Seeing the Governess with a Discerning Eye: Psychology and Delusion in The Turn of the Screw

April 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Henry James digs deep into the nuances of insanity and prompts the reader to see his protagonist’s madness with a “discerning Eye” in his novella The Turn of the Screw. Insanity, though shunned and often feared by the world, must be attempted to be understood so that the mentally ill can best be helped. Throughout the novella, the reader is confronted with intimations of the governess’s already, but still deteriorating mind. In light of the governess’s madness, the reader can understand why she acted the way she did.

Given that the governess is insane, the reader must recognize that she truly thought she was seeing the ghosts. Delusion can be defined as “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder,” ( but the Webster’s New World Dictionary simply defines it as “a false belief, specifically one that persists psychotically” (“delusion”). The first definition describes delusion as having the possibility of being true. Thus, it is only called a delusion because it strays from what is normally accepted. The second definition, though, bluntly defines delusion as being absolutely false. Even dictionaries have different explanations of what sanity or insanity might encompass, but in order for the reader to judge the governess’s strange actions reasonable, the reader must see delusion as a relative concept. Therefore, he must recognize that the governess was mentally ill. Furthermore, it is important to note that upon arriving at Bly, the governess was already delusional, but her physical isolation and intense desire to be the savior and heroine in her fantasy led her to grow even madder.

The governess’s peculiar, often even obsessive, treatment of the children can be explained by her inflated sense of heroism. At just twenty years old, she left her poor, yet good family to go to the city to earn a living and to pursue the excitement of an independent life. She found employment from a man calling for a governess for his country home to care for his niece and nephew. He struck her as a gentlemen, and he was “as gallant and splendid” as he was handsome, wealthy, and pleasant (James 4). It can be inferred that the governess read much fiction because upon seeing him, in her admiration, she described him as “inevitably” being only like a character “in a dream or an old novel” (4). She accepted the job because she simply wanted to feel appreciated and needed, and she was willing to go to extreme measures to achieve this feeling. She was agreeing to live in almost complete solitude, to never contact the uncle regardless the issue, and to leave everything she knew. This decision alone shed light on her preexisting mental illness because as Douglas recounts, other women had rejected the position. They felt the conditions were too prohibitive, and “they were somehow, simply, afraid” (6). The governess felt that the uncle was giving her the job “as a kind of favor, an obligation that he should gratefully incur” (6).

The governess took great care of the children and was willing to go any length to love and serve them. Naturally, to fulfill the gracious duty bestowed upon her, she would want to protect them from harm. She wanted to prove herself to the uncle, and when she began to suspect that ghosts were plaguing the children, her delusion of heroism heightened. When she first explicitly stated her desire to save the children, she sobbed in despair to Mrs. Grose, “‘I don’t do it!’ …’I don’t save or shield them! It’s far worse than I dreamed—they’re lost!'” (32). As she, perhaps subconsciously, felt her mental state decline as a result of her isolation and inability to express her concerns candidly, her style of caretaking intensified. This was visible in the way she first covered Flora with kisses after being away from her for ten minutes, to which Flora responded with “a sob of atonement,” or in the way that, after Miles told her he wanted a “new field,” she was so overwhelmed, she “threw [herself] upon him, and in the tenderness of [her] pity … embraced him. ‘…Dear little Miles–!'” (11, 63). Then, she kissed him. The reader knows that the governess was terrified for the safety of her charges, so although her constant kissing and embracing of them sounds bizarre to the reader, her mind was feeling the full effect of the ghosts that she created. Thus she feared that the ghosts would harm the children in the same manner. The governess was even willing to give herself up to the ghosts in order to save the children, swearing to herself that she would “serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of my companions” (25).

James’s use of diction and syntax creates confusion for his audience, allowing them to identify with the governess’s feelings of helplessness against the turmoil in her mind. The complicated rhetorical style of long sentences and the psychological manipulation employed adds to the reader’s understanding of the governess’s confusion and insanity, so when the governess said that her sensibility had “not declined, but deepened,” the reader is caught between trusting that she was getting healthier, and acknowledging that her mental health was worsening (51). Within a page, the governess contradicted herself by describing her terrified reaction to the ghosts who were supposedly harassing her and because of the children who were lying to her. She recounted her repeated instances of chattering to herself until a “hush” occurred, during which she knew that “the others, the outsiders, were there” (52). She did not specify who “the others” were, thus adding that instance to numerous other occasions in which she left the reader with no clear understanding of what she was thinking, saying, or doing. James employs this tactic of ambiguity in order to contribute further to the reader’s sense that the governess was mad. The reader is left confused and not knowing the meaning of what he just read, similar to the governess, who with each passing moment, dug herself deeper into a well of self-manipulation and deception.

The complexity and ambiguity in James’s writing style can create an incredibly complicated story, but the reader of the novella does not need to comprehend exactly what is happening. He must only be willing to see it from every angle, with a “discerning Eye”. The governess’s actions are not deemed natural from the perspective of sanity, but if one looks from her point of view of delusion, each of her actions is justified. Her obsessive treatment of the children was caused by her inflated sense of heroism, and her feelings of helplessness and confusion can both be understood as results of her thinking she saw the ghosts.

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