Context, Context, Context
No, context itself isn't a symbol for Freud, but we're going to start here because Freud pretty much reinvented symbolism—or at least the way people thought about symbolism in dreams. If we want to understand how symbolism works for Freud, we've got to lay a little groundwork first.
Early in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud challenges previous methods of dream-interpretation that use "universal" indexes of dream-symbols. He doesn't have a lot of patience for the kinds of popular "dream-guides" that insist on some standard symbolic meaning of dream-elements. He straight-up disses the kinds of dream-guides in which, say, a "letter" in a dream is said to represent "trouble," while a "betrothal" is said to represent a "funeral" (2.1.4).
In his own practice—and especially in the early years—Freud insisted that the symbolic meaning of dream-elements could only ever be understood within the specific context of an individual dream and the individual dreamer's unique associations. In his view, dream-guides were untrustworthy because they assumed that the same symbol would always mean the same thing in any dream for any person. But Freud says that the exact same thing dreamed by two different dreamers could easily mean two totally different things.
Freud also argued that even within a single dream, a symbolic element might have multiple meanings. As he says in the book's fifth chapter:
Dreams frequently seem to have more than one meaning. Not only, as our examples have shown, may they include several wish-fulfilments one alongside the other; but a succession of meanings or wish-fulfilments may be superimposed on one another. (5.3.49)
Freud calls this potential for multiple meanings "overdetermination," and it's why he argues that "[w]e are not in general in a position to interpret another person's dream unless he is prepared to communicate to us the unconscious thoughts that lie behind its content" (5.5.1).
Let's take water symbolism as an example. Freud says at more than one point in The Interpretation of Dreams that "water in a dream often points to a urinary stimulus" (5.4.14)—that is, that dreams of water sometimes emerge from real bodily needs, like the need to pee. But is this always the case? Do flowing rivers, waterfalls, or dripping taps always symbolize the dreamer's need to take a leak?
If we take Freud at his word, then the answer is "no." It's possible to imagine that a dream of water could fulfill a whole slew of different wishes. For instance, imagine that a dreamer dreams that she's floating in a river and being carried swiftly downstream. Given her personal history and the associations that she brings to bear on the dream, we might conclude that the dream fulfills a wish for freedom or escape—possibly even the dreamer's wish to be taken away from something in her life that's troubling her, without having to exert much energy herself.
It's totally possible, right?
The point is that if we consider Freud's interpretive methods on the whole, we'll remember his insistence that symbols "frequently have more than one meaning," and that "the correct interpretation can only be arrived at on each occasion from the context" (6.6.7).
But Wait, There's More!
Now, with that said, it's also the case that Freud seems to contradict himself on this point more than once throughout The Interpretation of Dreams. In fact, as he continued to expand the book over the course of its eight German editions, he gradually incorporated more and more materials that seemed to recognize "universal" symbols for people, things, and activities.
By the time James Strachey prepared The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams included a long section (50+ pages) that hadn't appeared in the original. This section on "Representation by Symbols in Dreams" was added to the sixth chapter of the book in its 1914 edition, and in later editions Freud continued to make it longer, harder, faster, stronger (source).
In this section, Freud lists dozens and dozens of symbols that he says will always represent the same kinds of persons, things, or activities. For example, he writes that when the "Emperor and Empress (or the King and Queen)" appear in dreams, "as a rule [they] really represent the dreamer's parents; and a Prince or Princess represents the dreamer himself or herself" (6.6.8).
As you might imagine, there's no shortage of sexual symbolism, either. Freud writes that "[a]ll elongated objects such as sticks, tree-trunks and umbrellas (the opening of these being comparable to an erection) may stand for the male organ—as well as all long, sharp weapons, such as knives, daggers and pikes" (6.6.8). Likewise, "[b]oxes, cases, chests, cupboards and ovens represent the uterus, and also hollow objects, ships, and vessels of all kinds" (6.6.8).
Over time, Freud's changing opinions on the role of symbols in dreams also affected his analytical practice. By the 1914 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, he had this to say:
As a rule the technique of interpreting according to the dreamer's free associations leaves us in the lurch when we come to the symbolic elements in the dream-content. Regard for scientific criticism forbids our returning to the arbitrary judgments of the dream-interpreter […]. We are thus obliged, in dealing with those elements of the dream-content which must be recognized as symbolic, to adopt a combined technique, which on the one hand rests on the dreamer's associations and on the other hand fills the gaps from the interpreter's knowledge of symbols. (6.6.7)
Let's break this down. Here, Freud is warning psychoanalysts not to trust their patients' associations too much, and he's encouraging them to rely more on their own "knowledge of symbols." This comment is significantly different from others in which he insists that it's through the dreamer's associations specifically that the true kernel of a dream can be discovered.
So, what gives? Is eighth-edition Freud stabbing first-edition Freud in the back? That's one of the most intriguing questions you can ask yourself as you get acquainted with the long evolution of Freud's practice and ideas.
Chew on This
One smartypants scholar thinks that Freud's "original dream theory is based on a much more flexible and sensitive interpretation of dream imagery" than the version that began to take shape in the later editions (source).
That's a valid interpretation, and it gives us lots to chew on. It's important to remember, though, that even in the 1930 edition of the book, Freud paired his newfound symbol-frenzy with continued insistence that symbols "frequently have more than one meaning" and that "the correct interpretation can only be arrived at on each occasion from the context" (6.6.7).
In fact, Freud offers "express warning against over-estimating the importance of symbols in dream-interpretation, against restricting the work of translating dreams merely to translating symbols and against abandoning the technique of making use of the dreamer's associations" (6.6.14).
So, what do you think? Does Freud's acceptance of certain "typical," "common," or "universal" symbols help his argument, or hurt it?
Click through, Shmoopers, for a closer look at some symbols in five of Freud's personal dreams.