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Melanie Klein

1882 – 1960

by Meira Likierman

Melanie Klein made an original and significant contribution to twentieth-century psychoanalysis through a collection of papers published between 1921 and 1963. She was a pioneer of child psychoanalysis, inventor of the ‘play technique’ which enables children to express themselves through the use of toys, founder of the British ‘object relations’ school of psychoanalysis, and an early theoretician of emotions and their significance in human development.

Klein was born in Vienna, the fourth child of Moriz Reizes (1828–1900), originally from Lvov, and his wife, Libussa (1852–1914), who married in 1875 and moved to Vienna between 1876–1878. Klein’s father came from an orthodox Jewish background, and in keeping with his parents’ wishes initially devoted his life to Talmudic study. He later rebelled and trained to be a doctor, choosing science over religion in a move that was to influence his daughter. She not only aspired to a medical training, but adopted her father’s preference for scientific rationality over religious dogma. Thus, in her first published work, Klein argued that parents should explain worldly realities, including those of sexual reproduction, to the young child rather than use religious coercion as a disciplining method.

Moriz Reizes’s parents deeply disapproved of his career move, which they regarded as a betrayal of his religious roots. When he was sitting for his medical exams, his mother prayed for him to fail. This painful start to his professional life was followed by further disappointments. He struggled to make his way as a doctor and was forced to take on dental work to supplement his income. His wife was obliged to keep a shop to help with the family’s economic difficulties. The stress experienced by the family compounded a tragic bereavement in 1886. Melanie was four years old when her eight-year old sister Sidonie died from a form of tuberculosis. The experience of loss and mourning re-surfaced in Klein’s life several times and became a central theme in her theory of development.

When Klein was eighteen her father died. Two years later the death of her twenty- five-year-old brother Emanuel threw the family into further sadness and hardship. Rather than fulfilling her aspiration of a medical training, Klein settled for the more realistic option of marriage. A year after her brother’s death she married Arthur Klein in 1903, a second cousin on her mother’s side, who was a chemical engineer. However, their circumstances soon placed strains on the relationship. Arthur needed to be relocated as part of his career and this obliged the couple to move several times in central Europe. During her young married life Melanie Klein led a rootless, socially isolated existence in small, provincial places, and this took its toll in depression.Her marriage was also not developing into the kind of close, sustaining bond that she longed for, in spite of the arrival of her first two children—Melitta in 1904 and Hans in 1907.

Things took a turn for the better in 1910 when the Klein family moved to the much more cosmopolitan Budapest and Klein sought help for her demoralized state. It is probable that through his business dealings Arthur came into contact with the Ferenczi family, and around 1912 Melanie entered analysis with Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933), a lively and insightful adherent of Freud. In 1914, Klein’s third child, Erich, was born, and her treatment continued. Klein knew nothing about psychoanalysis, but the process exerted an immediate fascination on her powerful but starved intellect. She supplemented her sessions with reading, particularly Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Himself interested in the potential that psychoanalysis held for the treatment of children, Ferenczi tried to promote a similar interest in his female patients and Melanie Klein felt particularly encouraged by him. In 1919 she wrote up the events of a four-month period in the life of her son Erich, when he became interested in the biological origins of life, and she could enlighten him along Freudian psychoanalytic lines. Klein presented the paper to the Budapest psychoanalytic society as a prelude to becoming a member. Comments on the paper led her to further work with Erich, a more structured ‘analysis’ which already drew on his use of play to interpret his mental states. This was published in 1921 and launched her as a child psychoanalyst. However, the political situation in Budapest made it inhospitable and Klein moved to Berlin in 1921. She entered her second psychoanalysis with Karl Abraham (1877–1925), head of the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society. She began to treat children, provided them with toys and argued that, like Freud’s dreams, children’s play was a ‘royal road to the unconscious’. The Berlin Society was taken aback by her work, especially as it portrayed the child in a new and unusual light.

Klein gave her child patients the same privacy and freedom that was normally granted to adult patients. They were seen away from their parents and encouraged to play freely without instructions or exhortations from her. She then interpreted the unconscious experience conveyed in the play. It was the first time that children were provided with a private space of this kind, and her little patients were able to make use of it and spontaneously reveal their inner selves. Klein discovered that given such conditions, her child-patients often expressed extreme feelings of anxiety and aggression. She concluded that young children are at the mercy of acute emotional and instinctual fluctuations, the implication being that they rely on adults for the regulation of their emotional states.

