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Klein [née Reizes], Melaniefree

  • R. D. Hinshelwood

Melanie Klein (1882–1960)

by Jane Bown, 1959

© Jane Bown

Klein [née Reizes], Melanie (1882–1960), psychoanalyst, was born on 30 March 1882 at Tiefer Gruben 8, Vienna, the daughter of Moritz Reizes (1828–1900), doctor and dentist, and a Jewish scholar from a rigidly Orthodox Polish family, and Libussa Deutsch (1852–1914), the granddaughter of a liberal rabbi. The youngest of four children, she idolized an older sister who died when Melanie was four. Subsequently she was devoted to her brother Emmanuel and his intellectual interests, but he also died, when she was twenty. The family was not wealthy and she became engaged at the age of seventeen to Arthur Stephan Klein (1878–1939), a second cousin and the son of Jacob Klein, a successful businessman, whom she married in 1903, after her father's death. This thwarted her education, and her initial ambition to study medicine. Arthur Klein, an engineer, worked for a number of companies in different parts of Europe, while Melanie Klein gave birth to her daughter, Melitta, in 1904 and to two sons (born in 1907 and 1914). The family moved repeatedly and she missed the lively intellectual life of Vienna a great deal. This, together with her marriage no longer being supportive, led her to periods of depression in which her mother intervened, looking after the children while sending Klein away for recuperative tours on her own.

The death of Klein's mother, just four months after the birth of the youngest child, precipitated a crisis. Now in Budapest, she discovered Freud's On Dreams, probably in 1914, and shortly afterwards started in analysis with Sandor Ferenczi, an early and important follower of Freud. She may have gained the contact through her husband, who was a work colleague of Ferenczi's brother. Her analysis with Ferenczi was intermittent due to his absences on war service. By 1919 however, Ferenczi had convinced her that she might contribute to psychoanalytic discoveries herself by making observations on children, which she did, initially with her own children. These observations resulted in her first paper, 'The development of a child', in 1921 (Imago, 7, 251–309; International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 4, 1923, 419–74). At this time psychoanalysts were attempting to confirm Freud's theories of child development, which he had sketched out from his work largely with adults. There was considerable incentive therefore for direct observation of children, and a number of analysts were doing this. Klein however went one step further than research: she was the first to work therapeutically with young children. Up to this point a form of therapeutic pedagogy had evolved in Vienna with older children and adolescents. To reach the younger child's own private world Klein needed a method not based wholly on words, and she turned to the child's natural means of expression, play. She gave each child in her practice a set of their own small toys, and watched and sometimes engaged in the play of the child, while from time to time making interpretations of the unconscious significance of the play. With this play technique she was able to analyse children in the third year of life.

After the family left Hungary in 1919, during the political upheavals, Melanie Klein went with her children to stay with her parents-in-law in Czechoslovakia, while Arthur found work in Sweden, thus beginning a separation which ended in divorce in 1923. In 1920 she met Karl Abraham at a psychoanalytic congress and he persuaded her to move to Berlin, which she did in 1921. He was the leading analyst in the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society, and a leading proponent of a formal training for new psychoanalysts. Klein had a further analysis herself with Abraham during 1924–5. He encouraged her to work with children, and to develop her play technique. With the end of her marriage she seems, despite having three children with her, to have enjoyed Berlin life with great gusto. Alix Strachey, the wife of Freud's translator James Strachey, who was also in Berlin for an analysis with Abraham, remarked of Klein one evening:

She was frightfully excited and determined to have a thousand adventures, and soon infected me with some of her spirits … she's really a very good sort and makes no secret of her hopes, fears and pleasures, which are of the simplest sort. Only she's got a damned sharp eye for neurotics.

Strachey and Strachey, 193

Alix Strachey was nevertheless very impressed with her work and arranged for Klein to come to London to present a series of papers on her work with children. These lectures were held in the home of Adrian Stephen at 50 Gordon Square over a period of three weeks in July 1925. She aroused great interest in a number of the members of the British Psycho-Analytical Society who were working with children. Ernest Jones, the leading proponent of Freud's work in Britain, invited Klein to come to London for a year principally to analyse the children of several analysts, including his own two children. Abraham died late in 1925, and Melanie Klein decided to accept the offer in 1926; she eventually decided to stay permanently, settling for most of her life at 42 Clifton Hill, in St John's Wood, London. She immediately joined the British Psycho-Analytical Society and with the mixture of her strong personal presence, her gift for clinical observation, the rigorous training experience in Berlin, and her new research on children she quickly became a leading figure.

