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The Character of Jane Burnham in American Beauty Film Essay

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Updated: Dec 25th, 2021


This paper will examine the character of Jane Burnham in the film American Beauty from an object relations perspective. Object relations theory is about how the child internalizes early relationships and builds schemas that will guide them when dealing with relationships for the rest of their lives. Specifically in this paper, I will address how some of the theories can be applied to the character to help us note her intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics.

The Object Relations Theory

The object relations theory is a useful clinical method used to interpret psychological conflicts in the human mind. The theory stresses the primary significance of the nature and quality of the relationship between self and other and relies on psychodynamic tools to figure out the patients’ dispositions. By observing and understanding transference the therapist can realize how the patient relates to people around him and can trace these schemas back to childhood. From this point of view, developmental difficulties can be located in disturbances in the earlier exchanges and in the quality of care in the infant’s relationship with his parents. Some of the themes I used to analyze this character are: the paranoid-schizoid position and the defenses within this state of mind, the depressive position and envy.

Klein suggested that human development was a matter of different states of mind, that she refers to them as positions, and are each typified by particular defenses, anxieties and qualities of relationships (Klein, 1946).

The earlier position encompasses both the nature of the predominant anxiety-the fear of persecution- and the nature of the defense against such fears. The paranoid-schizoid position holds that an infant feels some anxiety that arises from internal life inconsistency, death instincts and the realities of life. Klein (1946) observes that children “experience good feelings, interject good objects and try to expel bad objects by projecting the bad feelings onto external objects.” The protuberance is provoked by some sort of panic over the extinction of the bad object. Klein describes this as splitting, a defense mechanism that helps the infant keep the good and bad separated and controlled. In this way both people and events are experienced in very extreme terms, either good or bad. (Klein, 1946). There is always a conflict in this process as a result of destructive bearing caused by the bad objects (Klein, 1986). The infant has to manage emotional experiences which he does not yet have the psychic capacity to digest by himself.

Klein (1986) contends that “projective identification is used by the infant to separate the bad object while also keeping them close.” This can lead to confused aggression because you attribute a bad part of yourself to another object. Klein (1946) observes that projective identification may also be used as a tool to expel the unclear issues from the inner self. This allows one to reexamine the independently and later internalize them again. This is what Bion calls container/contained relationship. Bion (1959) describes “projective identification as a system of communication that seeks an experience of being contained.” A good mother/therapist is the one who will become a container for the baby’s/client’s projections, which are intolerable, and then give them back in a way that is easier for them to digest

When in the depressive position, the infant starts to recognize the mother as a whole object who can be both good and bad and love and hate begin to co-exist. The infant starts to recognize its vulnerability as well as its maternal dependency. Feelings of concern arise, and also the beginnings of a capacity to experience remorse for the harm which is felt to have been done to the loved one by the frustrated and angry self (Klein, 1935).

Another important concept I will use for the analysis of Jane, is Klein’s use of envy. Because of the infant’s realization that is so dependent on the breast, he considers it so powerful and important and cannot tolerate that it can be so effective in his experience. The infant prefers destroying the good than remaining dependent on it (Mitchell & Black, 1995). There is a strong aggressiveness towards the good that is driven by the parents’ inconsistencies.

Character analysis of Jane Burnham

Jane is the only daughter of Lester Burnham, the central character in the film, and Carolyn. Lester is in his 40s and works as an executive for a magazine publishing company. He faces a number of family issues and is not satisfied with the kind of life he leads. Jane feels that her father has little interest in her life and also has a problem with her image and body size. She feels her father does not effectively stand out as her role model. She is also uncomfortable about her fathers’ intimate relationship with her friend Angela. Jane is determined to change her image to her desired one by saving money in order to be able to do a breast surgery.

Both Lester’s daughter and wife Carolyn regard him as a terrible loser in life. He has decided to stay in a dead marriage with Carolyn for the sake of Jane. Carolyn is in an intimate affair with her business rival Kane, her relation with Kane apparently causes strains in her marriage as this makes her fail to meet her marital responsibilities. She does not allow her husband to touch her and all he does is masturbate in the bathroom to satisfy his sexual needs. Lester admits that his marriage is a mere show of content to the public. Jane finds herself between the strange behaviors of the two parents and has developed a mental state that requires psychological intervention to recover. She appears to be disgusted but also jealous of the development of a sexual relationship between her friend Angela and her father.

She soon develops a relationship with a rather “weird” boy, Ricky Fits, who stays with his parents next door. Ricky also has parental problems which he has to share with Jane again. His father has some issues with authority and his mother is very withdrawn and passive in the house.

Jane, who is 15, seems to be in the process to discover who she is and defining more clearly her sense of herself in the world. The anxiety involved in her attempts aroused extremes of defensive splitting and projection. The situation within her family, with her parents consistently fighting and insulting one another makes this even more stressful for her and throughout the film she seems to shift between the two positions very often. Her development was obviously problematic because both her parents seem to be very inconsistent and unresponsive, so Jane remained “stuck” and her view of herself is not so integrated and stable as it is supposed to be.

As Klein (1946) contends, past experiences play a significant role in one’s future relations with others. Mr. Lester and her wife Carolyn are in serious marital problems. Their marital problems infiltrated Jane’s life since her childhood. She has internalized a distorted image of her father, she relates her father to a bad object as described by object relations theorists. She interjects her fathers’ relationship with her friend Angela. Their relationship is a sort of permanent distress to Jane’s mind. As Mitchell and Black (1995) contend, Jane’s current behavior can be interpreted from her internal object world. She grew up with vague prospects about her father as a role model.

Therapeutic Goals in Jane’s Case

Jane exhibits a splitting schema about her father; she feels her father is not her best role model. She is bitter about her father’s intimacy with her friend Angela. Jane needs to clear the bad image of her father in her mind and repair the distortion she has internalized.


Generally, this paper demonstrates how children internalize their childhood attachments and how the childhood experiences affect their entire life. The paper examined the life of Jane Burnham’s childhood experiences with her parents in the movie American Beauty. The parents’ marital problems manifest in Jane’s current life as a bad object by the object relations theory.

Reference List

  1. Bion, W., R. (1959). Attacks on linking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.40.
  2. Mitchell, A., S. and Black, J., M. (1995). Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books
  3. Klein, M. (1923). International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 4, 419-474. Web.
  4. Klein, M. (1935). . International Journal of Psychoanal. 16, 145-174. Web.
  5. Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 99-110.
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