Freud's Story of the Child's Game of 'Fort'-'Da'

At this point I propose to leave the dark and dismal subject
of the traumatic neurosis and pass on to examine the method
of working employed by the mental apparatus in one of its
earliest normal activities‹I mean in children's play.

The different theories of children's play have only recently
been summarized and discussed from the psychoanalytic point
of view by Pfeifer (1919), to whose paper I would refer my
readers. These theories attempt to discover the motives which
lead children to play, but they fail to bring into the foreground
the economic motive, the consideration of the yield of pleasure
involved. Without wishing to include the whole field covered
by these phenomena, I have been able, through a chance opportunity which presented itself, to throw some light upon the
first game played by a little boy of one and a half and invented
by himself. It was more than a mere fleeting observation, for I
lived under the same roof as the child and his parents for some
weeks, and it was some time before I discovered the meaning
of the puzzling activity which he constantly repeated.

The child was not at all precocious in his intellectual de
velopment. At the age of one and a half he could say only a few
comprehensible words; he could also make use of a number of
sounds which expressed a meaning intelligible to those around
him. He was, however, on good terms with his parents and their
one servant-girl, and tributes were paid to his being a 'good
boy'. He did not disturb his parents at night, he conscientiously
obeyed orders not to touch certain things or go into certain
rooms, and above all he never cried when his mother left him
for a few hours. At the same time, he was greatly attached to
his mother, who had not only fed him herself but had also
looked after him without any outside help. This good little boy,
however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small
objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him
into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his
toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did
this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out 'o-o-o-o', accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother
and the writer of the present account were agreed in thinking
that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word 'fort' ['gone']. I eventually realized that it was a
game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to
play 'gone' with them. One day I made an observation which
confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece
of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along
the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very
skilfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it
disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive
'o-o-o-o'. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the
string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful 'da' ['there'].
This, then, was the complete game‹disappearance and return.
As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated
untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the
greater pleasure was attached to the second act.l

The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It
was related to the child's great cultural achievement‹the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual
satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go
away without protesting He compensated himself for this, as it
were, by himself staging the disappearance and return of the
objects within his reach. It is of course a matter of indifference
from the point of view of judging the effective nature of the
game whether the child invented it himself or took it over on
ome outside suggestion. Our interest is directed to another
point. The child cannot possibly have felt his mother's departure as something agreeable or even indifferent. How then does
his repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with
the pleasure principle? It may perhaps be said in reply that her
departure had to be enacted as a necessary preliminary to her joyful return, and that it was in the latter that lay the true purpose

1 A further observation subsequently confirmed th interpretation
fully. One day the child's mother had been away for several hours and
on her return was met with the words 'Baby o-o~o!' which was at first
incomprehensible. It soon turned out, however, that during this long
period of solitude the child had found a method of making himself
appear. He had discovered his reflection in a full- length mirror which
did not quite reach to the ground, so that by crouching down he could
make his mirror-image 'gone'. [A further reference to this gtory will be
found in The Interpretatron of Dreams, Standard Ed, 5, 461n.]

of the game. But against this must be counted the observed
fact that the first act, that of departure, was staged as a game
in itself and far more frequently than the episode in its entirety,
with its pleasurable ending.

No certain decision can be reached from the analysis of a
single case like this. On an unprejudiced view one gets an impression that the child turned his experience into a game from
another motive. At the outset he was in a passive situation‹he
was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it,
unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active
part. These efforts might be put down to an instinct for mastery
that was acting independently of whether the memory was
in itself pleasurable or not. But still another interpretation may
be attempted. Throwing away the object so that it was 'gone'
might satisfy an impulse of the child's, which was suppressed in
his actual life, to revenge himself on his mother for going away
from him. In that case it would have a defiant meaning: 'All
right, then, go away! I don't need you. I'm sending you away
myself.' A year later, the same boy whom I had observed at his
first game used to take a toy, if he was angry with it, and throw
it on the floor, exclaiming: 'Go to the fwont!' He had heard at
that time that his absent father was 'at the front', and was far
from regretting his absence; on the contrary he made it quite
clear that he had no desire to be disturbed in his sole possession
of his mother.l We know of other children who liked to express
similar hostile impulses by throwing away objects instead of
persons.' We are therefore left in doubt as to whether the
impulse to work over in the mind some overpowering experience so as to make oneself master of it can find expression as a
primary event, and independently of the pleasure principle.
For, in the case we have been discussing, the child may, after
all, only have been able to repeat his unpleasant experience in
play because the repetition carried along with it a yield of
pleasure of another sort but none the less a direct one.

Nor shall we be helped in our hesitation between these two
views by further considering children's play. It is clear that in

1 When this child was five and three-quarters, his mother died. Now
that she was really 'gone' ('o-o-o'), the little boy showed no signs of
grief. It is true that in the interval a second child had been born and had
roused him to violent jealousy.

their play children repeat everything that has made a great
impression on them in real life, and that in doing so they
abreact the strength of the impression and, as one might put
it, make themselves master of the situaffon. But on the other
hand it is obvious that all their play is influenced by a wish
hat dominates them the whole time‹the wish to be grown-up
and to be able to do what grown-up people do. It can also be
observed that the unpleasurable nature of an experience does
not always unsuit it for play. If the doctor looks down a child's
throat or carries out some small operation on him, we may be
quite sure that these frightening experiences will be the subject
of the next game; but we must not in that connection overlook
the fact that there is a yield of pleasure from another source.
As the child passes over from the passivity of the experience to
the activity of the game, he hands on the disagreeable experience to one of his playmates and in this way revenges himself
on a substitute.

Nevertheless, it emerges from this discussion that there is no
need to assume the existence of a special imitative instinct in
order to provide a motive for play. Finally, a reminder may be
added that the artistic play and artistic imitation carried out
by adults, which, unlike children's, are aimed at an audience,
do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most
painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable. This is convincing proof that, even under the dominance
of the pleasure principle, there are ways and means enough of
making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be
recollected and worked over in the mind. The consideration of
these cases and situations, which have a yield of pleasure as
their final outcome, should be undertaken by some system of
aesthetics with an economic approach to its subiect-matter
They are of no use for our purposes, since they presuppose the
existence and dominance of the pleasure principle; they give
no evidence of the operation of tendencies beyond the pleasure
principle, that is, of tendencies more primitive than it and independent of it.

[pp. 14-17 from Beyond The Pleasure Principle, Volume 18, Standard Edition.]