Klein, Melanie (1882–1960)

Born Melanie Reizes into a middle-class, Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, where she received a grammar-school education, Melanie Klein married Arthur Klein in 1903 and had three children before the family moved to Budapest in 1910. In 1914 she began treatment for depression with the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi, who encouraged her intellectual interest in psychoanalysis. Klein began by psychoanalyzing her own children, and she presented one of the earliest papers on child analysis to the Budapest Psychoanalytic Society in July 1919 when she became a member.

In 1921 Klein left her husband and took their children to Berlin, where she joined the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society. With the support of its president, Karl Abraham, Klein developed her method of child analysis: the psychoanalytic play technique, which treated children's play activity as symbolic of unconscious fantasies. When Abraham died suddenly in 1926, Klein lacked professional support in Berlin, so she moved to London to join the British Psychoanalytical Society. Its members were very enthusiastic about her PLAY technique, and most took Klein's side in her 1927 debate about child analysis with ANNA FREUD, another pioneer in the field. In that debate, Klein and her followers advocated a deep analysis of Oedipal fantasies, while Anna Freud argued that analysis should instead seek to strengthen the child's ego.

Klein's psychoanalysis of children led her to develop theories that challenged the Freudian account of child development; for example, she proposed the existence of an early infantile superego and an innate aggressive drive. Her most important contribution, however, was the idea that an infant has a primary object relationship with its mother. Freud had asserted that the infant feels love for its mother only because she satisfies its basic physiological needs. On the other hand, Klein argued in her 1932 book The Psychoanalysis of Children that the infant is predisposed to seek a relationship with its caregiver independent of any other needs, and that this relationship is represented within the psyche as a complex world of objects. Klein and her followers developed this idea into object-relations theory, which emphasizes the importance of the mother-infant bond in shaping adult personality. These ideas later influenced the British developmental psychologist JOHN BOWLBY, who trained with Klein, to form his theory of infant attachment.

Klein also proposed the existence of two fundamental phases in child development: the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions. The concept of the paranoid-schizoid position, which suggests that the infant mind is dominated by psychotic defense mechanisms such as splitting, sparked a second debate with Anna Freud in the early 1940s who, as a new and powerful member of the British Psychoanalytical Society, argued that Klein's ideas were incompatible with traditional psychoanalysis. The so-called Controversial Discussions were resolved when the Freudians and Kleinians agreed to separate training programs for their groups. Klein's famous 1961 case study Narrative of a Child Analysis was published shortly after she died of cancer in 1960. Her papers were placed in the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology.


Grosskurth, Phyllis. 1986. Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work. New York: Knopf.

Hinshelwood, Robert D. 1989. Dictionary of Kleinian Thought. London: Free Association Books.

King, Pearl, and Ricardo Steiner, eds. 1991. The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941–45. London: Routledge.

Segal, Hanna. 1979. Klein. London: Karnac.