Oedipus Dreaming: A Kleinian Reading of La Diabolique Tragédie

by Brian R. Graham

November 6, 2012



This article represents a Kleinian reading of La Diabolique Tragédie by “Madame X.” Klein argues that the oedipal situation as defined by Freud was preceded by a much earlier drama in which the infant’s inner life consists of a dark struggle with his parents, who are the main figures in the infant’s internal and external worlds. I argue that La Diabolique Tragédie provides us with a unique narrative representation of the early oedipal situation, as defined by Klein, and its final resolution. At the end of the article, I contend such a narrative might approximate the kind of dream that the King of Thebes might well have had before his downfall. 



Oedipus Dreaming: A Kleinian Reading of La Diabolique Tragédie.


The story bearing the title La Diabolique Tragédie is one which lends itself to a Kleinian psychoanalytical interpretation. The narrative in question is a post-apocalyptic tale, and, in a sense, all post-apocalyptic stories, with their devastated landscapes, are particularly appropriate for such a reading. Such an interpretation of a text typically interprets fearful landscapes as the mother’s body, which is in its terrible state owing to the attacks in “phantasy” on the part of the infant. Within the context of tragic or ironic Romanticism, the act of interpretation is done for us of course: the vegetable world is readily identified with a maternal figure. Thus the narrator in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man speaks of nature as a vengeful mother, whose acts have precipitated the end of the world scenario:

Nature, our mother, and our friend, had turned on us a brow of menace. She shewed us plainly, that, though she permitted us to assign her laws and subdue her apparent powers, yet, if she put forth but a finger, we must quake. She could take our globe, fringed with mountains, girded by the atmosphere, containing the condition of our being, and all that man's mind could invent or his force achieve; she could take the ball in her hand, and cast it into space, where life would be drunk up, and man and all his efforts for ever annihilated. (185)

But it is easy to see the landscapes of all apocalyptic fiction, regardless of period, in such terms once we start working with the framework of reference established by Klein and her followers.

                      La Diabolique Tragédie provides us with something special. It seems to represent a narrative account of the nature of oedipal difficulties experienced during the first six months of life, as defined by Klein, and their successful resolution. Though Klein did not read the story, it might be said to bear the same relation to Klein’s work that Oedipus Rex bears to Freud’s. Had she read it, she would no doubt have immediately understood that all the salient points of her construction of the early oedipal situation are woven into the story. In this article I shall endeavor to demonstrate this central point through a psychoanalytical reading of the story, bringing out the fact that it is a near perfect articulation of the early oedipal situation.

Who exactly wrote La Diabolique Tragédie or when it was written is unknown. It is attributed to a certain “Madame X,” which is quite obviously a pseudonym. Interestingly, however, a Kleinian psychoanalytical reading suggests that the author is a male rather than a female writer, as the pseudonym might suggest. Klein distinguishes very clearly between the early oedipal situation of the infant boy and that of the infant girl, and it is that of the infant boy which is represented in this story.


In contrast to Freud, who believed that the oral stage of psychosexual development persists throughout the first year of life, Melanie Klein argued that it was characteristic of just the first six months of the infant’s life. Klein argues that during the first part of the oral phase an infant boy first experiences love in relation to his mother’s breast. The infant introjects that good breast, and consequently it becomes the content of his internal as well as external world. In the period following on from this, the infant, who has acquired the ability to see his mother as a whole and his mother and father as separate entities, may develop an oedipal relation to them: he will desire sexual contact with the mother’s genital, and enter into rivalry with his father. But of course Klein’s work focuses to a significant extent upon the frustration of these developments. Thus in the paranoid–schizoid position, the infant also experiences the bad breast, internalizes it, and in phantasy attacks that breast, which leads the infant – much to his distress - to think that he has destroyed it. More seriously, in relation to the later oral phase, in the so-called depressive position, the child, again in phantasy, attacks the parental couple, whom he perceives as monstrous, especially in relation to their having a sexual relationship. His attacks lead the infant to believe that he has destroyed his parents, just as he damaged the breast in the earlier phase. (His attacks in phantasy on the father during this stage point to the “history” of the child’s later fear of castration by the father.) All he is able to introject under these conditions are terrifying parental imagos. Consequently, and this is crucial, no oedipal relation can be developed, the infant in this position experiencing only guilt and fear of reprisals. The infant only proceeds to a proper oedipal relation to his parents, Klein tells us, when the difficulties of the depressive position have been properly dealt with.

