The case of “Dora”

Sigmund Freud’s famous case of “Dora” (ps.) has received much attention. It was one of Freud’s failures. Dora, on good grounds, rejected Freud’s interpretations and abruptly terminated the analysis. Notwithstanding Freud’s intellectual magnitude, in this case he produced the most inferior interpretations, and adopted a rough attitude towards the patient. Freud speculated that Dora masturbated as a child, despite Dora’s steadfast insistence that she could not remember it. Nevertheless, it became, for Freud, an established fact. Freud approached this teenager with sex talk and by explaining to her that she wanted him to kiss her.

I want to show that it would have been possible to succeed where Freud failed. To make sense of dream images one must avoid Freud’s technique of projecting ‘latent content’ onto the dream images. Instead one must keep to the images. What you see is what you get. It is necessary to investigate the image context with the aid of the patient. In the following I propose an alternative understanding of the dreams, although my interpretations will be somewhat sketchy. Here are the two dreams:

Dream 1:

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 children be burnt for the sake of your jewel-case.” We hurried downstairs, and as soon as I was outside I woke up.

Dream 2:

I was walking about in a town which I did not know. I saw streets and squares which were strange to me. 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 town without my parents’ knowledge she had not wished to write to me saying that Father was ill. “Now he is dead, and if you like you can come.” I then went to the station and asked about a hundred times: “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. I saw the station in front of me and could not reach it. At the same time I had the usual feeling that one has in dreams when one cannot move forward. Then I was at home. I must have been traveling in the meantime, but I know nothing about that. I walked into the porter’s lodge, and inquired for our flat. The maidservant opened the door to me and replied that Mother and the others were already at the cemetery.


Dora’s two dreams seem to be generally straightforward anticipatory dreams about growing up and becoming a woman. The jewels were owned and used jointly by her and her mother. Thus, they represent the bond between them two. However, a strong identification with the mother can hamper a girls development. Although this relation is precious (precious stones) it must be sacrificed. This is a very typical theme when entering a new phase in life; one must be prepared to make sacrifices, and leave the precious stones in the fire.

In popular belief, a burning house portends that somebody is going to die. We learn in the next dream that it is the father. This is a common theme in fairytales. The old sick king or father generally represents an outworn, petrified, collective conscious system, which pertains to ways of life, beliefs, and collective mores. The old ways, i.e. her father’s ways, are going to die. The modern world is breaking in to replace the Victorian age (in part thanks to Freud). Up until now she has lived in her father’s house, believing that life has been staked out. But things are going to change because the old collective conscious system is going to burn down. At least, Dora will come to regard the demands on her as outmoded ideals.

These changes will leave Dora in an unknown town where she cannot find her whereabouts. She has lost her bearing and cannot find the station. “Going by train” is making use of a collective conscious method of traveling in life. Still, she cannot find a collective rule to live by. When she asks people about it they perfunctorily reply “Five minutes.” It’s like they brush her aside by saying that it’s a piece of cake! They have a frivolous attitude about it, which is very typical of common people.

So she becomes lost in the wood, that is, she remains in an unconscious state. The wood is a very typical symbol of the unconscious, and of loosing one’s bearing in the wilderness. The man in the wood can be understood as a forest warden, i.e., an expert on the unconscious, that is, a therapist or a soul guide of some sort (so this man is not necessarily Herr K. who had made a proposal to her). This man, unlike uninformed people, is not frivolous but says that the process will take time. But she rejects his help, exactly like she in reality came to reject the “forest warden” Freud.

She wanders through the wood and doesn’t seem to make any headway. This means that consciously she will experience it as frustrating when she seems to be stuck in an unconscious state. She can’t get to the train station, that is, she can’t find the means to get out of her bewildered condition. She is at loss, because she lacks her mother to lean on. The father, too, representing the collective way of life, i.e., the means of travel, is dying.

Suddenly she finds that she has arrived at home. She relates that “I must have been traveling in the meantime, but I know nothing about that”. This, like I said, implies that she travels unconsciously. Although she has not adopted a conscious way of life, the current of the unconscious takes her along, without her knowing it. It is like sailing on the ocean and you find that the current has brought you a long distance. This phenomenon is very typical for young people, who swim with the tide. It often occurs in psychoanalysis, too, that the patient after a long time has resolved a problem without the analyst quite knows how.

She returns home when mother and father are at the cemetery. They are out of the picture (out of the house), although mother is still living. This is proper. As she re-establishes connection with the mother (the motherly principle) she will be able to become mother herself and rule a house of her own. However, she must acknowledge that the old father principle is out of the picture by going to his burial. This implies that the father is not sick anymore, which he was when she resided in her state of neurotic bewilderment. Now he is truly dead and she is not unconscious anymore, since the inept fatherly, conscious, principle has been replaced. The renewal of the motherly relation is rather typical, I’d say. Women never really terminate the relation with the motherly principle, because they must sooner or later identify with this role themselves.

Note that the mother is not dead, because she, unlike the father, cannot really die. If she dies it could be fatal to Dora. Since the motherly principle is associated with bodily life it could even imply illness and death. Both the mother and the father behave very properly in both dreams. Thus, Dora seems to have a healthy unconscious that is able to point to the future. There is no sense of pathology in these dreams, although it’s clear that she will have trouble in the conscious sphere. At this stage in life this young woman cannot have been very ill. She might have had a nervous disposition and been troubled because of life’s circumstances.

It seems that Dora was revolting against the female role in her Victorian upbringing. She refused to do any homework. She was discontent and could not fit in. She was too intelligent to accept a dwarfed female role. Freud regarded her as quite intelligent. Her problem was that she could not find a suitable social role and society seemed to suffocate her. After all, she had seen what her mother was like.

Freud regarded this case as a petite hysterie. But probably she was not a hysteric, that is, there was no underlying sexual neurosis. The sick fatherly ideal, i.e., the Victorian ideals, together with her mother’s dwarfed form of femininity, might have been formative of Dora’s neurosis. One might add that Dora was doubly oppressed. She was not only oppressed as a woman; she was also Jewish by birth, living in a largely anti-Semitic surrounding. She must have felt isolated among schoolmates. There is no wonder that she was quite frustrated. In the dream, when she returned home for her father’s burial, she felt “not at all sad”. It symbolizes that a new consciousness is growing in her, and that she is not obliged to adapt to he old outworn ways in society.

Dora, in the dream, ended up trying to live in an unknown Austrian town and adapt to this culture, which does not really accept her. So, perhaps, this is why she becomes lost in the wood. There was no place for her in life. There was no father figure that could show her the way, even if she asked a hundred persons. Not even Freud could help her. His fatherly conception is to accepts your baser instincts. It’s not much of a fatherly ideal to base your life on!


© Mats Winther, 2006.