Freud: Butcher’s Wife dream. 1900

This dream from Freud’s of “Interpretation of Dreams,” 1900, is often used to demonstrate the structure of hysteria. It can be found in Chapter 4, “Distortion in Dreams.”

You are always saying that a dream is a wish fulfilled,” begins an intelligent lady patient. “Now I shall tell you a dream in which the content is quite the opposite, in which a wish of mine is not fulfilled. How do you reconcile that with your theory? The dream was as follows: I want to give a supper, but I have nothing available except some smoked salmon. I think I will go shopping, but I remember that it is Sunday afternoon, when all the shops are closed. I then try to ring up a few caterers, but the telephone is out of order. Accordingly I have to renounce my desire to give a supper.”

I reply, of course, that only the analysis can decide the meaning of this dream, although I admit that at first sight it seems sensible and coherent and looks like the opposite of a wish- fulfillment. “But what occurrence gave rise to this dream?” I ask. “You know that the stimulus of a dream always lies among the experiences of the preceding day.”


The patient’s husband, an honest and capable meat salesman, had told her the day before that he was growing too fat, and that he meant to undergo treatment for obesity. He would rise early, take physical exercise, keep to a strict diet, and above all accept no more invitations to supper. She proceeds jestingly to relate how her husband, at a table d’hote, had made the acquaintance of an artist, who insisted upon painting his portrait, because he, the painter, had never seen such an expressive head. But her husband had answered in his downright fashion, that while he was much obliged, he would rather not be painted; and he was quite convinced that a bit of a pretty girl’s posterior would please the artist better than his whole face. * She is very much in love with her husband, and teases him a good deal. She has asked him not to give her any caviar. What can that mean?

As a matter of fact, she had wanted for a long time to eat a caviar sandwich every morning, but had grudged the expense. Of course she could get the caviar from her husband at once if she asked for it. But she has, on the contrary, begged him not to give her any caviar, so that she might tease him about it a little longer.

(To me this explanation seems thin. Unconfessed motives are wont to conceal themselves behind just such unsatisfying explanations. We are reminded of the subjects hypnotized by Bernheim, who carried out a post-hypnotic order, and who, on being questioned as to their motives, instead of answering: “I do not know why I did that.” had to invent a reason that was obviously inadequate. There is probably something similar to this in the case of my patient’s caviar. I see that in waking life she is compelled to invent an unfulfilled wish. Her dream also shows her the non- fulfillment of her wish. But why does she need an unfulfilled wish?)

The ideas elicited so far are insufficient for the interpretation of the dream. I press for more. After a short pause, which corresponds to the overcoming of a resistance, she reports that the day before she had paid a visit to a friend of whom she is really jealous because her husband is always praising this lady so highly. Fortunately this friend is very thin and lanky, and her husband likes full figures. Now of what did this thin friend speak? Of course, of her wish to become rather plumper. She also asked my patient: “When are you going to invite us again? You always have such good food.”

Now the meaning of the dream is clear. I am able to tell the patient: “It is just as though you had thought at the moment of her asking you that: ‘Of course, I’m to invite you so that you can eat at my house and get fat and become still more pleasing to my husband! I would rather give no more suppers!’ The dream then tells you that you cannot give a supper, thereby fulfilling your wish not to contribute anything to the rounding out of your friend’s figure. Your husband’s resolution to accept no more invitations to supper in order that he may grow thin teaches you that one grows fat on food eaten at other people’s tables.” Nothing is lacking now but some sort of coincidence which will confirm the solution. The smoked salmon in the dream has not yet been traced.- “How did you come to think of salmon in your dream?”- “Smoked salmon is my friend’s favorite dish,” she replied. It happens that I know the lady, and am able to affirm that she grudges herself salmon just as my patient grudges herself caviar.

This dream admits of yet another and more exact interpretation- one which is actually necessitated only by a subsidiary circumstance. The two interpretations do not contradict one another, but rather dovetail into one another, and furnish an excellent example of the usual ambiguity of dreams, as of all other psycho-pathological formations. We have heard that at the time of her dream of a denied wish the patient was impelled to deny herself a real wish (the wish to cut caviar sandwiches). Her friend, too, had expressed a wish, namely, to get fatter, and it would not surprise us if our patient had dreamt that this wish of her friend’s- the wish to increase in weight- was not to be fulfilled. Instead of this, however, she dreamt that one of her own wishes was not fulfilled. The dream becomes capable of a new interpretation if in the dream she does not mean herself, but her friend, if she has put herself in the place of her friend, or, as we may say, has identified herself with her friend.

I think she has actually done this, and as a sign of this identification she has created for herself in real life an unfulfilled wish. But what is the meaning of this hysterical identification? To elucidate this a more exhaustive exposition is necessary. Identification is a highly important motive in the mechanism of hysterical symptoms; by this means patients are enabled to express in their symptoms not merely their own experiences, but the experiences of quite a number of other persons; they can suffer, as it were, for a whole mass of people, and fill all the parts of a drama with their own personalities. It will here be objected that this is the well-known hysterical imitation, the ability of hysterical subjects to imitate all the symptoms which impress them when they occur in others, as though pity were aroused to the point of reproduction. This, however, only indicates the path which the psychic process follows in hysterical imitation. But the path itself and the psychic act which follows this path are two different matters. The act itself is slightly more complicated than we are prone to believe the imitation of the hysterical to be; it corresponds to an unconscious end-process, as an example will show. The physician who has, in the same ward with other patients, a female patient suffering from a particular kind of twitching, is not surprised if one morning he learns that this peculiar hysterical affection has found imitators. He merely tells himself: The others have seen her, and have imitated her; this is psychic infection. Yes, but psychic infection occurs somewhat in the following manner: As a rule, patients know more about one another than the physician knows about any one of them, and they are concerned about one another when the doctor’s visit is over. One of them has an attack today: at once it is known to the rest that a letter from home, a recrudescence of lovesickness, or the like, is the cause. Their sympathy is aroused, and although it does not emerge into consciousness they form the following conclusion: “If it is possible to suffer such an attack from such a cause, I too may suffer this sort of an attack, for I have the same occasion for it.” If this were a conclusion capable of becoming conscious, it would perhaps express itself in dread of suffering a like attack; but it is formed in another psychic region, and consequently ends in the realization of the dreaded symptoms. Thus identification is not mere imitation, but an assimilation based upon the same aetiological claim; it expresses a just like, and refers to some common condition which has remained in the unconscious.

In hysteria, identification is most frequently employed to express a sexual community. The hysterical woman identifies herself by her symptoms most readily- though not exclusively- with persons with whom she has had sexual relations, or who have had sexual intercourse with the same persons as herself. Language takes cognizance of this tendency: two lovers are said to be “one.” In hysterical phantasy, as well as in dreams, identification may ensue if one simply thinks of sexual relations; they need not necessarily become actual. The patient is merely following the rules of the hysterical processes of thought when she expresses her jealousy of her friend (which, for that matter, she herself admits to be unjustified) by putting herself in her friend’s place in her dream, and identifying herself with her by fabricating a symptom (the denied wish). One might further elucidate the process by saying: In the dream she puts herself in the place of her friend, because her friend has taken her own place in relation to her husband, and because she would like to take her friend’s place in her husband’s esteem. * –

* I myself regret the inclusion of such passages from the psycho- pathology of hysteria, which, because of their fragmentary presentation, and because they are torn out of their context, cannot prove to be very illuminating. If these passages are capable of throwing any light upon the intimate relations between dream and the psycho-neurosis, they have served the intention with which I have included them.

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