PRE OEDIPUS: Melanie Klein and the object-relations school.

"It is tragic that his daughter, who thinks that she must defend him against me,
does not realise that I am serving him better than she."
- Melanie Klein's view of her disputes with Anna Freud, 1941.

Melanie Klein

Born in Vienna, Melanie Reizes (1882-1960 - left) was the youngest child of Moriz Reizes, a Jewish general practitioner of Polish extraction, and his Viennese wife Libussa. Her childhood was turbulent and she never felt close to her father, who like Freud's was over forty when she was born, and was also aware that her arrival had been "unexpected". Melanie suffered depression during a loveless marriage to Arthur Klein, a distant cousin, and went into analysis with Ferenczi and Abraham. Although she was unable to cope with raising her own children, often leaving them in the care of her mother for long periods, she eventually became a noted child psychologist in her own right. She began her career in Berlin, but moved to London in 1926 at the instigation of Ernest Jones, who wanted her to conduct an analysis of his children.

Whilst Jung negated the importance of childhood memories, Klein laid even more stress on the period of very early infancy than Freud had. Like Freud and Jung, she found her own neurotic traits valuable in guiding the development of her theories. Again like Freud, she carried out frequent analyses of her youngest child - in her case a son, Erich, who was (rather clumsily) disguised as "Fritz" in her clinical papers (1). Building upon the work of Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, the pioneering child analyst soon to be murdered by the nephew she had raised (not the best advertisement for psychoanalysis!), Klein devised what later became known as the "play technique". She converted one of her consulting rooms into a playroom, provided her young analysands with small dolls and other toy objects (to represent family members), then interpreted their games according to psychoanalytic principles. This method was roughly equivalent to free association in adults, giving similar access to the unconscious of children too young to articulate their feelings verbally and thus solving some of the problems that Freud had encountered in his analysis of Little Hans.

Klein concluded from her investigations that Freud's five stages of development should be revised since object relations were central from babyhood. The internal battle between "good" and "bad" objects (or "life" and "death" instincts) began in earliest infancy, as the child first internalised (real and imaginary) parental figures and then projected feelings for them onto outside objects such as toys. If too many bad objects were introjected, a neurosis would develop. This good/bad conflict would only be possible if the baby was aware of moral concerns; therefore, argued Klein, the superego must be formed in the first few months of life (2) and thus is as strong in girls as it is in boys. She believed that Oedipal tendencies themselves were present from the end of the first year and hence developed as a result of the formation of the superego rather than as a precondition to it as Freud had claimed. Klein also thought that both sexes initially identified with the mother (called their "femininity phase") before moving on to "normal" Oedipal love objects. In the girl's case this is motivated more by the loss of the mother's breast than by the discovery of the missing penis (3), whilst the boy later abandons his incestuous love for his mother as much through a desire to make amends to his father as through castration fear (4).

Klein's assertions invoked the wrath of Freud's daughter Anna, who saw herself as her father's only legitimate female successor and objected to Klein's stress on biological determinants over environmental ones, as Freud had earlier with Adler, despite the shortcomings of his own position in this regard (see below). His own reaction to Klein was one of ambivalence. He told Jones that: "Melanie Klein's work has aroused considerable doubt and controversy here in Vienna. I myself have no judgement on pedagogic matters" (5). Clearly by this stage of life Freud was unwilling to involve himself in prolonged arguments about the usefulness of new psychoanalytical theories: it was left to Jones and Anna to continue the debate after his death.


1) It is possible that Klein also analysed her two elder children, Melitta ("Lisa"), later one of her mother's most virulent critics within the psychoanalytic movement; and Hans ("Felix"), who died at the early age of 27 in a climbing accident, although these analyses could not have been as intensive as those of Erich. Many years later, Klein supervised the analysis of Erich's son Michael, who became a noted atomic scientist before his early death from cancer.

2) Abraham and Ferenczi, who both postulated that a forerunner of the superego could be found in the oral and anal phases, may have influenced Klein here.

3) See Leader, Darian (2000) Freud's Footnotes, Faber & Faber Ltd, London, p.138.

4) See Caper, Robert (2000) Immaterial Facts: Freud's Discovery of Psychic Reality and Klein's Development of His Work, Routledge, London, p.131.

5) See Caper, Robert (2000) p.76.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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