The key to the interpretation of La Diabolique Tragédierelates to Klein’s distinction between external and internal worlds. We should undoubtedly view the setting of the story – the world of Aven  - as the internal world of the author-as-infant, identical with his internal mother; the foreground, particularly the relationship between the last man and woman, we should see as the external world and his external mother. In the external world setting, the author, whose unconscious is at the center of this interpretation, is represented as a grown man because he is an adult at the time of the creation of his fantasy. But what is remembered in the narrative is a memory of infancy, and so we should always bear in mind that, on another level, the last woman and man are actually a mother and her infant son.

The land of Aven is an inferno and symbolically a terrifying mother imago. We are familiar with the notion that nature is a mother; here nature has been covered over by dystopian sprawl which, as a result of war, has been reduced to nothing but ruins. But that decrepit world, more mineral than vegetable, is identified with “the Mother”. But of course what the story seems to point to is Klein’s depressive position, and awareness of the mother and father as separate fearful figures is characteristic of that phase: “Attacks on the mother’s body lead to phantasies of its being a terrifying place full of destroyed and vengeful objects, among which the father’s penis acquires a particular importance” (Segal, 5). Unsurprisingly, then, the description of Aven contains a fearful image of the penis or father, symbolized by a phallic “sea beast”:

L’Amour-Propre et la Guerre en ont ravagé la terre. C’est désormais une métropole labyrinthique et décadente déjà partiellement consumée par les flammes. Dans les terres environnant la ville et de plus en plus dans la ville elle-même, singes et tigres, bien que fort rares à présent, sont les animaux les plus communs. De temps à autre, on peut apercevoir une bête marine géante parmi les vagues furieuses de la côte. (X, 47-46)

[Amour-Propre and War have ravaged the land. Now it is but a decadent labyrinthine metropolis being consumed by fire. In the country outside the city and increasingly within the city itself, the ape and the tiger, now few in number, are the most common animals. And a giant sea-beast is occasionally seen amidst the furious waves off the coast.]

In the depressive position the imagos of the parents are terrifying because of the sadistic nature of the infant’s phantasies towards them, and so the terrifying nature of Aven points back to what can only be described as extremely sadistic infant superego. The imagery is suggestive of the inner life of infant who may have tried to introject images of good parents but only succeeded in introjecting bad ones.

The problems of the depressive position may be thought of as a layer of difficulties which lie on top of the problems already built up during earlier paranoid-schizoid position. Paramount among these problems is of course the experience and introjection of the bad breast. It is possible to discern difficulties of that nature in the narrative too. The vegetable world of Aven is characterized by one particular symbol: the tree of death. The story includes numerous references to this form of plant life. No explicit references are made to its fruit, but it seems reasonable, especially in light of the clear significance of the fruit of the “Tree of Ignorance,” a point I shall address, to conclude that the fruit of this tree is “bad” and symbolic of the internal bad breast of infant experience.

Internal imagos are introjected external objects, and so, unsurprisingly, the dramatic foreground, connected to the external mother, provides cold comfort. Klein argues that “The anxiety produced by the internalized bad figures makes the child seek all the more desperately libidinal contact with his parents as external objects. There is a desire to possess the mother’s body not only for libidinal and aggressive purposes but also out of anxiety to seek reassurance in her real person against the terrifying internal figure” (Segal, 7). But in the story the real mother is the opposite – she is a murderous figure, full of hate for her son and determined to take his life at the first opportunity:

« […] Quand je contemple mon fils, ce monde bas et abominable me semble glorieux par comparaison. À le voir, mon cœur se resserre et insuffle un esprit de haine et de plaisir cruel en toutes choses. Je prendrai bientôt sa vie, bien qu'il soit chair de ma chair. Par la suite, je me retrouverai seule au monde, avec les animaux prédateurs pour seule compagnie, et ce sera un soulagement pour moi que de passer le reste de ma vie ainsi. [...]» (X, 36)

