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Melanie Klein (1882-1960)

by Gail Donaldson, Union College*

Biography of Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein is perhaps the most important woman psychoanalyst who ever lived and yet is probably the least well-known to American psychologists.  The names of other women analysts such as Anna Freud, Karen Horney, and Helene Deutsch are probably far more familiar to you despite the fact that Melanie Klein’s contribution to psychology has been far greater than theirs.  Through the development of her own distinctive approach to psychoanalysis Klein inaugurated the school of psychoanalysis known as object relations theory, which places the mother-infant relationship at the center of personality development, and influenced the work of prominent psychologists like John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott.  Her impact on developmental psychology has thus been indirect but profound.

Melanie Klein (nee Reizes) was born in Vienna in 1882 into a middle-class Jewish family.  Although she was educated at the gymnasium, her intellectual ambitions to attend medical school were thwarted by a fall in the family fortunes and at the age of twenty-one she married Arthur Klein, an industrial chemist, and began to raise a family.  Eventually she had three children.  Throughout her early married life Klein suffered from depression and “nerves,” due in part to a difficult relationship with a domineering mother, and so after moving with her family to Budapest in 1910 she began a course of psychoanalysis with Sandor Ferenczi. Building on her intellectual interest in psychoanalysis Ferenczi encouraged Klein to psychoanalyze her own children.  Until that time no one had tried analyzing children so without any guidance Klein set about developing a technique of child analysis that is still used today.  In her “play technique” the child’s play activity is taken as symbolic of unconscious material and is interpreted in the same way that dreams and free associations are in adult analysis.  Klein was the first psychologist to view children’s play as a meaningful activity and her “play technique” later contributed to the development of play therapy.

In 1918 when the International Psycho-Analytic Congress was held in Budapest, Klein saw Freud for the first time and later said, “I remember vividly how impressed I was and how the wish to devote myself to psychoanalysis was strengthened by this impression” (quoted in Grosskurth, 1986, p.71).  A few years later she became a full member of the Hungarian Psycho-Analytic Society, but by this time Klein’s marriage was failing and so she left Arthur and took her children to Berlin where she joined the Berlin Psycho-Analytic Society and entered analysis with the eminent Karl Abraham.  Abraham was developing Freud’s concept of the death instinct in his own ideas about oral and anal sadistic impulses in infancy, ideas which Klein soon incorporated into her interpretations of children’s play.  Abraham encouraged her work, but other Berlin analysts were less accepting.  When Abraham died in 1926, Klein moved to London to join the British Psycho-Analytical Society.
In London Melanie Klein found her intellectual home among the British psychoanalysts, who embraced her new ideas and were eager to learn her play technique.  She spent the rest of her life there developing her theory of child development into a new school of psychoanalytic thought and training future analysts in her theory and technique.  Klein’s first theoretical innovation was to incorporate the idea of the death instinct into her account of the development of an early superego, prior to the resolution of the Oedipus Complex.  This challenge to Freud’s theory of development coupled with her new play technique led to some controversy between the British analysts and the Viennese Society where Anna Freud was putting forward her own views on child analysis.  The 1927 Symposium on Child Analysis published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis was the result.  Klein followed this debate with some of her most important work over the next decade.

Klein’s 1932 book The Psychoanalysis of Children proposed that the infant has a primary object relation to the mother and experiences a psychic life dominated by sadistic phantasies deriving from an innate aggressive drive.  Then in a seminal paper entitled “A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic depressive states” (1935/1984), written a short time after the death of her son Hans, Klein explored the relationship between mourning and primitive defense mechanisms and introduced her idea of two fundamental phases of development: the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. Klein’s ideas about schizoid defense mechanisms aroused fierce debate within the British Society, which held a series of controversial Discussions during the war years to decide whether “Kleinianism,” as it was now known, was really psychoanalysis or whether it diverged too far from Freud’s original theory.  The debate resulted in an agreement to teach two schools of thought: Kleinianism and Freudianism.  Thus Klein was the first psychoanalyst to challenge Freud’s account of psychic development and remain within the psychoanalytic movement.

By this time Klein was a powerful figure within the British Society: she was a member of the Training Committee, a training analyst, and leader of the Kleinian group, which included for a while John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott.  However her victory came at a cost: her daughter Melitta had opposed her during the Controversial Discussions and they remained estranged until the end of Klein’s life.  In the face of the loss of two of her children Klein found solace in her work.  She continued to develop her ideas about schizoid defense mechanisms, including splitting, and the role they play in borderline conditions.  Her final work explored the themes of envy, gratitude, and reparation in the mother-infant relationship, themes which were so central to her own experiences as a daughter and a mother.  Her last important book Narrative of a Child Analysis (1961/1984) a detailed case history of the analysis of a young boy during the war, was published after her death from cancer in 1960.


Grosskurth, P. (1986). Melanie Klein: Her world and her work. New York: Knopf.

Klein, M. (1984). The psycho-analysis of children (A. Strachey, Trans.). R. Money-Kyrle (Ed.), The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 2). New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1932)

Klein, M. (1984). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive sates. In R. Money-Kyrle (Ed.) The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1, pp. 262-89). New York: The Free Press. (Original work published 1935)

Klein, M. (1984). Narrative of a child analysis. R. Money-Kyrle (Ed.), The writings of Melanie Klein  (Vol.4). New York: Free Press. (Original work published in 1961)


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 29, Number 3, Summer, 2002. Appearing with permission of the author..

Date created: 2010