How do we dream?  The Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis by Sigmund Freud uncovers this through psychoanalysis of the human psyche.  In interpreting a dream, Freud looks at the dream in two parts: as a manifest dream and as a latent dream-thought.  The manifest dream is the text of the dream and the latent dream-thought is the meaning behind the dream.  By analyzing these two concepts, a connection between dreaming and wish fulfillment is imminent. Freud says that the purpose of dreaming is for repressed wishes to find their way out of the unconscious. The manifest dream disguises these wishes and impairs the dreamer from realizing that what he or she is seeing is a manifestation of his or her wish.  The dreamer cannot help but deny his or her desire to wish. “The unconscious impulse is the true creator of the dream; it is what produces the physical energy for dream’s construction,” Freud says (18).

Freud also dissects the physical personality and human psyche in his lectures.  Freud separates the mental apparatus into three realms. These realms are the ego, super-ego, and id.  The ego is the basic reality-principal.  Repression is the work of the super-ego.  The id can influence the ego in the opposite way of the super-ego, by seething excitement and creating chaos.

Dream theory and psychoanalysis can be connected to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.  The film tells the story of Dom Cobb, a man who is able to steal corporate secrets by entering the subconscious dream state of powerful individuals. Cobb is unable to enter the United States to see his children since his late wife, Mal, framed him of murder in the case of her suicide.  In order to return to his family, Cobb is given the task of inception, that is to perform the nearly impossible task of planting an idea in the mind of a CEO.  Cobb has only performed inception once before: on his wife.

Inception relates to the work of Freud, since manifest dream and latent dream-thought are the basis of explaining the meaning of a dream. The process of inception mirrors condensation, which is a key component of latent dream-thought.  Freud writes, “As a result of condensation, one element in the manifest dream may correspond to numerous elements of the latent dream-thoughts” (20).  Inception and condensation serve a nearly identical purpose.  Condensation is a process of dreaming in which multiple ideas from the subconscious and psyche become one.  The purpose of inception is to plant multiple ideas into one’s subconscious in order for the dreamer to realize a main idea of his or herself.  These definitions are remarkably similar.  There is a connection between the latent dream thought and wish fulfillment in dreams as well.  Freud argues that condensation is a result of wishful dreaming and that latent dream-thoughts are those wishes that are deep in the psyche.  The film Inception parallels Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis by showing that dreams are products of wish fulfillment.  Inception also reveals the exceptions to the theory of wish fulfillment that Freud mentions in his lectures and gives the audience a conscious understanding of what a dream is.

Wish fulfillment is seen in a variety of dreams—even punishment dreams.  Freud writes, “Another and similar relation between the two members of a pair of dreams is found where one represents a punishment and the other the sinful wish-fulfillment. It amounts to this: ‘if one accepts the punishment for it, one can go on to allow oneself the forbidden thing’” (27).  Punishment dreams play a role in the film Inception.  Cobb’s perception of Mal is that of his final year of her once she woke up from inception and was unable to accept that she was in reality and no longer dreaming.  He allows himself to be punished by her because he is full of self-hatred and guilt from her suicide.  In the opening scene of the film, Mal shoots Cobb’s partner Arthur in the foot in a dream and tells the Saito, a businessman that Cobb is trying to steal information from, that Cobb is robbing him and that they are really asleep.  Cobb subconsciously allows Mal to be his tormentor.  By allowing her to abuse him, Cobb is also allowing himself to fulfill the wish of being around her.  He is allowing himself to feel that he is being rightfully punished for manipulating his wife by going behind her back and performing inception on her.

Wish fulfillment is linked also linked to a process called displacement in dreams.  This process is opposing to condensation.  A displacement is an idea that has been stripped of its effect and seen as out of place in a dream.  It is typically only a minor aspect of the dream and makes the dream strange and incomprehensible. Freud suggests, “Displacement is the principal means used in the dream-distortion to which the dream-thoughts must submit under the influence of censorship” (21).  The relevance of displacement is unveiled as you go deeper into the psyche.  In Inception, the third level of inception is when a minor and seemingly irrelevant aspect from the first level shows its importance.  RobertFischer, the man who the inception is being performed on, goes through his wallet on level one of inception and finds a photo of his father and himself where he is holding pinwheel.  This image is repeated throughout the film and into the third level of inception. The pinwheel is a pivotal element of the dream because it is what is kept in Fischer’s father’s safe at the edge of his deathbed.  This seemingly minor detail from the first level of inception is the key to planting an idea in the third level of inception. As they go further and further into the psyche, the relevance of the pinwheel is revealed.  The pinwheel represents the relationship between Fischer and his father.  It assures Fischer that his father does not want him to take over the business but wants him to be happy doing something he loves.  Keep in mind, Cobb and his team manipulated the idea and image of Fischer’s father and controlled the circumstances of the dream through shape shifting and architecture.  Even so, it is revealed that deep down Fischer just wished for the approval of his father.

