Breast, Good/Bad Object

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The primitive ego cannot perceive or conceive of the objects in its external world as whole, multifaceted persons. Instead it lives in a world of one-dimensional objects that have either good or bad intentions towards the infant (Klein, 1932).

Abraham's concept of whole-object love was a way of talking about the integration of various impulses from all levels of developmentthe libidinal stages and the phases of early aggression linked with them. All these levels were, in Freud's view, linked and integrated under the dominance of the genital libido. Working with children, Melanie Klein found herself confronted with partial impulses towards objects, toys, and the person they represented. She was impressed by how pure these relations were, either wholly hating or wholly loving.

She noticed, too, that the objects were related to as if they had similar single-minded attitudes and impulses towards the ego (Klein, 1929). Some objects were feared and hated as terrifyingly violent and punitive, and some were loved for their equal benevolence. The objects themselves had internal states and the ego was greatly preoccupied by their good or bad relations with itself. This sharply redirected her attention from the satisfactions of libidinal impulses toward the relations to objects.

The predominance of the child's hatred and fears led her at first to concentrate on the harshness of objects, and she believed it represented in play a superego of great ferocity (Klein, 1932, 1933). The multiple representations and nuances of these superego figures led her to understand that the superego was not a unitary object but a composite of many figures inside the child. Her attention, once drawn to these internal objects, expanded to recognize an internal world of good objects as well as bad ones.

With her more disturbed patients she noted the concreteness of these internal objects, good or bad. They were conceived by the child as actual physical entities roaming around inside it. She believed that this concreteness is not just explicit in children and disturbed (schizophrenic) adults, but it is also the character of a deep layer of the unconscious in all people.

Klein's observations led her to the view that oedipal configurations occurred in phantasies at a very early age. It became clear to her that the father particularly was regarded for some time as a very restricted function, called in short-hand "father's penis." This occupied mother and took her mentally and physically from the infant. It was thought that at the earliest stages mother was little more than a breast. When she fed, she was "good breast" and when she frustrated she was an evilly intentioned "bad breast." Likewise the penis inside her was a "bad penis" if it was an obstruction in the infant's way to the breast. But it could be a "good penis" if it was felt to protect mother (or the breast) for the infant. The parents as part-objects-breast and penis were believed by the infant to be in some form of intercourse defined by the infant's own phantasies. The bad parents (breast and penis) were dangerous, threatening to destroy each other, and known as the "combined parent figure." In contrast, the infant in loving mood, could then fantasize in an intercourse of great, benign, and beautiful creativity.

Klein's point of view put great weight on the internalization of these part-objects that loved or hated the infant. Ordinary steady development and sanity depended on the internalization of the good object. This gives rise to an internal good state of mind. The ego develops a continuity in its feeling of being loved. Conversely when introjection is mostly of bad objects there ensues a state of internal turmoil, disorganization and ultimately fragmentation.

The early introjection of a good object/breast results in a benign internal state, and a growth of the ego. The object is drawn into the ego itself or assimilated to become a benign core to the personality. The ego, and the personality, tends therefore to build up from objects that are internalized and assimilated. Bad, evil objects may be internalized and remain unassimilated, constituting a permanent internal threat, often expressed in hypochondriacal complaints.

At a stage when the external objects can be perceived in a more realistic way, there is a tendency, through internalizing them as a mixed object, for the internal state to become populated by objects that are a mixture of good and bad. This poses an alarming change for the personality, known as the depressive position. Its characteristic anxietyguiltderives from the sense of the internal object now being a spoiled good object, damaged and with the threat of its death.

The classical Oedipus complex displays a restricted version of the polarities; the one a good source of all libidinal satisfactions, and the other hated parent, thought to be dangerous, obstructing, and castrating.

Klein's early descriptions of an internalized punitive object relate to the concept of the superego, notably a harsh one. The variety of forms of this object, in play, dreams and phantasy manifestations, led her to believe that the superego is a large repertoire of objects, only some of which had moral aspects.

The primitive experience of separating apart good and bad features of the world, does occur in Freud, notably in "Die Vereinigung" ("Negation") (Freud, 1925) where he places the origins of judgment in the narcissistic decision to take in good things and eject bad things.

Fairbairn presented a schema in which the ego, itself split, relates to three internal objectsthe libidinal, anti-libidinal and ideal objectsto form three paradigm endopsychic structures. Though there is leeway for much variation in these structures, they are rather different from the free world of internal play and drama of Klein's internal objects.

Freud's descriptions of infancy are rooted in the drive theory and are distinct from Melanie Klein's conception of the good and bad breast. Good and bad objects are in themselves motivated with good or bad intentions towards the ego. The latter downplays the libido theory and promotes object-relations to the center of metapsychology.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Object; Splitting; Splitting of the object.


Klein, Melanie. (1932). The psycho-analysis of children. London: Hogarth Press.

. (1933). The early development of conscience in the child. In Sándor Lorand, (Ed.), Psycho-analysis today (pp. 149-162). New York: Covici-Friede.

. (1952). Developments in psycho-analysis (Joan Riviere, Ed.). London: Hogarth Press.

. (1975). Infantile anxiety situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10 (1929), 436-443.)

. (1975). Personification in the play of children. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1, pp. 199-209). London: Hogarth. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10 (1929), 171-182.)