From Chloe Russell to Sigmund Freud:

The Evolution of Dream Interpretation

Sarah Gordon

Sigmund Freud (Wikimedia Commons)


For most 21st-century Americans and Europeans, the first name to come to mind in connection with dream interpretation is the Austrian founder of psychoanalytic theory Sigmund Freud. His 1913 book The Interpretation of Dreams was hugely popular and influential, and brought dream interpretation from the realm of popular culture into the emerging “scientific” field of psychoanalysis. How does Chloe Russell’s The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book compare to Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and why did his text create such a shift in the way we think of dream interpretation?

The Supernatural vs. the Scientific

In Chloe Russell’s day, before the 20th century, dreams were often seen as messages from God or other spiritual figures, and dream interpretation was seen as a supernatural ability. Russell herself utilizes this notion in the autobiographical portion of her book, basing her dream content on her supposed gift or “power to interpret dreams of others” (Gardner 272). This is just one example of how Chloe Russell represents herself as aligned with the cultural archetype of the Black “cunning person” or spiritual expert, which may have been a sort of marketing strategy for white audiences with preconceived notions of African Americans and their spirituality. Yvonne P. Chireau connects this phenomenon of commercialized African American spiritual practice to African divination traditions that involved the invoking of spiritual forces to gain information (Chireau 50). Although dream interpretation work was not exclusive to Black Americans and was often divorced from religion, these influences were part of the persona African Americans like Russell took on to sell services or texts.

Sigmund Freud, meanwhile, opens The Interpretation of Dreams with the claim that he does not think he has “gone beyond the bounds of neuro-pathological interests,” reframing his conclusions about dreams as scientific theory rather than supernatural knowledge (Freud 5). He traces the beginning of the study of dreams as an element of psychology to Aristotle: “The ancients prior to Aristotle regarded the dream not as a product of the dreaming psyche, but as an inspiration from the realm of the divine” and continues on to summarize “The Scientific Literature on the Problems of Dreams” (Freud 8). However, Freud also acknowledges continued belief in the “pre-scientific conception” of dreaming, despite his dismissal of “dream books” and their method of symbol-based interpretation as not scientifically valid or useful (Freud 8, 80). He admits that he is in “opposition to the prevailing theory of dreams” due to his belief that “dreams are capable of yielding an interpretation” (Freud 78). Unlike his contemporaries, Freud believed in the same general premise that interpreters like Chloe Russell believed: that the content of our dreams had relevant meaning to our waking lives. The Interpretation of Dreams “drew upon -- even as it profoundly recast -- elements of folk-wisdom” in the sense that it legitimized and recodified the same concepts of dream interpretation that existed in popular culture (Dreams and History 1). 





Title page of Sigmund Freud's Die Traumdeutung 

(The Interpretation of Dreams), first edition (Freud Museum London).



Two examples of the differences between Chloe Russell's and Sigmund Freud's dream interpretation styles:

The Dream of Losing Teeth

  • Chloe Russell claims that "to dream your teeth drop out, is a token of losing some near relation."
  • Sigmund Freud famously believes that teeth in dreams signify sexual repression and to dream of teeth falling out represents masturbation.

The Dream of Being Naked

  • Chloe Russell claims that "to dream you are naked and ashamed of being so," means "you will meet with disappointments."
  • According to Sigmund Freud, a dream of being naked and ashamed comes from memories of early childhood when being naked is not shameful. The dream represents wish fulfillment of the desire to be naked without shame like in childhood (Freud 188).

The Future vs. the Past

Chloe Russell’s dream interpretation -- and the genre as a whole in the 18th and 19th centuries -- focused on dreams as a way to predict the future. Dreams were thought of as messages from divine powers which, when properly interpreted, could reveal one’s future. For example, according to Chloe Russell, if you dream about geese, it is “a sign that an absent friend will soon return.” This belief led people to pay for interpretation services and dream books in hopes of knowing their futures, especially the types of events Chloe Russell focuses on in her text: love, marriage, family, loss, and prosperity. 

