Sigmund Freud was born on 6 May 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Czech Republic)). His father Jakob was a wool merchant, and Freud's mother, Amalie, was Jakob's second wife. Jakob had two sons from his first marriage, and at the time of his birth, one of Freud's half-brothers was already married and had a child. Freud had two brothers (one died in his first year) and five sisters from his father's second marriage. In 1859 Freud's family moved to Leipzig, then settled in Vienna in 1860, where Freud went to study medicine at the age of 17 in 1873, and completed his final examinations in 1881. Freud was a highly intellectual child living in cosmopolitan imperial city with a large middle-class Jewish population. He learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and English, and read widely in European literatures, tackling Shakespeare from the age of 8. His main interests, however, lay in zoology, physiology and neurology, and from the late 1870s to 1882 he worked with the German physiologist Ernst Brücke (1819-92) who believed that consciousness could be understood by examining its physical and chemical causation. Freud always saw himself primarily as a scientist, and constantly stressed the scientific foundations of psychoanalysis. In 1882, whilst working at the General Hospital in Vienna, Freud became engaged to Martha Bernays, whom he married in 1886 and with whom he had three sons (Martin, Ernst and Oliver) and three daughters (Anna, Sophie and Mathilde).

Early psychoanalysis: hysteria, dreams and case studies

In 1885-6 Freud studied with the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière (a mental asylum for hysterical women in Paris), a period in which his interests shifted from neurology to pathology, and during which he observed the use of hypnotic suggestion in the treatment of hysteria. Current theory held that hysteria derived from inherited mental degeneration, “bad blood”, abuse of alcohol or syphilis, but Charcot showed that hysterical symptoms would vanish when patients were hypnotised, proving that the cause was psychological rather than physiological. After observing the work of Lièbault and Bernheim in Nancy in 1889, Freud concluded that hypnosis was of limited therapeutic value, and his emphasis shifted to the use of free association as an analytic technique. In 1895, with his friend Josef Breuer, Freud published Studien über Hysterie [Studies on Hysteria, 1936], a report of five case-histories, with essays exploring the causation and psychotheraphy of hysteria, in which Freud and Breuer stressed the function of sexuality and repression, the effect of pre-pubertal sexual seduction in causing neurotic illness, and their ability to remove symptoms once the patient could be persuaded to remember and talk about the experience which was its original cause. Freud subsequently abandoned seduction theory in favour of a theory of fantasised sexual experiences (hence the recent controversies in which Freud is accused of concealing actual child abuse).

Freud first deployed the term psychoanalysis in a paper written in French in 1896. The following year he began his self-analysis, after the death of his father at the age of 81. This process of self-analysis is intimately bound up with his landmark work, Die Traumdeutung [1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913] in which he declared that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of unconscious activities of the mind”. According to Freud the motive force behind each dream is a repressed wish that seeks a fulfilment it cannot achieve in waking life. To find expression, the wish uses material from recent experience, day-residues, somatic stimuli and early memories relating to infantile erotic desire. The dream-wish also deploys symbols drawn from cultural sources, and “typical” symbols that appear to feature in the dreams of many patients. Freud's discussion of these recurrent symbols in dreams – for example, long objects (cigars, swords, pens) are taken to represent the penis, whilst enclosures or receptacles (caves, drawers, pockets) stand for the female genitals – gave rise to “vulgar Freudianism” according to which all dream-images can be interpreted through a reductive code. Freud, however, stressed the need to contextualise images and symbols in the course of dream-interpretation. Freud's main focus is on the form of desire in dreams: the meaning of dreams lies not in their manifest content, but in the ways in which repressed wishes and latent dream-thoughts are disguised and distorted by what he terms the dream-work. The dream-work transforms or translates the latent content of the dream into a manifest form that the dreamer can remember (and relate in the analytic situation). The four central features of the dream-work are condensation, displacement, considerations of representability and secondary revision. Condensation involves the creation of composite structures and figures within the dream, through a process of connecting and synthesising disparate thoughts. It involves overdetermination, the combination of often widely divergent thoughts and wishes. In displacement, which Freud (borrowing from Nietzsche) describes as a “transvaluation of psychical values”, elements of high intensity and value in the latent dream are replaced by ideas which are of lesser value in the manifest dream. Thus the manifest dream presents only a distorted from of the latent dream-wish. Considerations of representability, or the means by which dream-thoughts are represented in the dream, is the third component of the dream-work. The language of representation, the way in which images are formed, in the manifest dream resembles a rebus – a chain of ideograms or pictographs that leaves the dreamer (and, in turn, the dream-interpreters) to forge her/his own syntactical connections. The final aspect of dream-work is secondary revision, another distorting activity that acts as both editor and censor of the dream. In secondary revision, the dream loses some of its apparent absurdity and disconnectedness, and approximates “to the model of an intelligible experience”. In order to understand the underlying dream-wish, the analyst must decipher the multiple disguises, digressions and distortions the wish undergoes in the dream-work. The dream, like the neurotic symptom, is a “compromise formation” in which the unconscious wish both resists and succumbs to censorship and prohibition. Since the dream-work is predominantly a matter of word and image, the technique of dream-interpretation is akin to literary analysis, but Freud strongly emphasises the irreducible distance between conscious and unconscious thought: dreams do not want to be understood, and the full meaning of a dream can never be deciphered.

