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Sigmund Freud and his Theories

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, a method that yielded a theory of the human psyche and its unconscious processes, a therapeutic means to ameliorate its ills, and a framework by which society and culture could be interpreted (Jay). 


To learn more about the life of Sigmund Freud and his contributions to psychoanalysis and the modern field of psychology, use the link to the right to access an in-depth biography available through the Encyclopedia Britannica

The Unconscious Mind

Freud developed a topographical model of the mind that compared the mind to an iceberg. In the model, the conscious mind, which comprises everything humans are aware of, merely forms the tip of the iceberg, and the unconscious mind is everything submerged below the water. Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, which he viewed as a repository of primitive wishes and impulses. The goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious.

The Interpretation of Dreams

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory stressed the causal power of fantasies and repressed desires that stemmed from the development of an individual’s sexuality during childhood. He believed that dreams play a fundamental role in the psychic economy as they provided a means to discharge pent-up libidinal energy. In his The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud contended that if sexual desires couldn’t be viscerally gratified, they could be fulfilled through the imagination. Therefore, all dreams, including nightmares, represent the fulfillment of these desires. To Freud, dreams were a neurotic symptom that manifested as the result of conflict between desire and the prohibitions that prevented its realization. Although dreams defy logic, Freud provided a hermeneutic for dreamwork, a model for the exploration and inclusion of dreams in psychotherapy in his The Interpretation of Dreams.

To read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, use the link to the right to access a pdf version available through ResearchGate

Freud believed that fairy tales were like dreams and therefore contained the repressed conflicts, anxieties, and desires confined within the unconscious mind. However, unlike dreams, fairy tales showcase unconscious content, humanity’s collective desires and fantasies, as having been shaped by the conscious mind. They contain conflicts that portray universal human problems and their desirable solutions. 


Nonetheless, the symbols contained within fairy tales cannot be fully understood without the conscious and unconscious desires of the id, ego, and superego. 

The Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud claimed that the human psyche was split into three distinct parts: the id, ego, and superego. According to Freud, humans are born with the most primitive and instinctive component of the personality – the id. The id primarily functions through the pleasure principle and seeks immediate gratification without consideration of consequences. It is only concerned with its own satisfaction.

The ego develops as the child interacts with the world, and it is forced to contend with the unrealistic desires of the id and the expectations of the external world. The ego is based on the reality principle. To accommodate the id’s demands, it attempts to rationalize the situation to reach an achievable outcome

The superego develops through the internalization of society’s morals and ethical constraints, often placed on the child by the caregivers. The superego combines the functions of the aggressive id and rational ego to counterbalance the id’s sexual impulses and the ego’s rational goals to reach a moral end. The superego is often equated with the conscious as it dictates morality and the belief of right and wrong. 

Fairy tales help children reckon with and integrate the warring ideals of the id, ego, and superego. 

The number three is highly symbolic within myth, legend, and fairy tale, and can be interpreted as the different parts of the psyche: the id, ego, and superego.  To learn more about the power of three in fairy tales, click on the link to read to the right. 


The School of Life's video further describes the tenants of Freud's psychoanalysis. 

Bruno Bettelheim and the Freudian Fairy Tale

Bruno Bettelheim’s work The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is often regarded as one of the most influential studies of fairy tales.

Bruno’s reputation and his The Uses of Enchantment later came under scrutiny for plagiarism, falsified credentials, and patient abuse. Alan Dundes, an American folklorist, revealed that many of the ideas in Bettelheim’s work were taken from Julius Heuscher’s A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning, and Usefulness (1963). To further explore this controversy, click on the link to the right to read Dundes “Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and Abuses of Scholarship.”

Bettelheim used the standpoint of a traditional Freudian and used a psychosexual analysis to understand fairy tales. He argued that fairy tales allowed children to grapple with and solve certain existential problems such as oedipal conflict, penis envy, castration anxiety, separation anxiety, and sibling rivarlries.


To read more about Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment,  click "read more" to visit The New York Times article that further explores Bettelheim's theories and arguments.

Further readings
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