World Literature

Sigmund Freud


BORN: 1856, Freiberg, Moravia (now Czech Republic)

DIED: 1939, London, England


GENRE: Nonfiction


The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)

On Narcissism (1914)

Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)

The Ego and the Id (1923)

Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)



Sigmund Freud. Hulton Archive / Getty Images



The work of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, marked the beginning of a modern, dynamic psychology by providing the first systematic explanation of the inner mental forces determining human behavior.

Early in his career Sigmund Freud distinguished himself as a histologist, neuropathologist, and clinical neurologist, and in his later life he was acclaimed as a talented writer and essayist. Freud is considered one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century for his development of the theories and methodologies of psychoanalysis. Central to his theory is the concept of the unconscious, which he described as a primitive region of the psyche containing emotions, memories, and drives that are hidden from and repressed by the conscious mind. Under his guidance, psychoanalysis became the dominant modern theory of human psychology and a major tool of research, as well as an important method of psychiatric treatment that currently has thousands of practitioners all over the world.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

His Mother’s Favorite. Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. Sigmund was the first child of his twice-widowed father’s third marriage. His mother, Amalia Nathanson, was nineteen years old when she married Jacob Freud, aged thirty-nine. Sigmund’s two stepbrothers from his father’s first marriage were approximately the same age as his mother, and his older stepbrother’s son, Sigmund’s nephew, was his earliest playmate. Thus, the boy grew up in an unusual family structure, his mother halfway in age between himself and his father. Though seven younger children were born, Sigmund always remained his mother’s favorite. When he was four, the family moved to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and one of the great cultural, scientific, and medical centers of Europe. Freud remained in Vienna until a year before his death.

Youth in Vienna. Freud went to the local elementary school and attended the humanistic high school (or gymnasium) from 1866 to 1873. He studied Greek and Latin, mathematics, history, and the natural sciences, and was a superior student. He passed his final examination with flying colors, qualifying to enter the University of Vienna at the age of seventeen. His family had recognized his special scholarly gifts from the beginning, and although they had only four bedrooms for eight people, Sigmund had his own room throughout his school days. As was the custom at the time, he lived with his parents well into adulthood, moving out when he was twenty-seven.

Pre-Psychoanalytic Work. Freud first considered studying law but then enrolled in medical school. He spent seven instead of the usual five years acquiring his doctorate, taking time to work in the zoological and anatomical laboratories of the famous Ernst Brucke. At nineteen he conducted his first independent research project while on a field trip, and at twenty he published his first scientific paper.

Freud received his doctor of medicine degree at the age of twenty-four and went on to spend three years as a resident physician in the famous Allgemeine Krankenhaus, a general hospital that was the medical center of Vienna. Psychiatry at that time was static and descriptive. A patient’s signs and symptoms were carefully observed and recorded in the hope that doing so would lead to a correct diagnosis of an organic disease of the brain, which was assumed to be the basis of all psychopathology (mental disorder). The psychological meaning of behavior was not itself considered important; behavior was only a set of symptoms to be studied in order to understand the structures of the brain. Freud’s later work revolutionized this attitude; yet, like all scientific revolutions, this one grew from a thorough understanding of and expertise in the traditional methods.

During the last part of his residency Freud received a grant to pursue his neurological studies abroad. He spent four months at the Salpetriere clinic in Paris, studying under the neurologist Jean Martin Charcot. Here, Freud first became interested in hysteria and Charcot’s demonstration of its psychological origins. Thus, Freud’s development of a psychoanalytic approach to mental disorders was rooted in nineteenth-century neurology rather than in the psychiatry of the era.

Beginning of Psychoanalysis. Freud returned to Vienna, established himself in the private practice of neurology, and married. He soon devoted his efforts to the treatment of hysterical patients with the help of hypnosis, a technique he had studied under Charcot. Joseph Breuer, an older colleague who had become Freud’s friend and mentor, told Freud about a hysterical patient whom he had treated successfully by hypnotizing her and then tracing her symptoms back to traumatic events she had experienced at her father’s deathbed. Breuer called his treatment ‘‘catharsis’’ and attributed its effectiveness to the release of ‘‘pent-up emotions.’’ Freud’s experiments with Breuer’s technique were successful, demonstrating that hysterical symptoms could consistently be traced to highly emotional experiences that had been ‘‘repressed,’’ or excluded from conscious memory. Together with Breuer he published Studies on Hysteria (1895), which included several theoretical chapters, a series of Freud’s case studies, and Breuer’s initial case study. At the age of thirty-nine Freud first used the term psychoanalysis, and his major lifework was well under way.

