Dr. Steven Wexler
English 436: Major Critical Theories
15 August 2010
Analyzing The Turn of the Screw from a Freudian Perspective
In the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, the psychological implications of the story illustrate what Sigmund Freud wrote about in The Interpretation of Dreams. The young woman in this story can be seen as being highly imaginative or deranged, depending on how one reads the text.
When the governess agrees to take on the position as caretaker and educator of two young children, she has no idea how remote the area is where she will be living and how utterly alone she will be. As a young girl of only twenty, she is impressed by the handsome gentleman she meets for her interview in
Freud also writes that one’s unconscious desires are not ruled by reason: one has no awareness of them. The governess in this story is put in an untenable situation for one so young. She is asked to run a large country house, manage the help and educate the children without any input or advice from her employer. In time, she begins to see and hear things that may or may not be happening. Are the children playing tricks on her or is she beginning to lose her grip on reality? The question always debated is, are the ghosts in this story real, or are they the figment of a young girl’s hysteria?
One could argue that the governess is repressing her feelings for her employer and this is resulting in her imagining the “ghosts”. These romantic feelings cannot be expressed and as they are buried, they develop into psychosis. Freud states, “Recently, along quite speculative lines, I arrived at the proposition that the essential difference between neurosis and psychosis was that in the former the ego, in the service of reality, suppresses a piece of the id, whereas in a psychosis it lets itself be induced by the id to detach itself from a piece of reality” Norton (844). As The Turn of the Screw continues, the reader can observe as the governess begins to “detach” from reality. The governess becomes more and more unbalanced until she scares one child away and scares the other to death.
In his book Repression, Sigmund Freud wrote that “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance from the conscious” Freud (147). The governess in this novella is able to repress her feelings for her employer and keep them out of her conscious mind. Considering that she has been instructed not to contact her employer under any circumstances, she really has no choice but to ignore and repress what feelings she may have. How is this theory of repression that Freud writes of demonstrated in this novella? What can be seen as a repression of feelings for the uncle of the children soon develops into “seeing ghosts” of the former nanny and valet coupled with an overprotective relationship with the children. That the governess feels that she and she alone can “save” the children from these ghosts is evidence of her increasing mania. When the governess begins to be unable to sleep, her insomnia contributes to her volatility.
In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes about the “dream-thoughts” and the “dream-content” and compares the two to an original and the translation. Freud (819) While the dream can be very brief, understanding of the “dream-thoughts” may be very detailed and dense. If one is unable to sleep, it is not long before a toll is taken upon one’s health, mentally and physically. Does the fact that the governess is exhausted because the children are sneaking around at night contribute to her idea that the estate at Bly is haunted? Edmund Wilson makes a convincing argument regarding the Freudian theory when he writes in “The Ambiguity of Henry James”, “Observe, also, from the Freudian point of view, the significance of the governess’s interest in the little girl’s pieces of wood and of the fact that the male apparition first appears on a tower and the female apparition on a lake.”
Conversely, in “The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw”, Robert Heilman considers the theory put forth by Edmund Wilson as “wobbly”. He states, “the governess’s feelings for the master are never repressed: they are wholly in the open and joyously talked about: even in the opening section which precedes Chapter 1, we are told she is love with him” Heilman (178).Yes, one can argue that she is in love with him based on remarks made early in the work. However, the reader finds more evidence of a repression of these feelings than a proclamation of them throughout the work. Toward the end of the story when the housekeeper, Mrs. Grouse asks if she should send for the Master, the governess answers most emphatically that she should not do so. If she were “joyously” in love with him, it seems likely that she would welcome any chance to see him again.
