Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 6, Section E

By Sigmund Freud

Chapter 6, Section E

Representation by Symbols in Dreams—Some Further Typical Dreams

  • Freud begins this section by stating that although he "recognized the presence of symbolism in dreams from the very beginning," "it was only by degrees and as [his] experience increased that [he] arrived at a full appreciation of its extent and significance" (6.6.1).
  • This section is devoted to a lengthy exploration of symbolism in dreams, and it represents a significant departure from the first edition of the book. (Check out our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more of the nitty-gritty details on this.)
  • Freud explains that his newfound appreciation for symbolism in dreams was influenced in large part by Wilhelm Stekel's contributions to psychoanalysis, and so he begins by discussing Stekel's insights (as well as some of the controversies they inspired).
  • Freud goes on to note that although it might be tempting to use this knowledge of symbolization in dreams "to draw up a new 'dream-book' on the decoding principle," that temptation should be resisted.
  • In Freud's view, the symbols that he is about to discuss are not limited to dreams: they are also present in "folklore, and in popular myths, legends, linguistic idioms, proverbial wisdom, and current jokes," and they seem to have a lot to teach us about human cultures in general.
  • Freud also repeats two other important points here: that dreams use symbols "for the disguised representation of their latent thoughts," and that it can sometimes be difficult to know whether a dream-image is meant to be interpreted literally or symbolically (6.6.6).
  • This last point is a caution to readers, and it reminds us that we shouldn't be too quick to assume that all dream-images are necessarily symbols. Freud suggests that it may not always be the case that a "flower" in a woman's dream relates to her sexuality (to take just one example).
  • With these basic points established, Freud now states that "the presence of symbols in dreams" requires new interpretive methods.
  • Freud writes: "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).
  • Freud emphasizes the importance of context once again, noting that symbols "frequently have more than one meaning" (6.6.7). For this reason, he says that "the correct interpretation can only be arrived at on each occasion from the context" (6.6.7).
  • Having established these "qualifications and reservations," Freud goes on to list dozens of symbols that represent people, places, and things such as parents, the self, the penis, the uterus, sex, marriage, castration, children, and pregnancy (6.6.8).
  • Freud also lists a number of other examples that Stekel put forward but notes that not all of them have been fully proven. Some of these examples include more symbolic representations of genitalia, as well as representations of homosexuality, incest, and perversion (6.6.10).
  • Freud now proceeds to offer some specific examples from his own patients' records, but he offers another "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).
  • In his first example, Freud demonstrates how a "straw hat of peculiar shape" represented a man, or male genitals, in one of his patient's dreams (6.6.15-19). Notably, this interpretation also relies on a fair bit of wordplay, and so reminds readers of the importance of verbal expressions and linguistic usage in Freud's theory of dream-interpretation.
  • Next, Freud demonstrates how a dream in which a "little one" is run over by a train was a representation of sexual intercourse (6.6.20-24).
  • Freud goes on to discuss another dream from one of his patients, in which genitalia were represented by buildings, stairs, and shafts (6.6.25-28).
  • Next, Freud offers a brief example of a dream in which male genitalia were represented by "persons" and female genitalia were represented by "a landscape." Since this dream was reported by a colleague and not by one of his own patients, Freud doesn't conduct a full interpretation of it (6.6.29-30).
  • Freud then discusses two brief examples of children's dreams of castration. In one, castration is represented by a human head being carried on a plate; in the other, it is represented by a head being cut off at the hairdresser's (6.6.31-32).
  • Freud moves on to dreams that contain "urinary symbolism" and offers examples of dreams in which urination is represented by water (6.6.33-34).
  • Freud then recounts another "staircase dream," in which movement up or down a staircase symbolizes sexual intercourse. This example was reported and interpreted by Freud's colleague Otto Rank, and Freud includes Rank's full interpretation here (6.6.35-42).
  • Freud also recounts a staircase dream from his patients' records. In it, "stairs" do not appear as such, but rather take the form of running scales on a piano (6.6.43-46).
