In the context of psychoanalysis, the idea of symbolism in dreams should be understood in three ways: (1) as pertaining to relatively constant and universal correspondences between the symbol and what it symbolizes within a given culture (and in the view of some, no doubt, within all cultures); (2) as pertaining to symbol/symbolized correspondences specific to a given dreamer and a given dream; and (3) as pertaining to the processes of symbolization that give rise to the aforementioned correspondences.
In Chapter 6 of his Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud devoted a section to "Representation by Symbols in Dreams." Anyone who read only this section, however, would have a completely mistaken view of the Freudian approach to the interpretation of dreams. For what Freud dealt with here, in essence, were correspondences of the first kind defined above, that is to say representations (to be met with especially in "typical dreams") whose meanings seemed so invariable from one dreamer to the next that they could be taken as read, even without reference to the subject's associations. For example, any long or pointed object, any weapon (but also a hat) stood for the penis, and hollow objects for the vagina or, more generally, a woman's body; similarly, going up a staircase or flying represented sexual excitement, erection or coitus, coming out of a tunnel meant birth, a tooth being pulled related to masturbation, and so on. Nor were these equivalences exclusive to dreams, for they occurred widely too in stories, myths, and folklore, a fact tending to confirm their universal validity. Verbal connections were very common in this context. In the case of masturbation, for instance, vulgar locutions in German embodied a similar symbolism: "Sich einen ausreissen," literally "to pull oneself out," meant to masturbate (pp. 348n, 388), and so on.
The sheer profusion of examples given by Freud in this section might suggest to an incautious reader that The Interpretation of Dreams is nothing but another "dream-book"; in reality, of course, the entire work is a protest against the "decoding" approach to dream interpretation. Indeed Freud repeatedly stresses that, even if an initial interpretation may be based on a sort of a-priori table of correspondences, a symbol is always modulated by the mental activity of the particular dreamer. For symbols "frequently have more than one or even several meanings, and, as with Chinese script, the correct interpretation can only be arrived at on each occasion from the context." (p. 353). Beyond the very first or "symbolic" reading, therefore, it was essential, in Freud's view, to draw out the dreamer's associations.
The dream work is the task of inserting into each dream the wish which lies at its origin, without offending the conscious mind. Representations in dreams are constructed in the two phases of this transformation: the primary-process phase (condensation, displacement, considerations of representability) and the phase of the secondary revision which completes the transformation by giving consistency and an acceptable meaning to the manifest text of the dream. The meaning of a given representation can therefore as a general rule be established solely by working in reverse, by de-condensation, so to speak, by re-placing what has been displaced, and so on, on the basis of the associations of the dreamer and the intervention of the analyst.
Processes of symbolization organize the dream-work. Consequently, the whole of The Interpretation of Dreams, indeed all Freud's writings on dreams, may be considered to have them as their subject; beyond that, these processes constitute the very core of Freud's metapsychology (Gibeault, 1989).
Works on dreams since Freud have been extremely numerous, dealing notably with the issue of the articulation between "general symbols" and "individual symbols." Ernest Jones (1916/1920) was one of the first to take up this discussion.
* Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.