The Interpretations of Dreams brought psychoanalysis to an international audience. In 1904, Freud published Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens [The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1914], in which he discusses the slips of the tongue (parapraxes), apparently chance actions and apparently innocent forgetting of words that reveal how the unconscious threads itself into the fabric of conscious, waking life. Two more major works followed in 1905: Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten [trans. A. A. Brill as Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, 1916; now usually entitled Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious] and Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie [Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory, 1910], which includes the famous “Dora” case study. In addition to the “Dora” study, Freud published a number of other case histories: “Little Hans” and the “Rat Man” (both 1909), Schreber (1911), the “Wolf Man” (1918) and “A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” (1920). The “Rat Man”, Ernst Lanzer, suffered from obsessional neurosis, which was expressed predominantly in the compulsive rituals he adopted to ward off the fear that catastrophe would befall his father or his beloved. Freud located the roots of Lanzer's obsession in a conflictual attitude to his sexual desires in childhood – particularly his sexual experiences with a governess and the fear of discovery by his father. Freud viewed this as a successful analysis, but the long-term efficacy of the cure remains unproven: the analysis was cut short by World War I, in which Lanzer died. The neurosis of the “Wolf Man”, Sergei Pankiev, was also linked by Freud to childhood sexual experiences. Pankiev acquired his name from a recurrent nightmare that he related to Freud; in this dream, he saw six or seven white wolves perched on a tree outside his bedroom window. Freud traced this dream back to a “real” event in which the Wolf Man, as a small child, witnessed his father penetrating his mother from behind. Whether fact or fantasy – and Freud's construction of the dream is itself questionable – this primal scene of parental intercourse, and the Wolf Man's later erotic initiation by his sister, provoked anxieties about love and sex, aggression and passivity that continued into adulthood. The analysis remained incomplete, and late in his life Pankiev expressed scepticism about the validity of Freud's interpretation. The conflict over interpretation was more pronounced in the case of “Dora”, or the eighteen-year-old Ida Bauer. Dora appeared to exhibit the classic symptoms of hysteria, including fainting spells and the loss of her voice for periods of time. The analysis revealed that Dora was an unwilling participant in a complicated sexual and emotional tangle involving her father and family friends. Her father was having an affair with Frau K., with whom Dora was closely involved, and Herr K. had made several sexual advances to Dora by the time she was sixteen, occasioning bouts of hysterical behaviour. While Dora told Freud that she felt manipulated by the adults around her – and he accepted her version of events – Freud repeated this manipulation by insisting that Dora actually loved Herr K., and her hysteria was generated by her repressed desires for him. Dora contested Freud's interpretation, and the analytic relationship proved highly combative, with Dora finally terminating the analysis. This case history reveals a number of central issues for the analytic situation: it involves (sometimes unequal) power relations, it can be subject to an exchange of desires between patient and analyst (termed transference by Freud) and it demonstrates that each analysis, as Freud admitted, constitutes a provisional interpretation rather than scientific orthodoxy.


