, given the private nature of dream imagery as well as the language of dreams. Freud's primary processes, condensation and displacement are governed by association, and this is also true of symbol, metaphor and myth (Schon, 2003).

Later psychoanalytic theorists did not focus on dreams. Klein had no specific method of dream interpretation and dreams were treated in much the same way as other material. As Khan (1976) puts it:
   We do not pursue the dream as a hermeneutic fetish. It is treated
   like all other reported or expressed behaviour, a piece of psychic
   reality ... to be interpreted ... in the here and now of the total
   transference situation. To say this is not to undervalue the unique
   character of dreams as 'the royal road to the unconscious' (p.

This position moves away from calling on the patient to stick rigidly to any agenda, whether it be dreams, their associations or any other material. Dreams are part of the fabric of psychoanalysis, and analysts working from a Kleinian perspective are unlikely to ask patients to bring dreams or to focus specifically on a dream. A number of reasons have been posited as to why it is not wise to focus on dreams. Lambert (1981) suggests that requests for dreams interfere with the spontaneous emergence of material. Imposing preferences can introduce resistance, influence the interplay between the transference and the countertransference, and foster rebellion or compliance, rather than encourage communication of the patient's real concerns at any given moment. He points out that analysts hear about dreams whether or not they wish to, and patients' motives for bringing dreams vary.

In contrast, the wealth of literature on dreams written by Jung's followers suggests that they regard dreams as deserving special attention (for example, West, 2011). Furthermore, Ogden (1996), from an intersubjective psychoanalytic position, promotes the use of dream associations and argues that 'in the absence of the patient's associations, the analyst is left interpreting only manifest dream content, thus engaging in a superficial (and probably largely inaccurate) form of interpretation' (p. 891). He considers the analyst's associations to the dream to be as important as the patient's.

In a similar vein, Meltzer (1984) distinguishes between dream exploration and dream interpretation. He argues that dream exploration is a specific technique whereas dream interpretation resembles other forms of interpretation. Focusing on the analyst's role, he gives a number of possible steps in the exploration of the dream which include the analyst's thoughts or associations, his or her attempts to clarify and sort out the dream from the patient's associations, to foster exploration and to point out links. As it is traditionally the task of the patient to bring the dream and to apply the method, whether it be free association or amplification, the next step, the actual interpretation, is a task of the clinician.

3. The interpretation of the dream

Theories regarding the meaning of dreams are linked to theories of dream construction, dream function and the nature of unconscious thinking. Freud (1900) argued that dreams depict a disguised fulfilment of a repressed, infantile wish triggered by events of the preceding day. Thus the goal of the interpretation is the unearthing of the wish. To achieve this goal, he emphasised the distinction between the manifest and latent dream content, the value of the context and trigger of the dream, and resistance to free association which might need to be interpreted before reaching the actual meaning of the dream.

The manifest content is the dream as remembered and reported; it is typically linked to recent experience, particularly feelings and thoughts which have not been processed or which have been repressed during the day preceding the dream. The latent content, which is the object of the interpretation, constitutes the repressed wish, which goes back to childhood but which is also linked to repressed current events.

The context of the dream is used to anchor the interpretation. Freud (1905) asked Dora when she first dreamt her dream, to which she replied that she dreamt it on three occasions during her stay at the lake. In exploring the context of the recent occurrence of the dream Freud learned of 'something happening in the night'. He also remarked on the recent conversation between himself and Dora about the ongoing treatment, saying they 'were engaged upon a line of enquiry which led straight towards an admission that she had masturbated in childhood' (p. 75). In examining Freud's further interpretations of this dream to Dora, it may be argued that the dream stands on more than 'two legs'.
   You are summoning up your old love for your father in order to
   protect yourself against your love for Herr K. But what do all
   these efforts show? Not only that you are afraid of Herr K., but
   that you are still more afraid of yourself, and of the temptation
   you feel to yield to him (p. 70).

Here Freud linked the childhood wish to Dora's infantile feelings for her father when her mother was a rival for his affections to the current situation with Mr and Mrs K. However, in a footnote (p. 70), Freud also referred to a third factor, the transference. He noted that a similar situation had arisen in relation to himself, and Dora had decided to give up the treatment. There is no account in the text of Freud making a transference interpretation to Dora, or of her response. In his postscript to the case, Freud reflected on how his failure to take up the transference implications of this dream led to Dora's declaration in a session a fortnight later, 'Do you know that I am here for the last time today?'

Jung (1969) identified a number of keys to unlock the meaning of dreams, which constituted a development and a departure from Freud's thinking.

