On the Nature of Dreams

The examination of the context is, to be sure, a simple, almost mechanical piece of work which has only a preparatory significance. But the subsequent production of a readable text, i.e., the actual interpretation of the dream, is as a rule a very exacting task.

First published as "Vom Wesen der Träume" in 1945


...for the purpose of ascertaining the meaning of the dream, I have developed a procedure which I call "taking up the context." This consists in making sure that every shade of meaning which each salient feature of the dream has for the dreamer is determined by the associations of the dreamer himself. (pp. 71-72)

The examination of the context is, to be sure, a simple, almost mechanical piece of work which has only a preparatory significance. But the subsequent production of a readable text, i.e., the actual interpretation of the dream, is as a rule a very exacting task. It needs psychological empathy, ability to coordinate, intuition, knowledge of the world and of men, and above all a special "canniness" which depends on wide understanding as well as on a certain "intelligence du coeur." (p. 72)

Since the meaning of most dreams is not in accord with the tendencies of the conscious mind but shows peculiar deviations, we must assume that the unconscious, the matrix of dreams, has an independent function. This is what I call the autonomy of the unconscious. The dream not only fails to obey our will but very often stands in flagrant opposition to our conscious intentions. (p. 73)

Thus we speak on the one hand of a personal and on the other of a collective unconscious, which lies at a deeper level and is further removed from consciousness than the personal unconscious. The "big" or "meaningful" dreams come from this deeper level. They revel their significance–quite apart from the subjective impression they make–by their plastic form, which often has a poetic force and beauty. Such dreams occur mostly during the critical phases of life, in early youth, puberty, at the onset of middle age (thirty-six to forty), and within sight of death. (p. 77)

The [big] dream uses collective figures because it has to express an eternal human problem that repeats itself endlessly, and not just a disturbance of personal balance. (p. 78)

Coming now to the form of dreams, we find everything from lightning impressions to endlessly spun out dream-narrative. Nevertheless there are a great many "average" dreams in which a definite structure can be perceived, not unlike that of a drama. For instance, the dream begins with a STATEMENT OF PLACE . . .. Next comes a statement about the PROTAGONISTS . . .. I call this phase of the dream the EXPOSITION. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and often the initial situation of the dreamer.
In the second phase come the DEVELOPMENT of the plot. . . .
The third phase brings the CULMINATION of peripeteia. Here something decisive happens or something changes completely . . ..
The fourth and last phase is the lysis, the SOLUTION or RESULT produced by the dream-work. . . . This division into four phases can be applied without much difficulty to the majority of dreams met with in practice–an indication that dreams generally have a "dramatic" structure. (pp. 80-81)

If one believes that the unconscious always knows best, one can easily be betrayed into leaving the dreams to take the necessary decisions, and is then disappointed when the dreams become more and more trivial and meaningless. . . . The unconscious functions satisfactorily only when the conscious mind fulfils its tasks to the very limit. (p. 82)


From Dreams, a compilation of essays from The Collected Works. Copyright 1974 Princeton University Press.

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