Disguised Messages

 – the relationship between dreams and narratives according to Freud’s theories of the unconscious

by Jenny Fabian

 Desire, our resistance of and capitulation to, is one of Freud’s great themes.  The deep-seated desires and repressions of the unconscious activate the imagination in the same way that dreams manifest themselves in the sleeping consciousness of the dreamer.  Both are illustrations of wish-fulfilment, and through Freud’s theories of the unconscious one can deduce a similarity between ‘dream-work’ and the creative process.  It is in the retelling of these desires that dreams and narratives have their relationship.

Screenprint of Freud by Andy Warhol (1980)

Freud believed in the magic of the spoken word, the expression in language, to reveal the representation of his patients’ dreams.  He used the term ‘dream-work’ to describe the process by which dreams emanate from the unconscious.  Freud contended that all desires are primarily sexual and Oedipal and situated within the id.  These desires are repressed by the superego in order for the ego, that which we call self, to develop as a social being.  But these desires often erupt out of the unconscious in various disguises, through slips of the tongue, psychosomatic conditions, and, when we are asleep, in dreams.  The dream content, the manifest, produced by dream-thoughts, the latent, presents itself in the form of ‘a pictographic script’ (1).  These signs have to be deciphered back into dream-thought to acquire the correct meaning.  Ian Rankin suitably named the detective in his crime thrillers Inspector Rebus, a rebus being a puzzle consisting of pictures and symbols representing syllables and words.

What Freud calls ‘secondary revision’ as applied to dreams is also applicable to narratives.  Dreams play with words as they express unacceptable infantile wishes that have escaped the censoring superego.  The dreamer, attempting to recall and retell a dream when awake, allows the ego to hearken to the censoring superego, and may thus revise the dream.  Here is a second chance to elaborate or conceal.  In the same way that the patient resists the analyst, so the reader brings his critical mind to the text.  Writing in the Guardian Review in 2006, Adam Phillips observes that Freud’s psychoanalytic writings have changed our reading habits: ‘Freud makes us wonder, among many other things, what we may be doing when we are reading, what the desire to read is a desire for.’ (2)

The writer, as the first reader of his own text, has to translate his ideas into a readable narrative, choosing, eliminating, searching for expression in the same way that dream-thoughts displace and condense.  Boundaries shift between the written and the read.  The reader might ask himself ‘what does the writer reallymean by that?’  Students of poetry pour over works in progress from past geniuses to examine the creative process.   Because Freud shows how a dream can stretch language and interpretation to the limit his work has become influential in fields outside psychoanalysis in dealing with the interpretation of texts.

Although an author acts consciously in that he chooses to write a sentence this way or that, or make a character behave one way or another, he is using what Freud calls the ‘psychical condition’ (a kind of telepathy) of the dreamer to search for his words and images.  It is as though the writer has entered a day-dream to engage in a dialogue with the repressed.  He uses displacement and condensation in order to convey an immediate effect, an atmosphere or mood, to lure the reader into his fantasy world.  Paul Ricoeur notes that ‘Freud himself compares condensation to an abbreviated, laconic turn of phrase’. (3) Poetry is a good example of condensation into metaphorical images.  In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Keats displaces his own unhappiness and concentrates on the nightingale and the world of beauty that it represents.  This desire of the senses is so vividly expressed that the poet asks himself at the end of the poem:  ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:- Do I wake or sleep?’

In the dream world things have a surreal quality as free association takes place.  A dream can be cunning – through displacement it might offer up the opposite image to the one the dream is related to, or, through overdetermination, condense many latent dream-thoughts into an unexpected symbol.  Laura Mulvey writes that condensation and overdetermination ‘can spark apparently random lines of association or thought, that then generate new movements or developments in a story line’. (4)  Writers will attempt to re-create the dream state by figurative language or by evoking a kind of unreality in the narrative.  Coleridge wrote a preface to his visionary poem ‘Kubla Khan’ to inform the reader this was a poem involuntarily written under the influence of a dream, interrupted by the appearance of a ‘Person from Porlock,’ which is the poet’s explanation for its fragmentary appearance.

