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. In this case, Freud produced the most inferior interpretations, and adopted a rough attitude towards the patient. He admitted that it was a failure, caused by his own transference toward the patient. Freud speculated that Dora masturbated as a child, despite Dora’s unswerving insistence that she could not remember it. Nevertheless, it became, for Freud, an established fact. Freud approached this young girl with sex talk, explaining to her that she wanted him to kiss her (cf. Bernheimer & Kahane, p. 260).

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 sketch an alternative understanding of the dreams. 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 travelling 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 the two. However, a strong identification with the mother may hamper a girl’s development. Although the 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. This truth is related by the father in the dream, which is typical, because the fatherly principle stands for individuation and directionality.

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 often represents an outworn, petrified, collective conscious system, pertaining 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 and conscious method of travelling in life, along with all the others. 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! On the surface, they have a frivolous attitude about it, which is rather 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 could be understood as a forest warden, i.e., an expert on the unconscious, perhaps 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 is not frivolous, but says that the process will take time. But she rejects his help, much 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 frustration as she seemingly remains 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 ideals and directionality 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 travelling 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 reestablishes connection with the mother (the motherly principle) she will be able to become a 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 may not remain unconscious anymore, since the inept fatherly, conscious, principle is bound to be 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 the maternal dream figure dies it could signify fatal consequences. 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, because it doesn’t seem like she has any big problems with her unconscious. 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. Evidently, 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 obsolete (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 more or less 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 the old outworn ways in society.

Dora, in the dream, ended up trying to find her bearings in an unknown Austrian town. Adapting to its culture did not really work. 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 accept your baser instincts. It’s not much of a fatherly ideal to base your life on!

Number symbolism

When Dora asks for direction, people cursorily reply “Five minutes”. It is only seemingly thoughtless, because this is really the gist of the dream. The unknown town would be symbolic of the unconscious, too, since she is become lost in her youthful unconsciousness. Evidently, the unconscious is overwhelmingly in support of the number 5, since she gets this reply a hundred times. The word minute is derived from Latin ‘minutus’, which means small. The unconscious says that the solution to her predicament is really something simple, and it involves the number five.

The dream function is excessively fond of number symbolism. According to Marie-Louise von Franz (1974), every natural number expresses a wholeness of a kind. Thus, the forest warden’s reply, “Two and a half hours more”, expresses not a wholeness but a split condition: neither two nor three, but in between. He also conveys that this split condition, similar to the psychoanalytic situation, must remain for a considerable longer time than the five minutes. The number five is connected with the alchemical idea of the ‘quinta essentia’, which expresses sublime spiritual unity of the four elements. Still today, it is held in high regard in China. Von Franz says:

The great significance of the quincunx, the centered four, may be reexamined in its primal form in ancient Chinese number theory, where five stands in the center of the first number series, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (before ten) […] In China the number five stands for the element of the earth carrying and centering all things at the center of the foundations of existence. The yellow color ascribed to this earth center characterizes it, nonetheless, as a spiritual principle, not as the concrete soil of the earth. It is the principle of k’un, the expanding feminine, which brings the spirit into material and spatial manifestation. It stands at the center of quaternary mandala structures. The primal one made manifest, and its progressive ordering effect on the number hierarchy, is also recognizable in the number fifty as a symbol “de la grand expansion.”
Five is the center of four. The rectangle represents the totality of the kingdom and every temple, and was utilized for army encampments as well as town plans. (Von Franz, 1974, p. 123)

The expanding feminine earth spirit k’un, manifesting materially, is what she should rely on, says a hundred people. This is also what solves the dreamer’s predicament — she is carried home to safety on the wave of the unconscious, as it were. The movement toward an independent life is carried out by an unconscious autonomous power, and not by following a conscious principle, i.e., going by train along already laid out railway tracks, which is what she expected. In traditional China, the sages taught that we must allow ourselves to be guided by the Tao. Tao represents the right way, as well as the matrix of reality itself.

The Way of Tao is ultimately beyond the bounds of human conception, so it is largely unconscious. It would explain why the Chinese saw the number five as auspicious, because it bespeaks a creativity of the unconscious itself, a dynamic force of spiritual manifestation. To be guided by this force requires a simple consciousness. Silence is the way to Tao. So, in a way, it is child’s play: “five minutes”. So long as one is attuned to the number five, one can ride on the wave of Tao. Arguably, the dream compensates the rationalistic standpoint which does not allow for a passive consciousness. She should instead have reliance on the natural force of youthful life.

The “forest warden” is a mysterious figure. Arguably, he is the soul guide (animus), an unconscious correspondence of the psychoanalytic doctor. His notion of staying a long time in the conflictive realm between wholenesses two and tree, torn between unconscious and conscious, would represent a more serious approach. It would require an attempt at self-analysis, which implies building a relation to the unconscious. Due to her youthful age, such a development was out of the question. However, had she been older, this could have been the only option. In that case, the journey would not lead back to the safe harbour of motherhood. Rather, she would probably have been escorted to the forest warden’s castle. So this figure would represent a relational attitude to the unconscious — a possible future development. Since she was young, she could instead rely on the impetus of nature, which is what the hundred common people related to her.


© Mats Winther, 2006 (July 2015: added ‘number symbolism’).


Bernheimer, C. & Kahane, C. (eds.) (1990). In Dora’s Case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism. Columbia University Press.

Franz, M-L von (1974). Number and Time. London: Rider & Company.

Freud, S. (2001). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol.7. Vintage Classics. (1905)