Summary and Critique of Klein, M. The Oedipus complex in the light of early anxieties

Melanie Klein developed play technique with young children from the 1920s onwards using drawings and a small array of simple toys. She found that the invitation to play quickly produced in the child the expression of acute anxieties. The use of male and female toy figures pointed towards relations with and between objects. These configurations showed unconscious phantasies active in the child’s mind. Klein linked the fate of the toy figures to the child’s worries about what would happen in reality between the child and the important people in his or her life.

Klein would speak to the child about his or her worries in a direct manner. She found that children were remarkably responsive to being taken seriously. Correct interpretations brought the alleviation of anxiety. Klein sought to understand the child’s own logic. She found a consistent unconscious content in anxious play which she related to deeper unconscious meanings in the child’s mind. The process starts with the child’s play, proceeds to a direct and explicit interpretation and results in a response of some kind in the further play of the child. The sequence is anxiety– interpretation–response. The alleviation of anxiety and the immediate change in the character and content of the child’s play were important markers for Klein in assessing the validity of her interpretations and of the technique itself.

Klein’s interpretations attempt to put into conscious words the ideas, emotions (especially anxiety) and relations that are hidden, or partly hidden – in effect, to speak the unspoken to the child. A child may be in conflict about the desire to communicate his or her worries and the desire to inhibit them. Interpretations may free up the child’s imagination. This may be seen in the way the play continues and in the emotional atmosphere of the session. The content of the play points to the details of why a change has occurred. Klein considered that direct and explicit interpretations of frightening unconscious phantasy reduce the child’s anxiety and negative transference. This, in turn, allows for meaningful contact between the child and the analyst.

Klein also considered that her observations showed the existence of an anxiety-situation that was specific to girls and which was the equivalent of the castration anxiety felt by boys. This anxiety-situation is based upon the girl’s aggressive impulses against her mother, particularly the desire to rob the mother of her bodily contents.

Klein uses the case study of Richard, aged 10, to illustrate the boy’s Oedipus development. The material she selected was mainly drawn from six analytic hours. She gives no indication in this paper as to the overall period of her work with Richard.

Klein tells us that Richard is a precocious and gifted child and very musical. However, he has severe emotional difficulties and his “faculties and interests are inhibited”. Moreover, Richard has a history of school refusal and is fearful of going out alone. He is “excessively preoccupied with his health and subject to depressed moods”. He prefers adult company, particularly that of women, with whom he is said to be at his best. Between the ages of three and six years, Richard was circumcised and had a tonsillectomy. Klein notes that the atmosphere in the home is “not altogether happy”. There is a “lack of warmth and of common interests” between Richard’s parents, though “no open trouble”.

We learn that Richard is the second of two children, having an older brother. His mother is a “depressive type” whose worries are said to contribute to Richard’s hypochondriacal fears. Her relationship to Richard is often “not satisfactory”. Furthermore, she focuses her positive attention on Richard’s brother who is a success at school and who “absorbs most of her love”. By contrast, we are told that Richard is a “disappointment” to his mother. He is “over-anxious, over-affectionate” and clings to her in a “persistent and exhausting way”. Despite this, Richard’s mother pampers him and lavishes care on him. Moreover, she does not attempt to press the company of children on him or force him to attend school. Richard’s father leaves his upbringing to his wife. Klein tells us that Richard feels that his father fails to exert appropriate authority in the family and that Richard has little in common with his brother.

On the outbreak of World War Two, Richard was evacuated with his mother to the country. His brother was sent away to school. Klein makes no mention of the father’s whereabouts at this time. Parting from the family home had upset Richard and the war was causing him anxiety because he was frightened of air raids and bombs. While acknowledging the difficulties in Richard’s family situation, and the serious difficulties in his early history, Klein takes the view that the severity of his illness is not explainable by these circumstances alone. She argues that the internal processes resulting from, and interacting with, constitutional and environmental factors have to be taken into consideration. However, in the case study she restricts herself to showing the influence of early anxieties on genital development, as she feels unable to “deal in detail with the interaction of all these factors”.

