Dreaming for Freud

The internal conflicts

How is the case history like a mystery story?

What makes Sherlock Holmes and Freud so similar?

Reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories I was struck by the similarities in his narrative strategies and Freud’s own in his case histories. Indeed Freud himself has famously said, in his “Studies in Hysteria” (1895) : It still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science."

There are many similarities: the main one being perhaps the question that lies at the heart of both the mystery story and the case history. If we take as an example Doyle’s “Case of Identity” a young woman ( Mary Sullivan) comes to Sherlock Homes because her husband to be has disappeared on the wedding day. What has happened to him, is the question Sherlock is asked to discover and we, of course, to wonder.

In Freud’s “ Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” the young woman he calls Dora comes to Freud with a plethora of ailments: cough, pains in the leg, breathlessness, a fainting fit, and even a suicide note which her parents have found. What is wrong with this wealthy girl brought to Freud by a concerned father? What lies at the heart of all of this despair?

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In both these cases we read on in order to find out, drawn in by the plight of these two young women. In both these cases the stakes are high. Mary Sullivan has tragically lost this man she loves at the most dramatic moment of her life. Young Dora seems to hover on the brink of suicide or anyway great despair. She feels misunderstood, indeed betrayed by all those adults whom she loves: her father, her mother, and even her brother.

Both Sherlock Homes and Freud are excellent observers. They both look and they listen. Small details, that an ordinary observer might overlook are given great importance and incidentally provide verisimilitude, making the reader believe the story.

In the case of Mary Sullivan,  Sherlock learns several important things from her appearance: one that she is short- sighted which becomes essential in her mistaking her disguised step father as her would-be- lover, Hosmer Angel.

Freud has learned from his French master Charcot, a "visuel,"  to pay attention to gestures, expressions, even the clothes that are worn. He watches young Dora and even writes that her fingers “chatter” He writes: “ I thought the task was a harder one than it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." He deduces from the way Dora dips her fingers into her reticule that she masturbates.

The third and perhaps most important thing here ( and indeed in Freud’s five case histories) is that in both these cases at the heart of the plot, the important figure who lurks behind the mystery is the father. In Mary Sullivan’s case it is the step-father who wants the daughter’s money and needs to keep her at home and thus dresses up as a fictive lover who disappears on the wedding day.

In Dora’s case it is the father who wants young Dora to “behave,” in other words to have a relationship with Herr K, the husband of the father’s mistress, Frau K. in a convenient quid pro quo, and to keep quiet about this relationship with Herr K.

Even today we read both these cases with great fascination, awed at the amount of insight both these writers had not just into the mysteries of the human heart but how to engage the reader’s interest with their narrative techniques.

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.


Sheila Kohler teaches at Princeton. She is the author of many books including Dreaming for Freud, Becoming Jane Eyre, and Cracks, which was made into a film with Eva Green.


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