Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria

Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria Themes

The Inability to Conceal Unconscious Desires

"When I set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden with him,...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." The quote demonstrates Freud's conviction that despite repression, unconscious desires eventually work their way to the surface. A common example of this phenomenon is what is now known as the Freudian slip or parapraxis. A person will make a verbal mistake that reveals an unconscious thought or emotion. A person may call his spouse by a different name, exposing his attraction for another woman. Unconscious desires are also expressed by nonverbal communication. Freud tells of an instance, in which Dora plays with her handbag during therapy, opening it and repeatedly inserting her fingers. Freud concludes that the handbag was a representation of the female genitals, and Dora's playing with the handbag expressed her desire to masturbate.

Sexual Trauma as the Primary Cause of Hysteria

In the very first pages of Dora:An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Freud asserts that the origins of hysterical symptoms are to be found in the patient's sexual life. Throughout the case study, Freud traces Dora's symptoms back to unresolved sexual issues. Her irritated throat is caused by her identifying with Frau K. and imagining her and her father, engaged in oral sex. Her loss voice is due to her longing for Herr K. when he periodically leaves her alone at B--. Her appendicitis was rooted in her imagining that she was pregnant after her incident with Herr K. Freud's emphasis on sex is consistent with his other work. Freud believed that the libidinal drive was one of the prime motivators of human behavior. In addition, one of his most important and controversial contributions to modern psychology was his assertion that from infancy children began to have sexual desires.


The phenomenon of transference was one of Freud's most significant discoveries. Freud found that people create templates of people whom they have met and place new people into those templates. For example, if one's father was critical and mean, one may have the tendency to think that all older men are critical and mean. In addition, Freud discovered that the people had a need to reproduce elements of the old relationship with the new person. If a person associates older men with his unkind father, then that person may treat older men in a hostile fashion. During psychoanalysis, it is common for the patient to redirect emotions and sexual feelings held for one person to the therapist. Although transference appears to inhibit therapy, it can also be a useful tool. A psychoanalyst could get the patient to realize that he or she was transferring emotions and thus could work through problems that had been confined to the unconscious.

The Struggle Between Patient and Analyst

Throughout the case study, Dora disagrees with Freud's interpretation of her life. She insists that she is not in love with Herr K. although Freud remains convinced on this point. Dora finds herself in a particularly frustrating and helpless situation as Freud claims to know Dora's unconscious better than she does herself. As the psychoanalyst, he allegedly has the tools to uncover hidden desires, and this authority gives added weight to his analysis. Even when Dora says "No," Freud can conclude that she really means "Yes, claiming that there is no thing at all as an unconscious "No." This obvious struggle between Freud and Dora in the course of her case has been a point of interest in later studies of the case study. Feminist critics, in particular, have interpreted Freud's insistence on the correctness of his readings of Dora's unconscious - outlandish though they seem at times - as patriarchal and belittling.


In a footnote to the case study, Freud argues that he underestimated Dora's homosexual love for Frau K. and calls this attraction, "the strongest unconscious current in her mental life." It is unsurprising that Freud realizes the intensity of Dora's homosexual feelings only at the end of the case study. Although Freud challenged contemporary notions of homosexuality, it remained an abnormal and somewhat unexplained phenomenon in his theory of sexual development. Unlike other psychoanalysts of his day, Freud did not view homosexuality as an illness and did not believe that it could be cured. Freud moved forward common thinking on homosexuality, but could not integrate it completely in his narrative of sexual development, the Oedipus complex. For Freud, the Oedipus complex is the source of sexuality as feelings that were held for one's parent are later redirected to other members of the opposite sex. While the Oedipus complex explained heterosexuality, Freud lacked an equivalent theory of homosexual development.


The focus of Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria is dream analysis. Freud believes that Dora's dream will provide insight into her unconscious desires and thus help to resolve her hysterical symptoms. Freud's method for interpreting a dream is to allow the patient to retell the dream and to associate it freely to its elements. The technique of free association is notable in its flexibility. Meanings are discovered during the course of psychotherapy as the patients say whatever comes to mind. Although at times Freud is content with discovering a dream's meaning, in other instances he appears more fixed in his interpretations. For instance, in Dora's first dream, Freud insists that the jewel-case is a symbol for a vagina and thus rejects any alternative meaning.

Repression and the Unconscious

The unconscious can be thought of as a storage area for repressed desires. Despite their place outside of conscious thought, these desires are full of emotional charge and constantly seek a means of expression. For a hysteric, repressed desires are manifested through his or her symptoms. In the case study, Freud aims to uncover Dora's repressed desires and thus stop their unconscious expression on her body.