The Devil Didn’t Make Her Do It: A Critical Analysis of The Turn Of The Screw

August 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

The critical debates swirling around Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw are a product of the intentional ambiguities written into the text. The psychological thriller centers around a Governess who, upon entering into a position for a man with whom she has become enamored, has encounters with what she believes are the apparitions of the homes former servants. Believing them to be in danger, she responds by taking on the role of hero to the children in her charge, but her credibility is quickly put into question when it is apparent that no one else sees her visions and that her actions are, in fact, putting the children in a position of danger. James’ novella has been viewed by some critics as a ghost story that places the Governess in the role of the evil villain; taking into account her many acts of heroism in the story, I believe that to be a misread of the novella. The narrative reflexivity blurs the line of credibility in the story leaving the reader to wonder which narrators voice to trust, but throughout the story the Governess’ motives remain clear. She maintains that she is protecting the children and her heroic disposition discounts the accusation that she is acting out of evil. Her actions put into question her sanity, but throughout the novel, the Governess’ attempts to protect the children refute the theory that she is the villain of the novel. In his critique of James’ ghost story, “Her Ghosts, Her Other Selves, Those Parts of Ourselves”, R.P. Blackmur claims that the Governess is the true and intentional villain of the story. He contends that her ghosts are, in actuality hallucinations, and her desire to turn them into reality stems simply from a “bad conscience” (Blackmur, 184). It is impossible to read Blackmur’s essay without taking note of his choice of diction. He is leading his readers to assume the Governess is possessed when he says, “nothing must stop the energy within her, for that energy is creative” (185), and that she “is now driven by an energy which is suited to this solitary and friendless place and which mustn’t be interfered with” (185). Here, he is giving life to something within her that she is not in control of, as though it is a separate entity that cannot be stopped, and his repeated use of the word “energy” serves to add an element of the supernatural to his argument. He successfully argues that she is ultimately at fault for destroying the children and then refutes the popular Freudian critique of the novella, which is the primary argument used by critiques to show the Governess as being mentally unstable. Blackmur’s perspective on the novella matched with his repeated labeling of the Governess as possessed and as a witch, are used to lead the reader to assume the demonic possession of the Governess. Though I agree with Blackmur’s observation that the ghosts are hallucinations, I refute his antiquated assumption that she is somehow possessed by a evil conscience. Contrarily, the Governess’ acts of heroism toward the children and the misleading narrative frame of the novella prove that she is not a villain with a evil conscious, but a mentally unbalanced woman who experiences hallucinations and carefully crafts her tale to make it appear believable. The narrative reflexivity within the novella serves to add confusion and suspense to the text. The prologue positions the reader in an aristocratic party atmosphere with friends rivaling to produce the best ghost story. It is through Douglas that the Governess’ story is read and his introduction sets the tone for the remainder of the novella. When setting up the story, Douglas tells his guests, “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible” (TOS 1). This is the readers introduction to the suspense that is to come, Douglas introduction of the Governess in the prologue is meant to lend verisimilitude to her character, he describes her as “awfully clever” (TOS 2) and says that the only reason she told him her story is because she liked him. These are tactics used by James to make the Governess seem a credible source from the beginning of the story; the reader is meant to believe her and is put in a position to unravel her tale through actions that show her intended heroism and declining sanity. The Governess’ actions speak to her attempted heroism and against Blackmur’s theory of a “bad conscious” throughout the novel. This is evident in the way she speaks of the children after her initial interaction with an apparition, “They had nothing but me, and I – well, I had them. I was a screen- I was to stand before them. The more I saw the less they would” (TOS 27). She shows elation when enacting the role of hero, which is not in accordance with the temperament of a witch in need of “the vicar to exorcise her if not hang her” (Blackmur 185). In referring to herself as a “screen”, she shows that she views herself as someone who provides shelter in a transparent manner, she is wearing a mask and is aware that she is not showing her true self to the children, she is reflecting the mentally instability that exists within her unto them . The Governess’ intent is to protect the children, and though her actions put into question her mental state, James’ continuous descriptions of her naiveté combined with her unfailing desire for heroism put to rest Blackmur’s claim that she is acting out of demonic possession.The Governess’ heroic nature and questionable credibility appear in the passage after her first encounter with Peter Quint. Though she’s just come out of a frightening experience, she applauds herself and seems to revel in the situation in which she imagines herself when she says, “I scarce know how to put my story into words that shall be a credible picture of my state of mind; but I was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded of me” (27). Her use of the phrase “extraordinary flight” lends a superhero quality to her heroism making her acts seem unreal and untrustworthy. By acknowledging her need to put her story into words and her questionable state of mind, she shows that she is reflecting back and thinking of the best way to make her story appear real. She is aware of her perceived mental instability and is in need of crafting her tale in a way that will make her seem believable; it is this passage that forces the reader to question her credibility and sanity for the remainder of the novella. As the story progresses, further examples are given that force the reader to question the Governess’ santiy. Upon arriving at Bly, she compares the house to a ship when she says: Wasn’t it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream? No; it was a big ugly antique but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-displaced and half-utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was strangely at the helm! (9) This passage marks the initial foreshadowing of doom in the novel; it depicts the children as shipwrecked in their own home, in need of rescue, and the Governess imagines herself in a position to save them. The word “strangely” juxtaposes the idea of the Governess as hero by making her seem unprepared to handle her situation, as though she knows she does not belong there. This is in contrast with her image as hero and presents the Governess in a way that is unbalanced. There are repeated references made of her tendency toward nervousness that add to her instability and she makes reference to her father as being an “eccentric” (TOS ) which had associations with mental instability and functions to show a possible pattern of hereditary insanity in the novella. Her nervousness is seen after an encounter Peter Quint when the Governess says, “The shock I had suffered must have sharpened all my senses; I felt sure, at the end of three days and as the result of mere closer attention, that I had not been practiced upon by the servants nor made the object of any “game” (18). The Governess’ claim that she is both uncertain in what she has seen, and to have sharpened her senses serves to discredit her and makes her appear untrustworthy. The suggestion that the servants may have banded together to make a game of her serves to show the reader her level of paranoia and nervousness furthering the theme of mental instability. Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, is a novella that tells the story of a young woman who is mentally unravelling. Through its narrative reflexivity, the reader is put into the mind of a seemingly credible Governess and must read through her attempted heroism to see her mental instability. Though it can be read as the tale of a woman possessed who is forced to kill a child by a demonic energy, the heroic nature of the Governess and her questionable sanity suggest that James’ story is, in actuality, the sad story of a woman slipping into a state of insanity.Works Cited:James, Henry. The Turn Of The Screw. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999Blackmur, R.P. Studies In Henry James. {“Her Ghosts, Her Other Selves, Those Parts Of Ourselves:}. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1983

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