Psychoanalysis during the 1920s was attracting very considerable attention both in the medical world (particularly military medicine as psychoanalysis had proved to be effective in treating shell-shock victims in the First World War) and also within intellectual circles. Klein's series of publications during the 1920s attracted attention across the psychoanalytic world of Europe. Also at this time another method of working with children was developed in Vienna. Anna Freud, the youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud, advanced the psychoanalytically oriented pedagogy under her father's guidance. She and other psychoanalysts in Vienna took a diverging position from Klein and the many British psychoanalysts who followed her. The two camps disagreed over the depth of interpretation of the unconscious, and the presence, or absence, of transference in children. Anna Freud's book of lectures on child analysis appeared in 1926, in German (but not in England). Klein published her major work The Psychoanalysis of Children in 1932. This detailed many theoretical views from her clinical research findings on the minds of young children, which Klein believed amplified Freud's theories of child development. Viennese analysts believed that Klein's new ideas were sufficiently discrepant with Freud's to cast doubt on whether she could be considered a psychoanalyst at all.

Delayed by the war, a collection of her earlier papers which included many on child analysis appeared in 1948 (Contributions to Psycho-Analysis). These defined her view of the infant as experiencing itself in relation to others at the outset of life, despite the immaturity of the infant's perceptions. Hence she became aware of the central importance of phantasies, arising from internal states, and their powerful and distorting effects on the earliest relations with other people.

Freud had used his work with adults to extrapolate back to the development of the child, and Klein extended this by claiming that her work with children allowed her to extrapolate back with the same validity to the earliest stages of infancy. Her work at this time also involved an increasing number of adult patients in which she could discover the later results of the early stages she had found in children.

Although she was deeply occupied with her work, her zest for meeting people led Virginia Woolf on one occasion, an anniversary of the Psycho-Analytical Society in 1939, to complain that she felt pressed by Melanie Klein for an invitation to dinner. Nevertheless, Woolf found Klein a 'woman of character and force and some submerged—how shall I say—not craft, but subtlety: something working underground. A pull, a twist, like an undertow: menacing. A bluff grey-haired lady, with large bright imaginative eyes' (Diary of Virginia Woolf).

Psychoanalysis dominated Klein's family: her oldest child, Melitta, had become an analyst at an early age. She was promoted, but maybe dominated, by her mother, and in the mid-1930s family rows between them spilled out into professional disagreements in the meetings of the Psycho-Analytical Society.

In 1934 Klein became a British subject, and seemed to be installed as the leading psychoanalytic researcher in Britain. She evolved new ideas which were published in a major paper in 1935, 'A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states' (International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16, 145–74). Here she introduced the notion of the depressive position as a crucial maturational step in the early stages of infancy. This expanded on Freud's work which he had published in 'Mourning and melancholia' in 1917. It drew attention to internalized phantasy figures such as the 'super ego' which Klein elaborated as 'internal objects'. A further major paper on the depressive position appeared in 1940, 'Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states' (International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 21, 125–53).

The disagreement over the technique and findings of child analysis was passionate and became an institutional opposition between the Viennese Psychoanalytical Society and the British. Ernest Jones was active, though unsuccessful, in resolving these differences during the 1930s, and the tide of political change in Europe brought this to a head. After the Nazi Anschluss in Austria the Freud family were forced into exile, and moved to London in June 1938. Sigmund Freud died in September 1939 leaving Anna Freud to preserve the exactness of his work. Klein was dismayed that the detractors of her work were in London, and was concerned that her ideas would be lost under the patronage that the Freud prestige would now exert against her.

Klein began from then on to consolidate a group of exceptional loyalty, her closest colleagues being Joan Riviere, Susan Isaacs, and Paula Heimann. The blitzkrieg on London in 1941–2 rendered serious intellectual life virtually in abeyance, but afterwards the psychoanalysts began to reform the society, and had to address the problem of the feverish disagreements between the two camps. The means of doing this was a series of committee discussions leading to eighteen months of scientific meetings to which Kleinians presented their ideas for discussion by the whole society. The very detailed archival documentation of these ‘Controversial Discussions’ has been published in The Freud–Klein Controversies, 1940–1945 (1991), edited by Pearl King and Riccardo Steiner. These exposed the differences between the two groups with great clarity, but failed to resolve any.