[“[…] My son and I will not be long for this world. On beholding him, the low and vile world seems glorious by comparison, my heart constricts and into all things breathes the spirit of hate and cruel pleasure. I will soon take his life, though he be flesh of my flesh. Thereafter I shall find myself alone in the world with its predatory animals for my only company, and it will be a relief for me to live out the remainder of my life thus. […]”]

Kleinian theory encourages us to think in terms of the necessity of moving beyond the oral phase, which in Klein is especially sadistic, through the phases which follow on from it and on to the genital stage. The story is permeated by a sense of the difficulty of moving on to the genital stage. There is no realistic focus for genital desire in the story.

What happens in the story, however, is that the last man is taken by the character called Merea to “the Tree of Ignorance,” a version of the tree of life. She tells him why he should eat the fruit of the tree and, as planned, he does so:

Recouvrant ses esprits, il reprend son rôle soigneusement étudié. Il s’adresse au fruit comme au meilleur des fruits avec cette réplique :

« Arbre d'ignorance, ignorance de la domination et de l'esclavage, ton nom implique le danger. Mais la connaissance nous a menés vers ce précipice et il se peut que je sois la prochaine victime dans cette histoire sanglante. Toi, diablesse, m'as parlé d'une meilleure société ne connaissant ni domination ou esclavage. Ce fruit, je le vois, peut être le remède à notre malheureuse condition. »

Milton nous dit que dans une « heure fatale » Ève prit le fruit de l'arbre interdit et le mangea ; mais cela est faux. Plutôt, dans un moment salutaire, le dernier homme prend de façon théâtrale le fruit de l'arbre d'ignorance et le mange. (X, 11-10)

[Giving himself a shake, he puts on his carefully contrived persona again. He addresses the fruit as the best of fruits in scripted lines:

“Tree of Ignorance, ignorance of domination and slavery, your name suggests danger. But knowledge has brought us to this precipice, and I myself may be the next victim in this bloody history. You, she-devil, have told me of a better society, one of ignorance of domination and slavery. This fruit, I see, may be the cure for our miserable condition.”

Milton tells us that in “evil hour” Eve reached for the fruit of the prohibited tree and ate, but this is untrue. Rather, in the ‘good’ moment, the last man theatrically takes the fruit of the Tree of Ignorance and eats it.]

The fruit apparently brings about enormous changes in him: he becomes a Rousseauist homme sauvage. The last woman then eats the fruit, and she is similarly transformed. After the last woman has also eaten the fruit of the tree, the last man, now the first man, engages in sexual intercourse with her.

[…] Comme le dernier homme avant elle, la dernière femme est immédiatement transformée par son repas. Son œuvre accomplie, Merea se retire modestement de la scène. La dernière femme commence à enlever ses vêtements : dépourvue de fourberie, elle aussi veut d'instinct être nue.

Tandis qu’elle se dévêtit, le dernier homme, à présent le premier homme, nu lui aussi, reparaît et contemple la première femme. Comme il ignore leur ancienne inimitié et qu’elle est la première femme qu’il voit, il la prend pour partenaire et ils copulent. Ainsi est scellée leur Elévation. (X, 9)

[[...] Like the last man before her, the last woman is immediately changed by the fruit. Her work done, Merea modestly retreats from the scene. The last woman starts to remove her clothes: free of guile, she also instinctively desires to be naked.

As she completes this task, the last man, now the first man, also naked, returns and beholds the sight of the first woman. Ignorant now of their former difficulties, and she being the first woman he sees, he takes her as his mate, and they copulate. The act is the seal of their Rise.]


As predicted by the Mother, the natural world around them – what remains of it - immediately starts to come back to life at this point. The Mother had described this as the time when rivers and streams of fresh water start to flow once more, the Earth begins to put forth vegetation again, and all the species of sea, air and land appear again, and this process begins now.