Freud, meanwhile, “mov[ed] the focus of dreams from the future to the past,” as his theory of dream interpretation was based mainly on the premise that dreams represent wish fulfillment and memories from childhood (Dreams and History 125). In the closing paragraph of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud asserts that “in every sense, dreams come from the past.” He admits to “some truth” in “the ancient belief that dreams show us the future,” but only in the sense that dreams represent our past wishes being fulfilled (Freud 412). This shift allowed Freud to reframe dream interpretation as a scientific pursuit, rather than a commercialized element of popular culture. However, in the 21st century, with the rise of neurological and behavioral theories and methods of psychology, most psychologists dismiss Freud’s theories as much as they would dismiss Chloe Russell’s. Neither are based on empirical evidence or can be proven true. What else, then, contributes to how we might read The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book differently than how we read The Interpretation of Dreams?

A Woman vs. a Man

Dream books in Chloe Russell’s time were associated with women and particularly associated with the archetype of the Black “cunning person” or “witch,” which Chloe Russell engages with in her autobiographical passage. Women were the primary audience of dream books and the interpretation of dreams was an important part of women’s culture. Freud was explicitly inspired by the popular women’s dream books, and once stated that “the view of dreams which came nearest to the truth was not the medical but the popular one, half involved though it still was in superstition” (Dreams and History 125). Despite dismissing the superstition and focus on the future of popular dream book interpretation, Freud admits that his theory is closer to these types of books than to other medical or scientific theories. 

One of the factors allowing Freud the authority he had and continues to have in many areas of culture is gender. From Chloe Russell’s time in the 18th or 19th century to Freud’s time in the early 20th century, dreaming was “on the very borders of respectability” and even considered a sign of mental illness or neurosis (Dreams and History 129). Many scientists believed that only those who were disturbed had dreams at all. But calling dreams into question calls into question a women’s culture in which dreams feature prominently. Especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were frequently diagnosed with hysteria and neurosis as a way to explain natural emotional reactions to traumatic and difficult aspects of female life such as pregnancy, social isolation, and abuse. It would not be a stretch for men to assume that women were interested in dreams because of the inherent mental instability already believed to be part of being female. Many critics of dream books in the 19th century drew on the concept of superstition as the result of lack of education. These critics disavowed superstitious traditions such as dream interpretation in an attempt to “protect women from their own gullibility,” and elite, educated men came to believe that women’s dream books targeted women’s inherent unintelligence and vulnerability (Dreams and History 132). 

Freud brought dream interpretation into intellectual elite men’s culture. His methods and theories, although different in framing, are surprisingly similar to those of women like Chloe Russell. But because of the differences in framing and the authority Freud had as an educated man, in Freud’s work, “the representative dreamer [was] transformed from the woman for whom dream-book compilers wrote, to a universal man” (Dreams and History 133). With dreaming no longer something only women did or cared about, it could be taken seriously by men.




Chloe Russell's portrait appearing in The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book (Chireau iii).


Despite similar influences, a similar approach to dreams, and a similar lack of empirical scientific basis, Sigmund Freud remains relevant to this day, while Black women like Chloe Russell are lost to history. While there are other factors at play, the fact remains that the work of women, and particularly Black women, can often be seen as frivolous or irrational, while the work of men is seen as innovative and brilliant. Chloe Russell’s interpretation of dreams may not be grounded in any provable scientific evidence, but neither is Freud’s. Both offer an unproven, yet interesting, perspective on a mysterious aspect of human life, and both have value as historical documents, if not as psychology textbooks. 


Chireau, Yvonne P.. Black Magic : Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, University of California Press, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Dreams and History : The Interpretation of Dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis, edited by Daniel Pick, and Lyndal Roper, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Freud, Sigmund, and Brill, A. A. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: MacMillan, 1913. Web.

Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.