Jung argued that the value of dreams lies not only in what they reveal about the past but also in what they reveal about the future. Dreams contain 'the germs of future psychic situations and ideas' (Jung, 1964, p. 38). They may symbolically depict the dreamer's unfulfilled potential, unrealised parts of the self, the solution of a current conflict or the likely outcome of current behaviour patterns. Jung distinguished between retrospective and prospective interpretations, and preferred to focus on the latter.

Jung (1969) developed Freud's idea that figures in dreams may represent aspects of the self as well as of the object. He described subjective or intrapsychic interpretations which view all figures in the dream as personified features of the dreamer, and objective or interpersonal interpretations which reflect perceptions of figures in the external world. He also distinguished between individual and universal interpretations. Jung argued that universal motifs occur in numerous cultural and mythic variations. Universal motifs are characteristic of archetypal dreams which are more difficult to interpret than personal dreams as they are further removed from consciousness and associations may not be forthcoming.

If presented with Dora's dream, Jung might have interpreted it to represent Dora's wanting to run off with a parental figure seen as caring and protective and away from another parental figure and a situation perceived as dangerous. Jung might have anticipated Dora's intentions in relation to Freud and the treatment. This imagined interpretation is an 'interpersonal' one in that it symbolically reflects figures in Dora's external world. However, Jung also regarded a complete interpretation as addressing the intrapsychic level of understanding. So he might have considered the other figures in the dream as parts of Dora herself: For example, Dora might be the one wanting to protect her jewel-case at all costs, a jewel-case being closely associated with the Jungian anima. Dora's father might represent her 'masculine' assertiveness in terminating the treatment (in Jungian terms, her animus) and the 'house on fire' might be seen as her passions from which she might be trying to escape.

Meltzer (1984) argued that the interpretation of dreams is not essentially different from the interpretation of other material; in both cases the interpretation focuses on the 'here and now', specifically in light of infantile conflicts evoked within the analytic relationship. Like Jung's keys, the 'here and now' encompasses the range of basic themes running through each theory. In the temporal dimension, a Kleinian interpretation addresses the immediate present. An analyst from this school might interpret Dora's dream in terms of Dora's wish to leave treatment and to 'let Freud burn'. Conversely, he or she might interpret her wish to run away with Freud as she did with her father in the dream.

Clearly, 'here and now' interpretations are also transference interpretations but a Freudian version would involve the link between the patient's experience of the analyst and his or her experience of parental figures in childhood, whereas a Kleinian one would take up infantile parts of the self and internal objects projected onto the analyst in the present (Tuckett, 1993). 'Here and now' interpretations also include countertransference interpretations. Jung spoke of countertransference as early as 1948 in relation to dreams. His use of the term denotes the unconscious feelings of the analyst towards the patient, that is, the analyst's transference. However, Heimann's (1950) paper on the subject takes up countertransference in a broader sense, as a state of mind partly induced in the analyst by the patient.

In his work with Dora, Freud (1905) made a countertransference interpretation without labelling it as such. When Dora announced it was her last session, a decision that was taken two weeks earlier, Freud told her that she was treating him like a maidservant, for whom two weeks' notice was customary. Freud commented how Dora's cessation of the treatment occurred when his 'hopes of a successful termination of the treatment were at the highest' (p. 109). 'For how could the patient take a more effective revenge than by demonstrating upon her own person the helplessness and incapacity of the physician?' (p. 120).

The analyst is an object in the patient's internal and external worlds. Klein's (1977a; 1977b) delineation of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions provides another set of interpretations, those depicting dyadic, part object relations and those depicting triadic, whole object relations. Dora's 'house on fire' dream clearly depicts a triadic relationship, comprising Dora, her father and her mother, and the 'hurrying' away, symbolises a manic defence, another hallmark of the depressive position.

Segal's elements of a 'full' interpretation include the 'here and now', the link with the past, and the link between internal figures and external ones (in Sinason, 1991). A full interpretation would not be articulated in one intervention but would be developed in stages.

This element of the process of dream interpretation, the actual interpretation, contains a variety of keys to unlock the meaning of dreams. There is much debate about which key is best and why. For example, Freud would have focused on the past in order to uncover what was repressed, Jung, on the future, as dreams reveal more than the repressed past, and Klein, on the immediacy of the present, as unconscious phantasy is ongoing in waking life and sleep. However, in the last and final stage there are more similarities between schools than differences.