As the case studies demonstrate, Freud regarded neurotic and hysterical symptoms as deriving primarily, although not exclusively, from sexual desires. He showed how the neuroses of adulthood were related to childhood desires, and their frustration or prohibition by parental and social forces. This focus on infantile sexuality, and children's fascination with bodily satisfaction, was the most contentious area of his theory. For Freud, the earliest stage of development is that of polymorphous perversity. The infant only slowly learns to distinguish between inner and outer worlds, and individuation is a process of learning that there is a boundary separating one's body from external reality. During this process, the child also learns that her/ his desires are not always satisfied, and that she/he needs to communicate this lack or insufficiency to others. For Freud, the primordial form of (sexual) satisfaction for the child is found in the mother's breast, which provides food and comfort, and places the child at the centre of parental attention. Freud terms this first phase of erotic gratification the oral stage. The child next discovers the satisfaction of defecation; in this anal stage the child's growing self-awareness is tied to its control over excretory functions. The child's ability to evacuate bodily waste can be read as a form of gift to its parents. The third phase of erotic development that Freud identifies is the genital stage, when the infant becomes aware of the genitals as a source of stimulation.

The first objects of the child's desire are the parents, and this desire places the child in the Oedipal scenario that Freud argues shapes every family, and is the common determinant of subject-formation. He termed the recurrent pattern in which the child desires the parent of the opposite sex, and expresses jealousy or even murderous hatred towards the other parent, the Oedipus complex. The baby covets the mother's attention, and desires to have her love exclusively, but soon realises that the father is a love-rival, and this competition provokes a longing to kill or displace the father. This wish to have the mother and remove the father remains unfulfilled, however: the powerful father threatens to punish the child – symbolically castrate him – for his illicit desires, and to protect himself the child must accept the prohibition of his impulses. Freud calls this fear of the loss of the penis the castration complex and sees it as establishing a renunciation of the instincts which continues adulthood, where the subject recognises the restrictions placed by social codes and institutions on the satisfaction of his wishes. Problematically, this universal pattern of psychosexual development is based on the model of the male child, and presumes the normalcy of a heterosexual rather than homosexual orientation. The injunction against incestuous desire for the mother centres on the threat of castration, the removal of the organ of sexual satisfaction for the little boy. How, then, does the little girl negotiate the Oedipal stage? Even if the scenario is reversed for her – she desires the father and hates the mother – the nature of the threat of castration still causes conceptual difficulties for Freud. He argues that the little girl treats her lack of a penis as an indication that she has already been castrated, and the cause of this lack appears to be her mother, who did not give one to the girl and who similarly lacks a penis. In frustration, the girl turns to her father who can at least provide a baby as a substitute for her missing penis. Thus, while boys develop a castration anxiety, girls develop penis envy. This hypothesis has proved highly controversial for many other psychoanalysts and later feminist critics.

Freud's Oedipal story may be open to strenuous critique, and this aspect of his sexual theory has predominated in accounts of his ideas. Yet, given that it draws on a literary source, and shows how early sexual fantasies can exhibit mythic qualities, the Oedipal drama demonstrates that sexual development can be regarded as a matter of narrative and fantasy rather than biology, and in these stories the body is read by the subject both literally and metaphorically. Equally, in his early work on sexuality, Freud proposes no distinction between the development of boys and girls, and sees the achievement of “normal” sexuality as a reduction of the polymorphous desires characteristic of infancy. In Three Essays on Sexuality he argues that, in the process of subject-formation, masculinity and femininity are flexible positions rather than immutable essences, and heterosexuality is not a biological imperative. The channelling of desire from the libidinal maelstrom of infancy to normative adult behaviour is a complex and conflictual process. Freud also points out that every form of sexual relation – even the innocent kiss (the mouth, after all, is the opening to the digestive tract) - bears a trace of perversion. Therefore, rather than representing polar opposites, normal and “aberrant” sexuality are closely related. So, in some respects, Freud's greatest scandal lay in questioning fixed definitions of gender and sexuality, even if many of his assumptions are phallic and normative.

