Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria is a case study that Freud writes about an eighteen-year-old girl. Dora, whose actual name Freud keeps secret, suffers from a variety of hysterical symptoms, including dysponea (difficulty breathing), aphonia (loss of voice), nervous coughing and migraine headaches. Her father brings her to receive Freud's psychotherapeutic treatment, four years after going to Freud himself for a paralytic attack. Freud believes that Dora's case is rather ordinary as far of cases of hysteria are concerned. Dora suffers from the most common physical symptoms (difficulty breathing, nervous coughing, loss of voice, and migraines) along with the most common mental symptoms (depression and antisocial behavior). Although Freud considers the case to be unexciting, he asserts that the analysis of an ordinary case of hysteria will be most useful to furthering knowledge of the disorder.
Freud theorizes that hysterical symptoms stem from either psychological trauma or problems in the patient’s sexual life. During psychotherapy, Freud listens to stories about Dora's past and her family situation to get to the cause of her hysterical symptoms. Dora's immediate family consists of her two parents and older brother. As a child, she was particularly fond of her father who had been responsible for her education, and she grew more attached to him as he struggled with tuberculosis. To alleviate his lung trouble, the family moved to a small town with a mild climate, which Freud calls "B—" to protect the identity of his patient. During his time in the town, Dora’s father became close friends with a married couple, Herr and Frau K. Dora developed a close friendship with Herr K. who often accompanied her on walks and occasionally gave her gifts. However, their relationship became strained after Dora alleged that Herr K. made an indecent proposal to her on one of their walks. Dora told her father about the incident, but Herr K. denied that this ever happened. To Dora's distress, her father agreed with his assessment that Dora imagined the event.
Freud believes that this experience was sufficiently traumatic to have influenced Dora’s hysteria, but not to explain it completely. Dora tells Freud of an earlier episode with Herr K. Once Herr K. arranged for Dora to meet him alone in his office and then kissed her by surprise. Dora felt disgusted by what Herr K. had done, and Freud finds it odd that Dora was repulsed by an experience that, in his opinion, should have elicited sexual excitement. Freud argues that this reversal of affect proves Dora's hysteria. Because of her encounters with Herr K., Dora urged her father to break off relations with him and his wife. However, Dora’s father felt particularly indebted to Frau K., who helped to take care of him during his sickness, and refused to end his friendship with her. Dora became embittered by her father’s relationship with Frau K., which she suspected of being a love affair.
After discussing Dora's past, Freud focuses on two dreams that Dora has had. According to Freud, dreams are the realization of unconscious wishes. Because of repression, the content of the dream is disguised and must be interpreted to gain its meaning. In her first dream, Dora’s father wakes her up because the house is on fire. Dora gets dressed quickly to leave the house, but her mother wants to look for her jewel-case before going. Dora’s father exclaims that he will not let himself and his two children die to save his wife’s jewel case. Freud points out that "jewel-case" is also a common slang word for vagina and starts his interpretation from this observation. In Freud's opinion, Dora was worried that her “jewel-case” was in danger because of Herr K. and that if anything happened it would be her father’s fault. In the dream, she expressed all of her feelings in their opposite. She created a situation in which her father was saving her from danger. Her father standing beside her bed mimics Herr K. Freud believes that the dream is really about her attraction to Herr K. Whereas her mother refused to accept her father’s gift of jewelry, Dora was repressing the feeling that she needed to give Herr K a return present for the “jewel-case.” In other words, Dora was repressing her sexual attraction to Herr K.
Another significant aspect of Dora's dream is that she smelt smoke when she woke up. Freud believes that the smoke represents Dora’s longing to kiss a man, which in the case of a smoker would involve the smell of smoke. Freud, Herr K. and Dora’s father are all “passionate smokers." Freud believes that Dora has thought about kissing him and during her psychotherapy, she has begun to develop feelings for him. He refers to the concept of transference, the unconscious redirection of feelings held for one person to another, in this case the therapist.
In the second dream, Dora was walking in a strange town when she suddenly arrived at place where she lived. She went to her room and found a letter from her mother. Her mother wrote telling her that her father was dead and that she could come to the funeral if she liked. Dora then went looking for the train station, asking people on the way for its location. She asked a hundred times and received the same answer that the station was five minutes away. She then walked into a forest and asked a man she saw there. The man tells her that the station was two and half hours more. Dora continues and can see the station in front of her but cannot reach it. Suddenly, Dora is at home and she cannot remember traveling from the station to her house. When she arrives, the maid tells her that her mother has already left for the cemetery. Freud argues that Dora’s dream sprang from a fantasy of revenge, directed against her father. In her fantasy, Dora had left home and in her absence, her father had died from grief.
As Freud wishes to analyze Dora’s case of hysteria in more depth, she unexpectedly decides to end her treatment. Freud regrets that just as he thought he would successfully resolve her case, she decided to end her therapy. He asserts that Dora’s decision was an act of vengeance on her part and wonders if he could not have persuaded her to stay on, had he used her feelings of transference and exaggerated the importance of her therapy to him.