4. Assessment of the dream interpretation

Freud (1900) argued that dreams conceal the truth whereas Jung contended that they reveal the truth. Jung's position finds currency in all psychoanalytic schools that regard dreams as providing a true picture of the dreamer--albeit symbolic--as well as constituting a constructive process, whether or not it is interpreted (for example, Bion, 1962; Vinocur Fischbein & Miramon, 2015). But, reaching the truth of the dream is not easy. Firstly, the dream cannot be fully recalled by the dreamer, who relies on the memory of a fleeting experience, if it is remembered at all. Secondly, the imagery of dreams is derived from the dreamer's private store of memories, experience, impulses and fantasies which may or may not be consciously remembered. Thirdly, the dreamer makes an essential but uncertain contribution in terms of reporting and working with the dream. Finally, the analyst contributes, not only in guiding the associations and exploration, making links and interpreting, but also in grappling with the often obscure and confusing nature of dreams. There can be no public consensus on meaning and no absolute objectivity on the part of either the dreamer or the interpreter.

Freud (1900) gave further reasons which militate against the possibility of accessing the absolute truth of a dream.

1) Dreams are not necessarily easy to understand and their interpretation cannot always be accomplished in one session.

2) One can never be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted as it is impossible to determine the amount of condensation which has operated in its formation.

3) Even an interpretation that makes sense, is coherent and throws light on the dream may in due course be replaced by a different interpretation.

4) Aspects of the dream are likely to remain obscure. Freud talked about the 'navel' of the dream, which reaches into the unknown and

is 'unplumbable'.

Despite these difficulties, Freud argued that interpretations should never be arbitrary. Interpretations need to be anchored by the context of the dream and affirmed by succeeding dreams. He valued the concept of a dream series. Dream series are often based on common ground and need to be interpreted in relation to one another. He also commented on consecutive dreams, suggesting that the central point of one may be on the periphery of the other and vice versa, inspiring complementary interpretations.

Although he believed assessment of the interpretation to be a task of the analyst, Freud said that the truth of the dream resides with the patient. Ironically, Dora affirmed none of his interpretations. However, she had a succeeding dream which Freud felt confirmed aspects of his understanding of the first dream and shed further light.

Dora had the dream a few weeks after the 'house on fire' dream. The second dream was much longer and more complicated than the first. The following is an excerpt:
   ... Then I came into a house where I lived, went to my room,
   and found a letter from Mother lying there. She wrote saying that as
   I had left home without my parents' knowledge she had not wished to
   write to me to say that Father was ill. 'Now he is dead, and if you
   like, you can come. ' I then went to the station and asked ...
   'Where is the station? ' I always got the answer: 'Five minutes. '
   I then saw a thick wood before me which I went into, and there I
   asked a man whom I met. He said to me: 'Two and a half hours more.
   ' He offered to accompany me. But I refused and went alone ... (p.

Freud noted that the dream took two sessions to interpret fully. At the end of the second session, he expressed to Dora his satisfaction at the result but she responded 'in a deprecatory tone: 'Why, has anything so very remarkable come out?' (p. 105). Clearly, Dora was less satisfied with his interpretations.

Freud showed how some themes ran through both dreams. The most important appeared to be Dora's 'craving for revenge' (p. 95). Her mother was left to burn in the first dream and, in the second, her father died. Freud argued that Dora had several reasons for being angry with her father. He had transmitted a venereal disease (syphilis) to Dora and to her mother. He had also put Dora in danger with Mr K so that he could have an affair with Mrs K. There were also two likely displacements. Her anger with Mr K might be displaced onto her father. (It emerges that Dora slapped Mr K at the lake because he used the same words to proposition her as he had done with the Ks' governess.) Secondly, Dora was about to take her revenge on Freud by abruptly terminating treatment. In fact, she has about 'two and a half hours' left at this point. It might be said that Freud would accompany her on her treatment journey but she 'refused and went alone'.

Jung argued that a dream's interpretation cannot be assessed on the basis of theoretical fit or the analyst's subjective view but should rather be based on 'mutual agreement which is the fruit of joint reflection' (Jung, 1933, p. 11). He insisted on taking the patient's view as a point of departure but cautioned that the patient's assent or rejection is not necessarily rational (Jacobi, 1968). An interpretation may be confirmed by the patient's ability to elaborate on it, to integrate the dream's meaning with an ongoing psychic situation and to internalise such meaning.

Jung maintained that interpretations are hypothetical and that the analyst can only make inferences about single dreams. He consequently also attached more importance to a series of dreams. A dream series can help rectify mistakes and shed new light on earlier dreams, as well as reveal central themes and clarify the significance of recurring images.