A Kleinian interpretation of Paradise Lost would focus upon the bad male genital (symbolized by Satan in the form of the serpent), and the significance of the fact that it is instrumental in the change from the focus on a positive internal mother imago to a decidedly negative one, which is of course dramatized by the fall of nature in Milton’s poem. We have something decidedly different here. It would seem that in relation to both his internal and external worlds, the “dreamer” has a memory of turning a corner. In relation to his internal world, it seems as though it is being reborn. The natural world transformed into a good land will represent a positive image of his mother’s body, and it will no doubt contain a positive image of his father too. He seems to have resolved the frustrations experienced at the breast – its fruit represents the good breast, unaffected by phantasy attacks, and he eats it without demurring. More importantly, he has also moved on to the beginning of the genital phase, the infant’s relation to his external mother now unequivocally oedipal. (The father will now be a different kind of threatening figure to the infant, but there is no shadow of his fear of castration yet.) Interestingly, he has moved beyond the pre-genital stage where, according to Starobinski, Rousseau’s own psychosexual development was arrested (394). But how exactly did this come about?

We must take a closer look at the “good moment,” which corresponds of course to the “evil hour” in Milton’s classic. Here is exactly what happens:

Le dernier homme lève les yeux vers l'arbre et voit un serpent dressé grimper dans ses branches. Il n'est pas peu affecté par le spectacle qui se déroule sous ses yeux et par les paroles de Merea, et l’espace d’un instant, son masque tombe, il s'oublie et reste figé devant l'arbre de vie. (X, 11)

[The last man raises his eyes to the tree, where he sees an erect serpent climbing up through its branches. He is momentarily thrown by the sight before him and the words of Merea, and for a moment he forgets himself and stands transfixed before the life-giving tree, his mask fallen.]

This is in a sense the moment in the narrative. On a literal level, the eating of the fruit precipitates the sex act, but, as I hope it will become clear, in the psychoanalytical reading the sight of the tree precipitates the eating of the fruit and the sexual act. In a sense, everything that has happened in the story up till this point is an illusion. What happens after it refers merely to the inner life of the infant. That episode is more real because it is based on experiences which act as a corrective, but it is also at one remove from reality. Only the vision of the tree is “real.” The fruit is, we know, the good breast, but, more importantly, the tree, symbol of the natural world, is the good external mother, while the erect serpent climbing up through the branches is clearly the father, specifically the good external father. In contrast to the world of Aven, symbol of terrifying images of mother and father, the image of the Tree of Ignorance and its contents is clearly an image of the parents who are, despite the infant’s best attempts, unaffected by the his destructive phantasies. Crucially, it is a very sexual image, suggestive of the parents in full coitus. Such a vision, Klein tells us, often provokes the attacks in phantasy on mother and father. Indeed, it may be similar visions which lie at the root of the depressive position in the story. “As the child becomes more aware of the separate identities of his parents and sees them increasingly as a couple engaged in intercourse rather than as a mother incorporating a father, the child’s desires, and, when in anger and jealousy, his attacks, extend to the parental couple” (Segal, 6), explains Segal. But this time the effect is different. Klein argues that because of his attacks in phantasy, the child believes that he has done irreparable damage to the parents, but inevitably he learns that his attacks have been ineffective. The parents are unharmed by the phantasy attacks and continually return to him. And at that point the work of “reparation” may begin. “When the infant enters the depressive position”, explains Segal, “and he is faced with the feeling that he has omnipotently destroyed his mother, his guilt and despair at having lost her awaken in him the wish to restore and recreate her in order to regain her externally and internally. The same reparative wishes arise in relation to other loved objects, external and internal” (Segal, 92). When the last man sees the tree, the infant understands that his parents are inexterminable. He may now begin - or continue with greater confidence - to repair his internal and external objects, a process which will ultimately involve his moving on to an oedipal relation to his parents.