During the course of therapy, Richard produced a series of drawings. In addition, pencils, crayons and toy ships figured in his play as people in varying roles, though two particular ships were always used to represent his parents. Klein describes the sessions she had with Richard following a ten-day break in the analysis during which she had gone to war-ravaged London. She adduces that Richard experienced the separation from her as her “going to her destruction and death” and that this created anxiety in him. He was worried and depressed on her return, avoiding eye contact and either sitting rigidly on his chair or wandering about in a restless way. Klein viewed Richard’s behaviour as a “resistance”.

During the second session after Klein’s return from London, Richard told her about a conversation he had had with his mother in which he expressed his worries about having babies and of putting “his genital into somebody else’s genital”. Klein interprets this fear as being linked with the “pig-sty” town he had mentioned in the previous session, seeing this as standing in his mind both for her own and his mother’s “inside”. Klein concludes that the “inside” had turned bad because of Richard’s experience of thunderstorms and Hitler’s bombs. These external factors represented, in unconscious phantasy, his “bad” father’s penis entering his mother’s body and turning it into an endangered and dangerous place. Klein adduces that the "bad" penis inside Richard’s mother was also symbolized by the poisonous toadstools that he had found in her garden the day before and by his drawing of a monster against which the little man (representing himself) was fighting.

Klein suggests that Richard’s fears of sexual intercourse had been stirred up and intensified by her going to London. His aggressive wishes relating to his parents’ sexual intercourse added to his anxieties and feelings of guilt. Klein argues that a close connection exists between Richard’s fear of his “bad” father’s penis inside his mother and his phobia of children. She sees these fears as closely bound up with the phantasies about his mother’s “inside” as a place of danger. Klein suggests that Richard felt he had attacked and injured the imaginary babies inside his mother’s body and that they had become his enemies. She concludes that a good deal of this anxiety had been transferred on to children in the external world.

Klein continued to work with Richard in this vein, arguing that “The fear and guilt relating to his destructive phantasies moulded his whole emotional life” (p. 21). She sees this situation as being enacted in the transference. Moreover, Klein argues that Richard’s horror about sexual intercourse led him to turn away from her as the “genital” mother and drove him to his actual mother as the good object. In doing so, Richard used the defence of splitting as a means of dealing with ambivalent feelings of good mother/breast versus bad mother/breast.

Klein, then, argues that she was able to gain access to, and an understanding of, Richard’s inner structure by following the transference and the symbolism of his play. In describing internal objects, Klein is depicting the unconscious phantasies that Richard has about what is contained internally, such as babies and the penis. She sees the character of Richard’s psychology and emotional life as being determined by the nature of his unconscious phantasies and how these relate to external reality. For Klein, phantasy is the psychic representation or mental expression of body-based instincts, particularly innate aggression conceptualized as the death instinct.

Klein observes that while she was away in London, Richard had been more than ever inseparable from his mother, becoming, in his own words “Mum’s chick”. Klein interprets Richard’s flight to the breast mother as a defence against anxiety about the genital mother. His forlorn and poignant statement that “chicks have to do without their mothers, because the hens don’t look after them anymore and don’t care for them” is baldly interpreted by Klein as a failure of his defensive use of splitting the object into a good breast mother and a bad genital mother.

In Klein’s formulation, splitting allows the ego to emerge out of the chaos of the paranoid-schizoid position and to order its emotional experiences and sensory impressions. This is a pre-condition of later integration and the basis of the faculty of discrimination - the capacity to differentiate between good and bad. The leading anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position is that of persecutory objects getting inside the ego and overwhelming and annihilating both the ideal object and the self. This position is termed paranoid-schizoid because the leading anxiety is paranoid and the state of the ego and its objects is characterized by splitting, which is schizoid.

Splitting is also the basis for what later becomes repression in the depressive position. If early splitting has been excessive and rigid, later repression is likely to be of an excessive neurotic rigidity. When early splitting has been less severe, repression will be less crippling and the unconscious will remain in better communication with the conscious mind.

Klein views Richard’s game with a fleet of battleships which are known to represent particular family members as expressing his wish to restore harmony and peace in the family by allowing his parents to come together and by deferring to his father’s and brother’s authority. She tells us that in avoiding a fight with his father for possession of his mother, Richard successfully warded off castration fears and preserved the good father and the good brother. This also saved his mother from being injured in the fight between his father and himself. For Klein, all of this was contingent on Richard repressing his Oedipus wishes and idealizing the mother-baby relationship. To accomplish this defensive and regressive process, Richard had to keep the bad, persecuting mother and the ideal mother as widely apart in his mind as possible by deploying the defence of splitting.