Kleinian views are similar to those of Freud and Jung. Meltzer (1984) argued that there is no such thing as a single, correct interpretation. Since dreams are symbolic, there is bound to be more than one meaning. Furthermore, an interpretation of a dream may not emerge in a single session. Sometimes meaning only emerges retrospectively, informed by the material of subsequent sessions.

There is consensus that dreams depict an emotional truth about the dreamer's relationship to self and others, but that the truth may be difficult to access. However, a number of factors may help uncover the truth of the dream: the idea of a dream series, the assertion that the truth of dreams is symbolic, the context of the dream, and the possibility of viewing the dream from different perspectives.

Theorists agree that the truth of dreams is symbolic. Thus one could argue that the 'house on fire' dream is symbolic of an escape from a situation perceived as dangerous. This is the truth of the dream, but each element of the dream may symbolically represent something or someone else. In order to arrive at the truth of a dream it is useful to understand the process of symbol formation as well as symbolism in general.

The difficulties in understanding dream symbols are similar to those posed for the reader of poetry; for example, symbols may be obscure. With dreams, the dreamer may help by providing associations to motifs, and a dream series may provide further understanding of particular symbols (in much the same way as the symbols of a poem may be clarified by examining other poetry by the same poet).

Returning to Meltzer's (1984) point that, since dreams are symbolic, they contain more than one meaning, one needs to consider two further factors: the context of the dream and Bion's (1965) idea that a fuller understanding is reached by considering a phenomenon from different perspectives. A number of contexts are relevant to the 'house on fire' dream: Dora's ongoing analysis with Freud, her relationships with her parents, her relationships with Mr and Mrs K, and her presenting problem. Clearly, the choice of context used in the interpretation would highlight a particular meaning or truth.

The idea of different contexts has some similarity to Bion's concept of 'multiple vertices'. Bion (1965) used the term to designate the variety of different angles from which phenomena can be considered to arrive at a greater understanding. 'Multiple vertices' is a method for arriving at the truth, a method followed in this paper, insofar as different theories about dream interpretation are considered. Thus, returning to the 'house on fire' dream, if we think about the dream from the context of the analytic relationship, the most truthful interpretation based on all the criteria at our disposal is that Dora's mother represents Freud, whom Dora would like to leave. This interpretation is confirmed by the second dream where her father--symbolic of a father figure such as her analyst--dies and where she also chooses to 'go alone'. It is also confirmed by Freud's countertransference when she announces that she is stopping her treatment.

Closely linked to the truth of a dream is the veracity of the dream interpretation. Drawing on the literature of interpretation in general, two criteria may be extracted: confirmation by the patient and confirmation by life events. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud argued that the truth of the interpretation resides with the patient. However, in later works he elaborated on difficulties posed by resistance and repression:

First, adequate preparatory analysis of resistance must have been done already to allow the repressed material to come very near to consciousness; second, the analysand must already have developed a transference attachment to the analyst so that he [or she] will not flee from the analysis as the repressed material is brought to light (in Schafer, 1985, p. 279).

As writers have noted (for example, Sand, 1983), in the case of Dora, Freud appeared more intent on proving his theory on hysteria than in dealing with her resistance, and, indeed, she fled from the analysis. It may be argued that an interpretation that Dora would have affirmed would have been one addressing her resistance and wish to leave analysis, symbolised in both dreams.

It has been suggested that the patient's confirmation of the accuracy of an interpretation is to be assessed from verbal and non-verbal, conscious and unconscious material. Thus Malan (1979) posited that an interpretation may be validated by an ensuing deepening of rapport. A further possibility is that when an interpretation is accurate and correctly reflects deeper meaning, fresh material comes to the fore (Schon, 2000)

The second criterion regarding the truthfulness of an interpretation is its confirmation by actual events. The event in the Dora case, is that she left analysis. This event does not mean that Freud was necessarily wrong but may mean that his interpretations did not resonate with Dora's reality.

Finally, the truth of the dream or of the interpretation may be secondary to the use which is made of the dream. Meltzer (1984) suggested that dream exploration is more important than dream analysis as it provides a basis for the patient to work with his or her own dreams in the absence of the analyst. Thus what is learnt in analysis may become a resource between sessions or after the analysis has ended. Similarly, Jung (1933) foreshadowed later theorists in advocating the clinician's use of dreams: dreams brought in the early days of treatment are held to facilitate understanding of the patient's diagnosis and prognosis; they also sum up problems which need to be addressed and provide insight into the patient's attitude to the analyst.

