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(p. 433) Review: Envy and Gratitude: By Melanie Klein (London: Tavistock, 1957) 

(p. 433) Review: Envy and Gratitude: By Melanie Klein (London: Tavistock, 1957)
(p. 433) Review: Envy and Gratitude: By Melanie Klein (London: Tavistock, 1957)

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 18 July 2018

Originally published in Case Conference, 1959, 5, as ‘On envy’. Also published in C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, & M. Davis (Eds.), Psycho-analytic explorations (pp. 443–446). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Mrs Klein’s recent book Envy and Gratitude draws attention to the subject of envy and stimulates consideration of the origin of envy in the human child. It would seem appropriate to use this detail in a book which contains very much else as an excuse for a personal statement. It is indeed interesting to take any concept such as that of envy and not only to think of its meaning in everyday life but also to try to trace it to the point of its origin in the developing human infant.

In this book Mrs Klein makes some rather definite statements about envy, and in my personal opinion she includes in what she says some degree of error. I find it very difficult exactly to point to the mistake which I believe she is making, and for this reason I find it an important exercise to try to formulate a view of my own.

It is valuable to the psychotherapist to be reminded of the importance of envy which of course he meets in his analytic practice as he meets it in life. Melanie Klein’s use of the word ‘envy’ is easy to follow when she describes the destructive elements in a patient’s relationship to the analyst when the analyst is felt to be satisfactory. Naturally when the analyst is failing in some respect the patient can be expected to feel anger, but it is necessary to recognise destructive forces which do not belong to reactive anger. In health these destructive forces become aligned with those impulses which can be called loving. I personally feel completely at variance with Mrs Klein, however, when she takes the matter back to infancy itself, as when she says: ‘I consider that envy is an oral-sadistic and anal-sadistic expression of destructive (p. 434) impulses, operative from the beginning of life, and that it has a constitutional basis’ (preface).

I feel that it is necessary to distinguish the description of an infant from the description of the primitive processes as seen in the analyses of children and adults. As I write this, a patient who has recently started with me leads off in an analytic session with the following words: ‘At last I have found someone that I need not envy. I don’t envy you if you are a good analyst. I may want to kill you but I don’t feel I have to destroy the thing in you which makes you able to do my analysis’. Later on of course this patient is likely to envy me, but she will have a reason. This envy will be associated with my failure to be available. Near the beginning of the analysis I have not yet been ‘found out’, and I have been able to follow the needs of the patient closely enough so that there is no envy if I can do her treatment. From this detail it can be seen how envy is a vitally important recurring theme in treatments, and in analyses it can be studied in detail and its evolution can be followed. Envy turns up in the same way in the relationship of the social worker and clients and in all other professional relationships and needs to be understood. It is one of those things on which research must be done by the analyst and applied in work that is more general.

It would appear that the word ‘envy’ implies an attitude, something maintained over a period of time. In this attitude of the subject to the object there is further implied by the word ‘envy’ a perception of a property in the object, a property which is not a projection from the subject, an environmental factor, an external phenomenon, something belonging inherently to the object. Envy can here be compared with pity; the object really has something good or something bad about it, in which case the subject is involved in either envy or pity. For me the word ‘envy’ implies a high degree of sophistication, that is to say a degree of ego-organisation in the subject which is not present at the beginning of life. It may be present in a matter of weeks or months, but we need a term (such as oral sadism) to describe the infant’s relationship to an object, a relationship carried by an instinctual drive, and dating from almost the beginning. (At the beginning one must allow for a stage before there can be said to be a fusion of destructive and erotic impulses.)

Melanie Klein sees envy in her analytic work, and in this book she goes deeply into its significance there. It makes sense in referring to an analysis to bring in the word ‘envy’. In an analysis, even when the patient is severely regressed and dependent, there is some part of the personality which is co-operating with the analyst and which is sophisticated and unregressed. In this way a patient may bring himself or herself to the analyst, and may even carry on a job or run a home, and yet be severely regressed and dependent at the place where the actual analytic work is being done. But Melanie Klein also carries this concept back to earliest infancy.

(p. 435) It is here that I want to express a personal opinion. If I accept as a fact that Melanie Klein is describing something true in regard to our analytic and other professional work I am left with an objection. For me, there is no description of an infant that leaves out the behaviour of the person caring for the infant; or in an object-relationship, the behaviour of the object. While I can get great value from seeing the primitive mechanisms of human nature from a study of the individual in analysis, I cannot transfer this to the actual infancy situation without bringing in the attitude and behaviour of the person caring for the infant. At the beginning, as I see it, the infant’s relationship to an object is so intimately bound up with the presentation of the object to the infant that the two cannot be separated. In terms of object-relationships the infant is entirely dependent on the way each bit of the world is brought to the infant, so that one can say that the world is presented to the infant either in such a way that the object seems to be created by the instinctual drive in the infant or else in such a way that there is no link between the creative element in the infant and the existence of the external object.

If this view which I have often put forward is acceptable, it would seem that envy in an infant can only be part of a very complex state of affairs in which there is a tantalising representation of the object. Envy of the mother for something good about her could only appear if the mother is tantalising in her presentation of herself to the infant. ‘Tantalising’ here means that the mother adapts just well enough so that the creative element in the infant is met and the infant begins to perceive that there is something good external to the self, and yet not sustained so that to some extent the infant feels deprived. Where the good qualities in the mother are available to the infant then envy has no place and the question of envy does not arise. According to this view envy has no deep root in the infant’s nature and its appearance is a reaction to the failure of the mother’s adaptation.

Here perhaps is a solution to the difficulty. The theme of envy could be stated in terms of a process of disillusionment starting with the mother’s adaptation and including her gradual failure in adaptation matched to the infant’s growing capacity to deal with such failure. Naturally there must be failure of adaptation, just as I must soon fail to meet the needs of my new patient who has not yet ‘found me out’. It would then be possible to see envy as a real thing in the infant’s life. Envy would then be seen as a by-product of the developing mother-infant relationship and of the ego-organisation in the infant. If on the other hand envy is described as an infantile characteristic without mention of the behaviour of the object and all that that implies, then I consider that something is wrong. Talking about infants is not the same as talking about primitive stages in the emotional development of persons as seen in the study of patients. These two things are different because, as I have said, the patients bring to the analysis much healthy development and sophistication along with their illness and the primitive aspects of their own nature, (p. 436) and also because they cannot bring forward aspects of maternal care of which they were never aware.

In my opinion the word ‘envy’ in the term ‘oral sadistic envy’ weakens the concept of oral sadism. This concept has always had tremendous significance in the huge area of psycho-analytic thought and practice that has been explored by Melanie Klein. Oral sadism is valuable as a concept because it joins up with the biological concept of hunger, a drive to object-relationships that comes from primitive sources, and that holds sway at least from the time of birth.