Tales of horror and fantasy such as Gothic novels attempt to tap into suppressed fears of the unknown.  Mary Shelley describes her ‘psychical condition’ that brought Frankenstein to life.  Her brain was teeming with ghost stories and the Darwinian discussion between Byron and Shelley that she had been listening to, and she was unable to sleep. ‘My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.’  In his study of ‘The Uncanny’ Freud deduces that it is the manifestation of a recurring anxiety ‘…established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression’. (5) Like the captive of a dream, one becomes captive of an ‘Other,’ something that terrifies and fascinates at the same time.  Women crime writers have become successful at exploring the psychological riddle of evil; they confront fear on a daily basis and it is easy for them to disrupt the veneer of repression and return this fear to the conscious mind.

This creative state where association of ideas runs riot comes close to the ‘derangement of the senses’ that Rimbaud describes in a letter published in 1928 in the Revue européenne.  This takes us to the borderline of sanity where madness and the tortured genius sit in an uneasy alliance.  Freud was aware of this.  Elizabeth Wright points out that while Freud ‘relates art to the dream, along a path that leads “from the investigation of dreams to the analysis of works of imagination and ultimately to the analysis of their creators – writers and artist themselves”’ he also ‘relates the artist to the neurotic’. (6)

It must be remembered, however, that like the neurotic, the artist is not in fact inventing his narrative.  It is already there, in his unconscious, waiting to be released, in the same way, according to Freud, that ‘we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another’. (7) The imprint of our own identity, and all that has gone before us, myths, legends, fairy stories, constitute a vast ‘factory of thoughts’ (8) from which the author can weave his tale.   Further dimensions are added as the relationship between dreamer and analyst, writer and reader, the writer and himself are entered into.  An author is in one sense an analyst of his characters, yet how much is his writing a reflection of his own unconscious?  The text will have a hidden agenda that he may or may not be aware of, wish fulfilment disguised by language.  This could manifest itself in anything from romantic novels to fetish writings.  And future readers will bring their own desires to the narrative, lured in by a condensed cover blurb.

Cover of Steppenwolf from www.fantasticfiction.co.uk

The novel Steppenwolf (published 1927) was a direct production of the dream movement set in motion by Freud (curiously, one of Freud’s famous cases was know as the ‘Wolf Man’). At the time of writing Steppenwolf the author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) is known to have been on the analyst’s couch.  The significance of the initials HH for both the author and the subject of his book cannot be ignored.  The novel is introduced in the language of a case history, referring to Haller’s ‘records’ as ‘partly diseased, partly beautiful and thoughtful fantasies’.  The narrator who presents us with Haller’s account of himself closes the introduction with a curious reference to the superego: ‘Let every reader do as his conscience bids him’.  It is interesting that later Hesse felt his novel had been misunderstood as a work of despair, and in 1961 he added a note to this effect, hoping the reader would appreciate that the crisis of the Steppenwolf was ‘not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing’.  This is, of course, the aim of psychoanalysis.

Harry Haller, the protagonist of Steppenwolf, is a misanthrope living in the decadent Weimar world between the World Wars.  He finds himself trapped in the personality he has created for himself.  It is in the mind of Haller that the author positions himself, taking up the patriarchal position.  Haller is haunted by guilt and evil in the form of the devouring Steppenwolf, who courses through his soul like an uncontrollable id.  The desire for suicide is revealed as the repressed fear of death when Haller confronts rejection as a writer at a disastrous dinner party.  The aroma of death is constant throughout this book as it is in life, repressed, displaced, but intrinsic because it is the one certainty.

Haller yearns for the security of childhood, which, according to Freud, is both repressed and preserved.  Memories of these times, when life was ordered and secure, are triggered as he passes through the vestibule of the boarding house.  The androgynous courtesan Hermine appears to be the overdetermination of all his idealised childhood, for he sees in her the face of his childhood friend Herman, a representation of his own gilded youth.  As well as fulfilling Freud’s notion of the heroine as analyst, Hermine also symbolizes to Haller the sacred mother figure.  She takes him under her command and adopts his death wish; she tells Haller: ‘We live to fear it and then again love it, and just for death’s sake it is that our spark of life glows for an hour now and then so brightly.’