Final thoughts

A paradoxical situation exists in the psychoanalytic literature and in training on dream interpretation. Dreams are widely used in the literature, yet they are rarely given systematic attention in their own right, with regards to theory or technique. A number of reasons may be posited:

1) Dreams and the unconscious were a source of some of the main rifts to colour the psychoanalytic movement over the years. After Freud, Jung had the most to say on the topic but his ideas are rarely entertained in mainstream practice (Symington, 1986),

2) A focus on dreams in the early 1900s gave way to other areas of investigation. Some of these are germane to the topic but fall under a different rubric, for instance, unconscious phantasy and symbol formation.

3) Authors have argued that we interpret dreams in the same way as other material, suggesting that a focus on the topic is unnecessary, and even unwise (for example, Erikson, 1954; Khan, 1976; Lambert, 1981).

However, the notion of dreams as distinctive and valuable phenomena, with a unique structure and a visual nature, making them easier for the clinician to remember, but not necessarily easier to understand, has endured. Some recent writing has endeavoured to address the gap with regards to dream interpretation by drawing on different theories and clinical practice (Brown, 2011; Flanders, 1995; Schon, 2000; Tuckett, 2000; West, 2011).

This paper focused on the contributions of Freud, Jung, and Klein and her followers. The process of dream interpretation was divided into sequential stages to accommodate different perspectives on each aspect of the process. Despite conflicting views, there is common ground between theorists and certain complementary differences which provide a fuller understanding of the topic. Key concepts were identified, which can be examined further in teaching settings. The delineation of the various theoretical views may also assist the clinician to explore dream material more fully, with different theories at his or her disposal (Bion, 1962).

It is important to note that these stages do not necessarily mirror what happens in practice. As we can see from Freud's handling of Dora's dreams, he does not only ask for associations, interpret the repressed wish and assess his work; he explores, makes links and, when he interprets, he also addresses the transference, the countertransference and Dora's external and internal relationships. Furthermore, while Freud has been criticised by some authors for focusing on theory, the same writers have commented on the brilliance of his insights (Meltzer, 1978), and his capacity to listen to several contexts at the same time (Spence, 1986):
   The truth value of his discoveries matters much less than his
   demonstration that symptoms can be treated as words, that
   repetition can be treated as remembering, and that Dora's comments
   to Freud can also be treated as comments intended for her father or
   Herr K (p. 221).

Spence's words are a reminder of the benefits of case-study material in the learning and teaching of technique.


There is consensus that dreams are a valuable type of material encountered in practice. They consist of direct messages from the patient's unconscious and lend themselves to a series, thus providing an ongoing commentary on the patient, the analyst and the relationship between the two. Yet, paradoxically, dreams are prone to resistance at every step, including the construction of the dream, the remembering of it, the bringing of the dream to a session, the association to elements of the dream and the interpretation. While the theoretical perspectives presented in this paper demonstrate various understandings and techniques with regards to working with dreams, they all underline the possibility and utility of a focus on dreams and their interpretation in teaching, if not in actual practice.


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Joan Schon

Private Practice, Johannesburg

(1) Jung wrote relatively little on the specifics of dream interpretation, yet dreams and the unconscious infiltrate much of his work.

(2) For a description of the views of theorists such as Merleau-Ponty, Lacan and Winnicott, who have also made contributions to understandings of dreams, see Schon (2000).

(3) Freud's objectives in writing this paper were two-fold: to demonstrate the importance of dreams and his method of dream interpretation and also 'the intimate structure of a neurotic disorder and the determination of its symptoms' (1905/53, p. 13).

(4) This stage was discussed more fully in an earlier article (Schon, 2003).

(5) These themes resemble the existentialia, the fundamental characteristics of human existence, as described in phenomenology (Heidegger, 1927/1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1963).

(6) A Jungian archetypal dream is tantamount to a dream typical of the paranoid schizoid position, whereas a dream such as Dora's, which reflects a transference neurosis, is more in keeping with the depressive position (Schon, 2003).

(7) This quotation is an early reference to the 'repetition compulsion', a concept which Freud was to elaborate in later papers.

Joan Schon is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is a member of the Johannesburg Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Group, the SA Psychoanalytic Initiative and the SA Psychoanalytic Confederation Ethics Advisory Committee. She was co-founder of Sophiatown Community Psychological Services. Her research interests include dreams and their interpretation in theory and practice.
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Date:Mar 22, 2016
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