Professional Difficulties

As Freud gained greater recognition, he attracted a number of followers, whose relation to Freud some commentators have characterised as discipleship. These followers included Karl Abraham, Alfred Adler, Sandor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones, Carl Gustav Jung, Otto Rank, Hans Sachs and Wilhelm Stekel. With Abraham, Jones, Ferenczi and Jung, Freud embarked on his first lecture tour of America in 1909. The International Psychoanalytical Association was formed in 1910, drawing members from Europe, North and South America and Australia. However, while the psychoanalytic movement continued to grow in international prominence and respectability in and beyond the academy, it was riven by a series of splits, personality clashes, or what might be regarded as Oedipal struggles. The most serious was Freud's irreconcilable breach with Jung, and Stekel and Adler also severed links with Freud. This antagonism between Freud and his collaborators followed a pattern of professional disagreements earlier in his career; his co-operation with Breuer had ended in 1894, and his fertile connection with Wilhelm Fleiss - with whom he conducted a lengthy correspondence as he developed his theories – also ended acrimoniously.

Art and Literature

Given that psychoanalysis is predominantly concerned with the role of language and fantasy, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of Freud's concepts derive from, or are illustrated by, works of literature and art. The Oedipus Complex, which Freud postulates in The Interpretation of Dreams, is modelled on the pattern of familial rivalry and desire represented both in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet. This is the most famous instance in which Freud draws on literary sources to elucidate his hypotheses. In 1907, Freud published his first work devoted specifically to art and literature, Der Wahn und die Traüme in W. Jensen's “Gradiva” [Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, 1917] Through the close analysis of a story that Jensen termed a “Pompeiian phantasy”, Freud considers “the class of dreams that have never been dreamt at all – dreams created by imaginative writers and ascribed to invented characters in the course of a story.” The story concerns Norbert Hanold, a young German archaeologist who becomes fascinated, even obsessed by a plaster cast relief acquired in Rome's museum of antiquities, depicting a young woman walking with an “unusual and peculiarly charming gait” whom he names Gradiva. Hanold travels to Pompeii, where he sees “Gradiva” walking amongst the ruins; this figure of phantasy eventually reveals herself to be Zoe Bertgang, a childhood playmate of Hanold's who was currently visiting Pompeii with her father, and who lived in the same street as Hanold in Germany. By gradually uncovering Hanold's buried history, Zoe “cures” his delusion, with this fictional treatment representing for Freud the model analysis that relieves the patient's repression. In Freud's reading of Jensen's tale, the excavation of Pompeii becomes the metaphor for psychoanalysis, a trope that exhibits his prevailing fascination with archaeology (his consulting room was adorned with artefacts from antiquity). His next work on art and its motivations, “Der Dichter und das Phantasieren” [1908; ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming',1925], presents the artist as an egotist shaping infantile phantasies into acceptable adult form. The writer is akin to a child at play, constructing a world of phantasy that is separated from reality yet nonetheless heavily invested with emotion. Creative writing functions as a substitute or surrogate for this childhood play: just as children imagine alternative worlds to fulfil their wishes, so writers play out latent desires in fictional form. Freud emphasises the close connection between dreams, private reveries in “everyday life” and the creative imagination: these various forms of phantasy are distinguished merely by different degrees of disguise and distortion. While the writer brings repressed or buried material to light in the literary text, however, he or she carefully controls the wish expressed in the work of art in order to make it socially acceptable. “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming” maps out the “classic” Freudian approach that dominated early psychoanalytic literary criticism: it explores the relationship between reading and pleasure, but concentrates on the author's pathology, to the relative neglect of formal considerations (how desire might shape the text) and the role of the reader. Subsequent works on aesthetics include “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood” (1910), “The Moses of Michelangelo' (1914), “Dostoevsky and Parricide” (1928) and the posthumously published “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage” (1942 – originally written in 1906).