As the study unfolds, Klein refers to Richard’s hope of restoring and reviving his good object (his mother). Reparation is a key concept in Klein’s theory of the depressive position and seen as being motivated by feelings of guilt and despair. The omnipotent destruction of the ideal object brings a wish to restore and repair it. The conflict between love and hate is brought into sharp focus. Reparative phantasies and activities resolve the anxiety engendered by this situation, acting to integrate feelings of love and hate and to synthesize the good and bad aspects of the mother. Deprivation may thus be experienced without being overwhelmed by hatred.

Klein suggests that Richard’s own hatred and destructiveness became less frightening with the belief that his love could restore what his hatred had destroyed. An important part of reparation is learning to give up omnipotent control of the object and accept it as it really is (reality testing). Klein argues that in naming Richard’s feelings and impulses she gradually helped him to relinquish omnipotent control of his mother. This entailed Richard’s acceptance of separateness – the differentiation of his own self from that of his mother.

Klein links Richard’s wish to make reparation to his father to the positive oedipal situation that had come to the fore in the therapeutic situation. In turn, she links this development to the strengthening of Richard’s genital position. Because Richard was now more able to feel that he could grow up to be sexually potent a defensive regression to the idealized role of the gratified and loving infant was no longer needed. However, Richard’s genital desires and phantasies of producing children with his mother continued to generate anxieties. He feared that his father suspected his genital desires towards his mother and that he might, therefore, still castrate him. Klein views these anxieties as Richard relating to his father as a super-ego figure.

Klein uses Richard’s material to illustrate the interaction between his bodily instincts, his inner world of objects and the actual objects (his parents) in his external world. She argues that Richard’s material shows that compromise formations are an essential part of every child’s normal development. Whenever defences are disturbed by anxiety, new compromises have to be found. However, compromises can only bring about relative stability if the quantity of anxiety and guilt is not excessive in relation to the strength of the ego.

In addition to experiencing hypochondriacal anxiety, Richard feared that his food might be poisoned. He also harboured paranoid fears which he related to his persecuting father and brother and to his parents being in a secret and hostile alliance against him. Klein sees these anxieties as relating to Richard’s internalized parents. In the particular session under discussion, Klein links Richard’s paranoid fears to his being unwell with a cold and sore throat. Thus, again, body-based sensations are linked to unconscious phantasies related to internal objects and to paranoid fears of actual external objects. Indeed, for Klein internal objects are the very stuff of unconscious phantasy, a level of psychology that, as we have seen, is closely linked to bodily biological functions and contents. Furthermore, in Klein’s formulation, identity itself is deeply bound up with the internalization, introjection or incorporation of objects, with the degree of hostility towards these objects in the internalizing phantasies, and in the resulting alienation from, or assimilation to, the internalized objects.

Klein tells us that Richard had become suspicious of two men he had seen outside the consulting room, fearing that they were spying on him. In her interpretation, Klein links his fear of these external objects with the fear of internal persecutors spying on and plotting against him. She relates that Richard was noticeably less anxious the following day. From this, Klein concludes that the analysis of the unconscious meaning of the sore throat had led to a diminution of Richard’s anxieties and a corresponding change in his methods of defence – from fears of internal persecutors to a hypomanic mood in which fears of persecution were denied.

In addition to denial, manic defences against overwhelming persecutory anxiety include splitting, idealization, and projective indentification. With regard to the latter, parts of the self and parts of internal objects are split off and projected into an external object which, in unconscious phantasy, then become possessed by, controlled by, and identified with, the projected parts. The aims of projective identification are manifold and include the avoidance of separation from the ideal object and an attempt to gain control of the bad, persecutory object. The effects on the self, however, are feelings of depletion and desolation. In the depressive position, the manic defences are primarily directed against psychic reality, specifically the experience of depressive guilt and the anxiety consequent on valuing and being dependent on the object whose loss is feared.

