A Ghastly Confession of Sexual Repression in The Turn of the Screw

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

Sexuality runs rampant between the lines of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Though it is difficult to find the sexual implications enlaced throughout the story, one can draw the conclusion that the main character suffers from sexual repression caused by her position as a governess in the Victorian Age; a period where the topic of sexuality had no place for discussion among the moral values and norms of society. The novella does not give any exact explanation of whom or what this governess was trying so hard to repress, but instead it hints at several theories that provide insight as to who her desires might be directed towards. The ambiguity that Henry James created in The Turn of the Screw leaves it up to the reader to figure out that this tale is not merely a ghost story but rather a confession of the governess’s sexual repression.

The governess first shows an interest in the master of the estate, the man for whom she is working. In the prologue he is described as “handsome and bold and pleasant, off-hand and gay and kind” (James 4). The governess is awestruck when she meets him. Being the daughter of a poor country parson, she was overwhelmed with emotions in the presence of a gentleman with such high rank. He was noble, grand, and definitely wealthy. The governess’s infatuation with the master was aroused after only meeting with him on two occasions, which shows how quickly she became smitten and the unlikelihood of their relationship growing.

In the first meeting, when the master presented her with the job as governess, rather than make her feel inferior and noting that she was just his employee, the suave master made it seem as though she would be providing him with an enormous favor. During the second and final meeting, he gave her a condition as to how she would perform her job: she was never to bother him again, never write, and have all the answers to all the questions that were asked. Instead of feeling a sense of despair upon hearing this news, she felt rewarded, since the master thanked her for this huge sacrifice while holding her hand during the process. The last bit of information given by the narrator about the interactions between the governess and the master was, ‘“The moral of which was of course the seduction exercised by the splendid young man. She succumbed to it”’ (James 6). Knowing that seeing the master again would be rare, she tries to muffle her feelings for him and takes her position at the estate named Bly.

With her feelings repressed, the governess does her best to succeed at her job, and when problems arise, she wishes to be viewed by the master as a hero for solving them. When the governess becomes the narrator, she openly admits to daydreaming about someone charming, which one can infer to be the master. As she is thinking of how their relationship may have developed, she sees an apparition of a man as equally as handsome as the master and dressed in the master’s clothes; but, it is someone else. This ghostly figure is Peter Quint. Peter Quint was the former valet of the estate, but he has since passed due to an accident in which he slipped and hit his head because he was intoxicated. Quint was known for his affairs, and his personality was described as being ‘“much too free”’ (James 26).

She describes her sighting of Quint’s ghostly figure to Mrs. Grose: ‘He has no hat.’ Then seeing in her face that she already, in this, with a deeper dismay, found a touch of picture, I quickly added stroke to stroke. ‘He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are, somehow, darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange—awfully; but I only know clearly that they’re rather small and very fixed. His mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he’s quite clean-shaven. He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor.’(James 23) Quint, an obvious parallel to the master, is very attractive, but he is not as gentlemanly as the master. Though Quint may appear quite handsome, some of his features are considered to hold an evil quality.

His sharp eyes and long, thin lips are a portrayal of wicked cruelty, and in ancient lore it was said that Satan appeared in the form of a man with red hair, so “It would not be surprising if a parson’s daughter, hysterically projecting an image of her sexual fear and revulsion, would envision a figure embodying features of this long standing assumption about the human form assumed by the Tempter himself” (Renner 184). The apparition of Quint shows that the governess’s well suppressed feelings for the master come trickling onto the surface of her mind. Having no outlet for the release of her desires which she acquired for the master, the governess projects them onto Quint as a sexual substitute. This apparition of Quint which the governess sees is not really a ghost, but rather a representation of her fear of the social consequences of being with a man in a lower social class than herself. Just recently rising in her station, due to acquiring the title of governess, she becomes fearful of her potential desires for him. The governess learns that Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and Quint were having an affair. Judging their situation, “Her taut sensibility meets that of her stolid companion only in their mutual horror that Quint was of a lower station than Miss Jessel,” the governess is sickened at the thought of hoping for something like that for herself (Samuel 19).

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