Eventually Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, and Sylvia Payne (now president of the society following Jones's retirement) formed a ‘gentleman's agreement’ that allowed the business of the society to continue despite the disagreements. This included offering two streams in the training programme to students who would be aligned with one or the other group. Klein no longer had the general support of the society and devoted herself to co-ordinating her group of supporters and attracting new students. Despite this she retained her primary interest in clinical work and psychoanalytic research, reporting, in 1946, yet another important theoretical advance, the notion of the paranoid-schizoid position (Notes on some schizoid mechanisms, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27, 99–110). She was now working with quite disturbed children and adults, and was pushing her research into the field of psychosis, which, she argued, allowed her to formulate the very earliest weeks and months of infant development. Many of her followers subsequently made major advances in understanding psychosis. These new ideas created even sharper divisions between her group and other analysts. The latter either aligned themselves with Anna Freud in preserving Freud's classic texts, or with an emerging middle group who sought a creative balance of ideas.

A further step in driving the Kleinian group apart from others in the British Psycho-Analytical Society occurred with the publication in 1957 of Klein's short book Envy and Gratitude, which elaborated the inherent bipolar relationships of the infant at the outset of life. By this time she had consolidated her group and many of them contributed papers to a special edition of the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 1952 for her seventieth birthday (later published as New Directions in Psycho-Analysis in 1955).

In 1960 Klein fell ill from a cancer, and died post-operatively at University College Hospital, London, on 22 September 1960. Her body was cremated at Golders Green. The attractiveness of her open and sometimes astringent personality made her many extraordinarily loyal friends, and also enemies who seemingly felt no inhibition about reviling her work publicly. But as her obituary in The Times remarked: 'The power and acuity of her intellect had strength and integrity, her originality and creativeness left one in no doubt that one was in touch with an outstanding personality'.

It still remains an effort to approach Klein's work in a balanced way, as the passions of the controversy remain within the psychoanalytic world. Despite this, her play technique has strongly influenced all child psychotherapists and child analysts, and it remains a standard method. Her ideas are now seriously considered in academic disciplines far removed from the clinical situation including film and cultural studies, social science, history, and philosophy. Klein's focus on the early relationship of the infant with the mother balanced Freud's emphasis on the importance of the father, and this has given Klein an importance in gender studies. A definitive collection of all her published written work appeared in 1975—The Writings of Melanie Klein; they include two books, thirty-seven papers, and five short contributions. A biography was undertaken by Phyllis Grosskurth and published in 1987, and a play by Nicholas Wright adapted part of the biography for the stage. Several portraits, drawings, and a bust exist. The British Psycho-Analytical Society has a small collection of toys similar to those she originally used. A large archive of her letters, unpublished notes and fragments, and case notes, together with photographs from all periods of her life, is kept in the library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.

Melanie Klein's influence on psychoanalysis developed steadily after 1960, notably in South America, and latterly in Europe and the United States. Many psychoanalytic ideas developed on the back of her clinical formulations, and the research analyses of schizophrenic patients from the 1950s contributed especially to the understanding of symbol formation, and to the exploration of emotional containment. These revolutionized object relations theory and later infiltrated most schools of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Her developments in technique permanently influenced the technical practice of psychoanalysis and the understanding of the scope of the transference.


  • H. Segal, Klein (1979)
  • The Times (23 Sept 1960)
  • The Guardian (23 Sept 1960)
  • W. R. Bion, H. Rosenfeld, and H. Segal, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 42 (1961), 4–8
  • P. Grosskurth, Melanie Klein: her world and her work (1985)
  • private information (2004) [Hanna Segal; Betty Joseph]
  • Bloomsbury/Freud: the letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–1928, ed. P. Meisel and W. Kendrick (1986)
  • The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 5 (1984)


  • Wellcome L., corresp., diaries, and papers


  • O. Neman, bust, 1939
  • F. Topolski, drawing, 1957, priv. coll.
  • J. Bown, photograph, 1959, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • I. McWhirter, pencil drawing, NPG
  • bronze bust, British Psychoanalytical Society, London
  • photographs, Wellcome L.
  • photographs, Wellcome L.
  • photographs, British Psychoanalytical Society, London

Wealth at Death

£34,264 5s. 4d.: probate, 24 Nov 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]