From the composition of several drawings, Klein argues that Richard’s increasing ability to express the projection of his oral-sadistic and cannibalistic impulses on to his mother indicates progress towards his facing psychic reality. Concomitant to this advance, Klein notes Richard’s increasing ability to allow the “good” and “bad” aspects of the introjected mother to come together more closely, seeing this as indicative of a lessening of a defensive form of splitting. From one of Richard’s drawings, Klein interprets that, in his mind, i.e. in unconscious phantasy, Richard had devoured his mother as a destructive and devouring object. However, in having eaten pleasurable breakfast food that morning, Richard internalized the good mother (again in phantasy) which he then felt to be protecting him against the internalized bad father. Klein asserts that in the absence of the protecting good object, the bad mother and father would have become a terrifying combined parental imago, attacking Richard from within, as well as from without by castrating him. In a footnote, Klein reminds us at this point that Richard had been circumcised some years previously and held a strong conscious fear of doctors and of surgical operations.

Klein emphasises that “. . . belief in the good internal mother was Richard’s greatest support. Whenever this belief was strengthened, hope and confidence and a greater feeling of security set in . . .” (p.42). On the other hand, whenever this feeling of confidence was shaken, either by illness or other causes, then depression and hypochondriacal anxieties increased. In terms of Richard’s inner world, fears of persecutors and of the bad mother and the bad father led to his feeling that he could not protect his loved internal objects from the danger of destruction and death. Moreover, the death of his good internal objects would inevitably mean the end of his own life.

Klein sees this situation as constituting the fundamental anxiety of the depressive position because the good internal object forms the core of the ego and the child’s internal world. The depressive conflict consists of a constant struggle between the child’s aggression and destructiveness (the death instinct) and his love and reparative impulses (the life instinct). As we have seen, Klein argues that when Richard’s processes of projection lessened he became more aware of himself and his objects as separate. She considers that, at the same time, there was also a greater awareness of his own impulses and phantasies, as well as an increasing ability to distinguish between phantasy and external reality. In Klein’s formulation, however, the depressive position is never fully worked through. She argues that the anxieties pertaining to ambivalence and guilt, as well as to situations of loss which reawaken depressive experiences, are always with us.

In summarizing the boy’s Oedipus development, Klein posits that the boy’s feminine position vitally influences his attitude to both sexes. It is arrived at under the dominance of oral, urethral and anal impulses and phantasies of attacks on his mother’s body and is closely linked to his relationship to his mother’s breasts. In order for the father’s penis to figure in the boy’s mind as a good and creative organ the boy must turn some of his love and libidinal desires from his mother’s breast as a good object. Klein asserts that the boy’s feminine desires are at the root of his inverted Oedipus complex and constitute the first homosexual position.

Being able to picture his father’s penis as a good and creative organ is also a precondition for the boy’s capacity to develop his positive Oedipus desires. Belief in the “goodness” of the male genital, both his father’s and his own, allows the boy to experience his genital desires towards his mother. Trust in the good father mitigates fear of castration by him and allows the boy to face his Oedipus hatred and rivalry. Klein therefore argues that the inverted and positive Oedipus tendencies develop simultaneously and that there is a close interaction between them.


This brief critique draws on a Relational perspective, as articulated in the writings of Greenberg and Mitchell. The authors question the degree to which Klein focuses on aggression at the expense of other motives, arguing that her theoretical formulation is overgeneralized and privileges unconscious phantasy over real people and events. Moreover, because Klein views psychopathology as arising predominantly from internal, constitutional sources she tends to derive good objects from outside and bad objects internally. The authors argue that this tendency minimizes the importance of parental anxiety, ambivalence and character pathology in the aetiology of the child’s psychopathology.

By contrast, the parents in Klein’s formulation are seen as important primarily because they represent universal human attributes. This theoretical position is reflected in Klein’s presentation of relationships as constitutional and universal – as being a direct and predetermined result of the nature of the drives, particularly of constitutional aggression in the form of the death instinct. The idea that problematic features of the parents’ own personalities and difficulties in living may contribute in a more direct and immediate way to the original establishment of bad objects, and thus to the beginnings of psychopathology in the child, is missing from Klein’s formulation of psychic structure and mental processes.

Greenberg and Mitchell argue that in deriving all salient emotional factors from inside the child’s own mind, Klein fails to give due weight to the extent to which depressive anxiety and guilt often stem from actual parental suffering and difficulties. Lastly, the authors argue that Klein’s adherence to the concept of the death instinct presupposes an extensive knowledge and imagery and that this, in turn, leads her to attribute to the infant cognitive capacities at birth.