Of all Freud's essays on art and literature, “Das Unheimliche” [1919; “The Uncanny”, 1925] has enjoyed the greatest critical afterlife, partly because it eschews this emphasis on the psychoanalysis of the author. In this essay, Freud sets out to trace the nature of the uncanny, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (340). The initial part of the essay shows how definitions of the German word “heimlich” (homely, familiar, cherished) can coincide with its opposite “unheimlich” (unhomely, weird, concealed, secret). Freud traces the experience of the uncanny to the “primary narcissism” of early childhood and to an animistic conception of the universe amongst ‘primitive” and superstitious cultures, a formative phase of human history that corresponds to the early stages of infantile development. He discusses many of the characteristic features and situations associated with the uncanny, such as the uncertain boundaries between living and inanimate bodies, the figure of the double, involuntary repetition, the occult and womb phantasies. Freud demonstrates the significance for psychoanalysis of many of these uncanny phenomena through a discussion of E. T. A. Hoffmann's short story, “The Sand Man” which revolves around Nathaniel, a student haunted by his memories of the Sandman, a figure of dread in nursery tales who is reputed to steal children's eyes when they refuse to go to bed. This imaginary figure finds its living embodiment in a “real' Sandman, the sinister lawyer Coppelius, who visits Nathaniel's home and is subsequently implicated in the death of his father. Later, while at university, Nathaniel believes that he has recognised the Sandman in the guise of Coppola, an optician who sells him an eyeglass with which he spies a beautiful automaton, Olympia. Nathaniel's infatuation for Olympia becomes conflated with his obsession with Coppelius, and he is eventually driven to madness and suicide as a result of this skewed vision. Freud concludes that the uncanny effect of “The Sandman” derives from anxiety about losing one's eyes and its connection with the castration complex of childhood, a reading that has been disputed by a number of critics. Despite some of Freud's hesitancies in analysing the properties of the uncanny, the essay has become hugely influential for literary and cultural critics over the last thirty years. More generally, while the “classic” Freudian approach to aesthetics has come to be regarded as reductive, many of Freud's essays have proved sources of rich fascination for literary critics and theorists, and his case studies are now often read in terms of their literary qualities. Freud himself was awarded the Goethe Prize for Literature in 1930.

Theories of the Instincts

Freud's work between 1910 and 1930 developed in two main directions: metapsychology and cultural analysis. Freud proposed three separate, but interrelated, models of the “psychical apparatus”, the dynamic, the economic and the topopographical. The dynamic model emphasises the tension that operates between the instincts – or more precisely, drives, since these are distinct from purely animal needs – and the demands and restrictions of external reality. The economic model counterposes the reality principle and the pleasure principle: the desire for optimal satisfaction vies perenially with the strictures of social life and the reality of unpleasure. The topographical model of the psyche is perhaps the best-known. Freud's first version divided the mind into the conscious, preconscious and unconscious; the conscious is equated with perception, the preconscious describes those aspects of experience that consciousness can summon up at will, while the unconscious consists of the instincts, ideas and images that remain outside the conscious-preconscious system. The later version maintains a tripartite structure, but now the psyche is mapped out in terms of id-ego-superego. The id denotes the unconscious drives that are inimical to waking or social life, the ego is an agency that negotiates between the id and external reality, holding in check unconscious drives, and the superego functions in a critical and regulatory fashion on both the id and the ego. The superego is associated with the conscience, and can originate in the parental relation.

Freud consolidated, refined and amplified his models of the mind and of the instincts in works such as “Zur Einführung des Narzissmus” [1914; On Narcissism”, 1925], “Triebe und Triebschicksale” [1915; Instincts and their Vicissitudes”, 1925], Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychanalyse [1916-17; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1929], “Trauer und Melancholie” [1917; Mourning and Melancholia”, 1925], Jenseits des Lustprinzips [1920; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1922] and “Das Ich und das Es” [1923; “The Ego and the Id”, 1927]. Freud's discussion of narcissism obliged him to modify his initial belief in two different forms of instinct: in his early thinking, the instincts of self-preservation, linked to the ego, are separate from the sexual instincts, associated with the id. Narcissism, however, brought together self-love and self-preservation, or gratification and survival. Equally, in Freud's theory of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the sexual and self-preservational instincts are shown to be closely interwoven. In this essay, Freud considers psychic phenomena – recurrent nightmares, compulsive repetition of traumatic events - that seem to contradict the absolute priority accorded to the pleasure principle in his metapsychological theory. He examines two specific cases where subjects seem to repeat a painful experience. First, he considers how shell-shock victims from World War I psychically relive their traumas, then famously describes how an infant (his unnamed grandson, Ernst) plays a game of fort/ da (‘gone/ there'), repeatedly casting away a spool only to reel it back each time. Freud reads this game as a playful enactment of the mother's distressing departure and the child's attempts to exert control over her movements. In this case, the act of repetition or return to traumatic experience could be seen as enabling the individual to comprehend, and overcome a feeling of anxiety or traumatic fixation. The psychoanalytic cure itself employed this form of repetition, in which the past is not just rehearsed but interrogated, opened to question. However, the shell-shock victims seemed to replay the past without any sense of moving on, and this apparent redundancy in the act of compulsive repetition gave rise to Freud's notion of a death drive that is radically antithetical to the pleasure principle or the reality principle. He postulated that the ultimate aim of this self-destructive drive is to return the subject to a state of absolute stasis and calm – death – that represents the final release of tension. The ultimate satisfaction is the extinction of desire.

