Envy and Gratitude

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Envy and gratitude is the last of Melanie Klein's major contributions to psychoanalytic theory. She presented a paper, "A study of envy and gratitude," at the Geneva International Congress of Psycho-Analysis in 1955. This was later expanded into a short book for publication in 1957.

From her first publications Melanie Klein reported that a major source of anxiety from the beginning of life is destructiveness. At first she was interested in aggression and the paranoid cycles of fear and violence as the origins of anxiety (Klein, 1929a). Later she understood anxiety in terms of damage to internal objects (the depressive state), which then gave rise to guilt (Klein, 1935). Still later she understood self-directed aggression, in the form of splitting and fragmentation of the ego itself, to arise from the death instinct (Klein, 1946). The ego, as it begins to develop, protects itself from its inherent self-destruction by an immediate projection onto an external object of that destructiveness toward the life-affirming side of the ego (Klein, 1932).

Finally, in 1957 she developed a new understanding. Envy projects onto an external object the affirmation of life and attacks it there. Envy, which Klein referred to as "primary envy," is an attack on life itself in the form of an external object that represents the wish to keep the ego alive and hence on which the ego is utterly dependent. Those attacks are achieved, in fantasy, by the very earliest methods available to the infant: orally scooping out the good object, the mother's breast. She believed that primary envy is the process underlying other forms of envy, including penis envy.

The consequence for the infant is that it has difficulty in finding a good object in the external world that, when introjected, can be definitely and stably good to the ego. However, there is also the libido, and in its earliest form, it too relates to the external source of life in a powerful surge of feeling that Klein later called "gratitude."

Envy, however, causes trouble and leaves potentially disturbing traces in the later personality. For this reason, Klein and her colleagues subsequently concentrated on envy. Klein regarded envy as such an early and primary mode of defense against the self-destruction of the death instinct as to be a constitutional, or innate, reaction.

With this stand she called down great criticism on herself. The death instinct was always contentious; Freud regarded it as silent. A primary source of aggression against objects was held by many to be unnecessary, as frustration of libido was a sufficient source and explanation. And many, perhaps most, analysts found it impossible to conceive of a bounded ego operating in relation to a clearly defined external object. Throughout her career Klein had had to confront disbelief of her observations on violence and aggression in children. To postulate innate violence as the first force preoccupying the infant redoubled that disbelief.

The publication of these contentious ideas came, ironically, at a time when Klein might have felt satisfied that her psychoanalytic work was becoming appreciated. After the controversial discussions with Anna Freud in the early 1940s, the group of her close associates and colleagues had been reduced to a handful, with a number of students. By 1952 her views had survived, and her papers from the controversial discussions were published in book form. Her ideas had also developed enormously with experimental work on the psychoanalysis of schizophrenia.

Colleagues marked her seventieth birthday with a festschrift containing the papers of fifteen contributors apart from herself (Klein et al., 1955). At this moment of success her new book on envy (1957) brought more setbacks. The pace of her ideas had gone so fast that many followers became increasingly reserved about their support. Paula Heimann (1962) and Donald Winnicott (1965) made a distinct break from Klein at this time. In contrast, those who remained loyal to Klein fervently embraced the idea of envy.

From then to the present (2004), allegiance to the concept of envy has been a kind of badge of membership in the Klein group within the British Psycho-Analytical Society. Because of these group allegiances, the concept has been seriously studied only by Klein's followers.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Envy; Klein-Reizes, Melanie.

Source Citation

Melanie Klein. (1957). Envy and gratitude: A study of unconscious forces. London: Hogarth Press. Reprint: (1975). The writings of Melanie Klein, Vol. 3: Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963 (pp. 176-235). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.


Heimann, Paula. (1962). Contribution to the discussion of "The curative factors in psycho-analysis." International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 228-231.

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

. (1929b). Personification in the play of children. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10, 171-182.

. (1932). The psycho-analysis of children. London: Hogarth.

. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16, 145-174.

. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27, 99-110.

. (1957). Envy and gratitude: A study of unconscious forces. London: Hogarth Press.

. (1975). The Writings of Melanie Klein. London: Hogarth.

Klein, Melanie, Heimann, Paula, and Money-Kyrle, Roger. (1955). New directions in psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: studies in the theory of emotional development. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

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