Repression is a motive for wish-fulfilling dreaming.  Repressed thoughts are thoughts that are kept from consciousness during the day and come to fruition for the unconscious dreamer. Dreaming allows one to turn away from the external world. Freud writes, “It allows a repressed instinctual impulse to obtain the satisfaction that is possible in these circumstances in the form of the hallucinated wish fulfillment” (19). In his dreams, Cobb is releasing the emotions he is unable to share in his everyday life.  He holds onto every single memory, the good and the bad. He has created a universe for himself that is devoted to Mal, a paradise where they can live together with their children. He lives wishfully through the memories, as though he could be reunited with Mal someday.

A possible response to repression is resistance. Resistance is a theme in Inception as well as in the Freudian text. In Inception, resistance is used as protection within a dream, while in Freud’s lectures it is used as protection after a dream: “Resistance is the surest sign to us of a conflict” (14). It is important to detect the degree of resistance in dreams because that means a very repressed idea or wish is being held in the psyche.  A precaution that Cobb takes to ensure resistance is by having an architect design dreams for him for his mission.  Cobb’s psyche is unable to remove Mal when creating a dream; she has such control over Cobb that she is able to reveal herself in every circumstance.  A dream architect is able to provide some degree of resistance.  When inception is performed, Robert Fischer’s psyche is trained to fight against any attempt of extraction.  That is why the people created in Fischer’s subconscious open fire on Cobb and his team.  The purpose of inception is to fight through this resistance and travel so deep into a dreamer’s unconscious that a wish could be planted in their mind.  In order for inception to be successful, one must get passed the ego. Freud explains, “The resistance can only be a manifestation of the ego, which originally put the repression into force and now wishes to maintain it” (68).

The ego and the other agency of the psyche are in a constant conflict throughout the film.  The resistance described in the last paragraph results in censorship of dreams.  This censorship can be connected back to the super-ego.  The super-ego takes on the role of being a prohibiting and critical agency in censoring dreams.  Freud says, “The super-ego applies the strictest moral standard to the helpless ego which is at its mercy; in general it represents the claims of morality, and we realize all at once that our sense of moral sense of guilt is the expression of the tension between ego and super-ego” (61).  The construction of the dreams is also influenced by the super-ego.  Cobb has mastered dreaming and through his experience is able to not have any barrier restricting his dreams.  He is an ego that is led by the id.  Freud describes the id as the “dark, inaccessible part of our personality” (73).  The id of Cobb is influenced by his manifestation of Mal.  Mal causes chaos and excitement through all of Cobb’s dreams; she is the result of pleasure and impulse.  She is so powerful that Cobb can no longer be the architect for dreams because Mal is able to navigate through his dream map and find him.  Cobb cannot control creating her because he is unable to prohibit himself since he lacks a superego.  Mal is ingrained so deeply in Cobb’s psyche that she has become a part of his personality and being.  Cobb also has a difficult time killing Mal in dreams even though he is aware that she is not real.  He struggles to shoot her in the third level on inception even though she could have potentially ruined the entire mission.  This can be traced back to wish fulfillment because Cobb wants to be removed from Mal’s death, and by keeping her alive in dreams he is able to compensate for his actions that led her to kill herself.

Inception does not only show wish fulfillment dreams, but challenges the theory that all dreams are wish fulfilling in the same way that Freud did.  Freud writes of the difficulties that have arisen in his theory of wish fulfillment: “The first of these difficulties is presented in the fact that people who have experienced a shock, a severe psychical trauma—such as happened so often during the war and such affords the basis for traumatic hysteria—are regularly taken back in their dream into the traumatic situation” (28).  These dreams usually end in anxiety. Cobb keeps a harsh flashback deep down in his own contrived dream world.  When Ariadne enters into Cobb’s dream world, she finds an elevator where each floor is one of Cobb’s memories from his life with Mal.  The basement floor holds the hotel where Mal committed suicide. There is no psychological data that would explain why someone would want to relive a traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one. This disconnection between dream and wishful impulse emphasizes that “a dream is an attempt at the fulfillment of a wish” (Freud 29).

Work Cited

Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lecture on Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth Press, 1964. Pages 7-

30, 57-80. Print.

Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers Pictures, 2010. Film.


Erica Ripperger’s critical essay, “A Deconstruction of David Mamet’s Translations of Chekhov’s Greatest Works,” won first prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Erica is a Film major who has just completed her first year. She attended a performing arts high school in New Jersey, where she acted in numerous plays, including Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.