In “Mourning and Melancholia”, Freud also explored how we deal with, or work through, the loss of our loved ones. Although “normal mourning can be a distressing process, in which the loss of the loved object or idea is psychically denied – in dreams or fantasies, for example – Freud contends that eventually “respect for reality gains the day”®, and the mourner relinquishes the object, thus releasing the ego to live freely again. Melancholics, conversely, cannot rid themselves of the burden of loss. Melancholia derives from unconscious ambivalence towards the lost object, and its characteristics features are guilt, self-hatred and identification with the object. It is as if the dead person lives on in the mind of the melancholic. Freud describes the difference between mourning and melancholic as different types of eating or swallowing: in “proper” mourning the lost object is introjected, internalised or idealised, whilst in the “abnormal” or incomplete mourning of melancholics, the object is absorbed or incorporated, becoming part of the self. Thus, in the most intimate sense, the dead haunt the living in melancholia.

Culture and Civilization

During this period (1910-30) Freud also began to consider the psychic investments underlying social formations and mass culture, and his writing takes on an increasingly sombre tone. He explores the ways in which the constant tension between satisfaction and restraint underlies the process of civilization and social organisation, the possibility of deriving a theory of culture from the family drama outlined in his early work, and the processes through which the past lives on in the present. His most significant works in this field are Totem und Tabu: einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker [1913; Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, 1918]; Massenpsychologie und Ich-analyse [1921; “Group Psychology and the Psychoanalysis of the Ego”, 1959], “Die Zukunft einer Illusion” [1927; “The Future of an Illusion”, 1928] and Das Unbehagen in der Kultur [1930; Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930]. The four essays that comprise Totem and Taboo represent Freud's first major contribution to social psychology. He interweaves social anthropology, philology and folklore with psychoanalysis in order to “deduce the original meaning of totemism from the vestiges remaining of it in childhood”. In a discussion marked by Eurocentric assumptions, Freud traces a correspondence between the psychology of “primitive peoples” and the psychology of neurotics, arguing that “the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex”. The first three essays consider the prohibition of incest (an infantile feature observable in neurotic patients), the emotional ambivalence surrounding the taboo object (taboo practices are linked to obsessional neurosis) and the role of animism, a narcissistic phase associated with a “primitive” understanding of the universe and early libidinal development, whereby the inner mental life is projected onto the external world. The final and best-known essay locates the origin of ethics, law and religion in the ambivalent relation to the father that lies at the root of the Oedipal complex. In Freud's revised version of Darwin's Primal Horde hypothesis, the brothers kill their father – a dominant sexual rival for the taboo object, the mother - and consume his body, thus symbolically acquiring his strength. The sons' cannibalism is an ambivalent form of identification with the feared and hated figure of authority: the totem meal becomes the origin “of social organisation, of moral restriction and of religion” as it commemorates and atones for the father's murder. The original crime generates remorse amongst the sons, who subsequently create taboos against murder and incest. Ambivalence towards the father, ritual, mourning and inherited guilt are also common themes in “Group Psychology and the Psychoanalysis of the Ego”, “The Future of an Illusion” and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion, [1939; Moses and Monotheism, 1939]. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud reflects on the conflict between instinctual demands and the restrictions of civilization, postulating a similarity between the libidinal development of the individual and the development of social formations. Civilization is a maturing process: just as the individual must relinquish early sources of satisfaction, so social formations mature through familial and communal regulation. He considers the origins of religious feeling, the prohibited or sublimated desires that underpin social structures, the costs of renouncing pleasure and the existence of an aggressive instinct that remains entirely independent of the sexual and self-preservational instincts. Civilization evolves through the ceaseless struggle between Eros and Thanatos, pleasure and guilt.