  • Freud moves on to a dream in which two pears symbolize a woman's breasts, then another in which male and female genitals are represented by a "purse" and a "sausage" (6.6.47-51).
  • Freud recounts another dream that was recorded by a colleague. In it, a flower arrangement symbolized the dreamer and her genitals (6.6.52-65).
  • Freud then turns to a dream that was dreamed by a historical figure, Otto von Bismarck. He copies this analysis from a paper by another one of his colleagues, who argues that an elongated riding whip that appears within the dream is really a phallic symbol (6.6.68-71).
  • Next, Freud recounts a dream that was reported to him by a young male patient who happened to be a chemist. In it, the patient's anxieties about sexual performance are represented by scenes of chemical experiments (6.6.73-79).
  • Freud offers some examples of experiments that have been carried out by other researchers who wished to discover how hypnotic suggestions might force various sexual acts to appear in dreams.
  • Having now "assessed the importance of symbolism in dreams," Freud returns once more to the topic of "typical dreams."
  • Freud now argues that there are two kinds of typical dreams: "those which really always have the same meaning, and those which, in spite of having the same or a similar content, must nevertheless be interpreted in the greatest variety of ways" (6.6.82).
  • Freud goes on the identify some new examples of "typical dreams," including "[d]reams of missing a train" and dreams having to do with teeth (6.6.83-103).
  • In this subsection, Freud includes a substantial passage from a report by Otto Rank, who gave Freud a dream-interpretation that had been completed by another of Rank's colleagues.
  • After discussing dreams having to do with teeth, Freud moves on to discuss dreams "in which the dreamer flies or floats in the air, falls, swims, etc." (6.6.104). He argues that these dreams differ "in every instance," but that they share "raw material of sensations" that is "always derived from the same source" (6.6.104).
  • Here, Freud repeats his earlier argument that these dreams "reproduce impressions of childhood"—that is, he says that they reproduce physical memories of "games involving movement" (6.6.105).
  • After discussing some brief examples, Freud concludes that "[t]he more one is concerned with the solution of dreams, the more one is driven to recognize that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes" (6.6.114). Needless to say, these wishes are usually expressed in the "latent" content of dreams rather than in the "manifest" content.
  • Having said this, Freud makes it clear that he is not saying that "all dreams require a sexual interpretation" (6.6.116). He complains that critics "rage incessantly" about this point, despite the fact that he has never made this claim (6.6.116).
  • However, Freud does stand by his claim that most dreams contain sexual content. He also reiterates his opinion that many dreams are Oedipal dreams—that is, dreams "in which the dreamer has sexual intercourse with his own mother" (6.6.117-18).
  • Sometimes, he says, the content of such dreams is obscured by symbolization. For example, he argues that when a dreamer dreams of a landscape and has a feeling that he has "been there before," that landscape is a symbolic representation of the mother's genitals (6.6.119). After all, he says, "there is indeed no other place about which one can assert with such conviction that one has been there once before" (6.6.119).
  • Freud moves on to dreams in which life in the womb is symbolized by the activity of "passing through narrow spaces" or "being in water" (6.6.121-27).
  • After offering a number of other examples of "birth dreams," Freud returns to another topic that was addressed earlier: "the problem of the part played in the formation of dreams by organic stimuli which disturb sleep" (6.6.128).
  • Here, Freud argues that dreams often attempt to represent such stimuli through "symbolic disguises" (6.6.128).
  • Freud then moves on to consider "rescue dreams," which he says are "connected with birth dreams" (6.6.132). For instance, he argues that when women dream of "rescuing" children from water, such dreams symbolize birth (6.6.132).
  • Finally, Freud discusses the appearance of robbers, burglars, and ghosts in dreams, and he suggests that such dreams "all originate from one and the same class of infantile reminiscence" (6.6.133).
  • In Freud's view, robbers, burglars, and ghosts "are the nocturnal visitors who rouse children and take them up to prevent their wetting their beds, or who lift the bed-clothes to make sure where they have put their hands in their sleep" (6.6.133).

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