The Turn of the Screw can also be viewed under the microscope of Feminism and Gender Studies. Susan Bordo writes in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, hysteria was “epidemic” to the Victorian era. Norton (2243). The women of the Victorian era were praised for their delicate nature and inability to cope with stress and strain. The disorders that were commonplace to women during this time period were “nervous tremors and faints” Norton (2244) “Doctors describe what came to be known as the hysterical personality as impressionable, suggestible, and narcissistic: highly labile, their moods changing suddenly, dramatically, and seemingly for inconsequential reasons…egocentric in the extreme” Norton (2244). This could be the description of the governess in this story. She possesses many of the qualities of a woman of this time period that were thought of as normal and acceptable. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar write that “upper and upper-middle class women were [defined as] ‘sick’ [frail, ill]; working class women were [defined as] ‘sickening [infectious, diseased]” Norton (1933-1934).They point to the “cult of female invalidism” that developed in
To examine the governess from this story from a standpoint of feminism is to really have an inkling of what it may have been like to live in this time period. We know that she is educated, but from a poor family. The options available to her are limited. She can become a teacher or a governess if she does not marry, or hope to make a suitable marriage to someone close to her in social standing, religion and financial means. She cannot live alone, as this was a not an option for a young women of this time.
However, when the governess arrives at Bly, she is thrust into a situation that she is unable to resolve. Her charges are strange children, the instructions she has been given are hard to fathom, and things begin to happen to her that are very hard to understand. She has also fallen in love with her employer and can do nothing to resolve that. He is above her in age, social standing and wealth and it is unlikely that there could ever be a match based on those criteria alone. It is therefore not surprising that she begins to imagine all sorts of ghosts and apparitions of valets and nannies who have passed away. As she begins to unravel, she becomes more and more irrational and hysterical, like many a woman of this time.
As the governess begins her stay at Bly, she receives disturbing news that her young charge, Miles has been expelled from school under mysterious circumstances. As she is for the most part powerless to have him reinstated, her overactive imagination begins to dream up all sorts of scenarios that could be the reasons for his dismissal. Her reaction to these events coincides with the ideas of the day regarding the emotions of women. The fragility that was ascribed to women was also a means of allowing them to remain incompetent and helpless.
The Turn of the Screw could be analyzed in another way, dating back to readings from the beginning of class. If one were to reference Gorgias Of Leontini, when he wrote “Encominium of Helen”, one would find that the governess is blameless for her actions as they occur in the novella. Because she was “persuaded by words [logos] or captured by love” Norton (39}, she cannot be held accountable. It would seem reasonable to say that this young woman was influenced by the speech [logos] of her employer and that she was deluded into taking a job that she may not have otherwise taken. Like Helen of Troy, though she was not kidnapped she was “compelled by the speech” (40). “The persuader, then, is the wrongdoer, because he compelled her, while she who was persuaded is wrongly blamed, because she was compelled by the speech” (40). This speech was able to “mold” the mind of the youthful, innocent governess and persuade her to accept a position to insure the care of the young niece and nephew.
When reading a work such as Henry James Turn, it is useful to critique the text based on some of the theories studied this term. While each theory examined brings something new to discover in the work, some are more naturally analogous than others. The Freudian Theory seemed to be the most absorbing in relation to the text, and one can find many instances of Freud’s ideas as they are illustrated by the actions of the characters in the book.
Bordo, Susan. “The Body and The Reproduction of Femininity”.2240-2254. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism Second Edition. Leitch, Vincent B. Ed.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Leitch 2240-2254.
Esch, Deborah and Jonathan Warren, Eds. The Turn of the Screw. A Norton Critical Edition. Second Edition.
Freud, Sigmund. Repression. Standard Edition. Vol. XIV.
Gorgias of Leontini. “Encominium of Helen”.Leitch. 38-41.
Gilbert, Susan. And Gubar, Susan. “The Madwoman in the Attic”. Leitch. 1926-1938.
Heilman, Robert B. “The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw” .Esch and Warren. 177-184.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Esch and Warren. 1-85.
Leitch, Vincent B. Ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism Second Edition.
Wilson, Edmund. “The Ambiguity of Henry James”. Esch and Warren. 170-173.