Space does not allow for a detailed critique of Richard’s clinical material from an attachment theory perspective. Suffice it to say that his symptoms of school refusal, hypochondriasis and fear of going out alone, allied to his clinging style of relating to his mother and avoidant behaviour towards Klein on her return from London, indicate that he had developed an anxious-insecure pattern of attachment organization.

In addition to Richard having been hospitalized on two occasions and subjected to surgical interventions, presumably with concomitant periods of separation from home and family, Klein tells us that his mother was a depressed and anxious person. Moreover, in drawing attention to the unhappy atmosphere in the home and the lack of warmth and common interests between Richard’s parents, Klein uses the ominous phrase “there was no open trouble”.

In the light of these various factors, it would seem reasonable to hypothesize that open, undistorted communication was a problem in Richard’s family and that emotional issues were characteristically avoided or treated in a dismissive way. Given the overall clinical picture, we may wonder to what extent unarticulated anxieties and unresolved tensions in the marriage were being transmitted to Richard, causing cognitive dissonance between what he was and was not permitted to know and feel.
We may also wonder whether Richard’s relationship with his mother had become inverted in some degree, with his taking on the characteristic care-giving role of a “parental child”. Bowlby emphasises just how psychologically damaging this particular kind of parent-child relationship is to the child’s overall development and optimal adaptation. The inversion of the relationship may account for Richard’s preference for the company of women and for his mother’s reluctance to encourage him to mix with other children and attend school. Her tendency to pamper and lavish care on him may reflect the lack of warmth and common interests between her and her husband, and the fact that the favourite son who absorbed most of her love had been sent away to boarding school. It would, therefore, seem legitimate to question whose needs were being met in Richard’s relationship with his mother. Issues of autonomy and psychological differentiation would seem to be of clinical significance here.

From the latter perspective, the boy’s failure to achieve a masculine identity is linked to disturbances in the process of separation-individuation from the symbiotic mother. In such instances, the father is a largely weak, unavailable figure who does little to dissipate the boy’s merged relationship with the mother or to contain the symbiosis anxiety consequent on this form of disturbed mother-child relational pattern. In this context, we will recall that Richard had complained to Klein about his father’s weakness and failure to exert authority in the family. What would seem clear from Klein’s case study is that Richard’s attachment relationships and home environment were not sufficiently safe and secure or good enough to facilitate an exploration both of his external world and inner world of affects.

In terms of systems theory and family therapy, we may ponder whether Richard had become the family member expressing, in the most visible way, unresolved emotional conflict affecting the entire family system - whether he had been ascribed the role of “symptom bearer” or “identified patient” of a disturbed family system. These clinical issues have important implications in assessing which therapeutic method is indicated in such a case – individual, couple or family therapy.

A radically different perspective to that of Klein’s regarding the aetiology of problems such as those experienced by Richard may be found in Chapter 18 of the second volume of Bowlby’s trilogy on Attachment and Loss. The chapter is entitled Anxious Attachment and the `Phobias` of Childhood.

The chapter also contains an alternative construction of Freud’s case study of a horse phobia in a five-year-old boy, that of Little Hans. In line with Greenberg and Mitchell’s critique of Klein, Bowlby’s perspective takes into account parental anxiety and characteristic patterns of family interaction in attempting to understand the child’s emotional troubles.

* * * * *

Supplementary Readings

Bowlby, J. (1998). Separation: anger and anxiety. London: Pimlico.
Greenberg, J.R. and Mitchell, S.A. (1988). Object Relations in Psychoanalysis. London: Harvard University Press.
Hinshelwood, R.D. (1991). A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought. London: Free Association Books.
Hinshelwood, R.D. (1994). Clinical Klein. London: Free Association Books.
Segal, H. (1988). Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac Books.
Spillius, E.B. (Ed) (1988). Melanie Klein Today – Volume I: Mainly Theory. London: Routledge:
Spillius, E.B. (Ed) (1988). Melanie Klein Today – Volume 2: Mainly Practice. London: Routledge.
Stoller, R.J. (1986). Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. London: Karnac Books.
Stubrin, J.P. (1994). Sexualities and Homosexualities. Trans. E. Reneboldi. London: Karnac Books.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X
Written by Paul Renn
Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples coun...


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