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Turn of the Screw

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Look What You Did!: An Analysis of Societal Effects in “The Turn of the Screw”
“The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James is a very riveting story that requires a significant amount of attention by the reader. James uses the governess as a main character in the attempt to produce a psychological thriller, instead of a ghost story. The governess is used to represent the Victorian era and what James predicted to be the result of their ways of life. He particularly uses the subject of repression to formulate the plot of the story. The fact that this was written in the perspective of the governess also allows the reader to somewhat understand the way people, especially women, thought during this time. Throughout this story, the actions taken by the governess and the things she says are blatant examples of her upbringing in such a society. From the beginning of this story, the reader learns minor, yet important details about the governess. Douglas makes it clear that he was quite infatuated with the governess and that she too may have had an interest in him. Douglas states that, “I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too” (2). Prior to this comment, he also points out that the governess is ten years older than him. What would constitute him to think that someone so much older than him would like him? Simply put, because she said so. Douglas knew she was in love, because when the governess wrote the story, she was forced to make it clear. There was no way to tell the story without it coming out. The reader is lead to question the motives of the governess at this point, because of her unnatural liking for a mere child, especially during this time. It is quite unnatural for a grown woman to be interested in what seems to be a child. However, Douglas is not the only younger male the governess has had an interest in. It also appears that she had an unnatural liking for Miles. Multiple times throughout the story, the governess speaks of how the children are beautiful, innocent, and angelic. She also embraces them rather affectionately on a regular basis. This is not considerably abnormal, because as a governess, she needs to have a liking for her children. However, there is a point in which the governess takes her affections too far with Miles. She goes as far to kiss Miles and although James does not specify where, the reader is led to believe that the governess inappropriately kisses him. The same kind of affection is present when the governess and Miles have their dinner discussion when she is trying to get him to talk about Peter Quint. The governess expresses these feelings toward Miles and Douglas and most of this is because she is simply a product of her times. During the Victorian Age, there were many different types of repression. Throughout “The Turn of the Screw,” James tends to build off of the idea of sexual repression. Sexual repression was definitely common during this specific time period. The governess has become a victim of her times. She was only attracted to Miles because she was not having contact with any other males at the time. The governess was somewhat of a preacher’s daughter and was raised to act a particular way. Once out of the watchful eye of her family, she was most likely prepared to branch out and enjoy the little things she was not capable of enjoying. This is directly related to the idea that the governess was clearly in love. However, although he thinks so, the governess was not in love with Douglas. It is not to be doubted that she had feelings for him, but he is not the person she loves. The governess loves the master, even though she has never met him. Her love for the master is what gets her into many of the situations in which she finds herself. From the time the governess starts to speak of the master, there is an air of mystery about the whole situation. The reader is instantly struck with the feeling that the governess is longing for his attention, love, and company just as much as Miles and Flora do. This is made stronger by the instructions she was given, because, as Douglas states, “She should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone” (6). The fact that the governess cannot have the master makes her want him even more. It is a simple fact that the more one cannot have something, the more one wants it. This, however, is not the only example that she has affectionate feelings towards the master. In that same section, Douglas acknowledges another piece of information he had been told. The governess told him that she had been “rewarded” for her “sacrifice,” because the master held her hand (6). She became instantly attached to this man, because he was not only the man who got her out of her house and freed her from her family, but he was also the first one she encountered since leaving her home. She had never been able to date or go out with boys or friends, because that was not something people did in the Victorian Age. James makes it clear that when women were introduced into the world, they did not know how to handle the feelings they felt towards men. They were not taught how to deal with those feelings and instantly think they have love. The feelings that the governess feel for the master alone make her time at Bly even harder. Throughout this story, the governess is constantly thinking about the master. It is because of this fact that she becomes so attached to her ghosts. The governess drives herself crazy thinking about the master and the thought of seeing again. She knows that she was told not to contact him and that she promised to follow her orders. However, that does not make her want to see him any less, and this becomes an issue. The first time the governess sees the ghost of Peter Quint, she is thinking about the master and what it would be like to see him again. When she sees the ghost for the first time, she instantly thinks it is the master. She then realizes that the ghost is a man she does not know, but it does not keep her from wondering about him. It is clear that the governess is somewhat disappointed that the man that appeared was not the master. He made her stop in her tracks, but it did not change the fact that she still saw a “man” when she was thinking of the master. Peter Quint may not have been alive, but the governess was sure that she saw him and this sighting only led to there being more of an issue. The presence of Peter Quint’s ghost greatly unsettled the governess and made things in Bly even more hectic, because her mind wandered even more than usual. However, it got to the point where it seemed that the governess and Peter Quint’s ghost formed a relationship. They did not form a sexual relationship, but something occurred between the two of them that was quite unusual. The governess did not experience fear at the sight or thought of Quint’s ghost the way she did at the sighting of Miss Jessel’s. Miss Jessel seemed to intimidate and frighten the governess. She never had the urge to see Miss Jessel’s figure standing across the lake or outside of the windows, but there became a time when she longed to see Quint and went searching for him. Although at the time it is not evident to the reader to see and know why the governess committed in such acts, there are multiple reasons. The governess could have willingly gone to challenge Quint. Even though she was the only one seeing these ghosts, the governess was positive of their existence and wanted to protect the children. A confrontation would affirm her belief that they were real and she needed to contact the master. Contacting the master seems to be the ulterior motive of the governess. She longed to see Quint, not only because he is a man and she desperately wanted male attention, but she also was looking for attention from the master. However, it is not until chapter sixteen that the governess agrees to write the master a letter. She has been desperate for his attention and affection the entire time, but she did not know how to handle it. When she was made aware of Miles’ expulsion, she had initially thought of contacting him, but opted not to due to her promise. However, she had begun to see ghosts and was overwhelmed with the children’s bad behavior and still did not contact him. She stated to Mrs. Grose her reasoning behind this was that she did not want to sound crazy. Who would believe such a tale? Surely not the master. Only after persistent hounding by Mrs. Grose did she agree to contact the master. Even then, all the governess did was request an interview instead of telling him their fantastical tale. Simply put, she just wanted to see him. She did not want him to think she was crazy; all she wanted was to see him and be able to talk to him. Once again, the governess’s first priority was seeing the man she felt she was in love with. The need for male attention that the governess exhibited in “The Turn of the Screw” is a direct result of sexual repression. This type of repression was consistent throughout the Victorian Age and was considered to be normal. However, the rejection of a body’s natural drive can be extremely dangerous. James uses the governess as proof of these dangers throughout this entire story. The fact that she longs so much for male attention that she begins to see ghosts and acts on feelings for not one, but two people younger than her is a prime example. Although James’s main point of this story may not have been that of sexual repression and its possible effects on those living in Victorian societies, he does an excellent job of explaining their dangers through the eyes of a young lady during this specific period of time.

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