The Oedipal complex becomes displaced as Haller enters into his Faustian pact to kill Hermine.  The suicidal become the murderer ‘Her wish was fulfilled.  Before she had ever been mine, I had killed my love.’  The desire for his mother has been ultimately suppressed.  This infantile longing of the unconscious plays a key role in Freud’s definition of the creative process: ‘A strong experience in the present awakes in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work.  The work itself exhibits elements of the recent provoking occasion as well as of the old memory.’ (9)

Screenprint of Hermann Hesse by Andy Warhol

In the beginning of Steppenwolf Harry Haller has reached a stalemate; he has no one to confide in but himself.  Like Freud, he is analysing himself.  By the end of the book his miserable raison d’être has been exposed: he has lost the plot and is berated by his dead heroes Goethe and Mozart for abusing the Magic Theatre of life.  Mozart tells him to ‘apprehend the humour of life, its gallows-humour’.  He must learn to laugh.  Illusion is piled upon illusion as Haller resists Mozart, who invites him ‘to smoke another of my charming cigarettes’ and morphs into Pablo the jazz musician.  Freud says ‘that, in bringing about the humorous attitude, the super-ego is actually repudiating reality and serving an illusion’. (10)  This illusion is reinforced as Pablo picks up Hermine ‘who at once shrank in his fingers to the dimensions of a toy-figure and put her in the very same waistcoat-pocket from which he had taken the cigarette’. This final image confirms Laura Mulvey’s view that ‘In the drama of the male castration complex, as Freud discovered, women are no more than puppets.’ (11)

The author will write in an attempt to attain immortality by reproducing himself in print and doubtless investing his hero with a quality of indestructibility.  Here, Freud says, we recognise ‘His Majesty the Ego.’ (12) There is also the question of the double, a form of detachment from the rest of the ego.  Remarking on Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle define it thus: ‘According to Freud’s essay, the double is paradoxically both a promise of immortality ‘look, there’s my double, I can be reproduced, I can live forever) and a harbinger of death (look, there I am, no longer me here, but there: I am about to die or else I must be dead already).  The notion of the double undermines the very logic of identity’. (13) It is not only in the hero that traces of the author’s identity appear; he can project various desires onto other characters and allow them to be acted out accordingly.

A desire for a notion of ‘self’ is expressed in narratives as it is expressed in dreams.  If desire infiltrates all human intention it would follow that a narrative is the gratification of an author’s desire to express himself.  And for the reader, as Freud tells us: ‘The writer enables us…to enjoy our own fantasies without shame or self reproach.’ (14) We are all curious about emotional responses generated within ourselves as well as the nature of relationships we have with each other and the world in general.  We never cease to examine the complexity of these emotions, often contradictory, and literature, speaking to us as though from a dream, is itself a product of that great unknown, the unconscious.

Jenny Fabian



1 Freud, Sigmund, 1900.  ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ in Rivkin and Ryan, ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2002, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

2 Phillips, Adams, 2006.  Edited extract from introduction to the Freud Reader, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

3 Ricoeur, Paul, 1970.  Freud and Philosophy, London, Yale University Press.

4 Mulvey, Laura, 1989.  Visual and Other Pleasures, London, Macmillan.

5 Freud, Sigmund, 1919.  ‘The Uncanny’ in Rivkin and Ryan ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2002, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

6 Wright, Elizabeth, 1998.  Psychoanalytic Criticism, 2nd ed., Cambridge, Polity Press.

7 Freud, Sigmund, 1987.  Art and Literature, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

8 Freud, Sigmund, 1900.  ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ in Rivkin and Ryan, ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2002, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

9 Freud, Sigmund, 1987.  Art and Literature, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

10 ibid.

11 Mulvey, Laura, 1989.  Visual and Other Pleasures, London, Macmillan.

12 Freud, Sigmund, 1987.  Art and Literature, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

13 Bennet, Andrew, & Royle, Nicholas, 1995.  An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory,Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

14 Freud, Sigmund, 1907.   ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’.




Jenny Fabian, the only child of sporting legend Howard Fabian and his wife Vivian, spent her formative years at a boys’ public boarding school before attending Francis Holland C of E School for Girls.  She married twice and had four children. After dropping out to become a so-called “unrepentant child of the sub-culture”, she dropped further out to work with horses and greyhounds.  She returned to the normal world about 2000 and now lives in London.  She has written for theGuardian, the Observer, Harper/Queen, Mojo, Uncut, Field, Wisden, and has contributed to various anthologies. She is the author of the best-selling “autobiographical” novels,  Groupie and A Chemical Romance.


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