In relation to his internal objects, the long process which gets underway in the natural world points to the work of reparation on the part of the dreamer in relation to his internal mother and father. It seems as though the work to be done in relation to the internal parents is to be a labor of love which will take time. But, as the author states, “Déjà l’eau douce des fleuves et des ruisseaux coule à nouveau vers la mer” (X, 9) [“Rivers and streams of fresh water are already flowing to the sea”]. In relation to his external objects, the desire for intercourse with the real mother points to the desire to do reparative work in relation to her. (In a more condensed – and therefore more satisfying - version of the myth, the last woman would not need to eat the fruit; she would be transformed by the last man’s seeing the tree. After all, the external parents are always the infant’s perception of external parents, and, that altered, the last woman would immediately cut a different figure.) In addition to the desire to possess the mother’s body and to obtain reassurance against the fearful internal figure, the infant also wishes to establish genital contact in relation to reparation. “There is also the wish to make restitution and reparation to the real mother in real intercourse for the damage done in phantasy” (7), explains Segal. Such a wish, it would seem, is dramatized in this episode of the story.

A choice has been made, it should also be noted. The boy who has turned to father’s penis may either retain his father’s penis as the object of genital desire or turn back to the mother’s breast. The former represents the burgeoning of homosexual desire; the latter the tendency towards heterosexuality, and the conventional oedipal relation to the mother. In the narrative the boy is left dumbstruck by the erect serpent climbing up through the trees. But we should avoid the conclusion that this represents the burgeoning of homosexual desire. As Segal points out, “For the little boy this turning to the penis of his father as an alternative to his mother’s breast is primarily a move towards passive homosexuality, but at the same time this incorporation of his father’s penis helps in his identification with him and in that way strengthens his heterosexuality” (Segal, 110). The focus of desire fluctuates in the infant, according to Klein, but it is identification with the father that seems to be at stake here.


Freud identifies Oedipus Rex as the narrative outlining the salient points of the Oedipus complex. But Freud felt that the complex began with the son’s fear of castration by the father. Klein of course tells us that that fear is a later modulation of the earlier oedipal situation, in which the infant, in phantasy, assaults his mother and father as separate entities, after having attacked the mother’s body as a container of everything, including the father’s penis, in a still earlier phase. It is hard to imagine a more complete articulation of the Klein’s early oedipal situation than La Diabolique Tragédie. The author’s choice of title is no doubt judicious, but a Kleinian would call it not La Diabolique Tragédie, but Rêves d’Oedipe [Oedipus Dreaming], for it is as though the King were dreaming of his infancy.

The King of Thebes (we can easily imagine) had a recurring dream. Each night, he dreamt about a desolate land, ravaged by war and about the sea beast swimming in the depths of its acrid seas. A cruel Jocasta-figure and Oedipus himself were the last inhabitants of the land, but they were mother and son, and not husband and wife, and the Jocasta-figure plotted to take the life of her son. Each time, the desperate situation was saved by the intervention of a strange, winged female figure. She would tell Oedipus that she had come from the heavens, though was from the underworld. She would then take the dream-Oedipus to a tree, the fruit of which she would bid him eat. Each time, he would eat the fruit and see himself transformed into a savage by it. Then the Jocasta-like figure would eat it, too, and, she now a savage like him, the two would engage in sexual intercourse. Each time, the act, incestuous and barbaric, would nonetheless prove to be bound up with the redemption of the world around them, which would start immediately …








Works Cited


Klein, Melanie. “The role of school in the libidinal development of the child.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis Volume 5 1924: 312-331. Print.

Klein, Melanie. “Infantile anxiety-situations reflected in art, creative impulse.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis Volume 10 1929: 436-443. Print.

Klein, Melanie. “The importance of symbol-formation in the development of the ego.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis Volume 11 1930: 24-39. Print.

Klein, Melanie. The Psychoanalysis of Children. London: Hogarth Press, 1932. Print.

Segal, Hanna. Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1973. Print.

Shelley, Mary.  The Last Man. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2004. Print.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1988. Print.


 X (Madame). La Diabolique Tragédie. Roskilde: EyeCorner Press, 2011. Print.


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Brian R. Graham "Oedipus Dreaming: A Kleinian Reading of La Diabolique Tragédie". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/graham-oedipus_dreaming_a_kleinian_reading_of_l. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 26, 2012, Published: November 6, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Brian R. Graham