This raw picture of childhood unsettled the Berlin psychoanalysts, but Karl Abraham protected Klein’s situation by virtue of his position as head of the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society and his role as her analyst. However, Abraham died in 1925 and in the same year Klein divorced Arthur. Klein’s position in Berlin became difficult, with overt opposition to her work. By this stage her work had become known in London and she was encouraged to move there in 1926.

In London Klein initially found a very congenial professional climate. She developed innovative concepts based on her experience with children, and these began to assume the outlines of a new theory. At its heart was a vision of the infant as an innately social being, born with a capacity to relate by seeking and responding to human contact. The infant is able to ‘recognize’ the mother, but this recognition is initially partial and piecemeal, centered on experiences of fulfilment or frustration at the mother’s feeding breast. The infant reacts powerfully to satisfaction and frustration, responding to worldly situations with the natural emotional equipment of love and hate. The most disturbing emotion for the infant is anxiety, which is aroused by frustration and undermines security. The infant thus develops primitive defence mechanisms which are deployed until maturation process develops the mind and diminishes anxiety. Maturation enables the infant’s mind to integrate different experiences of the mother and accommodate her as a more fully understood, ‘whole’ being. Klein ultimately designated this maturational move as a shift from a ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ to a ‘depressive position’. But she believed that the dual forces of love and hate continue to war in the human heart and remain in conflict throughout development. A happy individual learns to reconcile these forces by subsuming the hated flaws and frustrating absences of the mother in an overall love for her. When the mother is internalized securely in the psyche as a whole ‘good object’, the foundation for security is laid. There is a reconciliation with an imperfect mother and an imperfect world. Thus a balanced adult is able to manage worldly frustrations and lacks without becoming regularly overwhelmed by aggression and anxiety.

Towards the 1940s Klein’s professional situation in the British Psychoanalytic Society deteriorated. After Germany’s invasion of Austria in 1938, Freud and his daughter Anna were obliged to flee from Europe and came to settle in London. Anna Freud had already developed her own brand of child psychoanalysis which differed from Melanie Klein’s in essential ways. Anna Freud’s theories retained a continuity with Freud’s thinking which Melanie Klein’s seemed to lack. The theories of both of them had a relevance which went well beyond child psychoanalysis, inasmuch as they offered two different visions of psychic development. They thus had implications for psychoanalysis as a whole. In London Anna Freud questioned the status of Klein’s ideas and the tension between them increased to a point at which the British Psychoanalytic Society needed to re-think its theoretical and training assumptions.

This culminated in what became known as the ‘Controversial Discussions’. Klein and her group of adherents were requested to make presentations of key Kleinian ideas to the Society in its scientific meetings, so that these could be debated. One of the painful features of this period for Klein was that her daughter Melitta, herself now a psychoanalyst, joined the non-Kleinian camp in a public display of opposition. Their personal relationship was also at an end.

The controversial discussions were extensive, lasting approximately from 1942–1944, yet no theoretical conclusions could be unanimously reached. This culminated in a compromise that involved the division of the British Psychoanalytical Society into three schools of thought, Freudian, Kleinian and Independent.

After the controversial discussions Klein’s position was more assured. However, her theoretical body was not complete and up to the time of her death she continued to develop her ideas. She focused on the earliest months of life and also wrote her most controversial paper, in which she argued that envy is a destructive emotion which is an inevitable feature of human development and relationships. Klein died in September 1960, surrounded to the end by a small but loyal collegial group. By this time she had influenced some of the most significant thinkers on early development including Donald Winnicott (1896–1971), John Bowlby (1907–1990) and Wilfred Bion (1897–1979). Her model of child psychoanalysis proved to be of lasting value and continued to be used. Her ideas on anxieties and defences and the theoretical concepts that she developed on their basis influenced significant developments in twentieth-century psychoanalytic technique.


The Psycho-Analysis of Children (1932); Love, Guilt and Reparation (1975); Envy and Gratitude (1975); Narrative of a Child Analysis (published 1961).


Bott Spillius, E. Melanie Klein Today. Vols. I & II, London: 1988; Grosskurth, P. Melanie Klein. London: 1986; Hinshelwood, R.D. A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought. London: 1989; King, Pearl and Riccardo Steiner, eds. The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941–45. London and New York: 1991; Likierman, M. Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context. London and New York: 2001.


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A photograph of Melanie Klein in 1890. Klein would go on to be a pioneer in child psychology. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How to cite this page

Likierman, Meira. "Melanie Klein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 29, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/klein-melanie>.


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