At about this time Freud began a unique undertaking, his own self-analysis, which he pursued primarily by analyzing his dreams. As he proceeded, his personality changed. He developed a greater inner security, and his at times impulsive emotional responses became less marked. A major scientific result was The Interpretation of Dreams (1901). In this book he argues that the dreams of every person, just like the symptoms of a hysterical or an otherwise neurotic person, serve as a ‘‘royal road’’ to the understanding of unconscious mental processes, which have great importance in determining behavior. By the turn of the century Freud had increased his knowledge of the formation of neurotic symptoms to include conditions and reactions other than hysteria. He had also developed his therapeutic technique, dropping the use of hypnosis and shifting to the more effective and more widely applicable method of ‘‘free association.’’

Development of Psychoanalysis Following his work on dreams, Freud wrote a series of papers in which he explored the influence of unconscious mental processes on virtually every aspect of human behavior—slips of the tongue and simple errors of memory (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901), humor (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905) and artistic creativity (Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, 1910)—as well as cultural institutions (Totem and Taboo, 1912). He recognized that predominant among the unconscious forces that lead to neuroses are the sexual desires of early childhood that have been excluded from conscious awareness, yet have preserved their dynamic force within the personality. He described his highly controversial views concerning infantile sexuality in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), a work that initially met vehement protest but was gradually accepted by practically all schools of psychology. During this period he also published a number of case histories and a series of articles dealing with psychoanalysis as therapy.

After 1902 Freud gathered a small group of interested people on Wednesday evenings for presentations of psychoanalytic papers and discussion. This was the beginning of the psychoanalytic movement. Swiss psychiatrists Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung formed a study group in Zurich in 1907, and the first International Psychoanalytic Congress was held in Salzburg in 1908. In 1909 Freud was invited to give five lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He considered this invitation the first official recognition to be extended to his new science.

At the same time Freud made a major revision in his theory of childhood sexuality. He first thought that his neurotic patients had actually experienced sexual seductions in childhood, but he then realized that his patients were usually describing childhood fantasies, or wishes, rather than actual events. He retracted his earlier statement on infantile sexuality, but he rejected neither the data nor the theory—he simpy reformulated both. Later, as psychoanalysis became better established, several of Freud’s closest colleagues broke with him and established groups of their own, some of which continue to this day. Among them, Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, and Wilhelm Reich are the best known.

Later Years. In 1923 Freud developed a cancerous growth in his mouth that led to his death sixteen years and thirty-three operations later. Despite his ill health, these were years of great scientific productivity. He published findings on the importance of aggressive as well as sexual drives (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920); developed a new theoretical framework to organize his new data concerning the structure of the mind ( The Ego and the Id, 1923); revised his theory of anxiety, which he now interpreted as a signal of danger emanating from unconscious fantasies rather than the result of repressed sexual feelings (Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, 1926); and discussed religion, civilization, and further questions of theory and technique.

In March 1938 Austria was occupied by German troops, and Freud and his family were put under house arrest. Through the combined efforts of Marie Bonaparte, Princess of Greece; British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones; and W. C. Bullitt, the American ambassador to France, the Freuds were permitted to leave Austria in June. Freud’s keen mind and ironic sense of humor were evident when, forced to flee his home at the age of eighty-two, suffering from cancer, and in mortal danger, he was asked to sign a document attesting that he had been treated well by the Nazi authorities; as biographer Ernest Jones quoted, he added in his own handwriting, ‘‘I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.’’ Freud spent his last year in London, undergoing surgery. He died on September 23, 1939. The influence of his discoveries on the science and culture of the twentieth century is incalculable.



Freud's famous contemporaries include:

Arthur Clive Heward Bell (1881-1964): English art critic and prominent proponent of formalism in aesthetics. Bell was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, an English collective responsible for influencing literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics.

Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940): British conservative best known for appeasing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis with his signing of the 1938 Munich Agreement.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970): English novelist, short-story writer, and essayist best known for his novels examining class difference and hypocrisy in early twentieth-century British society.

Carl Jung (1875-1961): Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychoanalysis who is typically considered first a follower of Freud who then developed theoretical differences, split from Freud, and formed a new school of thought.



In The Ego and the Id, Freud introduced a conceptual framework for the basic structure of the psyche, a framework he extended in theory throughout his career. Here are a few works by writers who covered similar subjects:

13 Dreams Freud Never Had (2005), a nonfiction book by J. Allan Hobson, M.D. Neuroscientific study of the dreaming brain-mind, as reported by a Harvard psychiatrist and neuroscientist who uses his own dreams for the study.

