The Turn of the Screw: Political Fable, Revenge Tale, or None of the Above?
Henry James had written The Turn of the Screw in such a way that some Marxist critics have argued that it reflects the controversies and anxieties of the extra-textual world. However, while in an epoch in which upward mobility was very difficult, if not impossible, the servants Peter Quint and Miss Jessel may want to move up in the social hierarchy, their actions cannot be viewed as revenge. After all, they attack the lives of those within their own social class: the Governess and Mrs Grose.
The most effective method of taking revenge on social superiors would be to personally attack the supreme figurehead: the Master. The governess tells Mrs Grose, “[the children are] not mine – they’re not ours. They’re his and they’re hers!” which denotes that the ghosts have succeeded in possessing the children, emphasized by the parallelism of “they’re” followed by a possessive pronoun, highlighting the terse and balanced contrast from the negative clauses in which it is clear the children aren’t the governess’ and Mrs Grose’s, to the positive in which the children are the ghosts’. While possessing the master’s niece and nephew could be the ghosts’ method of taking revenge, the master in fact would not care. The stark imperatives in his letter concerning Miles’ expulsion —“Read him…deal with him…not a word” — suggest the indifference the master holds and annoyance when any form of reminder about the children reaches him. This apparent inconvenience is further emphasized in the master’s account of Miss Jessel: “she had done for them quite beautifully – she was a most respectable person – till her death, the great awkwardness of which, precisely, left no alternative but the school for little Miles.” The diction of “awkwardness” and the fact that he does not even close the sentence about her death but keeps it in a subordinate clause, and then continues with describing the annoyance and practicality of Miss Jessel’s death, reinforces the idea that he does not care for anyone else, but is only bothered when his life is delayed by other people.
Alternatively, the ghosts could be taking the children away from the governess and Mrs Grose. While on the one hand the governess can be interpreted as the ‘mother figure,’ with the motherly “I can’t leave them now!”, a more convincing interpretation is that the children need saving from the governess. The first person possessive pronoun in “They’re not mine” and then even when the governess supports that the children are not Mrs Grose’s either (“They’re not ours”), the possessive pronoun is still first person, just plural; instead of saying “They’re not yours,” the governess reinforces that she will always have overall possession. Moreover, similar to the master, the governess also would not care if the children were taken away. With the threat of Mrs Grose telling the master to come to Bly, the governess, paradoxically, states that she “would leave, on the spot, both him and you.” This suggests that she only cares about the perception of the master, to such an extent that if he found out she failed her job, she would not only abandon the children, but go as far as to sacrifice the one occasion she would see the master again, which she dreamed about so often before —“my imagination had…turned real. He did stand there!”
Furthermore, there would be no need for Quint and Miss Jessel to take revenge because, at Bly, they had everything they wanted. Mrs Grose admits that “Quint was much too free” and that there was “everything…between” him and Miss Jessel, therefore, “in spite of the difference” as he was “so dreadfully below,” they were still able to have complete freedom. While it could be argued that they would strive for revenge due to the perception from others, Mrs Grose was of lower class and so could not confront them, so perception could not alter that freedom. During the Victorian period, when the social class of the person one is addressing is different, there were limits as to what could be said. Therefore, there are issues which Mrs Grose could not confront, and would have “held out a large clean saucepan” to the others’ ideas; the saucepan here being an analogy for Mrs Grose having no thoughts or open beliefs of her own, but her mind being filled with the ideas of others. Also, Mrs Grose states that she was scared “of things that man could do.” On the one hand, the emphasis of this sentence could be on “that,” denoting that she was scared of the power of Quint, or conversely, on “man,” denoting that she was scared of what the rest of the population could do to her, as her social class made her so vulnerable and inferior. This latter interpretation stands stronger here as it highlights the insecurity Mrs Grose had, and that she had to continue with her life at Bly silently, without confronting the actions of Quint and Miss Jessel.
Moreover, the children appear to question the notion that class mobility is wrong and, as Miles is the heir to the family name, and businesses, if the ghosts left him to fulfill those roles, they would have succeeded in the mobility being accepted, as he could alter the perception of others as superior. The provocative question that the servants “don’t much count, do they?” with the tag question challenging the opinion of the governess, suggests that Miles is unable to see the sin in the transgression of class, which, in Victorian England, would have been enough to earn expulsion in his school. To a further extent, the indication that Quint was not a gentleman is that he had “no hat” and then later, Mrs Grose and the governess realize that Flora has “gone out…without a hat,” implying that she too is unable to understand the customs that social class dictates. While it could be said that the ghosts are offering this authority, there is no evidence for the ghosts wanting to own the children, which leaves the question as to why they are at Bly and, hence, whether a more effective approach for revenge would be to target the master in London. One reason could be that Quint and Miss Jessel are in fact angered by the governess’ strict disgust towards mobility within the class system and have come to alter that attitude.
In her account of the occurrences at Bly, the governess never mentions the servants by name but simply lists their roles: “a cook, a housemaid, a dairywoman, an old pony, an old groom, and an old gardener.” The governess here juxtaposes the servants with the “old pony,” with the repetition of “old” emphasizing the inferior state she views them in, to demonstrate that she treats all of them equally; they are “not recognized as personalities but functions” (Leonard Orr). This is further supported when the governess interrupts Mrs Grose’s incomplete sentence “But if he is n’t a gentleman-” with “What is he? He’s a horror,” the hyperbolic diction of “horror” emphasizing the disgrace she sees in the relationship of Quint and Miss Jessel. However, being angered by and then terrorizing the governess does not show an attempt for revenge, as the governess is in the same class as Miss Jessel was.
Although Peter Quint and Miss Jessel might have been greatly annoyed by the Victorian belief that social mobility was a disgrace, they, with the superior figure away in London with no sign of his return, had total control over Bly and could happily continue their affair without anyone intervening. The actions of Quint and Miss Jessel could be explained by the fact that these characters don’t believe in a strict hierarchical society and don’t care about those regulations as an active agenda, so that revenge is not necessary. Yet The Turn of the Screw does still act, as Bruce Robbins describes it, as “a sort of counter-argument to the Cinderella narrative.”
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