These works of “cultural pathology” make explicit the intimate relationship between the public and private that had initially made psychoanalysis so scandalous and illuminating. The link between public and private became equally pronounced in Freud's own life, as these years were beset by illness and family deaths. For example, Freud completed Beyond the Pleasure Principle after his daughter Sophie died of influenza. The book was also written in the aftermath of World War I – in which Freud lost a nephew – and it opens with a discussion the phenomenon of shell-shock and traumatic memory, before going on to postulate the existence of the death drive. In 1923, he lost his grandson Heinerle (Sophie's second child) to tuberculosis, and his niece also died. In the same year, Freud had surgery for mouth cancer (he was an enthusiastic cigar-smoker), and this was to be the first of thirty-three operations.

Freud's gloomy views on civilization, society and totalitarian leadership partly anticipated, and partly reflected, political developments in Europe in the 1930s. Freud was part of a rich Jewish intellectual culture in Vienna, but he was always acutely conscious of implicit and explicit anti-semitism throughout his career. Although he had become an international celebrity, his gradually failing health, fractures in the psychoanalytic movement and the rise of Fascism added to a sense of vulnerability. This was symbolised in 1933, when his works were publicly burned by Nazis in Berlin. After Hitler entered Austria in 1938, Freud endured a period of harassment and humiliation, and his daughter Anna was briefly arrested by the Gestapo. Given a degree of protection by influential international supporters and his worldwide reputation, Freud was able to flee to London with his immediate family in the spring of 1938. His four surviving sisters, who remained behind, perished in a concentration camp in 1943. After an incurable recurrence of his cancer, Freud died in London on 23rd September 1939, just days after Britain had declared war.

Appropriately, Freud's most sustained reflections on his Jewish heritage appear in one of his last works, Moses and Monotheism. Freud had worked on the three essays that comprise “Moses” throughout the decade; its production history is indicative of his increasingly embattled and parlous situation – Freud was initally concerned about the reaction of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Austria, and the third essay was not printed until Freud arrived in England. Moses recapitulates the “tragic drama of the primal father” explored in Totem and Taboo and “Group Psychology”. It is less an historical reappraisal than a counter-history, exploring the hypothesis that Moses was of aristocratic Egyptian descent rather than of Jewish origin. He speculates that the Mosaic religion emerged from the monotheism of the Pharaoh Akenaten, a profound contrast to the polytheism that preceded his reign, and which was ruthlessly re-imposed after his death. A disappointed follower of Akenaten, Moses communicated the Aten religion to the Jewish people in Egypt, and left with them to found his own kingdom. He was later murdered by the Jewish people, who then abandoned the Mosaic religion. It is only later that Moses reappears in Jewish tradition, which then obscures his Egyptian origin and associates him with the Midianite volcano god Yahweh in order to found a new monotheistic faith. Thus the historical record was manipulated to assert the Jewishness of Moses and his religion (which of course was a revival of the old Aten religion). The early books of the Old Testament cryptically communicate this original crime against the father through a series of revisions, mutations, gaps and repetitions: “the distortion of the text resembles a murder – getting rid of its traces”. This restoration, or reinvention, can thus be read as an act of atonement for, or denial of, the original deposition and killing of Moses. Freud's fable here, revisionist history, repeats the pattern of social formation previously established in Totem and Taboo, which tells a similar tale of revolt, parricide, remorse for the murder of the father and his ritual commemoration, and the eventual foundation of law and a social contract. Similarly, Moses functions as the primal father of Jewish people: he stands for a monotheistic religion that revived memories of the father as an absolute authority figure. Moses returns like the repressed, awakening guilty memories of the original crime against the father. Religious feeling is thus founded on instinctual renunciation of incestuous and rivalrous desire. At another level, Moses and Monotheism is also an oblique reflection on the survival of psychoanalysis after the death of its father figure, and under the shadow of totalitarianism.


Freud's work has come under increasing attack from a variety of quarters, particularly in the last thirty years; in contentious debates about fantasy and recovered memory from feminism, from other branches of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and from some strands of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Nevertheless, as Freud himself demonstrated, an insistent force cannot be fully repressed. He continues to exert considerable influence on a variety of fields – the arts, sciences of the mind, social studies – and his theories still possess immense value for the analysis of the contemporary world and its discontents.

5790 words

Citation: Brewster, Scott. "Sigmund Freud". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 April 2004; last revised 14 December 2004. [, accessed 26 February 2024.]

5177 Sigmund Freud 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here

Leave Feedback

The Literary Encyclopedia is a living community of scholars. We welcome comments which will help us improve.