Man and His Symbols (1964), a work of nonfiction by Carl G. Jung. Jung's most significant theories as collected and explained by contemporaries, experts, and scholars.

The Writings of Anna Freud (1974), a nonfiction collection by Anna Freud. Collected papers and lectures on child development and psychology by the daughter of Sigmund Freud.


Works in Literary Context

Personal Life Influence. Freud’s personal life has long been a subject of interest to admirers and critics. An intensely private man, Freud made several attempts to thwart future biographers by destroying personal papers. However, his scientific work, his friends, and his extensive correspondence allow historians to paint a vivid picture.

Freud was an imposing man, although physically small. He read extensively, loved to travel, and was an avid collector of archeological curiosities. As an adult, Freud did not practice Judaism as a religion. Despite this fact, his Jewish cultural background and tradition were important influences on his thinking. He considered himself Jewish and maintained contact with Jewish organizations; one of his last works was a study of Moses and the Jewish people. Devoted to his family, he always practiced in a consultation room attached to his home. He was intensely loyal to his friends and inspired loyalty in a circle of disciples that persists to this day.

Professional Influence. His bold and original sexual theories influenced colleagues and have provoked ongoing controversy. Freud’s insistence on the libido as the dominant human drive led to breaks with some of his illustrious followers, notably Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, who respectively emphasized a ‘‘will to power’’ and a mythic/spiritual questing as important sources of unconscious energy. But the Freud-led international psychoanalytic movement gained considerable influence in professional circles in the period before World War I, and Freudian theory had been popularized in Europe and the United States by the 1920s. Freud’s Vorlesungen zur Einfuehrung in die Psychoanalyse (General Introduction to Psychoanalysis), published in 1916 and translated into English four years later, introduced his basic ideas about dreams, errors, sexual development, and neurosis to a general readership.


Works in Critical Context

While Freudian concepts and language now suffuse Western culture, psychoanalytic theory remains highly controversial more than half a century after Freud’s death. He continues to be criticized for exaggerating unconscious sexual motivations, and many of his theories about female sexuality are now widely dismissed. More fundamentally, the very concept of an unconscious yet communicative mind has been challenged and psychoanalysis itself belittled as pseudoscience.

But Freud himself made only limited claims for the therapeutic value of psychoanalysis. Whether or not his theories hold up—and there is still much argument on both sides—his genius in introducing an entirely new way of thinking about human behavior is universally acknowledged.

While most of his works have earned recognition for making profound contributions to Western culture, one theory as well as one other work stand out: psychosexual theory and The Interpretation of Dreams.

Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory. Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory (1905) secured Freud’s international reputation and notoriety. In it, the Viennese psychiatrist outlines the childhood stages of sexual development, whose successful passage he thought vital to adult happiness and psychic equilibrium.

The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In this book, which remains one of his most widely read works, the psychiatrist states that dreams often express unconscious desires (or deep-seated wishes) in symbolic form. While many readers found these ideas interesting, some critics were less impressed. An unnamed reviewer for The Nation states of the book, ‘‘The layman must certainly see in this conception much that will appear to him fantastic, if not absurd. The psychologist must see in it the building of a huge structure upon a very slim and unstable foundation.’’ Carl Jung, in a 1933 essay on the differences between him and Freud, describes the book as an instance of Freud putting ‘‘his peculiar mental disposition naively on view,’’ and faults the author for not supporting his basic premise.


Responses to Literature

1. Consider Freud’s biography in relation to The Interpretation of Dreams. What similarities exist between his life and his work?

2. What questions would you ask Freud about dreams if he were alive today? What, if any, challenges to his ideas might you pose?




Gay, Peter. A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Green, Geoffrey. Freud and Nabokov. Nebraska University Press, 1988.

Jones, Ernest. Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. New York: Basic Books, 1961.

Malcolm, Janet. In the Freud Archives. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, 1984

Paul, Robert A. Moses and Civilization: The Meaning behind Freud’s Myth. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

‘‘Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).’’ Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Laurie Di Mauro. Vol. 52. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. p. 79-140.


Hazlitt, Henry. ‘‘The Neurosis of Civilization.’’ Nation (September 17, 1930).

Lippmann, Walter. ‘‘Freud and the Layman.’’ The New Republic (April 17, 1915).

Web sites

Discovery Education. The Interpretation of Dreams. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from dreams.

Rice, Julia. Sigmund Freud and His Interpretation of Dreams and The Sigmund Freud Webquest. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from Last updated on January 1, 2002.